The Way Back to Paradise: Restoring the Balance Between Magic and Reason
Joseph M. Felser, Ph.D.
The diversity and Twinness of the Forked Tree is Natural and gives Power to
the Human to endure in every kind of circumstance and challenge. When the Power
of either of the two branches of the Great Tree is suppressed or ignored, the Tree will die.
-Hyemeyohsts Storm, Lightningbolt (1994)
The Missing Link
Ten years ago my mother lay in a hospital bed, dying of cancer. My father and I kept a constant vigil by her bedside as we struggled to accept the inevitable end. At one point, Mom leaned closer to me. In a conspiratorial stage whisper, she confided that she saw someone standing at the end of her bed.
I looked, but saw only the blank wall and the plastic bin for recycling medical waste. The tone of her voice told me she understood that this someone wasn't "really" there.
"Don't worry," she said, as she patted my hand in reassurance, "it's not Jesus!"
We both laughed at the joke. Even on her deathbed, Mom retained her sense of humor and unflappable composure. Dad and I marveled at her bravery.
"It's Ben Casey," she added weakly.
Doctor Ben Casey, from the old television show. He was a brash but talented neurosurgeon who never gave up on a patient, a super-doc with compassion. Intuitively, I understood why Ben was making his rounds at my mother's bedside. Her own doctor had fled the scene, conveniently slipping out of town to attend a medical conference. He would not return until after she died, early the following morning.
Next to his Hollywood prototype, the flesh and blood doctor was a pale imitation. In spite of my anger, however, I realized that this was not entirely his fault. Something is very wrong when a society's healers can no longer perform their sacred task and their only recourse is to throw up their hands in resignation or hide under the nearest rock. Something much larger than one man's character is amiss.
The situation is analogous to what happened to the American Indians when they were hit with smallpox, influenza, and other hitherto unknown European diseases and plagues. All their tribal shamans could do was shake their heads in disbelief. Healing--the art of making a person whole again--was no longer possible. Balance could not be restored. The world had shattered into broken bits and pieces.
Nearly fifty years ago, in the shadow of Hiroshima and the Holocaust, the English philosopher Bertrand Russell predicted that if the West did not overcome its own cultural and social fragmentation, we would bring ourselves "only nearer to irretrievable disaster." Russell was a man of strict logic and science; his faith lay in reason. Yet he despaired that knowledge alone is not enough. (Surely mere data--our own deity of the hour--is not enough either.) What we need is the wisdom to use the knowledge (and data) properly for humane ends, and to get this wisdom, we must experience the world and ourselves as a whole. We have to be able to see the connections between means and ends, just as a great eagle can survey a vast territory from high above in the sky. Not only that, but we have to be able to feel the unity of all things. Absent this mystical sense, Russell warned, we will destroy ourselves.
This is an old story. An ancient Greek myth says that when Zeus, the king of the gods, created humans, he grew worried that he did too good a job. Eventually, we might become too powerful and overthrow the gods. So Zeus split us right down the middle, like a ripe cantaloupe (see the speech of Aristophanes in Plato's Symposium, sec. 191a). Each of us is only half a self. Sadly, we aren't even aware of our infirmity. We've forgotten what it is like to be whole. Afflicted with a strange longing we cannot even name, we yearn for our lost integrity, our missing other half.
This story is more than a quaint old tale. I see it as a useful metaphor for the dangerous path we have been treading for the past several thousand years in what we proudly call "civilization." Our own jealous gods of religion and science have cut us off from our natural bonds to Earth and Spirit. We have lost touch with both our inner world of dream, imagination, and intuition and the outer world of nature--the animals, plants, and elementary forces that sustain us. Indeed, this is no accident; to become alienated from the one is to become estranged from the other, for they are ultimately one and the same.
Our fate is to feel at once disembodied and dispirited, floating in a nowhere zone. We are detached from everything outside the narrow rut of our increasingly meaningless and empty daily routines of commuting, computing, and consuming. We have been reduced, as the philosopher R. G. Collingwood lamented, to mere "wrecks and fragments."
So what, exactly, is the missing link?
As Bertrand Russell understood, our heart life has not kept pace with the growth of our intellect. We are exceedingly clever but lack the wisdom that comes from feeling a part of life. How else can we explain the collective madness of recent genocides, from Rwanda to Yugoslavia? Daily we commit the unspeakable crime of geocide, murdering entire species of animals, plants, and perhaps even Mother Earth herself. The evidence of our heartlessness lies all around us, from school shootings, terrorist bombings, and "holy" wars to the pathetic dishonesty and corruption of our political, business, and religious "leaders."
It's an awful mess, as anyone can see. I'm afraid that the only way out of this mess is for each of us to confront our own personal craziness, to experience it and suffer through it, firsthand. Only when I did this could I come to see my own misery as a symptom of a much larger imbalance. Only then was I ready and able to receive the gift of insight: The real connection is never lost.
It all began for me more than twenty years ago, during my first few months of graduate school, when I was slaving away on my doctorate in philosophy. . . .
So, You Want to Be a Wise Man?
The cold, grey Chicago autumn was rapidly slipping into an even colder and greyer Chicago winter. Having only recently moved there from the East Coast, the city and the university campus were still new to me, and it all felt strange. I had worked hard in college. While my friends were partying, I was in the library, studying. I had been determined to get into a good graduate school. Now that I was there, I felt ill at ease. Something was wrong, though I could not put my finger on it. I felt like the poor fool who had climbed to the top of the ladder, only to discover that it had been placed against the wrong wall.
One afternoon after class, I stopped by a campus coffee shop located in one of the academic buildings. With its dark wood paneling and carpeted floor, the room resembled my fantasy of the dining room of a private club. Groups of students were congregating around tables and benches, smoking cigarettes and chatting away over steaming mugs of coffee and greasy doughnuts. I saw several familiar faces and went over to say hello.
Someone introduced me to Josh, whom I knew by reputation as a brilliant scholar far along in his graduate studies. Josh was sitting cross-legged on one of the wooden benches. With his curly black beard and half-lotus posture, he looked every inch a combination of Zen master and Hasidic sage. He smiled warmly as we shook hands.
"So, you want to be a wise man?" Josh asked, nodding.
I realized, of course, that he was referring to the literal meaning of "philosophy," the ancient Greek word for "the love of wisdom."
"Yeah, I guess so," I replied.
Josh threw back his head and exploded into hearty laughter.
I joined in, to pretend to my own knowing cynicism--the accepted posture of intellectual sophistication. Yet I had answered truthfully. I wanted something more than a mere degree or an academic position. But I was reluctant to say so. Perhaps I felt naive. By mocking the idea that we were in pursuit of real wisdom, Josh and I were being astute aspiring professionals. It was all a kind of game. Only this game was no fun.
Not long after the incident with Josh, I was sitting in the class of a world-renowned philosopher. Professor Scott, as I'll call him, combined intellectual precision and rigor with an easygoing manner. His battered brown Volkswagen sported an "I'd Rather Be Sailing" bumper sticker. And you could almost believe it. He was gifted with a rich, soothing baritone voice, not to mention a deft, dry sense of humor. He was a campus star.
On this occasion, someone had asked the professor if he agreed that human beings were basically intelligent "meat machines," as a professor from M.I.T's famed artificial intelligence laboratory had recently suggested. And what if the silicon-based machines could eventually outthink the meat variety? Did that mean they would be superior to humans?
"Hell, give them the vote!" Professor Scott quipped merrily. He leaned back and basked in the boisterous eruption of approving laughter that greeted his clever remark.
A student in the back of the room timidly raised her hand. Helen, as I'll call her, was a shy, quiet person who hardly ever spoke in class. Professor Scott, grinning broadly, nodded in serene acknowledgment of her question. All eyes turned to Helen.
"But why would we we want to think like that?" she asked earnestly.
The room grew eerily silent. Time itself seemed to slow down, like when you're in a car accident and it feels as if events are unfolding in super-slow motion inside of a soundproof cocoon.
At last Professor Scott appeared to be saying something. Oddly, his mouth was moving, yet no words were coming out. It took me a moment to realize that he was not winded, but rather, quite uncharacteristically, stuttering.
"Wwwhhhyyy?" Bbbbeeeccccaaauuuse it's TRUE, that's why!!" he spluttered.
Like so many before him, when challenged by a real question, Professor Scott could only retreat into a stubborn affirmation of the unquestionable articles of his (philosophical) creed.
To cast off the solid moorings of accepted answers means departing the security of familiar shores and sailing into uncharted waters, the open sea of questioning. Beliefs are like broken pieces of clamshells and driftwood washed up on the beach. At best, they're the tacky souvenirs of someone else's trip to the seashore, snapshots of yesteryear. People wind up fighting over these worthless trinkets. Answers are possessions, the cause of divided hearts and partial perceptions. They inspire pride, envy, fear, and righteous indignation.
Real questions force us to undertake our own voyage into the wild heart of an undiscovered country. Why should we think of ourselves as mere meat machines? Is the Earth really flat? Is Jesus truly God? Why should I give away all my personal power to a guru? True inquiry is a magical act, directly linking us with the living source. It is what the late physicist-philosopher David Bohm called "the dance of the mind." Our dance partner is reality itself.
Professor Scott, alas, was not a dancer; he was a collector. I could see that on that day in class.
Helen was silent. She asked no more questions (at least not out loud). I, however, began asking myself many questions...
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