Guggenheim

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I’m beginning to suspect I speak the wrong language. I keep constructing these bridges and so many of those who try to cross end up on the wrong bank and it makes me wonder if I’m posting signs in Swahili and I just don’t realize it. It’s had me thinking. I’m beginning to figure out what the problem is.

I kept picturing a series of concentric circles (I think in pictures and diagrams so much that I wonder why I’m not doing paintings instead of groping around for words.), and then I overheard someone say the name Dante and the picture began to clear.

Remember Dante’s Inferno? His careful, detailed description of the nine concentric levels of Hell helped solidify my mental illustration. Dante wasn’t writing Holy Writ, but I suspect he might have been onto something, though I also suspect that much of his motivation was revenge, much of his enjoyment schadenfreude; his enemies didn’t fair so well in his version of Hades. But 14th century Italian politics aside, I think I might be dealing here and now with a problem of layers – perhaps society is not so much groups and clusters as it is a Guggenheim spiral.

I’ve been climbing that spiral, with serious intent and resolve and with oodles of divine tugging, for well over half a century. Yes, sometimes the progress was infinitesimal, oftentimes involving a stagger-and-a-half backward for every two steps forward. Now and then I’ve come close to falling over the railing altogether and sometimes I would have sworn I was being pushed. But I’m where I am now and I just assume everyone else is there too. That, however, is obviously silly – I didn’t used to be up here where the view is starting to get clearer and remarkably beautiful. I’ve had all those years. I must learn to speak in earlier dialects.

You see, the spiral starts at birth, at that stage of life when we really don’t know that anyone else exists, except, perhaps our mothers, but we see them as food and comfort machines and not as equally befuddled fellow travelers. No baby wakes hungry in the middle of night and lies there quietly playing with his toes and waiting for Mummy to wake – after all she’d looked pretty tired when she put him to bed and she needs her rest. No. Our entire early childhood is spent producing more body and brain cells and coming to grips with the fact that this isn’t our world. We scream “No!” at the tops of our tiny voices. We grab the toys our siblings are playing with and then they scream. We may even, as did my youngest grandson, still wake in the night hungry and yell, “Mom! Sandwich!” We have desires and they must be fulfilled; learning that such an expectation is ridiculous is a tough lesson.

I suspect that many young people, and not a few older ones, have yet to get that one salted down. There may well be a blockage at that stage of the spiral – I can hear all those voices shouting, “Mom! Sandwich!” They’re thinking in terms of unemployment compensation, welfare checks, and housing subsides. Did you hear about the unmarried mother of 15 children, whose baby-daddy (what an ugly term) had just been sent to jail? I heard her say on a radio interview that she had nothing now and that, “Someone has to be held accountable; someone has to pay.” I’m sure I don’t speak her language. She must be stuck on that infantile level and it’s likely her children will be, too. Our government has conspired to create this mindless dependency and now it’s become a perpetual motion machine – those kids will vote Democrat.

At some point, if we don’t get stuck, we learn concern for others. We stop dragging the puppy round by his neck and we think to ask after people’s wellbeing. My middle granddaughter was only four or five when she asked on the phone one night, “Nana, how’s Grumpa’s back?” (‘Grumpa’ is a long story.) Arriving on that level requires humility and a growing sense that something is bigger and more important than we are. Those kids who are roaming shopping malls and whacking people in the head for the fun of it haven’t arrived there even though they have close to 20 years on my beautiful little girl.

If we do progress, we learn to read, we learn to learn, and we climb to a level that not only goes higher but much bigger around. My goodness – there’s a whole new world out there. When that same granddaughter was just two we watched “Finding Nemo” with her one night. Her previous TV experience had been limited to Baby Einstein videos, so she found Nemo entrancing. She sat, round-eyed, watching. Suddenly she said, “Nana, dose fishies goin’ someplace! Dose fishies goin’ SOMEPLACE!” The world had opened.

Curiosity, if properly nourished and encouraged, expands exponentially. I remember my son asking me, “What’s on top of the daytime?” After some interrogation I realized that he’d seen a rocket take off (some Flash Gordon thing on TV) and it went up and up into dark space, so he assumed that night was on top of the daytime and that every 12 hours it switched places. Those little brains just churn and churn trying to figure things out. I don’t know why that stops for so many, but stop it does and I’m imagining quite a roadblock at this stage as well.

Many of us stay curious and that curiosity expands to things above and beyond our physical existence. We lie out in the yard on a summer’s night, looking at the stars and we are filled with the awareness of our own insignificance. Perhaps that’s where it starts, or we suffer some terrible loss and grope wildly about for something bigger to cling to – one of the great reasons God allows suffering. Or maybe we were taught about God from an early age. Whatever the mechanism, the realization brings with it a sense of purpose that offsets the awful shrivel that comes from stargazing or ocean watching. That sense of purpose provides us with grit, determination, and, most of all, hope. I can’t imagine day-to-day life without the view from that vantage point.

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I used to teach in a high school building constructed in the 30’s. It had loads of character, and we were all fond of it the way a family loves a fumbling, confused old aunt. It was tucked claustrophobically into a neighborhood of big, old houses, the roof caved in now and then, the theater was haunted, and the exterior looked like Shawshank Prison. Then the city built a new school building out south of town. The new place is ¾ glass and has an expansive view of the Siskiyou Mountains. I suppose it doesn’t offer much safety, in the Columbine sense of the word, but the view is spectacular and illustrates grandly the possibilities that lie just out reach. I wonder if the dropout rate is lower now – who knows?

It seems, speaking of high school, that the higher-purpose level in this spiral is damaged. The statistics vary a little, but most show that between 70% and 80% of Christian students lose their faith – i.e. get shoved back down to a lower level – by the time they get through high school and/or college. Some of that is the Darwinian accidental-existence approach to both sciences and social studies. Some of it is just that after 12-16 years of silence about God, He ceases to exist in their minds.

Whatever the cause, a great many people just exist, stopped dead in their tracks by the uncoolness, the flat-earthness, the audacity of thinking we each matter, and for reasons I’m not sure I understand, that spot on the ramp must only allow a view downward. There’s still such a certainty that self is all that matters. I see so little ability to see the big picture, to see that the issues that face us aren’t just about the ease of life for this person or that, but about whether or not our civilization can even continue to exist. The view from the this-is-bigger-than-all-of-us part of the museum can be pretty scary when it feels like you may be up there more-or-less alone, speaking a dying language. But from here I can see up as well and can clearly make out the hand of God reaching through the fog. I’ll just learn His language: I haven’t the power to do much about those folks stalled at the entrance.