20 February 2015

Shrinking the universe

Sometimes I stay up late at night writing, trying to reason with myself why I should keep on living. I'm not really suicidal or anything, but sometimes I start feeling old and I tell God I've had a good time here and why can't He just smite me with cancer or a car crash and let me go home? And then a little voice tells me that I still have work to do. That I'm needed here for something.

I grew up with Sunday School teachers telling me that I'm special and God has an important plan for me. But I also grew up with a million billion stars over my head that told me that I could die tomorrow without making so much as a dent in the history of the human race. Neither the stars nor the Sunday School teachers told me both things at the same time--I've learned to put two and two together. And I thought to myself, "man God doesn't let me have any fun!" I'm important--yet I'm not important. No win. God wins. I'm just a speck. I can't die: God needs me here. Yet He doesn't need me at all, He could unmake me on a whim if He wanted.

The deeper I dug into my faith, the more I realized that Christianity is full of paradoxes. It's all twisty and topsy-turvy and turns everything upside down. It says that the last shall be first and the first shall be last. It claims that we are enslaved yet free. That we have a choice yet are governed by the hand of destiny. The paradoxes of Christianity are baffling enough to turn many intelligent people away from it. It simply doesn't make any sense, they say. And they're right. It doesn't make sense. The only thing that kept me from turning away from it as well was this question: "Well, what does make sense?"

A lot of things don't make sense.

What about fire? Have you ever wondered what exactly fire is? Once I posed the question to one of the smartest people I know, and he replied, matter-of-factly, "it's energy, fuel and oxygen".

"Yes, I know," I replied impatiently, "but that's only what makes fire. Why does energy, fuel and oxygen make fire? How do you explain this orange, flickering, shapeless apparition?" and he once again began patiently listing its' ingredients. And that is exactly my point. I am convinced that nobody really knows what fire is. No matter how many times I ask these questions, I always hit a wall. What IS music? What IS gravity? What IS love? This post is not for the people who look at these things and are left untroubled as to the fact of their existence. It for anyone who has felt the same way as me--the people who have asked to themselves, "why does everyone pretend they know what's going on?" As a matter of fact, I don't think anyone knows what anything is, and that is the only thing worth understanding.

Truth is binary like all of nature. It is bound together by two equal and opposite forces in a state of constant equilibrium. It intertwines like a DNA strand: masculine and feminine, choice and destiny, waves and particles, being and knowing, north and south. I have no idea how these things coexist in time and space, but they do, and they fit together like harmony--incomprehensible, inseparable, beautiful.

Yet it does make sense (the paradox of paradoxes) and by "Sense" I mean that the shape of the Truth feels symmetrical and meaningful. Perhaps I should say the truth makes not logical, but geometrical sense. It responds to my intuition, my right brain, the part that perceives information without trying to understand it. In other words, the part of my brain that says such-and-such colors "go well together" (for whatever reason) is the same receptacle that accepts the reality of something as ridiculous as Choice and Destiny coexisting in the same universe. This function of my brain does not explain why these colors go together: only that they do. The truth does not make "sense" in the sense that you can quantify it or put it in a truth table, but it makes Sense in the sense that you can perceive it with the Senses--with smell, touch, taste, feeling, sight. Wow, that was a lot of senses in a single sentence. I'm beginning realize how vague a word "sense" is.

I will not say that the truth is relative, but it's not something you can find by turning to the answer key. It is like a mathematical formula with indefinite variables which manifests itself with infinitely original faces as it emerges from different times and cultures, yet maintaining the same integrity of shape. What I mean to say is: the truth is always the same, but we never see the truth itself--only the end result of it. You never see gravity, you only see the book drop and conclude that some force is pulling towards the ground. You can't see light--only by the thing it illuminates do you conclude that it exists. You can't see love, but when a person continues to sacrifice himself for you despite your flaws and failings, that is the thing we call it. You can know what x means, but never what x is, we can only recognize its' shape, paint the colors that make it up, and write music about how it makes us feel. When it comes to really and truly knowing the Truth, the most brilliant minds and thinkers in all of history are only like infants who can recognize their Mother's face but have not yet learned her name.

In George McDonald's fantasy story Lilith, the main character, Mr. Vane, stumbles into a strange, Alice-in-Wonderland-like dimension where nothing seems to abide by what he used to call the laws of nature, where physical space is defied and a single object can supposedly exist in two places at once. He tries to explain his confusion to his mysterious host Mr. Raven, who replies that he simply cannot explain the phenomenon at all. This is how he puts it:

"You are constantly experiencing things which you not only do not, but cannot understand. You think you understand them, but your understanding of them is only your being used to them, and therefore not surprised at them. You accept them, but because you must accept them: they are there, and have unavoidable relations with you! The fact is, no man understands anything, when he knows he does not understand, that is his first tottering step--not towards understanding, but towards the capability of one day understanding...Neither I nor any man can help you understand, but I may perhaps, help you a little to believe."

What McDonald is essentially saying is that the only reason Wonderland is a stranger world to us than Earth is because we've lived here so long it no longer strikes us as strange. But that doesn't make it any less strange! This is a point I tried to make in the post "The Art of Simplexity": that perhaps less realistic art may draw us closer to reality than the "realistic" art, because it forces us to reawaken our childlike wonder of the world. When your a child, a dog is no less fantastic or fascinating than a dragon. It is only upon growing up and discovering that dogs exist and dragons don't that a division is created between the fantastic and the ordinary that did not exist before.  What if we had a world where dragons were domestic pets and Dogs were stuff of legend? I believe the effect would be exactly the same. We would have stories like "King George and the Dog" and Anglo-Saxon legends of warriors going out on hunting parties with their pack of dragons to find the Wild Dog that lives a cave over the lake. And we would have children secretly wishing that dogs were real. As for dragons, they would be an incredible nuisance: you would have to teach them not to breathe fire in the house and not lay dragon-eggs on the sofa. We would very quickly become blind to how incredible they truly are.

In the end, I found that the paradoxes of Christianity is not a case against it but actually a case for it. It is the only religion that is humble enough to admit how much we don't understand.  When the Apostle Paul told us about God's plan for mankind, he said "Behold, I tell you a mystery." (1 Corinthians 15:51) He didn't say "Behold, I tell you the all encompassing formula that explains all of reality as we know it." Yet that is exactly what all other religions claim to do. But I find that they do not succeed in explaining reality but simply shrinking it. They have tried to fit the universe in their backyard--and have merely succeeded in creating an imaginary universe. The truth is so much bigger than we are--and if we try to modify into a form that we understand we will have to modify it so much that when we are finished it will no longer be the truth. So I have a proposal: Let's stop trying to shrink the universe. Let's explore it instead.

-The Minstrel Boy

17 February 2015


Brought to you by a sunny day in February and some derpy video editing :)

And I’ll remember your name
And I’ll remember your name
I try to make it last
But times runs to fast
Before my song is through
And I will be your soldier
So cry on my shoulder
And I will cry with you
Yes, I will cry with you.
I know it’s buried deep beneath your eyes somewhere
I cannot breathe in deep enough to taste the mountain air
Don’t torture me
With the things I long to see
I only have the universe
To keep me company
Our home is far behind us when the sun has set
That smile that you’re wearing is not the same as when we met
There’s nothing more to say
When the voices die away
We’ll crouch in empty alleyways

Until the break of day
I know that soon you’re heading down a different route
I’m wasting precious seconds and my time is running out
I lie in my bed
Like a spider in her web
Waiting for an answer
To fly into my head

Love freely and laugh shamelessly,
-The Minstrely Boy

13 February 2015

Breathe in, breathe out

My friend Keely recently wrote a speech on art, which won first place at our last tournament in Mr. Vernon (woot woot!)

Anyway, it got me thinking about art. (Not that I need much provocation to dwell on the subject.)

Her thesis is that the purpose of art is to "give a voice to our longings." While I've always known this intellectually, I'd like to share with you how I learned that it was true. It was only just a few years ago when I one day discovered that I actually enjoyed making things that I liked. Kind of a shocker, right? I rank it among my other great epiphanies such as "you should be nice to people" and "vegetables are good for you".

I distinctly remember the day. I was sitting in the library, unabashedly neglecting even the feeblest attempt at my homework, because I was absorbed in writing a poem about Peter Pan. In retrospect, the poem wasn't that good, but it was the first time I wrote something without trying to subscribe to some preconceived notion of what my art ought to look like. Not long after that I wrote a poem that was literally nothing else than a list of things I liked--and I was shocked by how...eminently happy it made me. I felt the same thrill I had as a kid when I went to the beach for the first time--like I was being dropped into a picture. It was like when I took off my training wheels and suddenly realized that I was riding on my own. It was like getting handed keys to a car. It was like falling in love.  I cast one incredulous look at God like a child who can't believe his parents are letting him keep the stray dog he found off the street. Really? I can write about gods and prophecies and fairies and the wayward fancies of childhood? About warriors and magic kisses and impossible adventures? About the maidens with bare feet and flower crowns that dance around in the woods of my imagination? It took me years to discover this fact: that all I had to do to create art that satisfied me was to write and draw the beautiful pictures I saw in my head. It was such a wonderful feeling that for months I don't think I could have stopped myself from creating if I tried.

But it didn't last. Soon it started feeling like a drug. I began to enjoy songwriting less and less for no other reason than because at some point the song would have to end, and I was back in the real world again where I had to take out the garbage and turn in my lousy homework and beat myself up for saying stupid things in front of pretty girls. I tried to drown the stress and conjure up those old pictures of barefoot maidens with flower crowns, but the harder I tried, the fainter it all became, just how dreams slip out of your memory the moment you try to remember exactly how it went.

I remember when I was hiking around Mt. Rainier looking at a grey craggy rock mixed with iron sediment and sprinkled with violets. A dark shadow passed over it that reminded me of a cave, and I think there was a spring running past it, but my imagination may have added that. And I remember standing there and thinking about how forever it all felt, and how I wished I was born right into that picture where the summer air was fresh and warm and the birds were singing like rippling water. I remember feeling--and being surprised at feeling--a sense of an inarticulate injustice, because I wanted to be "dropped into the picture" again like the time I went to the beach, but the thrill refused to resurface. I was just a bystander, an observer, a cosmic tourist of everything beautiful.

My friend Jared once asked me "do you ever look at a mountain and feel like you can't get enough of it? Like you just want to put the mountain inside you?" I exploded "yes! I know exactly what you're talking about!" I guess that's what Keely means when she says art gives a voice to our longings. Jared had just created a work of art, because I had never realized until that moment that those were the precise words I was looking for: to put a mountain inside of me.

That's when I learned the second important truth about art: God never lets you hold it in. Take breathing, for example.  Seriously, why do we have to exhale the smell of freshly baked bread? It’s so unfair! Sometimes, when I take my dog for a walk in the mornings, the air tastes so good I wish I could just keep on breathing in forever. I breathe in deeper, deeper, hoping that at the next breath I will breathe in deep enough to taste that Thing at the end, whatever it is, but I never get to it, because I always have to breathe out.

I get the same feeling when making art. Writing a story is breathing in, finishing a story is breathing out. It's like an itch you have to scratch--and like itches, the more you scratch it, the more it itches. At some point you find that writing a song does not really satisfy you but only makes you want to write more songs, to the point where you almost want to pick up the pen again and start a new song the second you finish the one before it. I suppose you could call it a vicious circle, but it's a vicious circle that spirals outwards. The more you create the pictures in your mind, the more beautiful the pictures become, the more beautiful they become, the more deeply you desire to create them.

Lewis spent nearly his whole life writing about this mysterious longing, but I think he said it most succinctly in the voice of Psyche from Till We have Faces: "For indeed it does not feel like going, but like going back."

“The sweetest thing in all my life has been the longing — to reach the Mountain, to find the place where all the beauty came from — my country, the place where I ought to have been born. Do you think it all meant nothing, all the longing? The longing for home? For indeed it now feels not like going, but like going back.”  

Maybe if I continue making art, I will gradually get closer and closer to the impenetrable Thing that I long for, but when I die I will shake off my piles and piles of stories and paintings and poems and leave them behind without even looking back. As for what happens to them afterwards--I'm not sure I care at all. I am a cartographer of invisible lands, but I would gladly throw the map away the moment I saw the land with my own eyes. Oh God, I'm so homesick. Just give me something I can hold onto until I come back. Something real and tangible, with a warm chest and a beating heart. Oh God, I want to go home.

-The Minstrel Boy