My mother suffered the first signs of my initial problem with life. I can still remember the look of exasperation on her face when she surveyed the pile of socks and clothes her six-year-old son scattered over his bed. My problem, you see, began with my sock drawer, and metastasized from there. In fact, it encompassed a large part of my early years.
Like any first-generation Italian, my mother was matriarchal in the sense of being protective, nurturing, and almost smothering in her love. Caring for and worrying about me was her obsession. I was always well fed, clothed, cleaned, and “turned-out.” She even folded my freshly washed clothes and stacked them neatly in my drawers. But I rebelled. I wanted to impose my own order. And my sock drawer best illustrated the problem. My preferred stacking order demanded a rearrangement: separate stacks for patterned and solid colors; then a further distributive organization by color. In fact, putting things in order carried over into many areas of my childhood, including the furniture in my room, my pets, and the food on my plate. Apparently, I was taking my mother’s well-ordered household to a whole new level—a well ordered sock drawer became indicative of the well-ordered life I sought and presumed.
A well-ordered child, however, must pass through many crucibles of change. In elementary school, I encountered bullies and the chaotic competitiveness of team sports. For me, fitting into a juvenile social structure was like forcing a square peg in a round hole, somewhat awkwardly shaving the edges off my predisposition for orderliness, As I grew older, girls were especially adept at scrambling my emotional equilibrium. They did not follow my self-conceived precepts for order in relationships. I was learning that I could not impose my concept of order on others and that relationships require change in myself. How does one grow up without opening oneself to others, without connecting?
My increasingly less well-ordered childhood faced new challenges in secondary school and college. My studies were serious, well-intentioned, and disproportionately religious in nature. Perhaps the first shock came from classes in scriptural exegesis from Greek and Latin texts. I was aghast to discover that translations and transcriptions of these sacred writings were modified to account for various orthodox and heretical belief systems. This discovery was unsettling to my concept of order and trust in a religious belief system. If sacred texts fall prey to organized chicanery, is anything sacred?
As I grew older and wiser, I found solace in philosophy, history, and literature. The diversity of thought and experience presented in these studies was both overwhelming and exhilarating. But the more I delved into the basis for this diversity, I became increasingly aware of the fundamental disagreements we humans harbor over almost everything. For example, what proofs are there for the existence of a god? Is the replacement of theocracy with natural law a stable foundation for government? Is evolution solely explained by natural selection? Is there a human soul apart from the body? The answers to these and many other questions were diverse and often contradictory. They shook the underpinnings of my thoughts and elicited a yet more disturbing question. How can one rely on accepted truth?
Perhaps a bit wiser and much more cynical, I turned to science and began a career in technology. Surely, the scientific method would ground my understanding of reality. Besides, the technology that flowed from science would provide me the opportunity to make a difference in the real world. But then my queries into quantum physics and chaos theory jolted me out of my nascent comfort zone. Just as Newton’s concept of gravitational attraction between bodies gave way to Einstein’s gravitational field, quanta and fractals opened the door to many unanswered questions—perhaps even as bedeviling as the existence of God and His role in creation. Remember how “I AM that I AM” begged the question of the nature of God and existence itself. Well, the question of whether an electron/proton is a particle or a quantum of pure energy is just as unsettling and mysterious. Modern physics suddenly became metaphysics, questioning the very nature of being itself. Consequently, how can we say we really know what we know?
But knowledge is power, right? In fact, for us humans, it can become a mental aphrodisiac. It enables us to construct a world in our minds. And that mental construct can become the relative order we not only perceive but even project onto the external world. With assumed certainty, we name and classify the elements of that world. They and their relationships to each other become the fabric of our self-perceived truth. Some of those elements, however, bedevil our understanding so we identify them as mysteries. Science tries to unravel these mysteries by unmasking how they came to be. The unsolved mysteries become the impetus for analysis, theory, and experiment. If belief in the scientific method is absolute, then all mysteries will be resolved in time. But that faith cannot justify with absolute certainty everything science unravels and makes more explicit. Within the near future, our scientific understanding of time, space, and the nature of reality will likely evolve, perhaps akin to the revolution bequeathed us by the theories of relativity and quantum physics. Major scientific discoveries often serve as steppingstones to future discoveries. We should believe in and support scientific progress. But why would we accept every scientific fact as a definitive end state in our knowledge or as the final explanation of our world’s deeper mysteries?
Religious faith addresses life’s mysteries differently, sometimes even calling them sacred. Making something “sacred” is one way of categorizing a mystery and is essential to the creation of myths and the various forms of ritualistic sacrifice found in every religion. The Latin root of the word “sacrifice” literally means “to make sacred”—specifically, sacer, “holy” or “sacred” and facere, “to make.” (Oddly, sacer can also mean “curse,” which embraces a different type of religion or cult.) Regardless of the religion, the sacred usually refers to a mystery we can never truly comprehend, though myths give them meaning. Myths are stories that transcend formal logic. They account for the order we wistfully imagine through our miniscule eyelet into a vast universe. As such, they can verify whatever we perceive as stable and true in that universe and become that special reservoir of knowledge generally termed a belief system. But they still represent the incomprehensible. And, of course, the ultimate mystery many of our mythic stories identify as God or gods. The word “god” is not a sign representative of something in our universe, but a symbol, as Carl Jung defined it, of the wholly transcendent.
But that ultimate mystery is not beyond our reach. It is just beyond our understanding. The Hebrew “Yahweh” (“I AM that I AM”) was not a word the early Jews could speak. Its syntax is in the first person, i.e., the God person. So, Yahweh told Moses (Ex. 3:15) to tell his people that “he is has sent you.” The word for “he is,” comes from the Hebrew root haya which literally means “to be.” The ultimate mystery, then, is existence or simply being itself! That which is beyond our understanding but underlies all that is and all that we know is the most commonplace and intimate experience of our daily lives, our very existence. It is the primal element that both forms our individual lives and connects us to all we encounter. As such, it defines the very boundaries of order. Outside those boundaries, we have no guarantee of control. Nevertheless, it promises unlimited knowledge, unwavering truth, and a sacred enchantment within the scope of our individual lives. Even though we can become consciously oblivious to its constant presence, we can never deny that we feel its presence. Our individual existence is all there is, until it isn’t. The meaning of life is no more than being conscious of the feeling or experience of living within the context of our personal existence. That experience must become the touchstone of our lives. For the moment in which we become fully aware and participate in existence is when we touch Divinity within ourselves. As William Blake wrote, “If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is: Infinite.”
Today, I still maintain a well-ordered living space. Old habits are as comfortable as a well-worn sweater. But my sock drawer is not as well organized as that six-year old’s drawer once was. It no longer defines me. My life is not so closed; my relationships, not so anxious or judgmental; my thoughts, not so definitive or arrogant; my religion, not so orthodox. The experience of living is all. I am now like a flea riding high and fully exposed on the back of an elephant. At any moment, I may be brushed, blown, or washed away. But, by God, what a fantastic ride!