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What Is Real

By Oliver D. Anonymous

MIDWAY upon the journey of our life
I found myself within a forest dark,
For the straightforward pathway had been lost.
– The Divine Comedy, Inferno Canto I:1-3

When Dante awoke to himself, lost in a forest, he couldn’t remember how he had arrived, where he was, or the way he should go. Stumbling through the wood, with a bitterness of soul likened to death, he made his way to the highest point he could see, the Mount Delectable. But as he began the ascent, his way was blocked by ravenous beasts, forcing him to flee back down to the base. It was here, in the face of his failure to climb and in his despair of not knowing which way to go, that he was rescued by a compassionate guide, the poet Virgil; who explained that if Dante wished to ascend above, he must first descend below. This principle is as true as any found in scripture.
Life appears to be a series of awakenings, the first beginning with birth and the initial sparks of awareness to a world outside of self. Another begins as we gain the capacity to speak, and discover that objects surrounding us are more than just sensation; that they have names, a past, present, future, and utility. It is not long until we develop the ability to understand grammar, express abstractions, to learn through the word and not only through the touch. Nothing in our world is the same again, as we impregnate objects with the property of meaning, where no such thing existed previous to our beholding. We learn at a young age to be creators of worlds.
Observing my children has helped me answer the question of why I seemingly knew more at age fourteen than I did at thirty. They have started to realize that not everything we speak about has a tangible existence, which is proving a significant challenge to their conceptions. “Vampires cannot hurt you,” I explain to my daughter, “because vampires are not real.” “How about dinosaurs,” asks my son, “will the T-rex eat me?” “No,” I answer, “dinosaurs are extinct. They used to be alive, but now they are all dead.” The distinction between real existence and imaginary existence has sparked numerous and endlessly entertaining “is it real” debates within my household. These impromptu symposia have settled matters as wide ranging as “there is no such thing as a booger monster”, to the classic “vegetables can’t really talk.” After much discussion, Jesus has been granted his reality, and so have aliens in spite of my objections over the latter. In any case, I have noticed that once a decision is made on these matters, they aren’t revisited. Even the most ephemeral of concepts become concrete in their minds. When a young consciousness awakens to what is around them, without critical tools from which to judge reality, certainty substitutes for analysis. Without doubt as an option, knowledge becomes apodictic by default.
As much as I would like to raise a bunch of rational, critically thinking children, more often than not I have to ask for their trust and obedience. Warning a child of dangerous activities, explaining how they might die, means little if they have no understanding of death or the idea that some events are conditional or occur in varying degrees of probability. I regularly tell my son not to play around a busy road near our house because he might get hit by a car. From his perspective, he may begin to suspect that I am lying to him after he has repeatedly played on or near the street without getting injured. As unfortunate as this conclusion may be, it is the friction between his experience and the authoritative knowledge I have given him that will open his mind to the possibility that he may not actually know what he thinks he knows.
During my early twenties, I made an observation that changed my life. As I was lying in bed one evening, I made an attempt to imagine eternal existence. My thoughts fast forwarded through death and out through eternity. I imagined the birth of stars and the billions of years waiting for their death. I saw heavens and earths pass away, and tried imagining lines upon a plain extending out past the edges of imagination. I couldn’t comprehend it. Then, I decided to imagine nonexistence. I focused my thoughts onto death, and then into nothingness. I found that I could no more imagine ‘not being’ than I could ‘always being’, but the feelings between the two couldn’t be more different. As I contemplated death as the finality of consciousness, I felt a terror so acute that I had to get out of bed to clear my thoughts. I was reminded of the rhetorical question posed by one of my professors years previous. “If a traumatic blow to the head will cause a person to fall unconscious, then what will death do?” I found myself confronted with contradiction. If I truly believed in a life after death, then what was the source of my fear? From that night forward, over a period of weeks, I made the decision to return to the thoughts of nonexistence, to understand why I was afraid. I never found an answer, but as I continued, the fear gradually faded until one night I could contemplate death without any anxiety whatsoever. Nothing was the same after that, and many of my most cherished beliefs quickly fell away.
It is a hard thing to participate in sacraments that have lost their holiness. While in the faith, life, the world, and everything in it had the appearance of purpose, a mechanism constructed to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man. On the outside of faith, the machine became an artifice designed to keep people busy in order to save them from the terror of uncertainty, and the fear of their inevitable demise. The world had flipped upside down as things that once brought me joy now delivered sadness. Inspiration had the appearance of desperation, and service lost its meaning. It used to be, that while experiencing the spirit in church, I would feel connected to everything around me. With this feeling gone, I was a stranger, disconnected from everything I once loved. I was like Dante standing in the vestibule of hell reading the words on the gate, “All hope abandon, ye who enter in”, and sadly I did, as if having no other choice.
Like my fears, it wasn’t long before I also began to contemplate my sadness. I questioned, “If I am closer to the truth of existence, then why unhappiness?” I mourned the loss of comfort, security, oneness, and commonality with my friends. I grieved over the certainty of purpose I held in my childhood. I lamented that I inadvertently tore myself up from my foundation and now faced sorrow as the consequence.
It was in the midst of this grief that I began to again examine the objects that used to bring me joy, which was easy to do, as I never left church, or told a single living soul of my loss. I was once again faced with contradiction. I knew that the bread and the water of sacrament had no magical properties, yet I also knew from experience, that taking them had produced catharsis. This ceremony no longer had any power over me, but I saw that it did for others. If the sacrament were a machine, created to absolve sin, then it should work for everyone the same. Since it did not, and the ceremony hadn’t changed, I concluded that the mechanism producing those feelings must be internal, and always had been from the beginning. With this epiphany, I found that I could take lost items like the sacrament, and fill them with meaning again. If my beliefs were as objects on a table that had been swept onto the floor, then my renewed perspective allowed me to pick them up again, one by one, to either discard or allow them new life. This began to renew and invigorate my soul more than I had ever felt before, because this time the faith in my life was not imposed, but chosen.
Over years, I managed to ascend out of spiritual sadness, not back up an imagined mountain of certainty, but onto firmer ground. My faith today is very different from before. It is no longer literal, and has opened a world I could neither have perceived nor imagined previous. Humanity has within itself to construct the most beautiful of heavens, or the darkest of hells, with all of it eventually chosen if not questioned. It may be that we can tell a lot about a person’s character by examining the gods they choose to worship, whether they are gods of war, damnation, or mercy. The thoughts of my mind and the feelings of my heart continue to change, but the one thing I can never do again, is believe in that which cause me to fear.
A couple of weeks ago, I was sitting in a testimony meeting where a woman expressed her gratitude for the love she was shown during a recent downturn in her life. She cried for the kindness she felt from others, the mercy and forgiveness she has felt for her imperfections, and I felt the warm feelings of gratitude along with her as a tear fell down my own cheek. So, is it real? I say ‘yes’. It is the most real thing that I have.


Ron aka Diogenese said...

Fascinating and so provocative! So midway through life I at times find myself "within a dark forest." Thanks Oliver for who you are and what you share.

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