Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Dead to the World

Custom does not breed understanding, but takes its place, teaching people to make their way contentedly through the world without knowing what the world is, nor what they think of it, nor what they are.

The world in which and with which we have always lived, the world which formed us and gave us our instincts, was what we now call the 'natural' world. We distinguish it, by and large, because we now see it as separate from the world we have created in recent centuries—a world of society, of humans and their creations, of cities and machines. Most of us find we have come to live in the second world, and the first is more and more a place we only visit. A place to spend weekends and vacations, a place to "get away from it all." Under normal circumstances.

In the second world we are remaking ourselves, retraining our instincts to be creatures of a different jungle. We do not know what pattern we follow, only that it is a different pattern from that of our original making. We are learning new skills, replacing cooperation with suspicion, care with neglect, Earth knowledge with Earth ignorance. More and more, we are replacing the first world with the second.

This first world is always there—we do not need to step outside our normal lives to visit it. But while we are immersed in the world of our own making, we tend to be dead to the first world. It cannot reach us in our heated and air-conditioned buildings and cars. Its few remaining representatives, wind and weather, weeds in sidewalk cracks, stars and planets, impinge on our consciousness only to the extent that they inconvenience us. Even the dramatic evidence of the passage of time, displayed by the moon in all its phases, escapes us while we turn the pages of our desktop calendars.

But when we deliberately visit the first world, we are able to set aside the trappings of civilization and truly re-enter it. We become alive to the first world at once—don't we? We are instantly attuned to the sound of rushing water, a twitter of birds, an insect hum in the atmosphere. We become alive to the vibration of color and life; the physical touch of extreme heat or cold. We absorb the sunrise, the sunset and the night with complete abandon. Or so we wish. We deeply experience the exertion, thirst, hunger, awe, fear, excitement—all the sensations the first world has to offer us. These are sensations from which we have removed ourselves in the second world; the sensations that make us human.

Unfortunately, it is rarely so. Our comfort in and with the first world comes of practice. With ever longer times away, we become less able to make those connections that were once instinctive. We more and more transport the materials of the second world into the first, project second world values onto the first. We enter it to possess it or destroy it, not merely to experience what it has to offer. We return to the first world, not naked and alive to it, but encumbered by our second-world selves. We are as insulated from the first world as we are from its remaining manifestations in the second world.

Occasionally, however, the first world manages to visit us—it seeks us out in our cloistered isolation and forces itself into our consciousness. Such times always appear to us as an improper intrusion, aberrations somehow out of the natural order of things. We find ourselves using words like catastrophic, devastating, destructive; we say Nature is capricious, hostile, mad. We have chosen to believe, in the face of all contrary evidence, that the first world is normally gentle, that it supports our existence and does not interfere with our desires, that we are always in control. We are continually surprised to find otherwise.

In truth, the first world is gentle and violent, as we are; it is warm and cold, as we are; it is calm and passionate, as we are. It is as we are, and it is what made us what we are. The first world is paradox, as we are. We cannot entirely leave it without leaving ourselves.

Originally written 1989.

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