On awe, ethics, and elders
Thursday, November 29, 2018
A Private History of Awe by Scott Russell Sanders is the story of the writer's coming-of-age in American midwest in the shadow of the Cold War and Vietnam, entwined with reflections on spirituality, creativity, and our place in the natural world. In the opening to the book he writes:
"On a spring day in 1950, when I was big enough to run about on my own two legs yet still small enough to ride in my father's arms, he carried me onto the porch of a farmhouse in Tennessee and held me against his chest, humming, while thunder roared and lightning flared and rain sizzled around us. On a spring day just over twenty years later, I carried my own child onto the porch of a house in Indiana to meet a thunderstorm, and then, after thirty more years, I did the same with my first grandchild. Murmuring tunes my father had sung to me, I held each baby close, my daughter, Eva, and then, a generation later, her daughter, Elizabeth, and while I studied the baby's newly opened eyes I wondered if she felt what I had felt as a child cradled on the edge of a storm -- the tingle of a power that surges through bone and rain and everything. The search for communion with this power has run like a bright thread through all my days.
"In these pages I wish to follow that bright thread, from my earliest inklings to my latest intuitions of the force that animates nature and mind. In the world's religions, the animating power may be called God, Logos, Allah, Brahma, Ch'i, Tao, Creator, Holy Ghost, Great Spirit, Universal Mind, Manitou, Wakan-Tanka, or a host of other names. In physics, it may simply be called energy. In other circles it may be known as wildness. Every such name, I believe, is only a finger pointing toward the prime reality, which eludes all descriptions. Without boundaries or name, this ground of being shapes and sustains everything that exists, surges in every heartbeat, fills every breath, yet it is revealed only in flashes, like a darkened landscape lit by lightning, or in a gradual unveiling, like the contours of a forest laid bare in autumn as the leaves fall."
In an interview, Sanders discussed his own religious roots (he was raised in the Methodist faith) and how this influenced the book:
"The Bible is a great library of tales, songs, images, and instructions, and for me it’s a very resonant library, because I began taking it in when I was quite young. From childhood on, I read and reread this bewildering book, heard it cited in sermons, heard it quoted over the supper table or paraphrased in hymns, so that the rhythms and stories go very deep in me. I’m grateful for that. In A Private History of Awe I tried to give a fair accounting of how much I owe to this tradition.
"I’ve also tried to acknowledge how deeply Christian I am, in spite of my having let go many of the beliefs that I now regard as mythic -- the six-day creation, heaven and hell, the virgin birth, the walking on water, the bodily resurrection, and the claim that Jesus is God incarnate. Those are, for conventional Christians, core beliefs, which I no longer share. But my sense of how I should lead my life, the ethical vision that shapes my response to war and poverty and inequity and racism -- that I learned from the Bible, in particular from the Hebrew prophets and the teachings of Jesus. I was instructed, as well, by my parents and by the preachers and Sunday school teachers whom I encountered in country Methodist churches.
"I feel certain I could have learned very much the same values had I been reared a Buddhist, a Hindu, a Muslim, a Hopi, or a Navajo. But I learned them through Christianity. So in that sense my whole ethical framework is Christian, even though my philosophy and cosmology are at odds with conventional Christianity."
"Part of what I took in from my religious upbringing was the understanding that talents are gifts that come to us by birth rather than by any virtue of our own, and that we have a responsibility to use these gifts for the benefit of others. One person might have a talent for music, another for visual art, another for storytelling, another for mathematics or mechanics. The Lakota holy man Black Elk said that gifts are never meant for the individual but for the tribe; a vision, a song, a healing touch, or any other such blessing takes on meaning, for the Lakota, only when it is danced before the people, only when it is shared. Publishing a book is a way of dancing before the people. The making of poems or stories or essays is a way of giving back to the world something of what you have received from your life experience, a way of sharing your verbal gifts."
"I’m aware that I have a strong didactic impulse. I try to rein it in, but I don’t always succeed. Some readers have complained about a preachiness in my writing, and I sympathize. But I can’t hide my feelings of indignation, grief, and anger about the suffering we humans impose on one another, on other creatures, and on the earth. My dismay at the American cult of violence runs right through A Private History of Awe, as it runs through my life. Similarly, I couldn’t avoid writing about the Civil Rights movement, because awareness of racism cuts through my life like a wound. I wouldn’t be honest if I didn’t write about my social concerns, but I try not to suggest that I know how to cure us of these ailments, or that I am entirely free of them myself.
"A Private History of Awe traces the formation of one person’s conscience, not because I hold myself up as a model that other people should emulate, but simply because everyone has a conscience that has been shaped by family and friends, by reading, by school, by church or synagogue or mosque, by events in the greater world, and by other influences. In writing about my formation, I wanted to invite readers to consider how they acquired their own deepest values and concerns. I wanted them to think about how they came to love what they love, because, in the long run, we only take care of what we love."
"I don’t regard myself as a prophet or seer, someone granted clairvoyant understanding, but in recent years I have come to see myself as an elder. This is not a role one seeks, nor does it come automatically with age; it is a role one is given by others, as they ask for guidance and consolation. An elder must tell the truth about what’s amiss in a society. 'You know,' the elder says, 'this torturing of prisoners, this bombing of civilians, this unsettling of the climate, this extinguishing of creatures is not only wrong, but also unwise; it will cause trouble for us, and for those who come after us.' While warning of dangers and injustices, the elder must also keep witnessing to the sources of healing and renewal.
"I feel, now, the responsibility to pass on what I have learned, to say what I believe to be true, no matter how imperfect my wisdom. I feel the call to help younger people find their way, just as many elders have helped me, elders met in books as well as those met in the flesh. Some of my own most important teachers I met only briefly -- as in the encounters with Father Daniel Berrigan and Martin Luther King Jr. I tell about in A Private History of Awe. Dr. King galvanized my conscience at a crucial time in my development. Becoming an elder means, among other things, I can never give in to despair, because I owe to my children, my students, my readers, and all those who come after me a sense that there is always good work to be done."
There is indeed.
The passages above are from A Private History of Awe (Northpoint Press, 2007) and "A Conversation with Scott Russell Sanders" by Carolyn Perry and Wayne Zade (Image Journal, Issue 53). The poem in picture captions is from The House of Belonging by David Whyte (Many Rivers Press, 1997). All rights reserved by the authors.