Thursday, December 31, 2009

Thinking It Through

It is early. Out the window over my desk, I watch the cattle graze in the pasture. Even in the winter they graze, or try to. They scavenge for the hard brown grass that pokes through the crusted snow.

Later in the morning, when their storage stomachs (rumen) are full, they will bring the grass back up and chew it. They stand immobile when they do this, their jaws barely moving.

Ruminate. That's what they do. They chew it slowly, over a period of hours, until it's fine enough to digest.

"In our sleep, pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom by the awful grace of God" (Aeschylus).

Dreaming, thinking, listening, being still … it's all ruminating. The coarse, undigested stuff of life comes up from its storage place when it is ready.

I have been dreaming at night. I say at night because I usually do my dreaming during the day, a coping mechanism I picked up when I was young. At night, when my mind is quiet, my imagination is free to filter through the facts of my life, instead of being bound to escape them.

Even when we don't remember our dreams, our imaginations are still doing the work of sifting through the events, facts, feelings of our days. I like what Thomas Moore says about dreams in "Care of the Soul," that we do not interpret our dreams: they interpret us.

Imagination numbs us from feeling the pain in our lives or invigorates all our senses. We use our imaginations when we're in denial. To make believe, in the face of hard facts, that a problem does not exist, takes a lot of work on the part of our imaginations, whether it's justifying destructive behavior, faulting others for our failures or behaving as though everything was grand.

I do not like feeling raw, vulnerable to life's elements. Those who have lost their childlike ability to imagine need help to numb the pain – alcohol, food, spending money, religion, a sports car, other people's problems – anything that can be obsessed about.

Cattle would not grow if they thought of the coarse grass, "I can't handle this," and refuse to eat it; or spit it out once they found it was too hard too chew; or keep it repressed in their storage stomachs. Neither do we grow when we choose not to eat that which life sets before us, that which appears unpalatable.

The same imagination that enables us to deny engages us in hope. To hope when there is no hope, our imaginations must find a grain on which to nibble, to ruminate. And with each thought, each dream, each talk with a friend, each small act of belief, what we hope for comes that much closer to our grasp.

In its raw state, grief is undigestible. When a death or tragedy first occurs, the real stuff of it gets stored away. Then, over time, it comes up to be broken down into digestible substance, as tears, memories, confusion, anger, conflict, remorse, honesty, laughter, truth.

Regret, shame and guilt are undigestible. Those things that, when recalled, drive us crazy, that are hard to even think about. No amount of psychological analysis or justification or excuses can wipe it away.

Over time, drop by tiny drop, wisdom comes: Because of who I was then, it could not have been any other way.

If I am alive, I cannot avoid pain. Some people's lives are so filled with it, it doesn't seem fair. Yet many refuse to be bitter, refuse to become the "living dead," instead letting their pain be redeemed.

Imagination, which, in truth,
Is but another name for absolute power
And clearest insight, amplitude of mind,
And Reason in her most exalted mood.
-- William Wordsworth

Meditating on and imagining truth can lead us anywhere. Who would have thought man would walk on the moon? Who would have thought we could converse with someone in China? Yet mankind, through the centuries, walked toward its own unbelievable possibilities.

So it is with each life. It starts with ruminating, thinking slowly and deeply on that which is set before us, the dry coarse stuff as well as the delicious, then imagining that raw material into whatever shapes we desire, and making our life with it.

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