Sunday, December 17, 2006

Following Rainbows, Sun Dogs & Shadows

[Some thoughts on the unacknowledged world and shadow self, banged out Friday, on my pda/phone, on a plane]

There were low-hanging, thin clouds over O'hare airport this morning. After we broke through the cloud cover, I looked down and saw the shadow of our airplane, surrounded by a lovely rainbow hued nimbus. The colors were quite intense, with three visible bands of fading saturation. I watched the shadow of our plane throughout our ascent, as our shadow became smaller, and the refraction, though visible, gradually less evident. The effect persisted for a surprisingly long time, and even as the clouds thinned, and our shadow became a speck, then disappearing, I could see a hint of rose pacing our progress. Just as the clouds were reduced to small clots, we passed over something highly reflective on the ground - a thin, narrow band, though of what I can't say (a steel barrier of some sort? It seemed too bright for water). There, again, that rainbow hue became visible again - no longer a hint of rose, but the divided, visible spectrum. I've no doubt it follows still, though I can't see it.

I'm sure this is a natural phenomenon; a product of the light bending around the skin of our aircraft in the moist air. We turned at one point, casting the surface of our wings more directly against the oncoming sunlight, and the effect intensified. I don't know why I've never seen it before. Perhaps it takes a unique set of conditions, and angle. It reminded me, once, of a day I was driving to a conference in the Utah mountains, north of Morgan. It was a clear, cold, sunny day, with the light intensified by the reflective snow. I looked up, and saw an intense, vertical band of rainbow (a sun dog), as the light passed through what must have been suspended ice crystals. I'd never seen one before, and I haven't seen one since. It was an unexpected wonder.

Yesterday, I had the pleasure of an early morning drive on highway three, along the Saranac River. I come from a mixed desert and alpine climate, and it’s a rare joy to drive through wisps of fog so thick you feel as though you could catch hold of them. There are rock faces along that road where small natural springs make their tiny contribution to that lovely waterway, and though its unseasonably warm there now, they'd become frozen miniature sculptures, under the shadow of night.

I have reverence for the gifts afforded by shadows. There is an underbelly to the world - a place where terrible things happen that almost never see the light of day. But it’s a gift to understand there are two sides, not one; a gift that fosters kinship between poets, artists, therapists and drunks. Though the disparity can be shocking, attempts to reconcile the worlds within a unified view, particularly those involving the creation of an externalized construct, result in objects with the power to convey the solution attempted, with varying degrees of success, by its creator.

So out of the shadows of genocide, the work of Victor Frankl emerges, or from madness, Van Gogh. Childhood alienation and failure produces an Edison, or an Einstein, while wasting disease produces a withered, luminescent Hawking. Out of the bitter shadows of subjugation and murder comes Martin Luther King jr., Gandhi, and Nelson Mandela. From the ravages of addiction: Dylan, Jerry Garcia, or any number of modern artists (though I dearly wish they weren't using self-destructive substances as a substitute for transformative experience).

But there are grave risks, and a terrible price that is only mitigated, not absolved, by reconciliations between the two halves of things. To the extent that transformative experiences with the unacknowledged prompt a broader consideration and view of the universe, they facilitate wisdom, innovation, and art. To the extent they encourage increasingly frantic efforts to deny the unacknowledged, they stifle internal development and foster conditions that make unspeakable acts possible. This, for better or worse, appears to be an integral aspect of being human that supersedes philosophical assertions about moral relativism; intentionally keeping one eye closed narrows view, and limits the universe of potential solutions.

Despite what is characteristically promulgated, the world is not threatened, now or at any other time, by evil persons. The world faces grave threats from concrete thinkers - literalists who find virtue in the certainty afforded by closing one eye. To the extent we encourage this in our culture, we are cultivating the elements of our own destruction - no matter how virtuous we convince ourselves, or noble our cause. Evangelical Christianity, fundamentalist Islam, or blind adherence to political, economic or philosophical ideology all require us to shut off our precious cognitive faculties, selectively limit our field of vision, and preclude consideration of, or reconciliation with, the unacknowledged. Self-blinded narcissists have worked more destruction than all the sociopaths who ever walked the face of the earth.

So, while I don't love my shadow, I acknowledge its importance, and value its gifts. It keeps me humble, and forces me to acknowledge my own divided nature.

I’d much rather be complete, and conflicted, than at peace in my blinders.

This shaking keeps me steady. I should know.
What falls away is always. And is near.
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
I learn by going where I have to go.



Dawn Coyote said...

"Self-blinded narcissists have worked more destruction than all the sociopaths who ever walked the face of the earth."

That's an intriguing statement. I hope you'll expand on it.

The Roethke poem is a favorite.