My discovery of the mystery of being

I want to share three experiences from my early childhood that planted in my soul the questions which still motivate me.  These are not academic questions to me at all, but living, concrete, personal provocations for living and thinking. I hope that, by this detour into autobiography (somewhat embarrassing to me), my peculiar questions (and my peculiar way of answering them) will acquire some context for you.

First memory. My father was serving in the U.S. Navy when I was born and so I spent my early years moving around a lot: Hawaii, the Philippines, and other places. When I was about 5, my father finished his naval commitment and we returned to my mother’s hometown of Summerfield in the Appalachian foothills. My parents decided to build a house on a lake that my grandfather had created years before. During the construction process, my parents rented a small cinder-block house, painted white, with four rooms and concrete floors. The house must have been insufficiently heated because I remember the floor always being cold. My favorite place to sit was a short saddleback chair with golden faux crushed velvet. Measured against the cold, hard discomfort of the floor, this seat was always warm and cozy. One day, I was sitting in the chair, with knees pulled up to my chest, my bare feet pressed into the soft cushions. There was a high, aluminum window opposite upon whose concrete block ledge a cat was pacing. The sun was shining through the window and hit my legs, warming them along my exposed shins. Suddenly I was gripped by a startling revelation: that I was alive and it could have been otherwise! This realization was strongly emotional and a shivery tingle passed like a wave through my then frail body. I had made a discovery of sorts, though I had no words for it yet. Somehow one contrast — whether warm/cold or comfort/discomfort, I don’t know — had given way to another, altogether deeper one: existence/nonexistence. I had encountered personally and powerfully the mystery of being itself. My response to this discovery, still more visceral than cranial at the time, was to be intensely grateful for my very being — to feel what I will call “ontological gratitude.” Although the intensity would wane, as all emotional reactions must, the sense of ontological gratitude has always been present in me. I owe my later interest in philosophy to that gratitude, to that wonder.

A second memory happened when I was about 8.  Most of my time, when I was not sleeping or in school, was spent in my grandmother’s house, which was adjacent to the horse farm that my mother owned and worked most of her life. The house was old and choppy, full of interesting nooks and hiding places, with a large pendulum clock that chimed loudly every hour. It was a wonderful atmosphere for an inquisitive child. It is important to reveal that my family was not in the least bookish. If there were books about, they were never given places of prominence. My grandmother’s house had a single bookshelf, which was built into the corner of one room. The room was an addition to the original house and it had a central fireplace, windows covering three of the walls and incongruous parlor-style furniture. (It was in that room that my grandmother every year put up her Christmas tree; it was in that room that I have my only vivid memories of my grandfather, who died when I was still young.) For whatever reason, my grandmother had placed, right in front of the built-in bookcase, a curio cabinet that contained my grandfather’s mementos from the First World War. The cabinet sat several inches away from the base of the walls, a distance that slightly widened above the thick pine base trim. This imperfect placement increased the distance between cabinet and wall enough such that I was just able to squeeze into a small nook behind the cabinet and examine the books hidden there. It was a motley assortment: there were (what I assume now to have been) popular bestsellers from the Twenties and Thirties; there were self-improvement books in the Norman Vincent Peale vein, exhorting their businessmen readers (like my grandfather) to cultivate an inner drive for thrift and industry; there were a few of the classics like Dickens and Walter Scott; and finally, there were leftovers from the childhood of my mother and her older sisters. Among this collection, I spied a book missing its spine cover, displaying nothing to view but folds and stitching and glue between its drab red covers. The absence of a cover, and thus an apparent title, enticed me. I had to make a special effort to pull it out since it was located at one of the two tight places where the curio cabinet and bookshelf converged. The book was Tales of King Arthur — not the difficult Mallory version, but a compendium of stories from the Arthur legend adapted for young readers. The illustrations were of a type common to books of an earlier time, with Victorian engravings of their subjects in black ink. Seeing the ornate etchings of armored horses and castles and knights and castles was enough to interest me — I started in at once. I don’t remember much about actually reading the book, aside from what I have described of its discovery and illustrations, but I do recall the revery that ensued in my mind about what constituted a knight. The knight’s dominant interest, or so I told myself, was not wealth or power or even honor. The conception of a knight that appealed to me was someone whose greatest treasure was the virtue and fixed purpose that he carried inside of himself, invisible to others aside from his visible deeds. I thought that he could lose absolutely everything by force of violence or circumstance, but never what he really treasured, his virtuous substance. Again, the awestruck feeling that I had experienced earlier in my childhood returned. The being for which I was grateful could be cultivated into a form worthy of this gratitude and this possibility presented itself as a personal injunction. These ideas — that one’s greatest possession consists in an invisible treasure of virtuous being and that such a quality of being can and must be cultivated — certainly never went away from me, however much I may have wandered from them. Philosophy was born in me of this parent too.

A third experience happened when I was about 9 or 10. We were living in the house on the lake that had been under construction in my first story but was now complete. Sometime before its completion, my father had a cove adjacent to our property dredged, an operation which extended the cove’s waters around a hill to form a small island populated by a single willow tree. I rarely went to this manufactured island even though the water surrounding it was shallow enough to wade through. The mud bottom beneath the surface was oozy and sucked into itself any foot that happened upon it. The sometimes stagnant water of the cove extension was also a magnet for mosquitoes. But the cove and its island presented a nice view and I liked to sit on the shore at a place facing it, where the grass lawn dropped off to an eroded bank into the lake. I used to read there during the hot summers with my feet submerged into the cool, lapping water of the lake. On one such occasion, my book was an abridgment of Robinson Crusoe, which not coincidentally had the kind of dark ink illustrations that I had grown to love. I am sure that my imagined sense of Robinson’s circumstances was filled with materials drawn from mine just then. What struck me most forcefully was (of all things) Crusoe’s inventory of what he managed to rescue from the ship, the tools of survival and even, with some applied industry, luxuries. The contrast, between having nothing and having something however little, made a strong impression on me. I realized that “having just enough” produced the strongest experience of ontological gratitude, that Crusoe was happier, more given to pure joy, than he had been in his former life of plenty. (I somehow participated in the same joy as I sat on the shore.) If such gratitude is present, adding a few luxuries to an otherwise small supply provided a similar contrast and a similar joy. But if you remove the contrast, which removes the gratitude, and pile luxury upon luxury — rather than upon necessity — then the pleasure is somehow altogether different from joy. That seemed mysterious and new to me — why is joy dependent on contrast with nothing? Shouldn’t the threat of loss diminish rather than heighten the feeling? Must we keep such a contrast always in mind to be finally happy? What is it that is present in the first luxury or satisfaction of need that is missing in abundance? This type of question is, as I came to discover later, a stretch toward the “Idea of the Good” that Plato (and Augustine and Aquinas and others) explored more adequately before me. I am still asking it with their help…

4 thoughts on “My discovery of the mystery of being

  1. I am the silent recipient of the wonder of your being and Shared Ignorance. Silence on my part denotes all kind of childhood pangs of insecurity. I can not recall all of their derivations but am grateful that friends like you let me participate in their world of ideas and recollections so perfectly expressed. You bless my life and thoughts beyond measure, Jackie

  2. Wonderful, thank you. A reminder of how important it is to expose children the magical and hidden things to spark the life long passion to search for the beautiful and mysterious. To hoard the treasure of character and virtue……. it is a curiosity… Two children they feel the warmth of light on their skin…. one is moved and the other is not? one sees the bold and brave knight of adventure and the other sees his heart? or one is distraught with loss and misfortune and the other finds wealth? Why?

    • Epistemologist — I think your question is similar to Pascal’s when he wrote the following Pensee:

      #693 — WHEN I see the blindness and the wretchedness of man, when I regard the whole silent universe, and man without light, left to himself, and, as it were, lost in this corner of the universe, without knowing who has put him there, what he has come to do, what will become of him at death, and incapable of all knowledge, I become terrified, like a man who should be carried in his sleep to a dreadful desert island, and should awake without knowing where he is, and without means of escape. And thereupon I wonder how people in a condition so wretched do not fall into despair. I see other persons around me of a like nature. I ask them if they are better informed than I am. They tell me that they are not. And thereupon these wretched and lost beings, having looked around them, and seen some pleasing objects, have given and attached themselves to them. For my own part, I have not been able to attach myself to them, and, considering how strongly it appears that there is something else than what I see, I have examined whether this God has not left some sign of Himself.” (emphasis mine)

      Pascal’s usual explanation is “divertissement” (i.e. distraction) but that doesn’t seem to capture the difference in children, does it? Or doesn’t it?

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