The Echthros In the Mirror

9 03 2017

“She tried to pull herself together. “Remember, Mr. Jenkins, you’re great on Benjamin Franklin’s saying, ‘We must all hang together, or assuredly we will all hang separately.’ That’s how it is with human beings and mitochondria and farandolae – and our planet, too, I guess, and the solar system. We have to live together in — in harmony, or we won’t live at all. ..”             –Meg Murray in A Wind In The Door by Madeleine L’Engle

The first time I read the “Wrinkle In Time” series, it was a trilogy – now it is a quintet. I began re-reading the series recently, primarily because there is a quote from the third book that has always stuck with me. In that book (A Swiftly Tilting Planet) the world is on the brink of nuclear war. Mr. Murry, an eminent physicist, tells his family that to live in a peaceful and reasonable world, they must first create a peaceful and reasonable world within themselves and their own family.

Lately, I haven’t felt that I am living in a peaceful and reasonable world.

In response, I found myself returning to these books I read decades ago. In my initial reading, I liked the middle book, A Wind In The Door, least. While I have yet to read the last two in the series, published years after the first three, I am surprised to find that this middle book is my current adult favorite. I would try to explain the plot, but I read the synopsis on Wikipedia and I am convinced that I would make a hash of it. So, without getting into too many of the story details, here’s my attempt to explain why I love this book now, as a middle-aged adult.

The story is cosmic in it’s scope, while taking the characters into the tiniest of microcosmic space – the mitochondria within a human body’s cells. Meg Murry, the protagonist, learns that literally everything in the Universe is connected, and that while we feel separate, that is an illusion. Once inside the mitochondria, Meg can’t communicate in the same way she would normally – words and sounds. Meg learns, instead, that “communion” (intimate fellowship or rapport) can happen, though, because of the very connectedness of everything. She is able to commune with other people, other sentient beings, even with the mitochondria in her brother’s body’s cells – and it is through this communion that she saves the day.

Meg saves her brother, and by extension human existence, from the Echthroi: the enemy that threatens to X things out of existence. X-terminte them. Cause them to cease to exist. When I was a kid, I often thought that ideas in books were solely the imaginal offspring of the author. Now I know that L’Engle didn’t make up the concept of the Echthroi – in fact, Echthroi (Ἐχθροί) is a Greek plural meaning “The Enemy”. The singular form of the word is Echthros (Ἐχθρός). L’Engle’s explanation of their purpose, a quest to erase things from existence, speaks to me on a deep level.

Just last week, I heard a story on NPR about the last three remaining Northern White Rhinos: Sudan, Najin and Fatu by name. They are currently living in Kenya, guarded by armed protectors around the clock. Scientists are striving to discover ways to prevent them from finally being X-ed out of existence. These rhinos have been hunted for their horns, believed by some to have magical properties, and depleted as well by the decimation of their habitats. When they are gone, somewhere in this universe the song of nature will hit a dischordant note, and a beautiful part of the whole will cease to exist. This fills me with dread and grief, for in that moment, the Echthroi will have been successful.

I can see the handiwork of the Echthroi all over this world: in North Korea, where the quest to deliver nuclear payloads halfway around the globe is progressing; in Syria and elsewhere, when we fail to prevent genocide; in the US, when we choose name calling and finger pointing over substantive dialogue.

In A Wind In The Door, one way Meg must fight the Echthroi is by seeking within and finding/summoning love for her nemesis, Mr. Jenkins. In our very real world, fighting the echthroi is often an inside job as well. I increasingly believe that we cannot change the world around us if we do not seek first to change ourselves. When I stop to think about this, I must admit that the echthroi reside in me. In fact, when I rage, when I hate, when I name-call or finger-point the echthros IS me.

It may sound strange that I would love a book that reminds me that I am responsible for the world at such a deep level; that I would love a story that bluntly suggests that the fight between good and evil in the world is real, and the battleground is my own self. But Meg Murry reads a lot like my insecure teen self – and she does, eventually, successfully embody love for Mr. Jenkins, despite the numerous ways he failed her. Meg helps me believe that I am up to finding this kind of courage in my own heart.

More important, the book gives us one imaginative interpretation of what we know in our hearts to be true and science is rapidly proving – namely, that we live in a connected universe. We are part of a vast web of life that is interdependent, born from the stardust of Creation. And our purpose is compassion.

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a ringing gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge,and if I have absolute faith so as to move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.                                   –1 Corinthians 13:1-2

 

 

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Bellyflops vs Swan Dives: Splash over Depth

6 08 2015

Three things I’ve read this week have really got me thinking: the first is a story, believe it or not, about Madonna; the second is the transcript of a speech about justice; and the third is an article about why we Americans deserve Donald Trump as a candidate in the presidential race. The premise of each is similar; namely, that we tend to substitute the easy thing or the splashy thing for the right thing – and then hail the one as if it were the other.

In a piece published in The New York Times titled “Growing Older with Madonna”, Jancee Dunn reminds us that Madonna is known as the queen of reinvention. Certainly, she has tried many styles and set many trends. In her mid-50s now, she looks great. But her latest video feels somehow not right – she struts around, falling down “drunk” with her skin-tight dress riding up to reveal her underwear, declaring that she’s going to party all night and kiss who she wants and no one is going to stop her. Really? I remember that attitude from when I was 19, but then I grew up. The article asks a probing question about Madonna as an artist: “Yes, she is constantly reinventing herself, but is she evolving?”

The next instance of a sort of cultural “mistaken identity” or transposition of concepts comes from Anand Giridharadas’ address to the Aspen Institute’s Action Forum. “The Thriving World, The Wilting World, and You” . In it, Giridharadas discusses the difficulties of questioning the status quo when “…This community was formed by stalwarts of American capitalism; today we sit in spaces named after Pepsi (as in the beverage) and Koch (as in the brothers); our discussion of Martin Luther King and Omelas is sponsored by folks like Accenture, David Rubenstein…” He goes on to say that as they seek solutions to the great disparities in the world, they never quite manage to address the root causes. He calls it the “Aspen Consensus”, in which “the winners of our age must be challenged to do more good. But never, ever tell them to do less harm.” As a result, they are (in his words), trying “to market the idea of generosity as a substitute for the idea of justice.”

The third, a Frank Bruni op-ed from The New York Times, discusses the confusion we’ve created between politics and entertainment, stating “…of this I’m certain: We now utterly conflate entertainment and politics, routinely confuse celebrity with authority and regularly lose sight of the difference between a cult of personality and a claim to leadership.”

Reinvention instead of evolution; generosity instead of justice; celebrity instead of authority, personality instead of leadership. If these various journalists are correct, we as a culture are routinely replacing values and ethics which require maturity, depth of conviction, and the courage of character with things that have a similar appearance, but which never take us below the surface into the realm of thoughtful and right action.

In some ways, the two photos (below) encapsulate this idea. The first photo is of someone engaging in a belly flop. At the pool, belly flops are an easy way to garner attention. They are loud, splashy; they require that people pay attention – even if only to avoid getting wet. Anyone with the desire to garner attention can pull off a belly flop. When well-executed, onlookers are delighted.

In many respects, the second photo looks much the same as the first. However, the second photo is of a swan dive. The swan dive begins with the same wholehearted, arms-spread-wide posture. However, at the last moment, the swimmer pikes and actually dives into the water. Swan dives result in a clean entry to the water, very little noise, almost no splash. They require practice, skill, an urge toward perfection of form. One can perform a swan dive in a crowded aquatic center with very little notice, especially at first. When well-executed, onlookers need to actually be paying attention to notice. However, when paying attention, onlookers are often wowed.

Another difference between the belly flop and the swan dive is that many of us, witnessing the two, firmly believe that we might be able to pull off the belly flop ourselves. But we don’t think we are capable of the swan dive.

Which brings me back to the ideas discussed in the articles I’ve referenced above. Reinvention is relatively easy. Many of us change things about ourselves, re-order the ephemera of our lives with some regularity. If we stop to think of evolution, of truly and deeply becoming the person we are capable (even meant) to be, we grow immediately wary. Or weary. We don’t really think of ourselves as having the fortitude to work that hard on our own growth and development. Often, we rely on life events to propel us in new directions, rather than being willing to undertake self-improvement or self-empowerment, or our own transformation. Yet we are spiritually called to this, I believe. We feel an inner pull toward evolutionary change, but we are unsure or overwhelmed by the prospect of how to proceed. And we – out of laziness, or fear, or unwillingness to upset the apple cart of our lives – settle for cosmetic change.

Generosity in place of justice is another easy substitution for most of us. And the difficult thing here is that generosity is, in itself, a good thing. I would never argue against it. All too often, though, we stop at generosity when what our communities and our world require is justice. We tell ourselves justice is the province of extraordinary souls – the Ghandis, Mother Theresas, MLKs of this world. We feel this way because justice requires deep change. It requires a willingness to root out the systemic causes of injustice. It calls us to act in ways, and with regard to issues, that are complex and difficult to sort out. We could be wrong. We could be facing much more powerful people and forces than ourselves. Most discomfiting of all, we may need to live with ambiguity and uncertainty and still stand our ground. Generosity feels so good. Justice is often just plain uncomfortable.

Finally, we engage in the fascination of celebrity. It is fun to follow the lives of the rich and famous. But somewhere along the line, we have confused noteworthy with newsworthy when it comes to the well-known. More disturbing is the idea permeating our culture that, somehow, celebrity status serves as shorthand for deserving, smart, accomplished, and admirable. Somehow we allow ourselves to think that those whose personalities loom large in our media are also more knowing and more creative. Have better ideas. Are more thoughtful. Here’s the thing: just because someone has a forum doesn’t mean they actually know anything – nor does it mean that they are right-er (smarter, better, or more deserving) than the rest of us. But we’ve been led to believe (and allowed ourselves to accept) otherwise. So Chloe Kardashian’s butt sets our agenda, diverts our attention from the starving butts, the homeless butts, the butts without clean water – the millions of persons suffering from lack, systemic inequalities, racism. We sate our interest in the wider world, the world outside ourselves, with celebrity brand junk food. We fall for the splash and not the depth.

Why am I going on and on about this? Especially when the writers of the articles I’ve cited have made their points more eloquently (and more succinctly) than I? Because each of them touched on a slightly different facet of what I see as endemic in 21st century American culture – the willingness to settle for the big splash because we lack the will, perhaps the self-discipline, to reach for the swan dive. To work toward the fulfillment of our own potential as well as toward the creation of a world in which all people can potentialize. I, personally, need to work at maintaining a focus on right instead of easy, on deep instead of the kind of broad that comes from the “squirrel? squirrel?” distractibility of modern life. I feel that longing for the clean dive that takes me well below the surface, and I believe I am not alone in that.

Yesterday, I heard a quote on the radio as I drove (and because I was driving couldn’t jot down who said it), that we are the first generation to feel the effects of climate change, and the last generation who can do something about it. It terrifies me to think that we are a generation belly flopping our way to oblivion. More than that, it saddens me to think how we continue to squander the miracle, the absolute gift, of life in this incredible, amazing, generative Universe. So I am going to work hard to evolve, to leaven my generosity with action for justice, and to call forth my own leadership skills instead of letting those with larger personalities hold the field. I’m going to practice diving for depth.