Heart versus Mind

Every morning, I lie in Peggy’s bed while she massages my shoulders. I look through her window into a canopy of green and, if I squint, I see faces in the canopy. Today, I saw a buck-toothed cocker spaniel without a lower jaw. His green ears blew in the breeze, and his eyes were as intense as those of a space alien from a scary movie. Last winter, the leaves being gone, I saw the same poker-faced gray cat everyday for months. These canopy denizens stare at me as I stare at them, and they seem more real to me than the 23 children who died in India last week. 

A great many atheists are literalists who think poorly of the impreciseness of metaphor, the emotionalism of symbols, and regard mythology as the inadequate expression of ideas that aren’t worth expressing.

Thirty-five years ago, I worked as a paid carpenter at a farming commune near Natchez, Mississippi. I never talked to any of the residents about religion or spirituality, but noted that they lived literalistically if not mechanically. I say this partially because of the scorn they felt for holidays. They avowed to make everyday as special as every other day, but the result was that they made no day special. Or so it seemed to me.

I’m a rationalist in that I dont believe in the supernatural, and I do believe that everything, everywhere, every time, has a natural explanation. Yet, in my heart, I’m not a very good rationalist because, whether it’s true or not, my image of a good rationalist is of someone who is calmly analytical, whereas I’m intense and unable to defend much of what I experience. Faces in greenery would mean nothing to a good rationalist. Feeling intimately connected to a cedar-clad Clayoquot berry picker (photo by Edward Curtis, 1915) would never happen in the life of a good rationalist. Almost believing, as I sometimes do, that I have stepped out of time would be viewed by a good rationalist as delusional. Fearing death even while being unable to believe that I will ever really not exist would be considered pathetic by a good rationalist . To a good rationalist, a thing is either real or not real, but I can never satisfy myself on this point because so much of what I feel strikes me as neither.

I went camping in the Coast Range last week and came back with a fifty pound sandstone boulder from the North Fork of Smith River. When I saw this rock, I remembered how much Bonnie loved camping and particularly how much she loved to retrieve sticks from the water, and I decided to bring it home and put it on her grave. Forevermore, I will think of her when I see it, and will picture her standing beside me when I found it because her presence was so strong within me. How, I asked myself, can such a joyous creature ever really die, but if it can, what is the good of life? I had no answers, and this made me want with all my heart to believe that she lives, but if not her, then at least the elements of which she consisted. A good rationalist would put the dead in their place and move on with life, but I carry the dead within me, and I can never entirely convince myself that they’re gone.

Long before Bonnie died, I saw her in the backyard one day. She was walking in one direction, and I was walking in the other, and we passed so closely that I could have touched her. “Hello Bonnie,” I said as I wondered why a dog with no place to go would be going there so resolutely. A few moments later, I saw her asleep in the front yard, but she couldn’t have gotten there from the backyard because they were separated by four gates (two on each side of the house) that were all closed. My rational mind knew that Bonnie couldn’t have been in both places, and I agreed with my rational mind, yet I had seen her in both places. Such occurrences put me in the crazy-making position of disavowing that which I want to believe in favor of that which I want not to believe because the former seems so improbable and the latter so rational.

Do I consider it even remotely possible that Bonnie (or, at least, Bonnie's image) might have been in two places, or that there is consciousness apart from what we call life? Yes, very remotely, for four reasons. One is that I can imagine all manner of extraordinary things that are unknown to science (which, after all, is only a few hundred years old and the province of a primitive species). The second is that people in all times and all places have had all manner of amazing experiences similar to some that I have had from childhood onward. Thirdly, such occurrences don’t contain internal contradictions as do, for example, descriptions of "loving" deities that behave viciously. Finally, it would be irrational for me to deny any possibility of an underlying reality behind my experiences simply because people who believe such things strike me as credulous or because it pleases me to consider myself a rationalist.

I wouldn’t attempt to give odds for having really seen Bonnie in two places because I don’t know enough to give odds for that in the same way I could give odds for it raining in western Oregon tomorrow (0-10%, the same as everyday in July), but any odds greater than none would mean that it was possible. Even if they were only one in a trillion, pretty much everything in the universe would seem to qualify. For instance, if you were able to list all the things that had to happen exactly as they did from the dawning of creation just for you to exist, it would surely take many lifetimes.

It is for such reasons that I remain, to a minute degree, open to the acceptance of things I can't clearly define, things that most rationalists would flatly deny. All I have to offer in this regard are feelings, questions, and a few unexplained experiences, but they are sufficient to make me unwelcome among rationalists, and insufficient to make me welcome among people who consider themselves psychic or spiritual. I simply don't know enough to belong to either camp, so I stand alone where the light filters through the trees and makes ever-changing patterns and shadows that both delight and torment. I just wish I could  settle my mind on what is true. A good rationalist, or a good believer, would say that he already knew.

Dad, Peggy, and morality

For most of my years under his roof, my father did building maintenance and remodeling for a wealthy businessman who was a First Baptist deacon and Lions Club member. Dad worked 55-plus hours a week for this man for low pay, no sick leave, and a five day a year vacation, while feeling trapped in his job because of my mother’s unwillingness to leave the small town where we lived. When I was in junior high, a hardware store owner offered my father kickbacks for giving him his boss’s business. Dad told his boss of it and wouldn’t shop there anymore. The more I came to know and despise his boss, the less respect I had for my father’s ethics.

Then I married a woman with that same degree of unyielding morality. Her Catholic employer’s public commitment to treating everyone with Christ-inspired fairness and compassion often runs counter to how it behaves behind the scenes. If I had worked for this hospital for many years, and it had shorted my paycheck more than half the time, I would have kept my mouth shut when the day came that it overpaid me by $1,500. “Ah,” you say, “but you’re an atheist, and therefore have no compunction against doing any lowdown thing.” While it is true that I spend my every waking moment raping dogs and kicking women, Peggy’s an atheist too, so go figure.

A major difference between Peggy and my father on the one hand and me on the other, is that I’m unaware that either of them ever struggled over issues of morality because the right direction was always obvious to them. This leads (or led in the case of my deceased father) to a consistency in their behavior that I often lack. They would say I rationalize, and they would sometimes be right, but the result of my uncertainty is that I am reachable whereas people whose morality is instinctual often are not. Peggy didn’t struggle for years before deciding that gay marriage was wrong or that capital punishment was right, whereas I switched back and forth repeatedly. Sometimes, I would agree with her that we should consider a return to public executions, and sometimes I would agree with her that gay marriage was oxymoronic, but then I would reverse my positions. Through all my inconsistency, she never wavered, and I would envy her that because, after all, isn’t consistency a mark of intelligence and maturity, and inconsistency the opposite?

Likewise, in regard to religion, Peggy never wavered. She believed as a child, but when she became a young adult, it dawned on her that she no longer believed, and she never looked back, whereas I went back and forth through four decades and three churches (not counting the Unitarian) before I made peace with the fact that I really and truly did not, and never would, believe in God.

I eventually lost my envy of people like Peggy and my father because even if my struggling means that I look flaky and am prone to rationalization, it also means that I am less dogmatic, tend to learn more through studying issues, and am better able to change my thinking. Because Peggy’s morality is instinctual, she isn’t prone to reflecting upon matters of right and wrong; she isn’t given to studying them; and she dismisses contrary opinions like water off a ducks back. For instance, I finally came down on the side of gay marriage because I concluded that it doesn’t matter what makes people gay or that marriage has historically been for heterosexuals only; it only matters that society treats everyone compassionately and equally. As I see it, I progressed beyond her on this issue because while I was learning and reflecting, she remained stuck on two thoughts only, thoughts which are so obvious (regardless of their accuracy) that they surely occurred to her within a minute of first hearing about gay marriage: homosexuality is an evolutionary mistake; and that which has been the practice always and everywhere should continue to be the practice always and everywhere.*

In the final analysis, people like myself are probably more prone to evil than people like Peggy and my father because our lack of a strict moral code really does make it appallingly easy for us to rationalize, and because, far from honoring either the law or traditional morality, we often consider obedience undesirable. Peggy doesn’t always respect the law, but she nearly always obeys it even when she disagrees with it, that is unless she thinks its evil. Her heroes are people who live quiet lives, perform unheralded acts of goodness, obey the law, and honor tradition. My heroes are Bradley Manning, Julian Assange, and Edward Snowden, none of whom Peggy has the least interest in, and who my government and millions of my fellow citizens would like to draw-and-quarter.

One thing for sure is that I think a lot more about the ethical implications of Peggy’s actions than she does about my own due to her tendency to instantly classify everything I do as morally good, morally bad, or morally indifferent, and to hold to that opinion forever come hell or high water. In my eyes, she’s something of a mule, and in her eyes, I sometimes fall short of being what a good man should be. Herein lies much of the charm of our marriage, at least for me. Having a spouse is like having an exotic animal. It gives a person the chance to observe an interesting creature whose life is—like all our lives—a shooting star, from up close and personal for many decades before one of you falls alone into the bottomless pit of eternity. 

The photo of Peggy and my father was taken July 9, 1994, and he died on the 12th. He loved her like a daughter, and she deserved it. Naturally, she never questioned whether taking this troubled man into her home was the right thing to do.

*Peggy read this after it was posted, and said my implication that she regards homosexuality and/or homosexual marriage as a moral issue was incorrect. Rather, she regards homosexuality as an inescapable way of being, and she supports complete equality for homosexuals except when it comes to using the word marriage to describe their unions. As I see it, gay marriage is very much a moral issue, and I can't even imagine how, to her, it could not be, but such is the gulf between us on many issues.