existentialist cafe

life is sacred

Month: July, 2013


While running yesterday I saw a woman dressed in dark religious garb, delivering a missive, or perhaps a package, to some unseen individual. Of course she was really just a bunch of wires sticking out of the ground, and covered in black plastic. Maybe it was the 90-something degree heat. Maybe it was physical exhaustion. But I love that part of our brain – the part whose only job is to recognize people and faces – and it’s trigger-happy nature, creating people and faces out of random objects and slices of toast. Keepin’ tabs on the people. They are important, after all. For better or worse, we’ve decided as a species that our survival and happiness depends upon others. So we like to know where they’re at, just in case.

Pareidolia is what it’s called when you interpret insignificant stimuli as significant… or, at least, differently significant than its original purpose. This website has gathered about 50 of them. I love it.  I love the real, honest-to-goodness, emotional reaction you get. How can this picture not fill you with joy? Or this one? Mirror neuron don’t care. This one even has the squinty eyes of authentic laughter. It makes me wonder if it isn’t accidental in the design. Not conscious, no. I don’t think the designers meant to create a face. But I do wonder if that face-finding part of the brain exerted a bit of unconscious control of the design, maybe manifested as a feeling of peace and ease. Yes, THAT feels right. I like looking at that. Maybe.



Distinguishing between permanence and impermanence is one of the chief characteristics of most religion. Do not be deceived by illusion.  This may mean retreat and disengagement from the world.Yet it could just as well mean a thorough-going engagement with all things of this world. Where are you going to retreat to? There is no haven of permanence anywhere on this earth. Yet, the eternal makes its home in all things

the kingdom of dog

Thoughts toward a theology of creation.

I have a friend who has given her life for dogs. Not literally of course, though if her blood – bottled and sprinkled accordingly – could save the life of even one four-footed animal, I think she would do it in a single last drained heartbeat. Almost literally though. Her life is overrun with dogs. The way she describes it, she lives in a veritable half-mad, halfway house kingdom of god/dog, where not a single abandoned or abused soul is turned away to gnash its teeth in the darkness; where the last are first and the first are last; where dogs get the bed, and the humans survive on whatever scraps can be bought with the leftover money after every dog-belly is filled. Her love is an absurd love, as love must be – abused dog with advanced stage cancer? Nothing is denied its recovery; and if it can not recover, it is given a death worthy of its life. I’ve begrudged her this. In my “philosophy” and “cost-benefit analysis” I have considered how many dogs a human is worth, and whether time and energy should be better spent. In the end, I think such questions will be left unanswered. At least I do not think that my friend has a need to defend her case, even if she had the time.

Today, driving back from stuffing myself at the Shady Maple Smorgasbord, I came across an idiotic collie, idling its way across a busy highway, greeting every car as though it were a friend – running up to nuzzle the front bumper as the car screeched to a stop, then trotting around the rear to smell what could be smelled. Uttering a quick prayer to the patron saint of my dog-loving friend, I pulled over, got out and grabbed it by the collar. It HAD a collar, which was good news, with numbers on them. The dog license registry service was of little help on the 4th of July, but I did eventually get through to a vet who said he would be in the office “later this afternoon,” which meant she was mine for a little while. I stopped to get her some food, and a leash which was freely given by the little clinic there along with advice about who to call, etc. They surmised that she had been missing a long time, and that she had some kind of flea-induced skin condition as evidenced by a large bare patch on her back. The world of the lost dog seems full of dewy-eyed, eager-to-empathize folk, who have assembled themselves in an impressive network of photo-pass-alongs. Surely though, the grittier work of dog rescue and rehabilitation is a bit more sparse. At home, she did general dog things, like befuddle around my room, eat, drink, lay down, and smell bad. I continued to make phone calls, hoping that I would get a hold of the owner before having to drive back to Honey Brook to the vet. Plus, truth be told, I was nursing a bit of a fantasy of an ecstatic family, greeting me as a kind of hero. I am not a dog, after all, and I am quite subject to vanity.

Eventually, and surprisingly, I was called by the owner after the police passed along my information. I was not enthused. Or, rather, he did not seem enthused that his dog has been found, and I was not enthused by his lack of enthusiasm. I got off the phone with a touch of suspicion. He uttered phrases like “gets off her chain,” “whenever she runs away,” and “I don’t think I can send someone to get her today” that made me confused/concerned. Also he seemed more upset by the fact that he would have to try drive all the way to West Chester (*gasp,* half an hour) then upset that she had run away, or excited that she had been found. I did feel better after I met him. He talked about their on-going fight against the flea and skin problem, and what the vet had recommended. Regardless, I was aware that these are creatures with minimal rights. They are, at the end of the day, property, not people and one would need pretty damning evidence to bring a charge of mistreatment.

It was strange to realize that, as little as I did, it COULD have been energy spent reuniting a dog with an abusive owner. It made me think of social workers and others who work for human welfare, who might see, for example, emotional neglect of children but can not do anything to intervene. And I thought of my friend-of-dog friend, who daily interacts with the stunning results of dog abuse. She specializes in boxer and pit bull rescue, dogs which apparently have a special place in hell designed for them by their human owners. She does not save herself from seeing first-hand the devastation wrought by human cruelty. By the time these animals end up in her arms, they are clinging to the last threads of life. It wears her out. I could be wrong, but it seems like the sad endings outweigh the happy endings 10 to 1.

A proper theology must be built from the ground up, beginning with a recognition of this natural world into which we have been born, and which has been around for a lot longer than us. David James Duncan, in his fabulous My Story as Told by Water, writes such a theology, his theology of salmon, in service to his Loraxian work defending the integrity of the natural world against corporate interests. He writes of the love affair between sun and sea that birthed, among other things, the salmon, which alone among all creatures bewitch both salt and fresh water, and which have been lifeblood for animals and people alike in the Pacific Northwest. A lifeblood that is now running to dry, thanks to hydroelectricity and advancements in mining and drilling operations. We are guests on this planet. Speech and rationality are the gifts that were given to us by our hosts. In a cruel twist of fate we are using those gifts to burn the house down, with ourselves still in it. This we have done, rather than claiming our birthright to “speak for the trees, for the trees have no tongues.”

Is there a higher calling? Against the corporate religious opinion of the day, Jesus gave what has been called, in typical theological understatement, “preferential option of the poor.” “Do for the least of these.” That the “these” Jesus spoke of were most certainly people is not important; what is important is that they had been officially granted outsider status by the powers that be. The same powers that be today measure the value of fish and tree by the open market, evaluate dogs only as extensions of the whims and desires of their owners, and yes, continue to mark certain people as ‘not worth saving.’ Only when we have acknowledged our deep-seated connection with all life in this world can we take our place among it. This is not just an ecological connection, as though our care for the world is only about sustaining it for our own sake. It is a  biological connection as well. All flesh is the same flesh; the same star stuff that makes up the neural networks of your brain compose the chemosynthetic bacteria that inhabit deep sea hydrothermal vents and that live off of the highly toxic (to humans) hydrogen sulfide found there. How wonderful that our particular biology comes with self-awareness. How wonderful that, after millenia, the earth has grown a nervous system. How ironic that this nervous system is now in the process of committing slow suicide.

“The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!” On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty, while our presentable parts need no special treatment. But God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.” (I Cor 12.21-26)

The distress signal is the first signal we learn to make, soon after entering a harsh, cold world where we will depend on the warmth of others for our survival. In the torrid first years, a multitude of signals are added to this primal signal, our soul stylus writing its own signature upon the world.

Our own demands, however, are soon crowded by awareness of the demands and expectations of others. The blind trust by which we scream for anyone in particular to relieve our pain and discomfort is replaced by a more circumspect, socially-conscious attitude. And it is reflected in increased reliance on rational rather than personal signs. Our signal becomes buried in noise. Buried – not lost. Or, not lost irrevocably. Listen through the static and you will hear the transmission, faint, but nonetheless there and there completely.

Noise, not signal, seems to define our existence in this world. Our ears are crowded. We are beset on all sides by sounds and sounds and sounds. We do not know what frequency to set our radios to, in order to hear an honest, authentic communication instead of some corporate shill. Why do we long, more and more, to escape into the wilderness? Why do we build miles of hiking trails? Is it so that we can outrun the pace of the noise machines? We give off our own noise as well. Even as we long to hear and be heard, we make haste to encrypt our signal, like a fig leaf made out of static. Through all that noise, though, we might be able to hear signals as well, some of them distress calls.

I know people who seem like they were born as giant radio signal receivers. They quiver with received transmissions–sometimes completely unaware–and become noise-reduction and signal-amplification systems, bearing the on the lines of their faces the experiences and suffering of others. However, just because some people seem born with this ability does not mean that it is an art which can not be learned and practiced by anyone. In fact, I think our mutual condition of flesh and blood demands that we learn it. Quid pro quo? Maybe, but I don’t think so. It is simply a relativization of priority. In white water sports, in which calamity can be swift and unforgiving, an appropriate response to seeing a raft or kayak on the side of the river is to pat the top of your head, elbow out. It is a simple signal which means “are you ok.” Drowning is not a flashy affair, despite the movies. It is accompanied by the subtle, uncontrollable instinctive drowning response, in which shouting and moving of the extremities cease entirely as the body conserves energy needed to lift the mouth and nose above the surface of the water. Life has its own swift and unforgiving calamities, and any signal that someone is drowning may be just as subtle and hard to detect. But if we make a point to undertake the art of listening intently, we will hear all kinds of humming in the air. Follow the humming. It will take us to the great acoustic chambers of the human soul, which reverberate with all kinds of inner joys and sorrows.

I had a thought once that one of the worst fates would be to be able to hear calls for distress but to be unable to do anything about it. A pilot circling endless open seas, hearing countless MAYDAYS coming from beneath the clouds, but without any ability to respond. Not unlike Cassandra, whose blessing was to be able to tell the future, but whose curse was that no one would believe her. Surely there are times when we are forced into such an impotent position. Yet we would realize also our power, if we learned to hear, through all the noise, the faint, insistent beep; the soul bottled in speech.