Watching Grass Grow

I for one enjoy it:
the slow, steady bursting from soil,
those optimistic points of green poking sunward,
the outward spread of tiny tufts,
the promise of patience rewarded.

And so daily I take my little son outside
to see the garden, to “check on the grass”.
All moments are wonders to him, yet I
share the wonder of brown transformed to slow-filling lawn,
the chance that next summer he’ll have carpet for play here,
and I marvel that all our endurance pays off.

I am less inclined to love how stone turns to flesh,
fighting – as it must – against the moss and ivy surrounding it;
less inclined to delight in the decades that it takes
for internal soil to be tilled,
for pruning, manure, for all that needs patience
and costs me myself.

While I daily visit these microscopic green thoughts,
my own garden I have neglected.
Turn over the clumps of dirt; wait another year;
my stubborn tree must one day show fruit.
Hope deferred finds patience no virtue.

From Ashes Part 9: The Philosopher’s Wretchedness

blaise-pascal1

When I consider the brief span of my life absorbed into the eternity which comes before and after…the small space I occupy and which I see swallowed up in the infinite immensity of spaces of which I know thing and which know nothing of me, I take fright and am amazed to see myself here rather than there: there is no reason for me to be here rather than there, now rather than then? Who put me here? By whose command and act were this time and place allotted to me?

(Blaise Pascal, Pensées)

If our condition were truly happy we should not need to diver ourselves from thinking about it.

(Blaise Pascal, Pensées)


 

There is little doubt that, were a teacher to have Blaise Pascal in their class today, they would be running for the gifted education co-ordinator – who may themselves have found themselves unable to help. Fortunately for the education systems of his day, the highly precocious child who was later to become one of the most influential philosophers and mathematicians of his day was – as we would say today – home-schooled. In her account of his childhood, Catharine Morris Cox writes that “when Blaise was 3, his father began to devote all of his time to the education of his children. The boy never attended school and had no other teacher than his parent”. His father famously refused to teach his son mathematics until he had mastered languages, a fact which perturbed young Blaise no end. Dismissing his son’s anxious requests for mathematics lessons, Pascal Senior described mathematics as merely “the means of making accurate figures and finding the relation they bear to each other”. This, the story goes, awoke in young Pascal such a desire to learn mathematics that, shut up in his own room, he developed almost all the axioms of mathematics, personally discovering Euclid’s thirty-second proposition with no assistance.

Interestingly, though Cox’s accounts of the “early mental traits of geniuses” often emphasise the melancholic tendencies of her subjects, Pascal – who, by Cox’s estimation, belongs to a group of geniuses above whom there is only one figure, John Stuart Mill, possessing an IQ between 180 and 190 – has no psychological distress in his childhood which Cox considers worth mentioning. What Cox does tell us, however, is that the child Pascal had an insatiable thirst for answers:

Pascal early showed much interest in his surroundings and ‘wanted to know a reason for everything.’ When the reason was not known or when his father could not tell him or told him theories which although generally accepted were not actually proved, he was not at all contented, for ‘he had an unusually keen eye for discerning falsity. To know the truth was the single aim of his mind.’

The thirst for knowledge at an early age drives many high-achieving children to independent enquiry or investigation. Such is certainly the case for young Blaise, seen particularly in his prodigious discovery of mathematical truth whilst shut up in his bedroom. Yet a closer look at his childhood suggests that there was more to it than a love of learning. In their psychoanalytic study of Pascal, as part of a broader psychological investigation into the connections between “high intellectual potential” and depression, Catherine Weismann-Arcache and Sylvie Tordjman note both the early trauma experienced by Pascal in losing his mother at age three and the signs of depression and anxiety in him from a young age. Of particular interest to Weismann-Arcache and Tordjman is Pascal’s two early phobias: “one concerning his parents’ expressions of love for each other” and “the other running water”. While their examination of his life seems overly interested in its potential for sexual divergence – a possibly over-affectionate relationship with his sister, for instance, or the Freudian potential in his fears of running water – they nonetheless identify what Cox does not: that young Pascal was arguably as anxious as he was intelligent. We may not entirely agree with the next step to which Weismann-Arcache and Tordjman take their speculation, but it is interesting nonetheless to wonder with them if Pascal’s thirst for intellectual certainty stemmed not only from a desire to know but also from a need for security, a fear of emptiness – expressed most powerfully in the time he spent testing Aristotle’s axiom that “nature abhors a vacuum”. They write:

We can speculate that the young Blaise had a constitutional hyperreactivity that rendered him particularly receptive [to emotional and physical stimuli], with the result that normal situations, such as the loving relationship between his parents, became wounding ones to him.

This tendency in highly intelligent children and adolescents towards “hyperreactivity” is at the heart of a number of theories about intellectual development, including the work of Kazimierz Dabrowski, cited in an earlier essay. Dabrowski termed “hyperreactive” individuals “psychoneurotics”, an unfortunate name which does little to take away potential stigma. Yet Dabrowski’s prose poem, “Be greeted psychoneurotics!”, first published as Paul Cienin in a book of “existential thoughts and aphorisms”, does much more to present a sympathetic, indeed empowering, view of what it means to be “hyperreactive”:

Be greeted psychoneurotics! For you see sensitivity in the insensitivity of the world, uncertainty among the world’s certainties. For you often feel others as you feel yourselves. For you feel the anxiety of the world, and its bottomless narrowness and self-assurance. For your phobia of washing your hands from the dirt of the world, for your fear of the absurdity of existence, for your fear of being locked in the world’s limitations. For your subtlety in not telling others what you see in them. For your awkwardness in dealing with practical things and practicalness in dealing with unknown things, for your transcendental realism and lack of everyday realism, for your exclusiveness and fear of losing close friends, for your creativity and ecstasy, for your maladjustment to that ‘which is’ and adjustment to that ‘which ought to be’, for your great but unutilized abilities. For the belated appreciation of the real value of your greatness which never allows the appreciation of the greatness of whose who will come after you. For your being treated instead of treating others, for your heavenly power being forever pushed down by brutal force; for that which is prescient, unsaid, infinite in you. For the loneliness and strangeness of your ways. Be greeted!

We can, I think, see something of Pascal in this description: his refusal to accept that which his society took for granted, his fervent challenges to axioms, his awareness of human sinfulness and brokenness which drove him to Jansenism – a controversial, semi-Calvinist group within the Catholic church of his day. Moreover, we see in this description the potential for genius wrapped up in tendencies which the world often does not understand. It is speculation, no doubt, yet it is tempting to wonder how Pascal’s life might have been different had he attended a regular school. I think of my own experiences as a school student, and now the things that I observe as a school teacher, and am sad to recognise that our world today is not, perhaps, as willing to weep “tears of joy” as Pascal’s father was over a young boy who personally discovers most of the principles of Euclidean geometry. Perhaps Pascal would have been given new, and more rational, fears had he had to face the kinds of attitudes with which highly intelligent “psychoneurotics” are more commonly “greeted”. Yet God’s grace no doubt was found in the fact that Pascal was raised in a highly intelligent family in which knowledge and learning were valued. This, at least, helped enable him to flourish rather than be destroyed in the process of intellectual development.

Yet we also gain something of a warning from Pascal’s growth as an intellectual. What at first seems simply an insatiable desire for clear, logical reasoning could equally be seen as a need to find security in one’s own knowledge of the world. This can be a kind of obsessive or neurotic behaviour, seeking certainly almost without the possibility of genuine satisfaction. It is possible to see in Pascal’s incomplete apologetic system, published only in their note form as Pensées, a desire to make faith completely watertight – a quest which, arguably, does something to negate the very nature of faith.

This, however, is not the end of the story for Pascal, and here we learn another valuable lesson from his fascinating life of both mental illness and brilliance. It comes, unexpectedly, in statements from Pascal which seem almost to disavow the scientific discipline which he did so much to help develop. Malcolm Muggeridge notes that Pascal “reached the conclusion that what is now our great sacred cow – science – was a cul-de-sac”. Which is not to say that science is useless, rather that it has limits, and sometimes quite profound ones. For Pascal, the issue seems to lie in the limits of the human mind and the human capacity to offer its own remedy. According to Muggeridge, Pascal could only reach this conclusion through being broken in himself: “His proud, defiant mind had to be humbled before it could know anything at all.”

We are, perhaps, clutching at too many straws when we try to make sense of Pascal’s biography, the accounts being often sketchy or inconsistent, driven by competing agendas over his genius. Yet it is significant to note that a man whose life seemed driven by a desire for knowledge could also make poignant statements about the corruptions of the human mind, and it is arguably his awareness of this which makes Pascal still so significant for the world today: not solely for his scientific or logical genius, though few, if any, in the world today could be said to have surpassed him; nor is it because his arguments for Christianity cannot be faulted, because they can. Magnificent though the Pensées are, they are incomplete and flawed, and at times driven by cultural conditions and concerns which a modern reader simply cannot understand without careful further study. Yet Pascal, unlike many of his successors, had humility. We see this humility as it relates to intellectual endeavour in this passage from the Pensées:

It is vain, O men, that you seek within yourselves the cure for your miseries. All your insight only leads you to the knowledge that it is not in yourselves that you will discover the true and the good. The philosophers promised them to you, and have not been able to keep their promise…Your principal maladies are pride, which cuts you off from God; sensuality, which binds you to the earth; and they have done nothing but foster at least one of these maladies. If they had given you God for your object, it has only been to pander to your pride; they have made you think that you were like him and resembled him by your nature.

The philosophical quest – the project of loving knowledge – had failed, in Pascal’s eyes, simply because the human heart corrupted all it took and turned it into an object of pride. True knowledge, knowledge with the power to liberate could only occur when we began with a healthy awareness of what we were before God. The wisdom writers of the Old Testament would put this quite simply: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.”

Muggeridge notes that Pascal’s words caused French poet Paul Valery to consider them the “intimations of a sick mind”, adding in response, “If so, let me be sick!” I must agree with him. If a healthy mind is convinced of its own sufficiency and a sick mind recognises its brokenness before an all-knowing God, I think we had all rather be sick.

Scripture would make quite the opposite pronouncement, however, of sickness and health. True mental health before an all-righteous God, it would say, begins with remedying the fundamental lie of the serpent in the Garden of Eden: “God knows that when you eat from [the tree of knowledge] your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” No, Pascal would agree: such is not the case. At that very moment, when we posit our own intellects as the final measure of all things, we cease to know anything meaningful at all. We begin, at that moment, to die.

Positioned at the beginning of the Age of Enlightenment, and continuing to rebuke the intellectual pride of our own age, Blaise Pascal stands: an anxious boy with a phobia of running water and a desperate desire to know all things, who reminds us as broken humans that we cannot possibly know everything but that we can trust and know a God who does.

References

Cienin, P. (1972). Existential Thoughts and Aphorisms. London: Gryff Publications.

Cox, C.M. (1926). Genetic Studies of Genius Vol.II: The Early Mental Traits of Three Hundred Geniuses. Stanford, Ca.: Stanford University Press.

Muggeridge, M. (1969). “Pascal”, in Jesus Rediscovered. London: Fontana, pp.119-122.

Weismann-Arcache, C., and Tordjman, S. (2012). “Relationship between Depression and High Intellectual Potential”, in Depression Research and Treatment, Hindawi Publishing Corporation.

Pascal, B. (1966). Pensées, trans. A.J. Krailsheimer. London: Penguin Books.

From Ashes Part 5: “…all things are wearisome…”

Gustav Doré, "King Solomon" Wikimedia Commons
Gustav Doré, “King Solomon”
Wikimedia Commons

Vanity of vanities, the Preacher saith,

            All things are vanity. The eye and ear

            Cannot be filled with what they see and hear.

Like early dew, or like the sudden breath

Of wind, or like the grass that withereth,

            Is man…

(Christina Rossetti, “The One Certainty”)


Some years ago, the greatest comfort I found in the Bible was in the book of Ecclesiastes. This may sound strange to some people: it is hardly most people’s first choice for scriptural encouragement, with its repeated catch-cry variously translated as “everything is meaningless”, “everything is vapour”, or “everything is vanity”. Yet I remember nights when all I could read to help me sleep was this book, sometimes considered either the most depressing or most existential work in the Bible. If you look for the closest thing that scripture has to twentieth century philosophy, you will find it in the book of Ecclesiastes: curious, perhaps, but what is likely to be comforting in this?

Well, first of all, it needs to be said that I was not the first to be comforted by it. Throughout history, believers struggling with what is now termed “existential depression” – a sense of weight, of languor, of despair, over the nature, structure and meaning of life – have strangely found comfort in Ecclesiastes. Victorian poet Christina Rossetti, a devout Christian who still struggled with melancholy and sickness for much of her life, turned to the book in a number of poems, including the sonnet “The One Certainty”, “A Testimony” – written from the perspective of Ecclesiastes’ unnamed “Teacher” – and even wrote a book on the subject, entitled Ecclesiastes, or, The Preacher. Rossetti seems to testify to what I too found two years ago: that it is comforting to see melancholy, disquiet, existential depression reflected in scripture. It makes us feel less alone, less like the Bible is a theoretical work that knows nothing of our sorrows.

Rossetti’s journeys into Ecclesiastes are among some of her bleakest, since she refuses the kind of comforting answer that we might feel forced to impose upon the book. Yet the bleakness of Ecclesiastes, and of Rossetti’s poems, is one which forces us to look elsewhere. If it is ultimately disquieting, it is because we still live in the “evil under the sun”. We witness the same cycles over and over again; we feel the weight and weariness of our flesh; we see others prospering from that for which they did not labour; we are never satisfied:

The earth is fattened with our dead;
    She swallows more and doth not cease:
    Therefore her wine and oil increase
And her sheaves are not numberèd;
Therefore her plants are green, and all
Her pleasant trees lusty and tall.

 

Therefore the maidens cease to sing,
And the young men are very sad;
Therefore the sowing is not glad,
And mournful is the harvesting.
Of high and low, of great and small,
Vanity is the lot of all.

 

A King dwelt in Jerusalem;
    He was the wisest man on earth;
    He had all riches from his birth,
And pleasures till he tired of them;
Then, having tested all things, he
Witnessed that all are vanity. (Rossetti, “A Testimony”)

Where, then, do we go with this disquiet?

Ecclesiastes itself provides a number of answers, though sometimes we have to look carefully for them. The first comes in what is perhaps the most famous and most often-quoted passage from the book – the third chapter, with its memorable poem about the seasons of life, famously set to music by the Byrds. Within this series of declarations of what different seasons life affords, there is the statement that there is “a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance”. Note, these seasons, though contrasting, are given equal weight. They are, seemingly, as important as one another, as much a part of life. Indeed, while we may struggle with some of the contents of the chapter – a “time to kill”, for instance – we must recognise that there is manifold complexity to the fabric of life which we, not being God, fail often to understand. Wisdom literature, with its emphasis upon “the fear of the Lord”, contends that the best place to start is to acknowledge our inability to understand what only God can truly hold together. Therefore, we can strangely take comfort in seasons, because all seasons are ordained by God and have their purpose – “and God will call the past to account”.

The second answer comes two chapters later, when the Teacher, having just criticised those who labour for their own advancement, turns to God’s majesty and our weakness before Him:

Do not be quick with your mouth,
                  do not be hasty in your heart
                  to utter anything before God.
God is in heaven
                  and you are on earth,
                  so let your words be few. (Ecclesiastes 5:2)

The answer, then, to the weight of existential depression? Mourn. Recognise your own lack of understanding and stand trusting before God. Recognise the seasons, and their value. Let this be a season of mourning, and rejoice that God ordains other seasons.

In the end, this is not, perhaps, an answer. Those wrestling with the apparent meaninglessness of life may not necessarily be comforted immediately to know that there is not a clear answer to the problem. Yet it is indeed comforting to know that God holds together what we cannot possibly understand.

The book of Ecclesiastes, for me, is comforting for a similar reason to why I find the Psalms comforting. It reveals life’s complexity, its many pleats and colours, in a way which ardent declarations of faith, however well-intentioned, cannot always do. And, revealing that complexity, it tells me to stand trusting before God. If this is a time for mourning, then mourn. But trust that God sees more than I see, and trust that He will call all things to account.

It takes weariness with life to write a book like Ecclesiastes. And it also takes a deep, abiding knowledge of our Creator, which can only come from acknowledging life’s pain, mourning it with Him and, in the end, standing in awe before Him.

References

Rossetti, C.G. Goblin Market and Other Poems. http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/r/rossetti/christina/goblin_market/contents.html