A Prayer for the New Year

“To pray for particular favors is to dictate to Divine Wisdom, and savors of presumption; and to intercede for other individuals or for nations, is to presume that their happiness depends upon our choice, and that the prosperity of communities hangs upon our interest.” – William Paley

windy_lake_2I’ve been thinking a bit about prayer recently. It’s always confused me, frankly. What is it for?

Let me explain. Suppose you believe in an omnipotent, omniscient God; and suppose you want something from this God — say, a new car, or (if you’re less materialistic) strength, or a sign, or serenity, or more time, or even just general blessings. But isn’t it the case that God already knows what you want? And if he knows what you want, and you still don’t have it, doesn’t that mean God probably doesn’t want you to have it? In other words: why do you think praying will change God’s mind?

Or suppose you want deliverance from something — from stress, from unemployment, from a disease, whatever it is. Again: why do you think praying will change God’s mind?

Or maybe you’re not praying for yourself, but for a friend, a relative, a stranger. Suppose someone you love is terribly sick, and you pray to God that He will save them. But God is all-powerful, isn’t He? Isn’t He the cause of the disease, really? Couldn’t He have already cured them, if He wanted? If God has decided someone should suffer, why should He care what you think? Aren’t you really saying, “Please, God! Don’t hurt my loved one any more!”? And doesn’t that imply that God is less merciful and forgiving than you are?…

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In Which Links are Forged and Pods are Cast

My attention has been away from this blog for a while, so I thought it might be interesting to collect some links to what I’ve been working on. Over at Faith, Fern, and Compass, for example, I’ve contributed a couple of articles that might be of interest to you:

The Sea in the Skull

Theologians and scientists agree: ritual is good for the human soul. But I don’t like ritual much. It’s probably my Zen upbringing. If ritual is poetry in the realm of acts, then perhaps my poetic-action aesthetic is too used to the haiku or koan: short, unrehearsed, improvised, intentionally subversive. But one thing I do like about ritual is the creation of a sacred space. This is about how I create a sacred space without ritual.

The Land’s Religion: Hold Her In Your Heart

Those of us of European descent who don’t live in Europe — who live, in fact, in landscapes conquered or annexed by our ancestors — do not have a simple relationship with the earth we live on… We are like a branch grafted onto the wrong tree, an organ transplanted into another body. We’re aliens in our own homes. But we cannot go back where we came from; we’d be aliens there, too. There is nowhere in the world that we really belong. So what should our relationship be?

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Story, History, and Meaning

In the episode of Faith, Fern and Compass we posted this week, Alison and I talked a bit about stories, and what their purpose might be. Is storytelling something with evolutionary origins? If so, what? And why? It’s a completely open question, but an essential one: stories and histories, real or imagined, provide entertainment, bind communities together, give our lives meaning and provide guidance and comfort in difficult times. As we discuss in the podcast, figuring out how to cultivate storytelling and other types of art — while somehow accommodating the social upheaval they inevitably give rise to — is critical. As Susan Biali says, “We cannot afford to waste human gifts. We need to learn how to nurture the creative nature.”

MoonWithTrainAfter the podcast, I went back and looked a little deeper into the etymologies of history and story. There is an unfortunate urban legend that history literally means, and comes from, the words “his story”, and while there is a faint glimmer of truth in that — and of course the deeper, more abstract truth, that what we call “history” is too often the story of what dead white guys were doing — the fact is that history and story have more to do with wizard than anything else. These are all the same word, at root; they ultimately arise from a term meaning one who is wise.

With wizard it’s most obvious: the Proto Indo European weid, meaning “to see” or “to know” descended into Proto Germanic as wisaz and Old English as wis. In Middle English it was combined with the suffix -ard, indicating one who is or does (as in coward, drunkard), and made to mean one who is wise — perhaps even too wise.

But in Greek, this same Proto Indo European root weid became his (“wise”), and was combined with tor (“one who is or does”) to mean, basically, wizard; and the term histor was often used to mean “old man, wise man, judge”. A historia, then, would be a tale told by such a wizard. It was borrowed directly into Latin, and thence into French, becoming estorie.

It was then borrowed twice by English — once to become history, and once to become story. For a long time these two words were just two versions of the same term, like want to and wanna, but eventually story (the less formal version) took on connotations of ficticiousness and frivolity and went its own way.

Spiritually both history and story share connotations of a fertile, abundant path through grounded, earthy territory, rounding up with powerful motion that ends in an expression of fortitude and stamina. The hi- at the beginning of history adds a depth of rootedness, of something arising from a hearth and home. It is this rootedness that gives history its peculiar power to give guidance, bind communities, and infuse our lives with meaning.

On the Meaning of Life

“In our life there is a single color, as on an artist’s palette, which provides the meaning of life and art. It is the color of love.” – Marc Chagall

“The meaning of life is that it stops.” – Franz Kafka

“Life is without meaning. You bring the meaning to it. The meaning of life is whatever you ascribe it to be. Being alive is the meaning.” – Joseph Campbell

“You will never be happy if you continue to search for what happiness consists of. You will never live if you are looking for the meaning of life.” – Albert Camus

“The tragedy of modern man is not that he knows less and less about the meaning of his own life, but that it bothers him less and less.” – Vaclav Havel

Does life have a meaning? If so, what is it? What is it that gives life meaning? And… should we care?

As is obvious from the quotes above, it’s a point of contention. Some people think that they have it figured out: life’s meaning is love or death or living or whatever. Or — more accurately — they think that love or death give life meaning; but they don’t say what that meaning is. Meanwhile, Albert Camus says that looking for life’s meaning will just make you unhappy; and Vaclav Havel implies that, even if that’s true, maybe living a meaningful life is more important than being happy.

Now, I’m not an expert on life; but as a linguist, I’m an expert on meaning. I know what meaning is, how words (and other things) get their meanings, and how those meanings can change over time and be different for different people. So even if I don’t know the meaning of your life, I can tell you how to give your life meaning.

There are basically three ways in which a word can have meaning:

  1. it refers to something concrete in the world, that we physically experience (like rock or run or happiness);
  2. it refers to a metaphorical extension or abstraction of a concrete experience (like rock-solid or running for office or happy accident);
  3. it refers to a relationship between a word of category (1) or (2) (like geology, an ongoing relationship between scientists and rocks).

How does this apply to life?

Well, because life is a concrete occurrence, it automatically has meaning in sense (1). We physically experience it; and the more conscious we are of that physical experience, moment by moment, the more meaning it has. This is a core teaching of Buddhism and many other contemplative traditions. It also reflects the quote by Joseph Campbell above.

As for (2): can life gain meaning by metaphor? Life itself is not really a metaphor for anything, but certainly many events in your life gain meaning by being metaphorical. If you are Catholic, for example, then eating the Eucharist is meaningful because you’re metaphorically eating Christ’s body (well, really you are in fact eating Christ’s body, but set that distinction aside…). Or if you set up a Christmas tree, an evergreen, to represent the continuation of life even in the dead of winter; or if you wear a religious symbol as jewelry; or if you collect souveniers that remind you of people or places important to you… All of these are meaningful acts and objects because of the power of metaphor.

And (3): can the events in your life gain meaning by being in relationship with something? Sure. The simplest kind of relationship is identity or similarity: if two things are the same, or alike, then they stand in relationship. So you can give meaning to something just by repeating it. Suppose you go to the same restaurant every week for dinner; or go to the same vacation spot every year. Just by going back again (and again), you give the event more meaning.

And life itself can gain meaning by being in relationship with… something else — something outside of life. Perhaps this is what Kafka was getting at, when he said that death gives life meaning; because life obviously has a relationship with death. What the relationship is, exactly, is unclear (does death set life’s boundaries? or does life continue after death? is death a kind of life? Does it give rise to life? etc.), but the relationship is undeniable, and that fact is enough to give life some kind of meaning.

But at some level, when people say they want to know the meaning of life, what they really mean is, “Why am I here?” They want to know that their existence matters; that their presence on Earth “makes a difference”. And this “mattering” or “making a difference” is just a kind of relationship. In other words, people want to know that their life has a relationship with something — anything — outside of itself. Perhaps this is why some people are so invested in the lives and accomplishments of their children. Even if their lives are meaningless, and their children’s lives are meaningless too, if the two lives are connected — if they have some kind of relationship — then suddenly meaning, of a sort, appears.

But is that really enough? Ideally you’d like to connect your life to something that itself has tremendous meaning — like some titanic struggle, or a god who has a great hidden purpose in mind, or a never-ending quest for knowledge and understanding. If you can convince yourself that these meaningful exterior things are meaningful enough in and of themselves, and you can establish a strong enough relationship between that and your own life, then maybe your own life will have great meaning, too.

Maybe. But when I’m tempted by these thoughts, I always remember Ozymandias.

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desart. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away. – Shelley, 1818

Perhaps the Buddhists have it right after all.

Faith, Fern, and Compass


I cannot express how incredibly excited I am about this: Alison and I have started back into podcasting in a big way! We’ve got a whole new web site and a whole new name: Faith, Fern, and Compass: Nature Spirituality in the Digital Age. Instead of posting randomly whenever we get around to it, we’ve got a solid weekly schedule; and instead of focusing on pagan matters, we’re shooting for a broad range of topics all over the spectrum. This week, for example, we ask: what do bullfrogs and barred owls have in common? Can poetry save the world? Who owns an ecosystem?

Beyond that, though, we’re also offering pro memberships, which get you all sorts of extra stuff, including a whole extra episode every week, and a pro extension to all the weekly free podcasts. For example, in this week’s pro extension, we ask: what is the true meaning of Genesis, and what does it have to do with Beltane?

Faith, Fern & Compass is not just a podcast. It’s a challenge.

  • A challenge to live more gently and attentively with the fierce joy, quiet sorrow and wild love of the earth.
  • A challenge to reconnect with ourselves and with one another in a time of rapid technological progress and cultural change.
  • A challenge to honor the ancient wisdom of the past while nourishing our sacred roots in the present and looking forward to the unfurling future.

Each week, co-hosts Alison Leigh Lilly and Jeff Lilly invite you to join them as they explore the challenges of nature spirituality in the digital age through ecology, art, politics and interfaith conversation. Become part of a growing community of spiritual seekers and creative contemplatives finding guidance in the wellsprings of personal experience, soulful relationship and the dark green tones of earth-centered spiritual practice.

And that’s just the free stuff.

Becoming a Pro Member not only lets you support your favorite podcast, it also means you get access to tons of exclusive content, discounts and other benefits, including:

  • Weekend Pro Episodes – a full episode each weekend just for Pro Members
  • Extended Weekday Episodes – an extended edition of the free podcast
  • Bonus Episodes – extra episodes during seasonal breaks
  • Free Album Downloads – delivered right to your email inbox at the end of each season
  • Members-Only Newsletter – full of news and updates, discount codes and specials on up-coming companion eBooks and album packages
  • Any other cool content we create along the way!

 

So head on over and check it out, folks!

Sodden Spring

Seattle, they say, is a rather wet city. But the last few days were sunny and warm, so I guess I was lulled into thinking (wishing? hoping?) that perhaps the worst of the showers were over. Late yesterday, in the golden late evening, Alison in a coat against the wind, and I in a light sweater, walked to the bicycle shop, a pleasant two miles away through neighborhoods abloom with daffodils and cherries and along the cedar-trimmed Green Lake. Her bike was waiting, freshly oiled and polished and adjusted and ready to go. I set out on foot for the return journey, while she rode in circles around me, testing her balance and getting back into the swing of riding after a two-year break. We made it less than a block before it started raining.

Seattle rain (in my limited experience of it) is generally gentle, misty, gusty, and fitful; it’s easily dealt with if you have a light coat. When the rain got harder and harder, I felt sure it would let up soon. But within five minutes it had turned into a serious downpour; and five minutes later, when the hail started, I told Alison to go on home, so that her bright bike wouldn’t suffer in the weather too much. I jogged soggily after her, my sweater quickly growing heavy and cold with the rain and ice. Surely it couldn’t go on like this much longer…!

Well, I was right, but by the time it let up, I was just a few blocks from home. As it turned out, Alison wasn’t far ahead, because the rain and darkness made it too dangerous to bike, and she’d had to walk most of the distance. When we got inside, panting and shivering and dripping icy water everywhere, Cu Gwyn did not approve at all.

Sodden is a delightful old word that goes back to Proto European seut, meaning “boil”. In Proto Germanic it became seuthanan, and in Old English seoþan; and this word eventually became modern English seethe. But the past participle of seoþan was soden; and this broke away from seethe and became an adjective in its own right, sodden. Since things that are boiled are also quite wet, sodden came to mean “soaked” as well as “boiled”. By the end of the 19th century, the “boiled” meaning was forgotten.

Sodden and sadden are similar in sound, and carry much the same phonosemantics: a promising fresh beginning, a turning point or doorway, and a fall to grounding and dissolution. While sadden carries the flat-ah vowel sound of sad, balanced and static, sodden has the short-o sound of sod, fundamental, Source, beginning. Despite its association with water, it is a word of returning to earth.

When Alison got out of the shower, she was beaming. “I think everyone remembers a day,” she said, “maybe in high school or college, when you went to a water park, or to a rainy soccer game or something, and you get totally soaking wet, and you had a fantastic time… I feel like that now.”

“Yup,” I said. “Busch Gardens, with the German club. May of 1991. I’ll always remember it.” The springtime of life, the springtime of the year, and the sodden blessing of rain on the earth.

The Toxic Society

I stumbled on an old, ignored piece of news the other day, which struck me powerfully. Apparently crime rates in the United States continue to plummet, despite the ongoing recession. While I had assumed that the drop in crime rate was related to our insanely high rate of incarceration, apparently that doesn’t really explain it. First off, most of the rise in prison population comes from non-violent offenders, and violent crime has dropped even faster than non-violent crime. Second, there are lots of other places around the world where crime has been dropping, and the incarceration rates there haven’t changed. Sociologists are either at a loss, or they have conflicting ideas, or they say it’s a combination of factors.

But a little-known economist, Rick Nevin, has a theory: a drop in lead poisoning. He applied a statistical model which tracked violent crime rates and lead poisoning in nine different countries over the course of the 20th century. Lead is a neurotoxin that reduces the ability of people to control their impulses.

“It is stunning how strong the association is,” Nevin said in an interview. “Sixty-five to ninety percent or more of the substantial variation in violent crime in all these countries was explained by lead.”

Through much of the 20th century, lead in U.S. paint and gasoline fumes poisoned toddlers as they put contaminated hands in their mouths. The consequences on crime, Nevin found, occurred when poisoning victims became adolescents. Nevin does not say that lead is the only factor behind crime, but he says it is the biggest factor…

Nevin says his data not only explain the decline in crime in the 1990s, but the rise in crime in the 1980s and other fluctuations going back a century. His data from multiple countries, which have different abortion rates, police strategies, demographics and economic conditions, indicate that lead is the only explanation that can account for international trends.

Because the countries phased out lead at different points, they provide a rigorous test: In each instance, the violent crime rate tracks lead poisoning levels two decades earlier.

“It is startling how much mileage has been given to the theory that abortion in the early 1970s was responsible for the decline in crime” in the 1990s, Nevin said. “But they legalized abortion in Britain, and the violent crime in Britain soared in the 1990s. The difference is our gasoline lead levels peaked in the early ’70s and started falling in the late ’70s, and fell very sharply through the early 1980s and was virtually eliminated by 1986 or ’87.

“In Britain and most of Europe, they did not have meaningful constraints [on leaded gasoline] until the mid-1980s and even early 1990s,” he said. “This is the reason you are seeing the crime rate soar in Mexico and Latin America, but [it] has fallen in the United States.”…

Nevin’s work has been published mainly in the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Research. Within the field of neurotoxicology, Nevin’s findings are unsurprising, said Ellen Silbergeld, professor of environmental health sciences at Johns Hopkins University and the editor of Environmental Research.

“There is a strong literature on lead and sociopathic behavior among adolescents and young adults with a previous history of lead exposure,” she said.

If this is true, it raises a lot of questions. Most obviously: what’s the best way to lower the crime rate? Maybe we should reduce funding for police forces, incarceration, etc., and concentrate everything we have on anti-lead environmental legislation. After all, it was just a few years ago that lead was found in toys imported from China; and lead has leeched into the earth and groundwater from underground gas canisters all over the country. And not just lead — it is an especially widespread neurotoxin, but it’s not the only one. What other poisons are we eating, drinking, and breathing?

Another question is: should we, as a society, regulate lead? The obvious answer is yes, but how, exactly? Should it be regulated on a state-by-state basis, or by the EPA? Or should there be international standards set by the UN? Or should there be a set of class-action lawsuits brought by states and individuals against lead-producing industries? Remember, the issue here is not so much whether such laws would be moral or just, but what would be the quickest, most effective way to eliminate lead poisoning. Outright bans are simple in theory, but they quickly get complex in practice, and they don’t always work.

But for me the most interesting question is: what does this say about the philosophical foundations of a free society? Because, since the time of Locke, it’s been assumed that individuals are independent agents with free will. Tyrants, dictators, and even philosopher-kings are morally wrong, because every human has the inalienable right to liberty. While we may be persuaded or dissuaded or coerced, ultimately all our decisions are our own responsibility; and thus we can vote as we wish, establish laws as we wish, speak as we wish, and so on. And if we break the laws of our society, whether because we feel they are wrong (civil disobedience) or for any other reason, we alone hold the responsibility for that decision and we alone must pay the consequences.

But all of this is clearly false. A child born into a lead-infused home, exposed to neurotoxins from birth, has been poisoned, and cannot be held fully responsible for their actions. In effect, their crimes are the result not of poor character, but of environmentally-induced mild insanity; and the solution is not incarceration, deterrence, or punishment, but treatment (if possible). Left untreated, should such a person be allowed to own or operate a gun? Should they be in any position of responsibility such as military or political service? Should they be allowed to vote? In other words, if they are not fully sane, can they really fulfill the social contract that a free society requires?

It would seem not. But here’s a sobering thought: how many of us are, in fact, suffering from environmentally-induced mild insanity? I myself grew up in the late 70’s, before most of the laws against lead in gasoline and paint went into effect. I have never committed a crime, but nor have I ever wanted to — I have different issues with impulse control. Of course, most people do. But maybe most people have been poisioned, to various degrees. Do we even know what a normal person would be like, anymore?

Maybe we really have all gone slightly crazy. How would we know?…

Wilderness Among Us

Alison and I have been spending a lot of time in Seattle’s parks this spring, and it got me thinking about the word park. It’s an old Proto-Germanic word, originally parruk, a type of enclosure for animals, such as a sheep pen. By the mid 13th century it was used more to refer to enclosures for animals that would be hunted; and in the 1660’s in London, these enclosures were most often areas that were kept semi-wild so that the nobility could easily hunt inside the city. The step from that meaning to “any preserved natural area” was a short one.

“Parking” vehicles comes from the early 19th-century usage of arranging military vehicles in a park. Spiritually park is an enclosed, firmly rooted Source energy, but one which holds much motion and power.

One of my pet peeves is an old joke that is supposed to illustrate how insane English is: “it’s the only language where you park on a driveway and drive on a parkway.” Ha ha! Oh, such wit. This chestnut even has its own facebook page (which I’m not going to favor with a link — you can find it yourself if you’re so inclined). Why does it peeve me? It’s just an innocent little quirk of the language, after all. And English is pretty crazy, am I right?

Sigh. See, I’m a linguist, and I study languages like ornithologists study birdsong. For me, a languages are beautiful, delicate structures built up organically over thousands and thousands of years. They aren’t just crazy random collections of rules and words; they evolved, and they do things for a reason. They contain some weird things, just as evolution does some weird things (like, why is the left half of the body controlled by the right side of the brain?), but there’s a reason.

We park on a driveway because a driveway is a way though a yard, or on a property, where we can drive. Sometimes we do park in it, too, but that’s just because we can never find time to clean out the garage. And we drive on a parkway because a parkway is a way for us to drive through a park, or at least a landscaped, green area. There are all sorts of lovely nuances in these words as well — the fact that the modifiers drive and park carve out the semantic space, distinguishing themselves by the function of the “way” and the location of the “way” respectively. You can also distinguish “ways” by speed (speedway, expressway), cost (freeway, tollway), size (broadway, alleyway), the type of vehicle or moving object (railway, motorway, bikeway, walkway, footway, headway), the distance (halfway, midway), what you do while traveling it (raceway, runway), the “surface” (waterway, airway, stairway, subway), direction or path (beltway, byway), the paving surface (causeway, from Latin via calciata, “paved way”), and how lovely it is (fairway). There are subtle rules for creating new compounds, too — if I tell you they’re installing a fishway on the dam, you probably wouldn’t bat an eyelash; but if I try and use a word like congressmanways to talk about the halls of Congress, you’d look at me like I’m nuts. You know, subconsciously, that “way” only works for regularly traveled paths, and it really likes to combine only with nouns of only one or maybe two syllables, accented on the first syllable for preference.

English isn’t crazy — it’s subtle and beautiful. You just have to be patient with it, respect it, and pay attention to it; then it will reveal its beauty.

Like birdsong. Like anything that’s wild.