I got a call from Stuart last night. We don’t see each other in person as much as we used to, partly because of the virus, but mostly because we are old and long drives or flights are really hard on the knees.
“I read your piece on threes,” he said (link here), “and I had a realization. In the past, you’ve written a lot about how we are all really two people — the public person, who is just one of seven billion others and of no real significance in the big scheme of things; and the interior person, who is the hero of our own story, and therefore central in existence.”
“Yes,” I said.
“And so, that is one more binary system, like hot and cold, or tall and short, or inside and outside. Our brains seem to like to divide things into pairs of opposites. Even though, as you say, hot and cold or tall and short are really just the same thing, relative to each other.”
“Yes, that old, who is the shortest giant or the tallest dwarf. The sunspot is a cold spot on the sun, but it is still thousands of degrees Fahrenheit.”
“I think what you said was there’s the burning end of a cigar, and the cold end, but there’s really only one cigar.”
“Yes,” I acknowledged that I once said something of the sort — my gloss on the Tao.
“But, I realized the experience of being alive can equally be seen as made up of three parts,” Stuart said. “The experience, I say — the way we experience our lives.
“In the old days,” he continued, “we would call those three things ‘Man,’ ‘Nature,’ and ‘Soul,’ but those terms are freighted with religion and gender bias. I don’t like them. So, instead, I call them ‘humankind,’ ‘the universe,’ and ‘the psyche.’ These three elements encompass our experience.”
“And ‘Nature’ conjures up too much flowers and trees and birds and bees,” I said. “It’s a term too cuddly for what you mean here, right?”
“Absolutely. I mean something closer to what Werner Herzog says about nature — the indifferent violence and coldness of the cosmos.
“Let me take them one at a time,” Stuart said. “What I’m labeling as ‘Humankind’ is the societal and political mix, the way we fit into the ordering of the welter of human population. It includes such things as relationships — father and son, husband and wife, pastor and congregation, lord and serf, American and foreigner, really all of them you can name. It is what is between people.
“This is essentially the same as your ‘just one of seven billion’ and is the public part of our existence. We are taxpayers, we are Catholics (or atheists), we are Tarheels or Mainers, we are children or senior citizens, Tory or Labor — “
“You’re getting kind of binary on me,” I said.
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to. But these are all those interpersonal roles we have to play out daily and throughout our lives.
“And none of any of this does the universe care a fig about. The universe is vast and operates on its own schedule and according to its own rules, none of which consider our human needs or desires. It is the universe that throws the dice as to whether we are born male or female; it is the universe that makes us work in the day and sleep at night; the universe that ends our life when it will. We think we have so much control, but in reality, we are able to nudge the universe only infinitesimally this way or that. In the last degree, the universe will do whatever it does. We don’t count.”
“It is the universe that took my Carole away from me five years ago. I had no choice.”
“Exactly,” Stuart said. “It’s something we just have to live with. The universe is an essential part of our experience of being alive and we accommodate to it. It makes no accommodation to us.
“Then, there is the inner life we lead, as important as the other two, perhaps more important. It is not only the sense of ourselves as ourselves, but also, all the unconscious trash that we have to deal with that’s buried in the braincase, like superstition, hard-wired evolutionary neuronal structuring, the forgotten traumas of childhood that govern our choices in ways we’ll never know about, even that drive to see the world in patterns, patterns which may or may not actually be there.”
“Like constellations in the night sky,” I said.
“Our brains force us to find patterns, it’s all part of the psyche.”
“But isn’t there some overlap in your system?” I asked. “You say, for instance, that family relationships are part of the ‘humankind’ portion of experience, but isn’t family also an archetype, a part of the built-in wiring of the psyche?”
“In the terms I’m speaking of, I’m considering these as two separate things: the public understanding of family as a civic unit on one side; and the archetype of family as a mythic unit on the other. They may share a name, but they are very different things. There are quite a few examples of ideas that are seen differently through one of these three different lenses. There are even those who believe ‘family’ is a universal truth, although we know historically, families are constituted differently at different times in different cultures.
“I expect you could look at most things through one of these different lenses and find quite different results. Even the ‘individual’ has a political significance that is different from its psychic significance. To say nothing of its insignificance in the wider universe.”
“But there is a significance to the universal individual,” I said. “It is the ancient problem of the one and the many. The universe may be infinite, but it is still made up of individual parts, be they people, planets, muons or quarks. Each may be observed separated from the matrix.”
“I’m seeing it all through the psychic lens,” Stuart said. “And not through the objective lens of science. I’m talking about our experience of being alive. And looking up at the starry night sky can be understood through each of these lenses. As a societal matter, you are an astronomer in your social role, or you are a dreamer wasting time. Through the universal lens, you are an utterly insignificant speck of organic dust …”
“Or, you are the universe looking at itself.”
“Perhaps. But through the psychic lens, you are the center of the universe, and it all revolves around you, certainly out of your reach, but the psychic center of the universe is yourself — each of us his or her own center.”
“And you are knocked out of your ego-centered reverie, when you get a jury summons, throwing you back into the social web,” I said. “Or getting a traffic ticket, or punching in at work.”
“And getting knocked from that reverie when the universe sends you the message that arthritis is chaining up your knuckles, or that your once-new car is rusting out in its undercarriage.
“None of these three lenses is sufficient. We need them all out in our full selfhood, but they are each there, nonetheless, and can be teased out and thought about separately. I think a healthy personality keeps them all in balance. A juggling act.”
We talked about many other things, we usually do. It went on for about an hour. But this was the gist of the phone call, what I thought might be interesting to share. I miss Stuart and Genevieve in person. We had such good times. Isolation is not good. A curse on the universe for making us get old and for giving us viruses.