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Of Worms and Wisdom

I consulted the oracle recently. I mean, why not? The times we find ourselves in are as incomprehensible as they are disheartening for some of us at least, and we can only have faith in Bob Dylan’s vision that the times are indeed a-changin’.

My oracle of choice is the I Ching, the 3000-year-old Chinese Book of Changes. To be clear, I am not a scholar of Chinese literature, and my knowledge concerning the I Ching is—being charitable to myself—superficial. Nevertheless, part of the charm of the I Ching is that its insight and richness of interpretation are accessible to anyone with the power to imagine, scholars and skimmers alike.

I approached the oracle with a vague question at heart of how to make sense of this moment in my life when it seems that much of what I have held dear as social progress for over sixty years of my lifetime is being systematically torn apart.

The I Ching deals in images; answers are in the realm of the observer. What the I Ching “means” rests with how its images are interpreted. Thus, the interpretation says much about the observer beyond any objective truth supplied by the image itself and any textual explanation served up in the Book.

My post-Christmas consultation yielded two randomly-generated images (hexagrams). The first, at first, seemed only to mirror my malaise. It was Ku, the image of decay. The Chinese character ku, the translator says, represents “a bowl in whose contents worms are breeding.” Yes, I get the picture. In the United States today, we find ourselves mired in a bowl of worms.

Yet, the hexagram also has a hopeful interpretation, which is that what has been spoiled through the indifference of men and women in the face of the inertia of those in positions of political power can be made good again through work toward improving conditions. It is not immutable fate that has brought us into this worm-ridden bowl, but rather, the “abuse of human freedom.” Ultimate success depends on deliberation: “Decisiveness and energy must take the place of inertia and indifference.” Wrapped within the image is the idea that every end may be followed by a new beginning.

A few days later, I checked in with the ancient oracle, which this time rewarded me the hexagram Fêng, or Abundance. The image is one of greatness and abundance—a period of advanced civilization—produced by clarity amidst movement. Fêng is an image of arousing thunder outside and a flame of clarity within. Yet, a condition of abundance is extraordinary and cannot be maintained permanently. The essential thing is, at heart, to believe in the power of truth.

The image here does not seem to be a reflection of the times as they are. It seems instead to be a vision of times as they may yet again be. It is an image of abundance with an asterisk, for amidst the energy of abundance is the knowledge that times of abundance are often brief. To press the sustain pedal on the chord of those times requires a kind of joy coupled with wisdom.

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Some other stuff for later,

  • 74
    BILL. Do you folks have a faith? JEANETTE. We’re spiritual but we’re not part of any organized religion. … BILL. Neil, what about you? NEIL. My parents were agnostics. BILL. But do you have any kind of belief? NEIL. I’m not sure, Bill, when you say that you believe in…
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    I wondered sometimes whether I would lead my life any differently if I knew how old I was. It was a question not unique to exile, but in the time of exile, age was defined by death. At a younger age death had been more abstract than it now seemed.…
  • 47
    She surprises me every time she shows her face, and yet she has always been with me. Now that I am in exile, I know that she is closer, though perhaps she has always been this close. It may be that the only thing that is different now is that…

The Question of Belief

BILL. Do you folks have a faith?

JEANETTE. We’re spiritual but we’re not part of any organized religion.

BILL. Neil, what about you?

NEIL. My parents were agnostics.

BILL. But do you have any kind of belief?

NEIL. I’m not sure, Bill, when you say that you believe in something, it means that you’ve been given enough evidence to accept it as fact.

[Jane Anderson, The Quality of Life]

Like Neil, I am not sure that I have any kind of belief. My parents might have been agnostics, although they were Unitarians, so I couldn’t tell. I do not believe in God, gods or goddesses–unless gods and goddesses are never more than metaphors.

I do not believe in heaven or hell as destinations in an afterlife. For that matter, I don’t believe in any kind of afterlife.

Tribalistic rituals of any kind make me uncomfortable. I was never baptized.

I am not, in Jeanette’s words, “part of” any organized religion.

Despite my woeful lack of religiosity, I believe in simple ethical rules of right and wrong. Kindness is good. Empathy is good. Murder and thievery are wrong. Racism is abhorrent.

I believe that I am a good person. Like most people, I was not cut to perfection. I made mistakes. I have regrets. I never wanted to be saintly, and I imagine that I disqualified myself for a halo long ago.

Is goodness, like beauty, in the eye of the beholder?

I believe that imperfections make people interesting.

I do not have religion, whether the old-time kind or new age-y. But am I, like Jeanette, spiritual? I believe that spirituality transcends religion. Spirituality seems larger than rules of right and wrong. Spirituality seems larger than morality. There is something about spirituality that I cannot quite reach.

Should I cultivate spirituality in my life? Questions about spirituality have rested unanswered in my mind for as long as I can remember, certainly for all of my adult life. Was there a now-forgotten crisis of the soul that called these questions to my mind? I have allowed myself to ignore questions of belief and questions of spirituality, and these questions remain unanswered in the final third of my life.

I find myself now in this strange landscape where there is more space to think about questions that I never need to answer.

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Some other stuff for later,

  • 74
    I consulted the oracle recently. I mean, why not? The times we find ourselves in are as incomprehensible as they are disheartening for some of us at least, and we can only have faith in Bob Dylan’s vision that the times are indeed a-changin’. My oracle of choice is the…
  • 63
    I was a spiritual skeptic. I believed that compassion and kindness were good things, but I doubted that spirituality had anything to do with it. My sense of morality had its origins in my childhood experiences, the influence of my parents—who somehow managed to teach me right from wrong—and the…
  • 57
    I wondered sometimes whether I would lead my life any differently if I knew how old I was. It was a question not unique to exile, but in the time of exile, age was defined by death. At a younger age death had been more abstract than it now seemed.…