On Love, Semantic Preference, Insight and Violets

Hilary Putnam suggests that “What is wrong is that Nature, or ‘physical reality’ in the post-Newtonian understanding of the physical, has no semantic preferences.” That is, there is no one way or right way or best way to speak/write. There are only more or less helpful ways and they are all contingent on context.

This represents, for me, a fairly grueling hill to climb, yet it makes a point dear to my heart (if difficult to embody in a lived way), and so it is worth the ascent.

this past summer’s violets

We are haunted by separation – self/other, self/world, sign/signified, soul/body, here/there et cetera. Duality pervades our experience – appears to be our experience – and with it comes a longing to unify or transcend or undo or bypass the various dichotomies through which dualism asserts itself. We want falling in love to complete us, want to be “one” with God, et cetera.

Yet all our attempts at unifying, transcending, undoing and bypassing – insert your verb of choice here – end up confirming (conforming to) the very divide they aim to go beyond.

Part of the problem is that the world and the other all arise by virtue of distinctions that are descriptive and are thus contingent on language. Words sever and curtail. Perception is a cut, and language is a cut (and good luck trying to figure out which comes first). Looking for the bottom or the edge – or the beginning or the end – is like wandering through a hall of mirrors after a few hits of acid.

God – the Whole, the Beginning-and-End, the Source, Brahmin, Void, et cetera – is not partial to any language or ritual or cultural expression. Nor does God embrace each and every one of them, as if in a show of cosmic unity. The Whole, as such, is sufficiently beyond our ken, in a way that makes all our languaging, ritualizing and expressing divinely irrelevant.

Thus, we are welcome to play our spiritual games, but they are games. They are play. And – critically – they are non-zero-sum games. There are no winners or losers. It’s more like we’re just dancing, from dusk to dawn, partner to partner, song to song. It’s messy, glorious, exhausting, fun, social, tedious, lonely, prayerful et cetera. And it has no point beyond its own play, beyond its own expression. You stagger out of the dance hall only to learn that it’s dance halls all the way down. Allamande left!

One of many ways to approach the dance is to adopt a spiritual language and practice that is helpful, where helpfulness is measured by its capacity to make us consistently happy, where “happy” is more or less synonymous with “coherent” and where “coherent” means “I know it’s a dance, and I’m okay it’s a dance, and my knowing and okayness are a form amongst other forms of me dancing.”

{I know that previous paragraph is a mouthful but it works}

Another way to frame this is to ask what allows us to go slowly and cheerfully through our living, without wishing it were some other living, while simultaneously doing what we can to make this living more happy, viable, open, just, sustainable for all beings with whom this living is shared.

This is an invitation to a spirituality that does not insist on its own primacy but only on its relative viability (i.e., it is open, not closed) and – critically, fundamentally – it accepts the complexity and uncertainty and responsibility posed by this openness.

In essence, I am decrying any easy unities or pluralisms, e.g., “we’re all human” or “all religions share the same goals.” We aren’t and they don’t. Since it is impossible to separate context from observer-of-context, agent from world-in-which-agent-acts, glib statements which effectively flatten out all difference in the interest of some pure objectivity or absolute are not viable. In fact, they are a form of violence. Beware the preacher extolling them.

For example, my experience and practice and espousal of A Course in Miracles is not consonant with lots of other serious students. At some point me and ACIM together passed a rubicon that most ACIM students either don’t want or don’t need to cross. Fair enough! Yet the passing – and what occurred on its far side – remains generative in my living. Thus, what nurtures me leaves another hungry. Any move to avoid or ignore this difference functions as an injustice to both poles.

Yet at the same time we are not allowed to simply enshrine any and all differences under the rubric of casual relativism. “Hey if it works for you . . . ” If what works for me is doing violence unto others, in any form, then it has to be ended, healed, repaired, and otherwise brought to love. When “hey if it works for you” tacitly allows violence to go on unimpeded, then it, too, becomes a form of violence. It’s nice to pretend that we aren’t the ones strangling whales with plastic refuse but . . . we are the ones strangling whales with plastic refuse.

{Yes that did escalate quickly}

So a kind of vigilance is called for and a kind of intelligence, because we are simultaneously judging and not judging others. It’s complicated. We are going to make mistakes. We are going to get called out. And we’re going to have to deal with all that.

It’s so much easier to just go on picnics with self-help Jesus and like-minded folks who share our sense of order – hikes, bluets and brook trout, New Testament over Old Testament, Emily Dickinson over Walt Whitman, “over” instead of “and” et cetera . . .

{note the last critical distinction – “over” instead of “and” – *and imagine a spiritual practice predicated on noticing when we use one rather than the other – and on evaluating the use – and on being both capable of shifting and willing to shift accordingly}

I am thinking here of something Donna Haraway wrote in “A Cyborg Manifesto.”

Some differences are playful; some are poles of world historical systems of domination. ‘Epistemology’ is about knowing the difference.

“Knowing the difference” is a learning process, including trial and error, study and dialogue, periods of silent reflection, abiding in confusion, relationship with teachers and fellow students and ex-teachers and ex-students and wanna-be students and teachers and . . .

Along lines implied by Haraway, I suggest that functional spirituality is in the nature of a learning process, one that we did not begin and should not expect to see the end of because it is fundamentally Protean, reflexive, circular, ever spiraling hither and yon. A lot of our unhappiness and acting out arises from insisting – sometimes consciously, often unconsciously – on linearity and absolutism. But linearity is a description of experience, not a law, and certainly not the law. There is – for there is always – another way.

For example, I prefer the blooming violet to the blank white snows of winter, yet beneath that cold flat surface of January, the violet, in its way, lives and enacts – in what to me is darkness, mystery, void – its return. On that view, why hate winter? It’s just violets another way, sort of like looking at your dog or child the side. Same person, different view, but your love doesn’t change.

Yet it is also possible to mow over the violets again and again, a sort of murder, so that they cannot reseed themselves, cannot return, and their absence is no longer “violets another way” but rather “not violets.” Their absence is deliberately constructed and intentionally enacted and – for me anyway – it hurts. For me, it constitutes an act of violence I cannot – will not – countenance.

The difference between violets in spring and violets in winter is – deploying Haraway’s construction – a playful difference, for it is not devoid of living. You see that? While the difference implied by repeated mowing is not playful because it ends the violets.

Let me say diverge for a moment on the subject of violets, for they are vital to my understanding of what I am trying to say here with respect to spirituality, God, self and so forth.

When we moved to this place, the remnants of an apple orchard dotted the northwest corner of the property – six trees, two of which were dead, a third of which was all-but-dead. Other trees appeared to have been cut down in previous decades but nobody really knew. The ghost of an old farm haunts the landscape but it’s been severed and sold and zoned so often, even the ghost has a hard time finding its bearings.

The little orchard, as such, was overgrown. It was dense and tangled. Maple saplings had taken hold; thimbleberry and goldenrod crowded the trees. A previous owner had tossed empties there: countless Bud Light cans shined in the underbrush like big blue sequins.

We cut down the two dead trees and all the maple saplings (I say saplings – a couple were more than seventy feet tall). Over the next year or so, I cleared the space – hacking and raking, collecting trash. The year after that, it was clear enough to mow, so I did.

By the end of that year, we had a decent apple harvest, and the space was green and open. We put lawn chairs there so we could watch the horses.

Next Spring, the violets came.

Purple is the union of red and blue and generally when I encounter it, a quiet sense of holiness abides. Plus, I like pretty things, especially flowers, and watching anything grow – a chicken, a tomato plant, an apple tree – quiets some interior discord. So it was easy to mow around those violets. It was therapeutic in a religious sense. It mattered.

But a funny thing happened. Next year there were more violets – like a small community of them. It was like somebody had seeded a little church. And so the space that went unmowed enlarged. And the year after that – which is this year – the space enlarged yet again and – to my delight and amazement – another patch of violets emerged about twenty yards east of the original patch. The violets are traveling, propogating, and their travel is amplified in my joy and wonder which, in turn, nurtures their expansion.

The suggestion I make here is that attention to the violets, as outlined above, and attention to attention to the violets, is a form of life-giving playfulness that gets at what I suggest is “helpful spirituality.”

The violets appear as other to me. They are alive and possessed of agency. In making space for them, I am also in nontrivial ways making space for my own self, my own living, my own agency. Else why would I be so happy?

But of course, nurturing the violets is a decision. By entering into relationship with the violets, other relationships are curtailed. For example, if I mowed more rigorously in that space, then dandelions might proliferate. Or we could plant another apple tree, or some blueberry bushes.

In attending the violets in and with love, the intention is to attend as well the space in which all-that-violets-are-not also dwells. The absent blueberry bushes, the absent dandelions . . . My play necessarily excludes them but if I recall them, then my play is mature because it is not ignorant. It accepts responsibility for itself. Since I cannot have everything – the Whole – then I must choose the part – the partner for the dance – and accept responsibility for my choice, and then love / dance accordingly.

If I put the violets at the center – a choice I make – then mowing them becomes an unacceptable form of violence. Yet if dandelions were central, then another approach would be viable.

We choose our living – and by our choosing construct our living – and a field of ethics emerges. Context brings forth responsibility. Knowing and living and loving are all situated, embodied, consequential. There is no one right way, and yet the movement is forever towards love and happiness and coherence, and so there are more and/or less helpful ways, and our living must attend to them in responsive and responsible ways.

Of course, the dialogue is relatively simple when we are talking about violets rather than blueberry bushes, but when we are choosing economic policies that oppress women, or military policies that make whole swathes of the planet unsafe for children . . .

Then it becomes messy. And complex. And recourse to simple utterances – “God is One” or “I am not a body I am free” and so forth – tend to function as blindfolds. They tend to promote the illusion of a knowable God, whose privileged vantage point can be ours if we only believe/act/profess rightly. Thus, they become lacunae in which seeds of confusion and pain take root.

They become utterances behind which we avoid responsibility for our choices, by which our spirituality becomes a bland patina of “I’m okay” rather than a deep dive with open arms and open hearts into uncertainty, ambiguity, complexity, difference that constitutes living . . .

The self-improvement or self-help project – which neatly swallowed A Course in Miracles – and was itself neatly swallowed by Patriarchal Capitalism – always promotes the abstraction of a perfect completed subject, which we translate as our own self raised to glorious perfection in both body and thought.

But attention – which is the light of Christ, in the semantics I adopt as most viable for me presently – reveals not only what is lovely in us (and others) but also reveals our inadequacy, despondence, infidelity, greed, selfishness . . .

Perfection, as such, is the vague grail that keeps us forking over our living – materially and otherwise – to a system bent only on depriving us of the only thing that matters, which is our living, our messy beautiful frustrating gorgeous ecstatically mutual living.

The suggestion is that we let go of those abstract ideals – the idealized self, the God taking a personal interest in us, the sanitized Jesus and Buddha, the easy spiritual outs, and take the hand of our kin – who are not family but with whom we share affinity, who are our kind – and together, in ways that resonate and cohere for us in our shared hand-holding, bring forth love.

This will be clumsy and inefficient and will almost certainly appear irrelevant but so be it. In our togetherness, we will remember how to be happy by making others happy, and perhaps recall some other ways of being that will be useful going forward.

So I wonder if in the end we are not like the violets?

They appeared out of nowhere. Yes, there is a handy story that explains their appearance (but note biology is a discourse about life not life itself), but it doesn’t comply with experience, which is that I cleared some land thinking “apple orchard” and was unexpectedly met with “violets.”

By all accounts the violets do not know me even though it is literally my indulgence and attention that allows them to live and thrive. And lest I become too self-righteous – Sean the God and Savior of Violets – I must remember that I cannot say who or what countenances my own existence. Who or what indulges me? Attends me? Takes pleasure in me?

I have thoughts and opinions about answers to those questions, but any answer I offer is necessarily partial and thus does not fully settle the question.

In these ways, for these reasons, the gap between me and the violets shrinks, becomes almost unnoticeable, and certainly less dispositive than it once seemed. We are all lovely, we are all processual, we are all giving – and being given – attention.

Did I bring the violets forth? Did the violets bring me forth? Are we together brought forth by God – the deliberate God of Christianity? The blind functionary of evolution? Or some other Holiness/Wholeness altogether? Or not?

And does it matter? For when I finish writing, I will wander out back to check on the garden, throw hay to the horses. I’ll visit the violets. I’ll come back in and tend to the sourdough starter and make a pot of tea to see Chrisoula and me through the afternoon. Is this not love? Is this not service? Is this not enough?

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  1. Good Morning Sean,

    I seem to remember you are not a fan of Ms. Oliver’s, but after reading your blog yesterday and having this just cross my path, I was moved to invite her to the dance.
    ~ Cheryl
    Yes! No!

    by Mary Oliver

    How necessary it is to have opinions! I think the spotted trout
    lilies are satisfied, standing a few inches above the earth. I
    think serenity is not something you just find in the world,
    like a plum tree, holding up its white petals.

    The violets, along the river, are opening their blue faces, like
    small dark lanterns.

    The green mosses, being so many, are as good as brawny.

    How important it is to walk along, not in haste but slowly,
    looking at everything and calling out

    Yes! No! The

    swan, for all his pomp, his robes of grass and petals, wants
    only to be allowed to live on the nameless pond. The catbrier
    is without fault. The water thrushes, down among the sloppy
    rocks, are going crazy with happiness. Imagination is better
    than a sharp instrument. To pay attention, this is our endless
    and proper work.

    1. Thanks for reading & sharing, Cheryl. I do love Mary Oliver – she is such a clear writer, with such a deep understanding of how self and world are one life, one movement. I’ve been grateful for her for years – thanks for bringing her here.

      ~ Sean

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