Friday, January 10, 2014

Wisdom Mischief, 1

While in Winnipeg for the holidays, I made the usual stop(s) at McNally-Robinson's bookstore. I can't help but notice my book-browsing is subtly changing as I advance in years. For at least three decades, my pattern of interest ran on a rail: start with comic books, move to science fiction, then fiction, then branch out from there. As I flail through the closing days of my fifth decade, I don't give those shelves more than a cursory glance.

I now find myself drawn to the less-savoury side of the bookstore. Science. Religion. Even Self-Help.

I think my curiosity in those earlier fields has been mostly satisfied. There continue to be items of interest in comics — now more than ever, really. But if it's not available in a digital format, I'll borrow it from the library. And if it's not there, forget it. My house isn't large enough to accommodate comic books.

As for the sci-fi bookshelf, that's something of a perverse curiosity these days, isn't it? Our best and brightest spec-fic writers are gazing with greater intensity at the rear-view mirror than they are at any “forward” projection. I certainly don't begrudge them this — I'm in the same boat. If there's any persistent cause for embarrassment in my 10 years of blogging, it's noting just how far behind the trailing edge my observations on technological innovation reside.*

And fiction, well . . . I've fallen so far behind on catching up with The Greats that my interest in the young and innovative is sputtering on fumes. If I ever finish 2666 I'll maybe pick up Murukami. Or maybe I'll finally tackle War & Peace instead.

Anyway, the store devoted a small table to a new translation of The Tibetan Book Of The Dead, which caught my eye and stirred my curiosity. It's been about 20 years since I last tried reading it — maybe a new translation would help me finish the job this time. Also, I figure I'm closer to my particular End Point than I've ever been (assuming my intuition of time is correct), so my interest in the topic is certainly more acute.

I leafed through it. The visions and exhortations remained as inscrutable to me as they were in the older translation. Then I thought, Why would I entertain another culture's Wisdom Tradition when I have my own cultural Wisdom Tradition?

Which is what, exactly?

Mennonites have been a “thing” for nearly half-a-millennium, but good luck trying to articulate a consistent body of wisdom to usher you out of this mortal coil. My superficial observation of the Mennonite life-cycle might be expressed as: you work until you can't; you attend to the needs and health of your family, then your community; you worship on Sunday morning, and participate in a Bible study on a weeknight; when your health fails, your pastor will help you and your family in prayer, and meditations on the Psalms; someone will probably be beside you when you breath your last.

Well . . . a superficial summary deserves a superficial retort. Ms. Peggy Lee:

A (slightly) less superficial retort might be, It may not look like much, but it works.

Still, I'm haunted by a bemused kvetch I overheard from a Catholic priest: “My most affluent parishioners are inevitably the ones who call me from their deathbeds, requesting a 36-hour crash course in the work they should have been devoting their lives to.”

The good Father did not elaborate on this (within my hearing range, anyway). But God knows we Mennonites — on this continent, at least — are an affluent bunch. Protestant Reformation is all (or mostly, or in some aspects markedly) well and good, but what sort of “work” might we — out of laziness or hubris, or some combination thereof — be avoiding?

*I see here that I was underwhelmed by the introduction of the Xbox 360. Now that I finally understand its appeal, Microsoft has gone and replaced it with a platform that utterly baffles me. Who in their right mind wants a camera in their living roomIn five years or so I'll probably change my tune — just in time to be baffled by the Xbox One's replacement.


Joel said...

I've read this, and some of your previous musings on mortality, with interest.
You've got about 10 years on me, I believe, so it is perhaps a topic you have more right to reflect on than I do. However I do find it occupies more of my thoughts than it did 10 years ago (back when it seemed like aging was something that only happened to other people, and that time and youth were something to take for granted).
My own thoughts are not coherent enough to justify writing down, other than to say I'm not sure death is something that needs to be prepared for. I believe you should live life with a purpose so that you'll have few regrets as you age, but I'm not sure you need to prepare for death the way your catholic priests. I mean once you're dead, you're dead. You won't be around to bemoan the fact that you didn't prepare for death as thoroughly as you should have.
Granted, much of this depends on what you think is on the other side of death. And I have no idea. But I'm fairly sure your Roman Catholic priest doesn't know either. And if he claims he does, he's lying.

Darrell Reimer said...

I mostly agree with you. I've had conversations with people about what they want done at their funeral. I remember a guy in High School saying he wanted everybody to sit and listen to 'Dark Side Of The Moon' at his. I thought, You're spending way too much thought on what others should do after you're dead, and way too little thought on how to enjoy the day. More recently there's been discussion of which hymns (if any). When it came to me, I said, "Go ahead and sing 'Happy Birthday' if it makes you feel better. I won't be around to care." But some of this is about giving some shape to how we are remembered after we are gone, and hymns (and classic rock albums) are common touchstones that contribute some structure to that shape.

Getting back to Happy Birthday, I didn't spend much time preparing myself for my birth, and things turned out alright for that. I kinda-sorta expect dying to be similar.

Except, except ... there were one or two doctors to help me into this world; likely there will be a few sawbones attending to my exit. And the priest wasn't making any grand claims about The Other Side, but rather to a way of being that (I extrapolate, here) better attended to the moment than the blithe materialists of our day commonly do. Live with attention and humility, and your exit is likely to be somewhat smoother. That's certainly what Epicurus advocated, and I'm a big fan of the modest Greek -- even if I'm too much the blithe materialist to qualify as a disciple.