Impressions

Who can say how we each gather impressions, catching hold of fragments we have read, seen, half-heard, or dreamed, to form our own vision of the world? There is a part of us that draws conclusions from a suggestion echoed in the mind, a story, a mood felt beneath the level of words. Hardly knowing it, we adjust our picture of reality by these impressions. If each of us, like a collage artist, has pasted together our mismatched pieces, how can we be sure of what the world is like? Who hasn’t felt the nagging fear that reality might turn out to be something different than he expected?

This is what is lovely in children; most don’t yet suspect a sham in their world. Theirs is, however, a fantastical world, pieced together by impressionable minds with few defenses and no larger vision against which to compare their ideas. We like to call this credulous quality in children “innocence,” but I would rather call it joy. Joy is the opposite of cynicism. And both joy and cynicism are framed pictures of reality, stances from which one may view the world.

For many of us this joy, like innocence, vanishes into memory somewhere along the path to adulthood, replaced by fear, bitterness, familiarity, and the conviction that life is hard. As we eat the fruit of knowledge and experience, we learn to mistrust others and our senses, to question and overturn. We see more of the horrors and futilities of the world.

Sometimes the happy dream of childhood is torn by a close death or betrayal. One of the first shocks that troubled my world was an intellectual one: Calvin’s doctrine of Predestination, taught in heavy doses in my junior high Sunday school class. To me the problem—how God could be good and life have meaning while everything is determined–was horrifying, and I struggled with the doctrine for years. It awakened my fear that the worst might be true, that the world might not hold together as I had thought. I felt that deception was reaching to the root of what I had thought was my own decision-making and essential self.

Over time, however, I found plenty of wise people who saw these same difficulties in the doctrine, and they suggested that something can be true and yet impossible to understand through rational explaining. Eventually, I made peace with Calvin, shelving his ideas in the shadowed realm of mystery, where maybe even angels dare not walk far. But I have felt the same dizzy feeling again and again, after an accident or tragic waste, or after reading satirists, materialist psychologists, reductionists, and postmodern philosophers: it is the feeling that I am peering through a rip in the happy fabric of my life, into an unexpected gulf.

Life is a battle between joy and cynicism. Often joy (that sense that all might be well, that we have found happiness) comes within reach. At some point in our intellectual maturing, this battle becomes a choice. It seems to me that this choice must be informed by both intellect and faith. It requires the strength to dismiss fear and to assent to a view of the world as a place where the beauty we find is meaningful, and where things hold together in a purpose we can’t see.

To yield even a little to cynicism is to admit room for meaninglessness, to resign oneself to the rips that could undo the whole fabric. We have a choice to believe the worst or catch hold of faith in the “Love that moves the sun and the other stars” (Dante), in the essential meaningfulness of the creation, and in its ultimate redemption to loveliness.

Recently, while I was reading Samuel Johnson’s Rasselas—part satire, part fable—I tasted that joy-killing fear. Rasselas tells the story of a young Abyssinian prince who is discontented with the lovely valley where he dwells in pampered imprisonment.  He escapes with his sister and a poet to see the world, to seek happiness, and to decide what to do with his life.  Rasselas has already found disappointment in pleasure and ease, but in his travels he discovers that all occupations and stations of life fail to bring happiness, and that all people, whether they admit it or not, are miserable, and their attempts at happiness are futile.  At the end, the adventurers decide that the best a person can do is seek virtue and wisdom and renounce the world’s joys; for it is only after death, when the vanities of the temporal world are gone, that the soul may be in any way happy.

The cynicism beneath satire like Johnson’s has always bothered me. I am still learning how to find the humor in it. But before I quit Rasselas, I thought about my reaction. I didn’t need to fear this novel that threatened to show happiness as a fake and to alter my picture of the world. I didn’t have to let gloomy old Sam Johnson drain life of its meaning. My battles with poorly taught Calvinism and with grim psychology textbooks had gained me a conviction that the joyful view of the world is more than just wishful thinking. I hold enough defined beliefs to react to the impressions I encounter and to match my own understanding of the world against this one.

I am of course assuming that things can be affirmed and denied about the world. One thing that I believe can be affirmed is that there is meaning and symbol in the material world: meanings we have only glimpsed and guessed at that go very deep. Those “trailing clouds of glory” Wordsworth remembers from childhood weren’t just in his imagination. Johnson may be right that happiness cannot be seized barehanded from worldly treasures, but I affirm, in spite of that great man’s intellect, that there are good things and happiness to be found in the world, when all is viewed with reference to the higher and more lovely Creator.  

It is good to grow up out of the childhood fantastical world; but the unself-conscious wonder, simplicity, eagerness, and trust that children lose foreshadows the joy we must regain as adults. Our education of children must be to bring them back around to a place where they can make decisions to accept or deny things–where they can make peace with intellectual issues and find a clear way to see the world. Parents often live in fear that their children are going to get strange and damaging notions from what they read, watch, and hear. They dread their loss of innocence, their fall into cynicism and the fading of that simple wondering joy. But the battles that ensue from the warring impressions and worldviews they meet are their only hope of finding solid ground.

If I were to formulate all this as an education philosophy, I would borrow George MacDonald’s words:

Everything in the world is more or less misunderstood at first: we have to learn what it is, and come at length to see that it must be so, that it could not be otherwise.  Then we know it; and we never know a thing really until we know it thus.
–Hope of the Gospel

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One thought on “Impressions

  1. I enjoyed this quite a bit, especially after watching *Tree of Life* last night. And Abby had conversation about phenomenology with Andrew and Rachel at the Brewery the other evening that I think also feeds into this discussion–we interact with the world (even things we just observe) in ways that change us AND the things observed.

    As for the “sheltering” idea, I think part of it is that the intensity of things out there in the world can be too much for an immature mind and body and spirit to withstand, and it can drown out the truth so that the young person becomes oblivious to the still, quiet voice in the din of the world. I think of a teen raised outside the Church who declared that *The DaVinci Code* was the best book he’d ever read. How very much he’s missing, on how very many levels.

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