Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Taming Human Nature

This morning a vivid image came to my head as I was walking home in the rain after dropping my boys off at preschool.

Imagine that pleasure and pain are the same thing: emotion.  Now imagine that your soul is a nice little valley, and emotion is a large river running through it (providing fresh water, fish and other wildlife, hydropower, etc.).  Naturally, the nature of the river Emotion is going to vary over time.  Sometimes, when the winter snows melt or heavy rains fall, the river will become rough and turgid, rising up and flooding the valley of Soul with dark water.  It will destroy things.  Other times it will be smooth, clear, and peaceful.  It will create things.

Human nature is to observe things and react.  We see the river Emotion.  We observe how it changes over time, and we naturally want to minimize the harm its flooding causes and maximize the good that comes from its calm.  For some of us, this means building a giant dam to hold it back (and maybe release some of its energy in a controlled fashion to accomplish some specific tasks, like creating energy for the community and washing out wastes from the artificial lake created by the dam).  There is nothing inherently wrong with this approach, nothing at all.  But not all rivers are easily dammable (because nature makes each valley unique), and sometimes damming brings unexpected consequences (drastically altering the environment in the soul valley in ways that might be worse for its health than some seasonal flooding).

In my valley of Soul, I built the strongest dam I could come up with.  I followed the best blueprints I could find to construct a wall that would tame the river Emotion completely and indefinitely.  But my river was not one of those easy to dam.  The artificial lake I created became a breeding ground for bad things, anxieties that festered and spread like noxious algae, poisoning the atmosphere of my little soul valley.  Then, to make matters worse, my perfect dam began to leak.  At first, the leaks were small and manageable: all I needed to clean them up were a few Dutch boys with some basic engineering skills.  But as time progressed, the viability of this maintenance crew proved less and less, until one day, the dam broke, and my valley was hit with the flood of the century.

The flood utterly destroyed my old dam, along with many of the improvements and opportunities that that dam afforded.  Because of this experience, I was obliged to rethink everything I thought I knew about soul valleys (mine in particular) and dams.  I went back to the drawing board, with a new team of engineers, since my Dutch boys had no clue what had happened or what to do about it (other than rebuild the old dam and hope that the recent flood was simply a fluke).  As I rethought things and consulted with new engineers, I learned many things about the nature of soul valleys and emotional rivers (my own and those elsewhere in universe of humanity).

Meanwhile, my valley began to recover from the massive flooding.  Life returned to an equilibrium.  Time passed, and I still had not replaced the old dam.  I had spent years in terror of what would happen to me without the protection of that dam, of the seasonal flooding that some said would utterly destroy life in my valley.  As it turned out, the seasonal floods were nothing compared to the collapse of the dam: my valley recovered nicely from them.  In fact, they were actually kind of pleasant, a much tamer version of the wild water that destroyed the dam.  Also, I realized that the environment was much better without that great stagnant lake of fear around, the lake whose black darkness the dam had created and then vomited all over my valley of Soul.  Why remake that lake, I wondered to myself?

Everything I heard from the engineers convinced me that my valley was always going to be flooded at one time or another, and it seemed to me that regular seasonal floods were much easier to manage (and much more pleasant) than occasional tsunamis.  The deciding factor in my decision not to rebuild the dam was how lovely life without the lake was, though.  Some people like lakes.  Some lakes are really quite likable.  But mine wasn't.  I did not like it.  Why rebuild something unnecessary and unpleasant?  People who like artificial lakes in their soul valleys are always telling me how much fun they have in them, how they make so many nice and convenient things possible (advanced hydropower, irrigation, fishing, water-skiing), and I don't deny that.  But my lake was not like that (or perhaps better, was not just that).  It was also a home for the Loch Ness Monster, whom I am very glad to be rid of.

People who want absolute control over their valley of Soul see me as backwards, chaotic, primitive, and uncivilized because I have not dammed the river Emotion.  I let her follow her natural currents.  When she floods, I am flooded.  When she dries up, I am dry.  It is not always easy or pleasant.  But neither was having a dam.  Every choice we make in dealing with Emotion will necessarily involve both pleasure and pain.  Every valley is different, with different inhabitants who value different things (and have different traditions, different types of culture that allow them to live in the unique habitat nature has given them).  In my valley, we live better with natural rhythms, and no dam.  We aren't out to dynamite your dam, at all, but we aren't going to build one for ourselves, either.  We know what it will do to our valley.  We have seen it, and we did not like it.  Much as you like dams (in your valley), we dislike them more (in our valley: we like them fine in yours, if you want them there).  Much as you hate seasonal floods (in your valley), we like them more (in ours, where they are part of the rhythm that gives our life shape and meaning: we need them for the same reason that you need dams).

Recently a number of people have reached out to me, offering to help me build dams (or at least attend meetings where teams of Dutch boys tell us how to make the sort of dam that once graced my valley).  Much as I appreciate the offer, I really don't need a dam (certainly not one like that), and I am not really interested in spending a lot of time discussing the proper design for something that is useless to me.  (One does not go to study with a master trumpeter if one wishes to learn the violin.  As beautifully as you might play the trumpet, it is not my instrument, and I am not going to spend hours learning it, though I am happy to listen to you play sometimes.)  To quote a venerable old book, your love and interest are much appreciated, but I would be at Jerusalem.  

1 comment:

  1. Crises hit and we realize the current moral paradigm doesn't work. So we formulate a new paradigm--which is soon discredited by new unforeseen crises. Eventually we abandon paradigms altogether, at least strict ones. Recognizing that there will always be floods and droughts in the valley, we finally resolve to let the river flow.