Saturday, January 30, 2016

A man. A place. A meaning.

A few years ago, the Association of American Geographers recognized Barry Lopez as an "honorary geographer."  It is to recognize "excellence in research, teaching, or writing on geographic topics by non-geographers."  I understand that sentiment--after all, I do not have any formal education, from the undergraduate through the doctorate level, in geography and, yet, have been gainfully employed as a geography instructor for nearly a decade-and-a-half.

Lopez lives in Oregon, not far from my home.  He, too, is a transplant, from across the continent.  A writer of the highest caliber, reflecting on life by observing places, especially the natural environment.  In this recent essay, Lopez writes:
Existential loneliness and a sense that one’s life is inconsequential, both of which are hallmarks of modern civilizations, seem to me to derive in part from our abandoning a belief in the therapeutic dimensions of a relationship with place. A continually refreshed sense of the unplumbable complexity of patterns in the natural world, patterns that are ever present and discernible, and which incorporate the observer, undermine the feeling that one is alone in the world, or meaningless in it. The effort to know a place deeply is, ultimately, an expression of the human desire to belong, to fit somewhere.
The themes of existence, the inconsequential lives that we lead, and attempting to create a meaning through experiencing a place, are all regular features of this blog.  Existential loneliness was also very much a part of Anomalisa that I watched last night with the friend.  Which is perhaps why that paragraph appealed to me.

I am convinced that if we paused to think about our existence we would then realize the crisis within.  I suppose we do our best to avoid thinking about it.  Or, we try to lighten that crisis by making meaning via our affiliations with everything from family and friends to football teams and faiths.  When we strip all those affiliations away, the existential loneliness is all that remains.  Of course, to some extent, these are all age-old questions that humans have been grappling with.

Lopez writes:
The determination to know a particular place, in my experience, is consistently rewarded. And every natural place, to my mind, is open to being known. And somewhere in this process a person begins to sense that they themselves are becoming known, so that when they are absent from that place they know that place misses them. And this reciprocity, to know and be known, reinforces a sense that one is necessary in the world.
Indeed.  Whether it is Pattamadai and Sengottai, or Neyveli, or Calcutta, or ... the deep desire to know about them and understand them has been a wonderful blessing in terms of how much they have helped me know about myself.   I even routinely tell students that, without going into autoethnographic details--understanding the world, understanding the peoples, is a wonderful way to understand our own country and our own place in the grand scheme of things.  

Back to Lopez:
Perhaps the first rule of everything we endeavor to do is to pay attention. Perhaps the second is to be patient. And perhaps a third is to be attentive to what the body knows.
Yes. To pay attention. To observe the place.  To be patient. To be in the here and the now.  I suppose it is not easy to translate those ideas to everyday life!


Ramesh said...

The first paragraph you quote from Lopez shows how far removed from the academic world I am. You say you like it, I can't even comprehend all that complex words and phrases. I have no clue what "therapeutic dimensions of a relationship" means.

Yes, we come into the world alone and will depart alone. But we live life with all those affiliations that you write about. So why would you want to strip those affiliations. I am happy to be together with all those I am affiliated with and will be happy to leave the world alone.

Anne in Salem said...

Well said, Ramesh. Both statements.

We are social beings. Made to be that way and most successful that way. Why change?

Be observant, be patient, be attentive. Excellent advice, if difficult to implement. Requires slowing down, not doing six things at once (which means a Millenial will never accomplish it!), and turning off a few electronic gizmos.

Sriram Khé said...

"why would you want to strip those affiliations" ... I, a confirmed atheist constantly explores the question "who am I?" that is the fundamental driving force in the Hindu religious philosophy. The religious rush to seek the guidance of leaders who repeatedly ask people to think about that question. All the stories of a Ramakrishna or a Ramana or whoever notes their restlessness over the question of "who am I?" The philosophy also holds that the answer to that question cannot be learnt nor taught, but comes from within, via an intense questioning ... I am an atheist, yes, but that question of "who am I?" is an awesome and profound one that cannot be simply shaken off.

Social beings has nothing to do with this existential question/crisis. One can be immersed in a social scene all the time and still struggle with the existential question. One can also head out to the woods and contemplate on it forever. The existential question has nothing to do with whether or not humans are social animals.

Now, one might dismiss this and keep going and not spend a nano-second wondering about the existence. To each his/her own--to them, Anomalisa will not appeal, nor will Lopez's essay, nor will Kafka's Metamorphosis nor ...

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