J u s t T h i n k i n g
Some days you’re just thinking along and something gels. Here are some of those moments for me.
Thoughts after reading Andre Comte-Sponville
I am tempted to go back to the beginning. But I think I will focus on what I learned today. I could happily spend all day reflecting on this magnificent thinker.
He called this section: ’Is It possible to Speak About Silence?' 1
Even that question I love. (It makes me think of 'The Fruitful Use of Silence’ by the Quaker, Jim Platts. I will return to that one day.)
Sponville says, recognising the irony here, 'We must try to say something about silence.'
He suggests that only in silence do we experience the mystical, the absolute, the fact that we are eternal here and now. He talks about the experience of living eternity, not just contemplating it. He calls it an 'eternity of becoming, the perpetual impermanence of everything.'
I like that paradox.
He says, ’Though few and far between, these experiences have changed my daily life, making it a bit less heavy – and even, on good days, happier.' He finds similar eternity in Vermeer and Mozart.
This silence he describes as a 'suspension of familiarity, banality, repetition.'
'All at once, it is as if everything were new, singular and astonishing. There is a suspension of questions and problems. The question vanishes and all that remains is the answer, which is no longer an answer, since there is no longer a question. All that remains is being, reality.'
All of this transports me.
He goes on:
’Another thing that is suspended in these moments is lack. This is an utterly unique sensation. We spend most of our time running after things we do not possess, things we consider to be missing and wish to procure for ourselves. We are prisoners of lack, prisoners of nothingness.
‘There are the occasional moments of grace, when we cease hoping for anything other than what is – and this is no longer hope; it is love. Moments when nothing is missing, when there is nothing either to wish for or to regret.
‘It is like a pilgrimage through immanence.
‘These are moments of grace when all that remains is the music.’
For many years I have carried with me the rapture of his reflection on the night sky. I have referred to it in speeches about attention and thinking. It describes both I think.
'This is something anyone can experience by looking at the night sky.
'Darkness, which separates us from what is close at hand, brings us near to what is far away.
'You cannot see the far side of your own garden, but you can see billions of kilometres away with the naked eye. What is that whitish, opalescent streak? The Milky Way, ‘our’ galaxy or at least the one to which we belong – some one hundred billion stars, the nearest of which, with the exception of our own sun, is thirty trillion kilometres away.
'What is that bright dot? Sirius – eighty trillion kilometres away.
'The universe, whether finite or not, surpasses us in every direction; its limits, if it has any, are permanently beyond our reach. It envelops, contains and exceeds us. We are inside it – we live within the unfathomable.’
For Sponville this is incomprehensible eternity. And it is silence. It is simplicity.
For me, too.
For me, too.
1 From Andre Compte-Sponville, Atheist Spirituality, pp. 144-167
All The Good
‘Each of us is guilty of all the good we did not do.’
The bad humans do gets the attention. The judgement. The trips to hell. But worse than the bad we do, Voltaire argues and I agree, is the good we do not do. Where was Dante on that point? Had he thought about it, I’ll bet it would have required of him an eighth ‘terrace’ in his very tidy Purgatory. Maybe he did think of it but thought 8 was the perfect number, that 9 would screw up the symmetry. I for one would understand that. I was raised to ‘even things up’ (especially the jagged edges of birthday cake). Maybe Dante was, too.
If so, we’d both be culpable of a sin of omission because not doing good is really bad. For one thing, we commit that sin far more often than we commit any of the famous forbiddens like lust, pride, envy, prodigality, wrath, etc. How often do we actually do any of those exalted bad things? Maybe we get angry once a week, or some of us once a day even, but those episodes probably don’t qualify as honest-to-god wrath. Certainly not the real-deal wrath that would send us to Purgatory and straight from there to eternal fire. And even if we do segue into wrath now and then, it is just now and then. If I’m wrong about that, yikes. But I doubt I am.
But I don’t doubt that many times every single day we don’t do real-deal Good. Sure, we do some good things every day. Sometimes even make-a-lifetime-difference things. But not the save-ourselves-from-hell, much less the go-to-heaven kind of Good things.
A few weeks ago I started thinking about all of this and got in a state. What is doing Good anyway? (I began by deciding to capitalise it because anything that gets you into heaven should be capitalised. I don’t even believe in heaven (or hell), but I think this is a logical point.) So what are these saintly things we could do that we don’t?
I first thought of the obvious ones like eliminating war and poverty and sexual abuse and oppression and climate change and totalitarianism and polyester shirts. But how would we know if during our lifetime we ever eliminated any of those? Maybe if you are a Head of State reading this, you have signed a treaty or created a million new jobs with an infusion of cash, as they say, or passed a law making sure that formerly-disenfranchised groups can now vote, or created incentives to have all cars off the grid within ten years. If so, super.
But the Good surely is not only those so-big things that only those so-few powerful people can make happen. Surely the Good Voltaire is mourning is the daily this and that that requires us not to need power but to need awareness and commitment and knowledge and the use of our brains and hearts and fine discernment to bring a bit of relief, of dignity, of meaning, of (never mind the 80’s feel of this) empowerment to people wherever we go. If so, how do we do it?
I think we start with a decision to love.
To love is to be interested in another’s life, another’s feelings, another’s hopes.
To love is to notice what is good and say it.
To love is to recognise that we are inherently equal to others, not the same as, but equal to, in our cores.
To love is to speak up for a world that works, truly works, and wonderfully, for everyone, not to roll over and say with our lives, ‘There’s nothing to be done.’
To love is to stand in the boat and rock it until it people look up.
To love is to say ‘How?’, not ‘Hmmm’. And then, ‘Let’s go!'
To love is to settle in, to feel another, to be quiet together. To listen. To want to know, to understand, to say ‘keeping going’.
To love is to think for ourselves, not for others, and to want to know where others will go with their thinking more than we want them to hear ours.
To love is to say, ‘Thank you’ when someone appreciates us.
Did I do these things yesterday? All of them?
That seems to me a good question to start each day. That is, if we want to get to the end of our lives and know that whatever bad we may have done, at least it was not the good we did not do.
The Rule of Four
It’s probably dicey to talk about things like this. Rooms, in this case, and what makes them beautiful. ‘Beautiful’ is ’in the eye’ as they say, just opinion or personal perception, entirely relative, a child of learning and luck. Who’s to say what a beautiful anything is? For some the whole effort reeks of classism and ‘culturism’, carrying every set of assumptions that has oppressed 90% of our world for 90% of our history. People are touchy about this.
But I’m going to go there because this is a fascinating idea. And it pans out. You need just to look around. You’ll see it has nothing to do with money or status or identity of any kind. It just is.
I learned it from Christopher. He says that there are four attributes of a beautiful room:
And in each one of these, space is the prime mover, the genesis, the definer.
Let’s say you have a room to furnish. First, think about scale. Think about the relationship between the size of the objects and the size of the space. For beauty to kick in, the size of the objects needs to be to scale with the size of the space. It needs to be proportional.
For example, a couple of little pictures on a big wall just get lost. And lost is not beautiful. Similarly, low chairs under 14’ ceilings get swallowed. And swallowed is not beautiful. Conversely, a 5’ portrait above a cottage fire place, or a gothic wardrobe in a crib room, or two crossed giant samurai swords in a 4’ hallway will be invisible because there is too little space around them to present them. And invisible is not beautiful. Beauty emerges from the to-scale relationship between objects and space.
This is because our eye does not see either the object or the space fully if one overpowers or underpowers the other. It’s as if space cannot do its job of introducing and enhancing an object unless the object is its peer. (Who knew that equality is an artistic concept?)
Next think about clustering, the grouping of objects, especially small objects, rather than the spacing of objects randomly or linearly. The counter-intuitive effect of clustering is that it lets each object be seen individually, again because of the space around the cluster.
But for clustering and scale to work, there must be profusion. There must be lots of whatever it is. Not lots as in excess or ostentation or greed. Lots as in enough. Enough to embrace the space, to speak as its peer. As with clustering, if there is enough of whatever is in the space, we can see and salute the individual pieces. Ignorance of profusion appears acutely in flower arrangements. Too often there just are not enough flowers for the space. I would triple the amount of bloom in almost every arrangement I see. Except Christopher’s.
And for scale, clustering and profusion to produce beauty, there must be coherence among them all. That may seem impossibly intuitive. When are things coherent, and when are they disjointed, muddled, hard to follow, slurred? I don’t know. But if we can ask: ’Does this room seem coherent? Do the objects speak to each other and to the space? Are they a kind of genus?’, we’ll know. Coherence is not sameness. It is seamlessness.
I love this guide. I love to furnish rooms and to respond to rooms this way. It helps. And it allows us to furnish with either old and precious things or brand new things. It works with anything. Even with minimalist spaces, those all-white, mostly-glass, hardly-an-object-in-sight spaces. The next time you are in one, even if it is your own, take it in with these four attributes in mind. If it seems beautiful to you, it may well be because all of the ‘near nothings’ in the room are to scale, clustered, profuse and coherent.
Similarly, when a place seems anything but beautiful, look around and see which of those four elements the furnisher contravened. All most likely.
One other thing: our ‘invisible’ spaces should count, too. Cabinets, closets, wardrobes, cupboards and drawers are also rooms. Just small ones. And because for 80% of their life they are invisible, they can be abused. We call it cluttering and we forgive it. But I’m on a campaign for invisible and visible spaces to be equals. To de-clutter is to allow for scale, clustering, profusion and coherence.
Anyway, I think we should celebrate the room, whatever its size, as worthy of beauty.
But that’s just me. :-)
Also, when you’re in the country sometimes, outside our random aggregating of architectural thises and thats, featuring none of Christopher’s four attributes of beauty, see if you agree that nature knew all about these four elements all along.