by Sam Buntz
“Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting: / The soul that rises with us, our life’s star / Hath had elsewhere its setting / And cometh from afar.” — William Wordsworth
We do not know where and how we began. Sometimes, like Satan in John Milton’s Paradise Lost, we’d like to think that we “know no time when we were not as now; know none before us; self-begot, self-raised by our own quickening power.” But that—despite it’s power as rhetoric—would be a lie. We sense something behind us—some vast mountain of shadow—and would, perhaps, like to know more about it, if the routine in which we are so dumbly pent could be interrupted for maybe a moment or two. And we note the mystery of origins not only in our own individual instance, but in that of life at large and the universe itself. Like the genesis of the individual human, we are led to believe—by Darwin and other authorities—that life too began with a single cell, a seed planted in some primordial swamp. Similarly, the Big Bang theory leads us to believe in the same metaphor—in a seed that expands and grows. Isn’t it odd and beautiful that this sympathy exists, that the macrocosm and the microcosm should mirror each other so perfectly, and that the story of one should be so easily nested in the story of the other? Odd how our own organic history of expansion should be premeditated by the movements of the inorganic cosmos?
But there is something unnerving about a mystery nested in a mystery—something unsettling about this dwindling away to a single particle, a single instant that would expand outward to create us. And, more disconcertingly, we cannot yet conceive of what comes before that Origin: there is the first particle, the first seed, and then – silence. We lose the aid of even space and time to help us organize and map out the terrain—the mask that greets us is simply a blank. We cannot yet know “the face we had before we were born.” But we are not, thankfully, granted any prospective parts of the seed, no heterogeneous material, no further sub-atoms of the atom. In the case of origins, naturally, any notion of a primal plurality can be ruled out: we seem to have started out as One. Matthew Arnold writes that the very shores of the ocean sense this fact, mingling this deeper sense of a primal unity with actual geology, with the fact that all the larger landmasses once really were one (yet another instance of the aforementioned sympathy): “For surely once, they feel, we were / Parts of a single continent!” The multiplicity swirling around us and within us — all of this devolves back into One. But it is a small, inscrutable One—an egg that we cannot enter into, in order to see the as of yet unrevealed embryo in its most primal state of incubation.
Rather than expanding forever—which seems to be a process of becoming more diffuse, more saggy, in a way—it might strike us that we wish, instead, to contract. Just as there are times when we like to become more and more—to incorporate a wider and more dazzling array of information—there are times (and they may be the more important, the most crucial) when we would like to shrink down and discover the minimal—what the African-American Baptists used to call “the little me in the big me.” We sense the mystery of the seed—where it came from, who planted it—might be contained in that still-unbroken kernel of the self, which remains undisturbed despite all of our outward press.
But a wall confronts us. We don’t live from our core—we are established in our axis, but remain unaware of it. Our attention emanates outwards from that axis, but it can only look-out from the top, cannot remain cognizant of its grounding in the foundation. Although we have our being, our essence, in the small stillness of the center, our awareness is like the tip of a water-plant waving a little ripple on the surface—we are all out of sorts with our roots. Consciousness skates, skips, speeds—it rarely dives. Our energies begin by forcing us outward—just like that “dark energy” which purportedly controls the acceleration of the universe’s expansion. And the outward press only increases in intensity and drive. Despite all this, we do sense the reality of that moment, that time in early childhood described so well by William Wordsworth, when we were at once both more self-contained and more attuned with the visible environment—rather than diffused throughout it, like an insidious vapor, possessing neither our own center nor the realm of peripheral nature.
The better part of private life—and by “better” I do not mean larger, but superior—consists in trying to rediscover this forgotten center or axis, a task rendered all the more difficult by the fact that our outward energies only accelerate. Strange that Dante could say that “Each thing most desires to return to its origin”—which strikes us as true—while at the same time we find the counter-truth—the notion that the most fervent desire of each thing is to get as far away from its origin as it possibly can (an origin hinted at and buried within the self)—to be equally valid. Both truths apply to different levels of our being. The former and greater truth elucidated by Dante applies to our most real self, the inner self—which, despite being who we really are, is also the portion of our being to which we possess the most fleeting access. We lead our outer lives according to the later, more realistic yet more disheartening truth—which is precisely that our existence consists of a flight from origins. This is, in a sense, the fundamental conflict of our humanity, this distinction between the inner self’s desire to contract back to origins, to concentrate itself, to return to its source, and the outer self’s need to press onward, pursuing a gleam that brightens even as it grows farther away. Our observation of this fact is at least as old as St. Paul—“for what I would, that do I not; but what I hate, that do I.” Paul’s outer self shares a set of affections differing from those of his inner self. The center and the circumference are not in rapport.
Yet, does our external lurch really impede us as much as we think? Aren’t we always in the same place we always were, still founded in the small, secret cell of our own being? The illusion increases, but the reality remains the same, and it is only the initial difficulty of turning away from the magnetism of the one that prevents our coming to a more rapid understanding and awareness of the other. Even though we assume many dazzling guises and costumes, what we actually are remains quite simple—our turning away from it is not so terribly momentous that it proves impossible to reverse. It is simply a matter of transplanting our attention from one layer of reality to another. And we discover that what seemed so elusive—the Origin, what really came before that tiny cell, that first minute of being—was in fact not a mountain of shadow, not what appeared potentially dreadful from our distorted vantage-point, expanding away from it. It was more familiar that anything we had yet encountered in our earthly sojourn. It was Home.