“Life is a mystery to be lived, not a problem to be solved.” —Gabriel Marcel
When I lived in Rome, I once made a weekend bicycle trip about 60 miles north to the town of Tarquinia, known as a UNESCO World Heritage site for its massive necropolis of Etruscan tombs. The Etruscans were the forerunners to the Romans.
The night that I arrived, I was up until 4 o’clock in the morning having an impassioned debate with a local man outside of the town’s “brew pub.”
(That’s what the Italians call them. Craft beer had just recently become popular in Rome and Milan, and the phenomenon had swept through the country—quite mimetically, I might add. By this time, nearly every ancient town had one. Of course, I had no complaints about this.)
So there I was, tucked away in a cobblestone alley with a pint of overly-hoppy Double IPA, defending myself in my best Italian from this man who claimed with great pride to me that he was a nihilist and that all of the transcendental values that I pursued were but straw.
(Nihilism does not mean “believing in nothing,” as the "Nihilists in The Big Lebowski proclaim. Obviously, believing in nothing is believing in something. And arguing that nothing is true is arguing that you believe that your philosophical position is true. You see the circularity. But I’ll have to save my dialogue with Sam Harris for another day.)
Back to the order at hand.
Our man, David, was probably in his 50s. He had a bum leg which I didn’t dare ask him about. He had other social proclivities which—I later learned—had ostracized him in the community.
David had struck up a conversation with me as I ordered a beer and cracked open a book by Habermas that I was using to study for an upcoming exam.
It was the moment I most dread—when someone in a public place starts offering unsolicited opinions about things I’m fully immersed in. But it’s the price I pay for reading anything serious in a public space. People are curious as hell.
When the weather is beautiful, I roll the dice. This time, I got David.
When he asked, I had told him that I was in his town to learn more about the Etruscans and visit a couple of old churches. I also told him that I studied philosophy. He let me know his disdain for this. There’s no such thing as “The Good Life,” he told me. The Etruscans were born and they died. We would, too. So eat, drink, and be merry (as the Epicureans never said), because we don’t have long.
David didn’t understand why I was making what he considered to be unthinkable and unnecessary sacrifices in my life. (More on those in a later newsletter, maybe...)
I asked him what he did for a living. The greatest irony: He told me that he sat outside of a beautiful, 12th-century church on the outskirts of town, waiting for tourists to arrive. When someone showed up (and there were usually only 4-5 visitors/day), he would give them the best tours of their lives in exchange for tips. That’s it.
Okay, I thought. He believes in markets.
“I set out to discover the why of it, and to transform my pleasure into knowledge.” —Charles Baudelaire
The next morning, I woke up and flâneured around the cobblestoned streets of Tarquinia. I stumbled into an old monastery to escape the summer heat for a few minutes and recollect myself.
Inside, I encountered a monk who asked me if I was looking for anything in particular and then politely informed me that the chapel was not open. It was his polite way of saying I was intruding.
He asked me if I was thirsty, though, and led me to a small refectory. He poured me a cup of water. “Coffee, too?” he asked. “Sure,” I replied. This monk was from England, not a native Italian. I wondered what he was doing here.
“So you met David?” he asked me.
“You met David, I hear,” he said. “He came by here this morning to tell me about last night.” David had given him a great description of me: I was the only American in town. David had mentioned my shaved head and the bracelet I was wearing to remind myself of something, which helped with the ID.
To my surprise, the monk told me that he met regularly with him. “David is a very special,” he said. “I’m glad you had a chance to meet him.”
You see, in a town like this everybody knows everybody. There is no anonymous hiding the way there is in our cities. David had told this monk that if he saw me he should tell me to visit him at the church he sat in front of.
I told this mysterious monk that I’d woken up that morning unsettled and frustrated. I’d come to Tarquinia to have a mini-vacation, a get-away. I had intended to do some sight-seeing and read in a quiet place. Things weren’t going according to plan. I didn’t plan nor want to be up so late the night before, and David had somehow stirred up some anxiety in me. He had thrown a wrench in my weekend.
This betrayed my Calculator mindset.
Brother Angelo told me about an observation he had made. Over the past 20 years or so, he noticed new novices—young men who were thinking of joining the order—coming into the chapel to pray with 5-6 books under their arms. He had never before seen this. He wondered what it meant.
“They think that if they don’t have input, they can have no output. They think of themselves almost like computers, these poor guys. If they don’t put anything in, they think, nothing can happen. They don’t know how to receive gifts—how to receive the unexpected.”
They have a fear of self-directed thought, a fear of being useless without input. They need crutches.
This is calculating thought, Brother Angelo told me. Calculating thought is constantly searching, seeking, plotting how to reach an objective: to get from Point A to Point B, to beat the stock market, to get good grades, to win an argument. It’s the most diffused form of thought in our technological culture.
It is always seeking what it thinks is a solution to a problem. Even the present itself is viewed merely as a trampoline toward a better result.
This is characteristic of the left hemisphere of the brain which Dr. Iain McGilchrist, in his stellar book The Master and His Emissary, claims has undergone major hypertrophy in our technological age. It’s not that this calculating part of our brain is not important—indeed, it’s critical for all kinds of things—but something has been thrown off balance.
It has trapped us in what the philosopher Martin Heidegger called, in German, the Gestell—our embeddedness in a technological cage in which the very “solutions” that we use to liberate ourselves from the cage are themselves technological. Think of an app on your phone which helps you use your phone less.
The Gestell is a framework that underlies our technological culture. (My Italian professor referred to the Gestell with the Italian word gabbia, which basically means a birdcage. The framework is partly the birdcage that we construct in our minds.)
Technology transforms our view of the world so that we see it all as something to be used, as a tool. A tree is a source of wood, yes, but it is also, in itself, just a tree. Modern man finds it increasingly difficult to understand that. The very notion of alterity—that which is “other”—is being eliminated by technology. The Internet is the culmination of this Gestell. Everything is a means to some end—even other people.
The young novices at the monastery bringing books into the chapel to pray were also adopting a technology (a technique) to achieve a non-technological experience that they desired.
It was in this strange context that Heidegger uttered his famous line: “Only a God can save us…” We are not able to free ourselves from this cage ourselves. Something else has to break in.
But how? And should someone free us, would we even want to leave?
I tell you I've been in that weasel's brain for sixty seconds, and he was in mine. Brains are private places, muttering through unique and secret tapes--but the weasel and I both plugged into another tape simultaneously, for a sweet and shocking time. Can I help it if it was a blank? – Annie Dillard, in Living Like Weasels
Heidegger lays out two different ways of thinking in response to this new situation.
The first is calculating thought, as we saw above. The second is what he calls meditating thought. The first is more mimetic because it imitates the technological structure that we interact with. The second is anti-mimetic because it is a way of being that refuses to imitate the behavior modeled in the Gestell. It resists the temptation to calculate.
Meditative thought is patient thought. It is not the same thing as “meditation.” Meditative thought is more accurately nonproductive thought. It asks a series of questions that help the asker sink down further into the reality of the situation:
What present is this? Why is this here? Where does this come from? What does it hide? What does it mean for us?
Meditating thought is the only way one can practice lectio divina, for instance. Not by trying to get something out of a text but by continuing to read it, over and over, probing it for new layers of meaning.
Meditative thought is patient enough to allow the truth to reveal itself.
Meditative thought opens the door to transformation. When the calculating, processing part of our brain calms down, the meditative part is given the ability to work, integrating those new experiences into a new framework for reality.
The calculating brain is only able to fit new experiences into existing models. The meditative brain develops new models.
If we spend all of our time in calculating mode, we spend our lives trying to fit every new encounter into existing mental models.
Meditating thought is how we open ourselves up to the unexpected. So that when this God comes to open the cage of this Gestell for us, we see that the door is open—so that we may notice when the unexpected breaks in.
Meditating thought doesn’t produce anything, which can make us highly uncomfortable. But it is an antidote. When something unexpected does happen, I will be ready to receive this new thing because I have eyes that are different, ready to receive.
Brother Angelo had not-so-subtly hinted to me that my conversation with David was not a problem to be solved. Nor was David. Nor is any person. These are all tendencies of the calculating mindset, which I was entirely immersed in at the time. I saw my late-night conversation with David as an intrusion rather than as an unexpected gift that I could probe for meaning.
Later that day, I found my way to David’s church. It was at the end of a long, straight walkway, at least 50 yards long, the kind you see leading up to castles.
As soon as I started up the path, I saw David in the distance, seated in a chair out front, baking in the sun. When he saw me, he sprung from his chair and started limping down the walkway to greet me. He threw up his hands, smiled warmly, gave me a bacetto and a big hug, and grabbed me by the shoulders, one in each of his hands. “You came.”
“Yep,” I said. “Now let’s see this place.”
It was totally empty. Not a soul in sight. Just the two of us.
He gave me one of the most beautiful and engaging tours I’ve ever had at a church in Italy—one that far surpassed the kind of ‘tour’ one gets with the 1980’s cell phone contraption where you press a number corresponding to a sticker on the wall, hold the device to your ear, and listen to a gentleman read a script over a harpsichord without telling you about anything of things you really wanted to know about. The technological solution. (Do you feel naked without one?)
Instead, I was taking the route of meditating thought this time. The human route. It started, stopped, and ended with David.
Near the end of the tour, we came to a fresco that David told me he had been looking at every day on the job for the past 10 years. We were standing not face-to-face but shoulder-to-shoulder, as it should be. We were looking in wonder at this fresco, not trying to get anywhere in particular at all. And that allowed us to go somewhere.
“Grace, my friends, demands nothing from us but that we shall await it with confidence and acknowledge it in gratitude.” — General Lorens Löwenhielm, in Babette’s Feast, after a few glasses of Clos de Vougeot 1845
A rendition of Dillard’s Living Like Weasels. I encourage you to read the short piece here. It’s worth your time. And I hope this was, too.
Until next week,