Sunday, July 3, 2011

We Parse, Therefore We Is

It's an old joke: What does the dyslexic agnostic think about when he lies awake at night? The existence of dog.

Without getting overshare-y, over the past months, I've had some major sources of worry. I've occasionally found myself talking to myself, arguing with myself. Sometimes out loud. (Usually not in public, though at least once or twice I've caught a stranger's eye and thought, whoops, another person who thinks I'm shellacking the waxed egg.) When I am struggling with a difficult question or decision, I often become two debate teams. I let them argue with each other, and see which side I end up believing.

This is not the same as prayer. Prayer is different, and as an agnostic and lapsed Catholic, it's not my typical mode of problem solving. But a few times in the past few months, I have also caught myself uttering, quietly, phrases that could be taken for prayer. As in, Please, great entity I'm not at all sure I believe in and usually pay no attention to, help me out with this one.

What I'd like, at such moments, is for the clouds to part, and a large mouth to appear and deliver instructions in a clear voice, preferably Samuel L. Jackson's. Thus far, that has never occurred. I'd conclude that the lack of a clear response is due to my own failures to attend to God on a day-to-day basis, but from what I understand, even those who pay a great deal of attention to God get some confusing messages. (Perhaps God needs to work on his penmanship.)

Sometimes, though, I worry that answers come, but I miss them. For example, a while back, I was sitting quietly on a rock in Great Falls Park during a moment of crisis and pain, when the word please formed in my brain. And as it formed, the nook of gray rocks across the Potomac, the exact spot my eyes had fallen upon, seemed to shift and blur and a heron flew out of them, the same color as the stones, and passed over my head.

So what was that, exactly? An answer? Or did that heron just randomly remember its manicure appointment?

I can never make up my mind about these things. I'm never able to believe they're really signs, but I'm also never able to believe they're entirely coincidence, either. I suffer from a more agnostic version of the illness that afflicts the son in Nabokov's brilliant "Symbols and Signs" (which seems to me the point of the story: all humans both suffer and benefit from our tendency to interpret the world).

Thinking about this issue reminded me of an old poem I wrote about dogs and their fear of mailmen, which has long seemed to me a decent metaphor for humanity's problem with God. Specifically: We sometimes sense there's something out there. It sticks notes through our door slot, but we can't read them because, well, we can't read. And our attempts to read them lead to, well, theories about intelligent design and, sometimes, mass suicides. Sometimes doubt itself seems to me like the best product of the mind -- the capacity to hold a thought or opinion and all the while also hold the thought: I may be wrong.

Then again, of course, maybe some of us read divine messages correctly. In which case, can I snag a spare key to your bunker sometime before October?


This poem was eaten by the dog.