I’ve recently had the chance to watch Tilly interact with quite of few of the very old. We just spent a week in Sydney, and while we were there we stayed in my parent’s place. They have just moved into a retirement village, and for those who have never visited a retirement village, it is full of very old women, and the occasional very old man. It clearly delighted all of them to have a wee one in their midst, so she had a lot of conversations with my parents’ neighbours.
Then, to add to the geriatric flavour of her holiday, on our second day in Sydney, Tilly also got to hang out with her great grandmother, Granny Joan (in yet another retirement village). Aside from the time I spent trying to prevent Tilly from poking the bandage that covered the infected skin graft on Granny Joan’s leg, it was actually a really beautiful time. It is quite a moving thing to watch the two year old and the ninety two year old interact.
I was struck, as I watched them chat about Granny Joan’s bowl of fruit, by the fact that in many ways their lives are somewhat similar; both characterised by an extreme simplicity of routine and an extreme lack of control. My grandmother is completely immobile at the moment as she recovers from surgery, and can do very little for herself. As a toddler, Tilly’s level of dependence and lack of autonomy is obvious. And yet, at the risk of romanticising both their lives a bit too much, these two dependent beings, hemmed in on all sides by limitations, were so joyfully present with each other, and delighted in each other so much. While I (the one with almost complete autonomy and a highly adequate level of mobility) spent most of the time with my mind elsewhere, fretting about a house that Susie and I had foolishly decided to buy and were now desperately trying to give back. The prime of life can be really overrated.
Afterwards, I found myself thinking about that proverb about the simple man, the complex man and the enlightened man. I think it goes like this: the simple man comes home in the evening wondering what’s for dinner, the complex man comes home pondering the imponderables of fate and the enlightened man comes home wondering what’s for dinner.
My life is way too complex at the moment, and not only that, but I feel like, in many ways, I am moving away from enlightenment rather than towards it. I seem to be spending more and more time obsessing over urgent, but ultimately unimportant things, and it’s got to stop. Today, I am drawing a line in the sand.
I’m choosing today, because today is the last day of the Global Atheist Convention, taking place in Melbourne. ‘What’s the connection?’ I hear you say. Well, you see, the complex man inside of me is an atheist, and the more complex my life becomes the more of an atheist I become. Don’t get me wrong, in many ways I need him. Without him, I would still be a simple man. But I don’t want him to be the end of my journey. The philosopher and theologian Paul Ricoeur used to talk about ‘the second naiveté’, a place beyond complexity, beyond the hermeneutic of suspicion, where we could reengage with trust and faith, but this time held in tension with questions and doubt. That is what I want – to live the second naiveté, but the project hasn’t been going so well lately.
Now I know I seem to be conflating different forms of complexity here. I know that busyness is not the same as doubt, and I certainly don’t mean to imply that atheists are incapable of enlightenment (Alain de Botton is clearly miles further down the path than Cardinal George Pell). I am talking purely about myself.
In my life, when I am busy, I don’t do the things that lift my gaze from the mundane. I don’t contemplate and I don’t meditate, and I revert to type, which in my case is a form of de facto atheism and a passionless form of rationality (that involves a lot of rationalising and not much reason), a kind of lobotomised Richard Dawkins if you will – of no use (and no threat) to anyone. A complex man, but not an interesting one, and not one who is pushing through his questions towards any kind of higher place.
I’m thinking that the first step in turning all this around may well be going back to renting (bear with me). I am so terrible at owning property. I think about the problems with the place way too much (usually without doing much about them). I have been shocked over the last four years by how much of my mental space has been occupied by my living space, and this has only intensified over the last few months as we have prepared our townhouse for sale, sold it, looked for somewhere else to buy online, inspected places, bid on a place, and even bought one – for a few days (I’ll save that story up for another time). In all that time I have only written one blog post and one song, and I have only read a small handful of books. I rest my case. Things have to change. I need to start renting my way to enlightenment before it’s too late. Or at very least, cultivate a much more interesting inner atheist.