The Path of Unfolding Does Not Run Straight (Chapter 5 of THE RIVER AND ITS CHANNEL)

Over the past few months, I’ve posted the first five installments of my unpublished book, THE RIVER AND ITS CHANNEL.

The overarching question with which THE RIVER AND ITS CHANNEL is concerned might be stated: Is there something that we can trust to see that what unfolds in our lives and in the world is as it should be, or are we wise to try to impose our will and intention to make things happen as they should happen?

The book itself works by weaving together two levels: the telling of a story and the exploration of ideas. How the story unfolds is in itself organically connected with how the ideas get clarified.

The earlier installments can be found at:

Chapter 1: www.nonesoblind.org/blog/?p=214
Chapter 2: www.nonesoblind.org/blog/?p=233
Chapter 3: www.nonesoblind.org/blog/?p=250
Excursis: www.nonesoblind.org/blog/?p=257
Chapter 4: www.nonesoblind.org/blog/?p=271

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Chapter 5 xxx
The Path of Unfolding Does Not Run Straight
xxx

Signs of Cultural Divide

My project on “unfolding” continued to intrigue me deeply, and engage me productively, but the process was nonetheless frequently a struggle. It was a wry joke –that I mostly kept to myself, except for my closest confidants like April and my brother, Ed– that for an undertaking that was supposed to flow effortlessly, like water, like the Tao, it was a notably bumpy ride.

I did venture to share this paradox with one of my New Age friends who was particularly enthusiastic about my creating a book to celebrate the wonders of unfolding. His first response was to say, “Of course, not all rivers are placid,” and thence to wax rhapsodic about mountain streams and waterfalls. I interjected that sometimes I felt more like the guy in the raft trying to deal with the whitewater and avoid the potentially head-splitting boulders than I did like the water with its unforced unfolding downhill course. To which he replied, “That’s just it, Andy. You’re not letting yourself be the water. Too up in your intellect, trying to figure things out, trying to impose upon mystery your artificial notion of what makes sense.”

Maybe he was right, I figured. After all, what do I know about how mysteries are to be dealt with? But after some such Eeyore-like moping, I’d soon excitedly find my sense of mission rising like a Phoenix.

At one point I emailed out to an old friend of mine a message articulating my sense that perhaps civilization was evolving toward a greater recognition of the value of unfolding. The rise of democracy and of modern science were the two main instances I cited of this possible trend.

The friend was Frank Hartley, whom I’d known in college. Though we were quite different in our views on many things, Frank and I had managed to maintain a satisfying ongoing connection over three decades. We shared a love of ideas. Even while I became a Berkeley semi-radical and he was on course to become the successful investment banker that he now was, the lines of communication somehow always stayed at least somewhat open.

Frank wrote me back a message that read: “I don’t know that I can comment usefully on your general theses either about the tendencies of civilization’s recent development or about the value of this ‘unfolding’ business as some Tao-like universal principle. But I can add something, I think, to help bolster your thesis. When I look at your way of describing democracy and science, another absolutely central modern institutional development comes quickly to my mind that fits just as well.

“Let me start with the idea that seems central to your project. As I understand it, you are drawing a fundamental distinction between two sources of how things get shaped. On the one hand you have what more or less naturally develops by itself, with all the actors interacting within –and by their interactions comprising– a systemic environment that is not designed by anyone. On the other hand, you have various mechanisms of control by which people seek to impose on the various unfolding forces –within them and around them– some design of their own choosing to serve their purposes and conform to their sense of how things ‘should’ be.

“Your celebration of unfolding is based on a sense that the receptive and allowing approach aligns better with reality than this imposition-of-design approach. The spontaneous and unregulated interaction between actor and environment creates forces that carry the human enterprise along in a direction you are postulating to be benign. And the goodness of this unfolding contrasts with what we can achieve by trying control and impose by dint of our conscious will.

“Well, here’s the punchline. Your argument aligns nicely with the argument for capitalism. The argument for the market system says that the ideal economy is achieved not by government planning or regulation or design but rather arises spontaneously out of the free activity of countless individuals each doing what comes naturally –i.e., acting in accordance with the innate self-interest of the human beast– and interacting together in a free market.

“The goodness arises, then, not from any top-down imposition of human design, but rather from the nature of the context within which this human activity takes place. The famous phrase here, of course, is Adam Smith’s: these actors, letting their natural selfishness unfold, are led ‘as if by an invisible hand’ to create a beneficial outcome for the whole.

“Of course, it is ‘no coincidence’ (as the Marxists used to say) that this belief in the value of free unfolding in the economic realm arose in tandem with freedom’s rise also in the political realm. The Madisonian notion of allowing factions to contend, like Adam Smith’s reliance on the invisible hand, also rested on a Newtonian sense of mechanism: in our clockwork universe, reality can be trusted to unfold so that the general good gets served, without the ancient regimes of top-down control being imposed, because a mechanism inherent in the system drives the whole toward benign results. Out of contention–be it economic competition or political struggle—emerges a kind of harmony. As the Newtonian allusion suggests, these developments also tie in with the freeing of the mind, reflected in the unfettered pursuit of science as well as in the enshrinement of the rights of free thought and speech.

“Anyway, that’s my thought for your project. Put the free enterprise economy onto your list along with the other two big institutional breakthroughs you’ve identified. Certainly the market system is where the world seems to have been heading these recent centuries, and especially in our time. And if there were ever a good case to be drawn for the celebratability of ‘unfolding,’ this would seem to me the place. FRANK.”

I found this, like so much else I was finding along this path, both interesting and disturbing. Interesting because a great deal of what Frank said was both incisive and persuasive. Disturbing also because, as I’d spent two previous books discussing, not all the tendencies of the unfettered market economy are benign. In those works –while I’d agreed that the market was a marvelous mechanism and conceded that I had no better system to propose to replace it– I also tried to show that much that’s important slips between the fingers of that invisible hand.

Actually, when I say I found Frank’s comments both interesting and disturbing, I’m mostly reporting what I realized later, in retrospect. At the time, I believe, I felt a momentary sharp pang of unease, but turned my attention away from it, focusing rather on the way in which Frank had strengthened and extended one line of my thinking. And when, a few days later, I put together an email message that incorporated Frank’s enriching addition to my thesis, I showed no sign of such unease.

The mailing was to a group of a half dozen people who’d expressed especial encouragement for my creating a book to celebrate the value of unfolding. In this email, I sketched out –for their reactions– my sense of how a growing respect for unfolding might be one of the emergent aspects of civilization’s evolution. And I presented, in capsule form, how this fit with each of the now-three institutional spheres I was looking at: democracy in the area of politics, science in the arena of our epistemological approach to the world, and capitalism as a system for economic activity.

The response I got back surprised me. My unawareness of my own unease seemed to have been paralleled by an obliviousness to how this inquiry of mine touched upon certain ideological issues, and how it therefore could run afoul of certain corresponding matters of doctrine.

“Capitalism isn’t about unfolding,” write Monica, one of my California friends, an environmental activist. “Look at the corporations. They’re these huge monoliths run on hierarchical lines. They trample people’s rights, not to mention despoil the earth,” and on she went with a condemnation of capitalism. A couple of other people similarly contested the idea that capitalism could be admitted into the sacred side of the unfolding versus control issue.

One of those other people, Joe, a holistic healer from Portland, Oregon, also banished modern science from the land of openness and unfolding. “It’s so left-brained,” was part of his critique. And he went on to excoriate science for it’s hubristic insistence that its rationality could uncover the truth about the cosmos.

And one of my correspondents, Doug, a social worker in Austin, Texas, branded our democratic system “just some control trip,” an institutional set-up that impeded the expression of communitarian concerns, of the true sociality of our human nature. The Constitution, he argued, was just so much rigging to set one group against another, so that inevitably it was those groups that were the best organized, the most aggressive, and the best funded that prevailed and, from their position of dominance, exploited the mass of the people.

Although it was difficult to know just where to begin in exploring some of these ideas, I dove in. And as I dealt with their arguments –if that word does not conjure up too orderly an image for their positions– I felt led to do a little mental housekeeping of my own.

I started by addressing Monica.

“The question of whether capitalism does or does not belong under the tent of ‘Unfolding,'” I said to Monica, “cannot be decided by pointing out that not all its fruits are benign. Can it? One could grant what you say about the market system not dealing with environmental values adequately but still recognize that as an economic system, the market system is based on allowing actors to do their thing– in the same sense that you have advocated,” I continued, making reference to her earlier message to me applauding my embarking on this project, “that we deal with young children in schools by letting them pursue their own interests rather than having schools impose a curriculum on them.

“And one can also stipulate that huge corporations are hierarchical systems that do not allow their human parts to act according to their own inner voice, without that stipulation in any way diminishing the reality that –within the system that it is embedded in– the big multinational is allowed to unfold according to its own logic, without having some other entity’s design being imposed upon it from above. No?”

And I made some effort also with Joe to see if he’d grant that, at some fundamental level, his critique against science was not a basis for excluding it from the many “mansions” that, I’d been suggesting in previous e-mails, belonged in the great House of Unfolding.

None of my arguments made the least impression, so far as I could see, on any of my fellow unfolders. Even after what was, in several cases, many back-and-forths to discuss the issues involved, my correspondents all insisted on excluding the realms they did not like –these established systems of ideas and institutions– saving the holy idea of just “letting things be” for the more favored domains that I’d proposed before, like creativity, psychotherapy, interpersonal communication.

I felt quite disgruntled by all this. I kept looking at the arguments they’d presented, trying to figure out why they drew the line as they did, half hoping to be able to see the sense of it. I continued to wonder whether perhaps I was missing some important distinction into which my compadres in the West possessed insight. After all, I sometimes struggled with the question of whether my comprehensive category of “unfolding” was entirely meaningful, whether it made sense to treat together as different aspects of the same thing the various phenomena –creativity, relationship, Holy Spirit, democracy and the rest– I was lumping together. One could, I thought, trust something about human nature to unfold right without that’s having any implications for whether the universe, or any of the systems in between, could be trusted. I struggled with the question of whether there were, as I sometimes intuited, organic connections among these levels of unfolding, or whether I was just over-indulging my predilection for discovering universal principals.

But, despite these uncertainties, I mostly suspected that my correspondents, with their indignant objections to my including capitalism and democracy and science among the domains of unfolding, were engaged in some sloppy thinking. My mental nose thought it was catching a whiff of the same sort of thing I encounter with some of my fundamentalist callers, such as the guy who explained how the dinosaur bones came from Noah’s Flood, or another who dismissed scientific methods for dating materials by saying “You can’t know what happened in the past from any facts, because you weren’t there.” All you’ve got to do is to turn the conclusion you want to reach into an assumption you start from, and you don’t have to deal with too much complexity or moral ambiguity. Like Monica seeming to assume, in the context of presumably exploring how and whether unfolding is good, that if a form of unfolding produces results that you don’t think are good, it cannot be a form of unfolding.

I hadn’t yet noticed, however, that I was also vulnerable to that temptation to keep my mental universe tidy, even at the cost of ignoring part of the real universe I was supposedly trying to understand.

A Call to Surrender

The day after my exchanges with the gang of institution-rejecters, I woke up to a message from Calvin. I’d replied to his earlier message about the universe being a place you can trust, and about the great fulfillment he was finding in leaning back into that trust rather than insisting on piloting his life as though through dangerous waters.

“I can’t tell you how much safer the world feels to me since this realization has come to me,” he’d written back. “I used to think that nothing good could happen for me unless I made it happen. Now I know that I can surrender to the Divine and I’ll be borne along to where I need to go. (And you asked, how did I ‘achieve’ this state? Andy, that’s just it. I didn’t ‘achieve’ anything. Achieving is what I used to do. This state of comfort I now have is just something I was given, a kind of Grace, though of course I don’t mean that the way the Christians do.)

“You may not know this, but I made a living for many years teaching people how to set their goals, and from there how to meet their goals. I thought I understood how a wise person gets from here to there. But now I realize that all this goal-setting just keeps one alienated from the deeper sacred reality: the current you can trust to carry you along, if you’ll only surrender to it.”

More disgruntlement. Something akin to a feeling I’ve gotten in churches of various stripes whenever some event –weddings and funerals, for example– gets me through their doors into the sanctums where doctrine gets pronounced with no Q & A period at the end. Part of that feeling is of the “What if they’re right?” variety. But mostly it is a feeling of alienation.

But why was I feeling alienated in response to Calvin’s message? Was he not articulating in a pure form the idea behind my celebratory impulse about the blessings of unfolding? If I didn’t want to follow the implications of my celebration to that conclusion, just what was it I did want to do?

In this state, I took stock of my energy, checking out what felt right to do, and decided I’d like to drop in on Anton Berg. (“Drop in” not in the Carrey sense of simply showing up, but rather visiting after a phone call to clear the way.) “It’s always a pleasure to see a clever man,” Anton said in response to my self-inviting inquiry, making paraphrasing reference to Smerdyakov’s conspiratorial comment to Ivan in Dostoyevski’s Brother’s Karamazov.

When I got to Anton’s, he shepherded me into his living room, a room I liked quite well, although it was too dark for my taste, for the deep and cozy Persian carpet and the cozily soft Moroccan leather couch that faced it. He offered to get me tea, which I almost always refuse in preference for hot water, straight up, but this time I accepted and even let him persuade me to try some new Chinese tea he’d acquired, although it was caffeinated and I was already somewhat in a state of agitation.

While he was off tinkering with the kettle, I noticed burning on the mantle several candles of a kind I well recognized. They were Yahrzeit candles, traditionally burned by European Jews on the anniversary of the death of some loved one. The fact that several were burning at once gave me a pretty clear notion of what kind of death it was that was being commemorated on Anton’s mantle. It was not a car crash that had wiped out so large a part of Anton’s family in a single day.

“Before you go, remind me, I should play for you a new recording I have of Bach’s motet, ‘Jesu Meine Freude,'” Anton said, as he re-entered the room with our tea. “I remember that’s your favorite, too, and this recording is really out of this world. That piece is always almost other-worldly, but this performance– ah, it brings tears to my eyes.” Having placed my cup onto the table before me, Anton was now settling into his matching Moroccan leather chair to face me, and then was looking at me over the rim of his teacup as he sipped the steaming, dark and aromatic brew.

“Ah, but your own music is apparently a bit dissonant,” he observed, reading my condition somehow from my face, in his usual highly insightful fashion.

“I see the Yahrzeits burning, Anton. It must be a very heavy thing.” My empathy was genuine. And perhaps I was also trying to evade Anton’s scrutiny by implying that my empathic comment was a response to –an explanation of– his observation of my troubled mind, instead of being the complete non sequitur that it was.

“Even after so many years,” he replied. “Some things just never seem to recede into a distance. And maybe that’s as it should be: if they live now only in my memory, perhaps it is fitting that my feeling of the loss of them remains no less alive for a half century (more!) having passed.”

We were both silent for a minute, sitting with that thought, and sipping our tea which, at least in my case, had a bit harder time finding its way down my throat for the feeling that suddenly I was holding there.

“So, Andy, how’s the muse been treating you?” He looked at me, his head bowed into his teacup, through the thatch of eyebrows that is one of the compensatory elements of a man’s aging process.

What the hell, I said to myself, acknowledging that it was the desire to talk about this that had brought me to Anton’s. And then I launched into a description of how the project was going, including, as an introduction, some of the ideas about unfolding that I’d found really exciting, but then going on to present him with some of my uneasiness. The exchange I’d had the day before about capitalism etc. figured prominently in this, as well as my alienation-in-church feeling from Calvin’s message. There were also some intriguing “problems” that had arisen that confounded me –the question that had arisen at the end of that conversation with Carry about whether trusting Something somehow required one to have faith in Everything– but, I said, these were the usual, welcome aspects of any really worthwhile investigation. But while those puzzles felt like juicy morsels for me to chew on, I felt that the others indicated there being something in my initial celebratory thesis that was proving hard for me to swallow.

“Something’s amiss, Anton. I hate to say it, but I feel my wheels aren’t really sitting right on the track. Like I’m walking straight but I’m on a trail that’s serpentine.” As distressed as I felt, I took an instant of pleasure from that second image, feeling that I’d come up with a good Gendlinian move to articulate my felt sense.

“Yes, I can see your distress,” Anton said, as he set his teacup down. “May I speak frankly?” He was pouring a bit more tea into his cup to warm it, and then, observing that mine was empty began to refill it, while I sought by gesture to wave him off.

“Hey, I’m Mr. Unfolding, so how can I possibly say no to the free flow of feedback?”

“Mr. Unfolding, you’re also a human being. And as far as I’m concerned, a human being has a right not to be completely open to everything. A right, and maybe even a duty– to himself.”

“I do want to hear what you have to say.”

“You’re feeling vulnerable, not sure how much of the bit of intellectual and spiritual property you’ve been working to stake out for yourself you’re going to have to surrender . Right?”

I considered speech, but the words somehow never traveled to my mouth, and so I nodded. And then, with my hand extended out with the palm showing, invited Anton to say his say.

“Let me say, first, that you may well have your hands on some very worthwhile ideas, here. I have only a somewhat vague idea of just how you’re developing those areas that have felt good under your hand. But it sounds rich.

“But this overall rubric into which you’re wanting to put everything… How do you put it? ‘A Celebration of the Value of Unfolding.’ It seems to me a procrustean bed. I mean, whatever wisdom looks like, I doubt it will fit into that bed without the foot-lopping-off and the stretching-on-the-rack for which Procrustes was known. That, I think, is what you are sensing, much to your consternation, from your interaction with your New Age acolytes of this flabby-ideology-of-a-Beattle’s-song, ‘Let it Be.'”

I took this in for a moment, without saying anything directly in return. I knew immediately that I wasn’t going to correct him about the song, about it’s only being George Harrison’s and not the whole group’s. Not all impulses must be followed, I recognized. And then I found the question I felt I needed to ask, to have the problem slice off neatly into my hands. If Anton had the answer.

“How do you get it that this rubric –the celebration of unfolding– is a Procrustean bed?”

“Ah, let me give it to you in utter simplicity: If unfolding is so great, why is it that not everything is wonderful?”

It was amazing.

It was amazing, first, what happened in my mind almost instantaneously upon hearing Anton make that statement. What I heard was as if he’d not just pronounced his bald question but had laid out a whole complex logical argument. (Indeed, it was not until later in the conversation that it occurred to me to confirm with Anton whether I’d understood correctly the architecture of thought behind his question. I had.) In the next twinkling, I envisioned how my fellow unfolders would counter his question –“not everything’s wonderful because of all those right-brained, dominating, will-power driven controls”– and I also saw how irrelevant that counter would be, how it misses the point. It was like some tectonic plate in my mind had suddenly quaked and shifted.

And it was amazing, second, that I should need Anton to declaim to me this amazingly simple observation. That one, beyond being amazing, was downright embarrassing.

What I saw in that first twinkling was that I’d set up an unsustainable polarity between the unfolding flow (which was declared good) and the controls we impose (which were declared bad). Unsustainable because– if nothing else — of the argument I somehow grokked behind Anton’s simple question, an argument that ran thus: 1) All the controls that I was implicitly setting up as “the problem” –people not expressing what they feel, people having agendas and plans, people acting like the Army Corps of Engineers– were late comings to the cosmos, developing in the course of the cosmic evolution that had unfolded. 2) In the beginning, therefore, there was just unfolding. And 3) among the things that had unfolded had been all the problems that beset the world, so that whether those problems are seen as the fruits of control or not they certainly were all inevitably and ultimately the fruits of the unfolding.

And what was embarrassing about my having somehow not really looked this conundrum squarely in the face, while I worked to conceive my “unfolding” project, was not just that the problem is pretty obvious just on the face of it. Also, Anton’s argument connected profoundly with ideas deeply embedded in my own previous work.

A starkly dramatic instance was my magnum opus, my first published book The Parable of the Tribes. That work had asked the question, why has civilization developed in so destructive a way? And the answer it proposed might be summarized as saying, it’s because —from an inevitable lack of control over how civilized societies would interact together—there emerged an unchosen and destructive social evolutionary process that made the ways of power the only viable ways for human societies. In other words, the human tragedy has been caused by too much unadulterated unfolding, to this point, and not enough control over the process in which humankind has been swept up.

I mentioned this to Anton, after I’d absorbed my amazement, and asked, “What the hell does it mean that I could have ideas like these –important to me and well established in my mind– without bringing them properly to bear on this new idea I’ve been working on developing?” To which he responded only with a gesture full of avuncular sympathy.

And then I commented on how I myself had even formulated an argument like the one I’d understood Anton to be making, about unfolding being prior and therefore the source of all that came after. In an earlier investigation, while discussing the polarity in Chinese culture between the Confucian orientation and the Taoist, and in particular the Taoist indictment of the Confucians for subverting the earlier perfection of the Tao, I’d made the same undercutting move as Anton’s: if the earlier state was perfect, whence then came the Confucian evils?

Amazing, and depressing, that I could, after all that, set out in so naive a fashion on my unfolding project. “Ridiculous!” I declared to Anton, delivering my verdict on myself, after we’d discussed it a while longer.

“Don’t be too hard on yourself,” Anton cajoled. “It’s not the end of the world.”

“No, not of the world.”

“No, nor of your project. At least it doesn’t have to be.”

“What project? I mean, what is my project about? If the idea of unfolding is not clearly so wonderful a thing, if my original celebration concept was just a simple-minded notion, what do I have left?”

“You already knew that ‘just letting things unfold’ wasn’t altogether the course of wisdom. Remember? We had that conversation a while back about the importance –in something like the Apollo 13 mission–of careful planning. And at many other points in our brief conversations since then, you’ve not hesitated to acknowledge how the value of unfolding was just a part of the picture.”

“I knew it wasn’t so simple, but I somehow clung to the idea that I could make it simple, or at least build around a simple thesis.”

“So you knew. So now you know in a more integrated way. So what’s really changed?”

“What’s my book about? Any good book, they say, has got to be summarizable in a nifty little sentence. ‘A celebration of the value of letting things unfold instead of trying to control and impose our will upon them’ was a nifty sentence of that kind. A bit vague perhaps –not as good, maybe, as ‘How to lose weight,’ or ‘An account of how Princess Diana found fulfillment in love before the end’– but serviceable. But what handle have I got now?”

“That one-sentence business is just marketing baloney, just a way of appeasing our sound-bite culture so you can give a good two-minute radio interview to sell your book.”

“No, it’s more than that. A coherent book needs a coherent core that holds its parts together, makes the work intelligible as a whole. That’s what I say I’m lacking. And, yes! I realize now that all along I felt uncertain about that core.”

“That feeling of uncertainty was telling you something important, and maybe now you can attend to it. But your feeling of enthusiasm– that also told you something important. And what’s kept you interested and involved– that reality will also, when you excavate that core idea in its purer form, keep your reader interested and involved.”

I knew that Anton was right, and yet emotionally I really felt completely defeated. At some level, I glimpsed that just as –earlier– I’d kept at the fringes of my consciousness the troubling complications in the picture, in order to focus on my beloved thesis, now I was switching the picture to its negative: focusing only on the dead wood, and not letting myself admit fully into my awareness the more vibrant parts that, with some pruning and care, could grow up into whatever this project should be. Or at least whatever it should be given that it was growing in the soil of my mind and spirit.

Soon, I got up to take my leave, thanking Anton for his hospitality, and also for his helping me see how the path I was on wasn’t the right one. And, as we parted, he encouraged me, to “stick with it, kid,” telling me that he had every confidence in me, even if I didn’t at that moment myself.

The View from the Ditch

No, not every confidence. As I drove home, in fact, I was seeing ‘this unfolding fiasco’ as yet another in my growing collection of dead-ends, another of those undertakings whose exhumation and presumed resurrection and recycling in the “unfolding” exploration was a not-trivial part of my initial excitement about this new project. Once again, I was telling myself despondently, I’d headed off down a path with all sense of mission only to come to a cul de sac. My sense of promise had proven yet again untrustworthy. So what basis was there for my having confidence in myself?

When I got tired of dumping on myself for what continued to impress me as amazing foolishness, I turned my sour breath onto Doctorow with his notion of writing without seeing further than what’s lit up by your headlights. Maybe, I thought, I should go back to my old tried-and-true methods of working: get a good clean thesis firmly in hand, proceed systematically to substantiate and develop it, map out the whole damned journey, and set out with the outline, writing in a “If it’s Tuesday it must be Roman Numeral II, Section A” fashion. Then I wondered, is that really how I used to work? Anyway, this proceeding by hunch and intuition, following a course of unpredictable unfolding– it was just getting me into a ditch.

For a little while, when I got home, I tried climbing back onto the horse that threw me. OK, what if Anton’s right, then what’s the core idea of the book? All I came up with were the thoughts I’d already been having in my celebratory phase. So I got back off the horse. Horses don’t even have headlights.

The rest of the afternoon I spent chopping and splitting firewood. It was good therapy. For a long while, my thoughts focused on rather tangible problems like reading the grain of each piece of oak or hickory to discover the angle to drive the ax so the log would split neatly apart. When I’d been at it long enough that my shoulders had expelled all their violent impulses and were lapsing into fatigue, my mind started playing around with its more usual toys.

The sheering of the wood along the lines of its grain put me in mind of Chuang Tzu’s butcher with his deft lopping of the ox’s carcass into its proper pieces. So why couldn’t I find the grain on this unfolding problem, I complained. And then, when I tried, I found myself again coursing along the now-habitual lines of thought, and again gave up.

Soon, that image from Doctorow about seeing no further than one’s headlights, combined with my experience of being unable to approach my “unfolding” subject matter freshly, reminded me of that “Lousy First Drafts” piece I had begun months before and had left as a fragment. As I continued to swing the ax –the idea of physical exhaustion really appealed to me– I noticed that a variety of new elements germane to that “lousy first drafts” theme were beginning to swirl and assemble in my mind.

The ideas connected in some confusing and intriguing ways. Some were intimately entwined with that intellectual landmine I’d walked into at Anton’s: the idea about how at some fundamental level everything is really unfolding, about how all the ways we get stuck, as well as the ways we break through, are inevitably the fruits of how things unfold. Some also connected with the initial themes that drew me to the idea of unfolding: about the beauty of being able to remain open to learning from the reality of each new moment, and to help its best possibilities to unfold. And as the “Lousy First Drafts” piece itself had begun with my frustration at how –for me– writing can’t be trusted to just unfold straightforwardly into its proper form, and at how difficult I find it to reconstruct what has been laid down wrong at the outset, the thrust of that piece connected quite directly with my immediate feelings of blockage and failure. Much wood got split while I watched these new elements weave themselves across my current frame of mind.

When I finally quit the swinging-of-the-ax work, I went inside and set down some notes about these swirling elements, thinking perhaps I would turn to them on the morrow. Not only did “Lousy First Drafts” seem a promising channel for venting my current frustrations, but also if I could manage to compose something that pleased me –as had my graven images piece before– that would also help ameliorate my feelings of incompetence and more general worthlessness.

And so, the following morning, and on into that afternoon and evening, I carried the “Lousy First Draft” piece considerably further.

Lousy First Drafts, Revisited

I started at the point where I’d left off months before, contrasting Anne Lamott’s advocacy of just plunging ahead into a first draft with my fear of getting stuck in the hasty mistake, unable to free myself, just as the Children of Israel who’d been delivered from bondage in Egypt were still so bound to their original mindset as slaves that they were barred from entry to the Promised Land. From there I went on into exploring some of my ambivalence and confusion about movement and stuckness, and the difficulty of getting things ever to flow right.

I was amazed once again, amazed this time to discover, in the wake of the intellectual earthquake Anton had helped to trigger, how profoundly both the flow and the controls over it seemed part of both our problems and their solutions, and at how hard it now seemed to me to distinguish between the river and its channel. As I watched the stream of ideas and images that was coming out of me, I couldn’t quite tell where I was celebrating the process of unfolding and where I was lamenting it.

The writing manifested both the clarity that make me feel, like the Scottish runner, “I can feel God’s pleasure” when I compose, and the confusion that was besetting my struggle with the question of unfolding.

If It’s Fixed, How do you Break It?

Maybe the fundamental difference between Anne Lamott and me [I began this new segment of the piece], underlying our difference on the issue of first drafts, is that perhaps my clay tends more than hers to get fixed into a form that’s hard to alter. Maybe, that is, she’s better at maintaining flexibility. In any event, it is certainly the case that writing is not the only realm where I encounter in myself the powerful persistence of old structures.

Take, for example, on the bodily level. Every day, I spend some time –with yoga and some other exercises– trying to deal with ways I hold tension in my body. Someplace along the line, probably in childhood, I evidently developed habits of tightening up around the neck and upper back, and since my twenties I’ve been confronting the discomfort that comes from such chronic adaptations.

In the quarter century since I first became aware of these old patterns, I’ve been seeking ways of liberating myself from them. (Working on my various habitually tightened muscles, I’ve thought how sometimes the “bonds” of one’s bondage can be worn on the inside.)

Like Odysseus trying to get home to Ithaca, I’ve stumbled into one adventure after another in this quest. It is a tug of war, it seems, between the old habits becoming still more deeply ingrained through continuing repetition and new understandings and practices opening up for me new and freer ways of being in my body. I can see both sides making progress.

If only, I sometimes think wishfully, I could start now with my present understanding and a fresh body. But I’m stuck with the body I’ve got, one shaped by the set of habits –some good, some not– I stumbled into without much awareness of just what was unfolding, or where it was heading.

Now I find that, like water digging out the trench of its streambed, the energies of the body are hard to wrest from the patterns of habit.

And take breathing. My New Year’s Resolution this year was to strive seriously to make my breathing deeper and more regular. It was a goal I adopted because I knew from experience how powerful good breathing can be –putting one in touch with the core of one’s being, opening up a larger space for the spirit. And the wisdom of various spiritual traditions bolsters the lessons of my own experience.

One might think that the knowledge of how good breathing can enhance well-being, wedded with the will to live accordingly, would be sufficient to bring a person to the respiratory Promised Land. After all, breathing is something that is at least apparently under the sway of the conscious will. We can choose to hold our breath. We can choose –at a doctor’s instructions, for example– to breathe more deeply.

But freedom is, in fact, not so easily gained.

For a few minutes at a time –if I try very hard– I can practice the kind of breathing called for in my New Year’s Resolution. And the pay-off is immediate. Nonetheless, almost immediately I revert to the breathing practices of my long-standing habits– the shallow, the constricted, the irregular– abandoning the path I know leads to well-being.

It’s not as though the kind of breathing I wish to practice is a sophisticated achievement. I’m not trying to play the piano like Horowitz, or make a move to the hoop like Jordan. Just to breathe like a healthy animal.

From my observation of babies, I gather that the breathing I now strive to achieve I already practiced as an infant. But the forces of life conspired to lead me in a different direction and, without my even knowing what I was doing, I adopted other patterns that over time sculpted me into the imperfect, not altogether comfortable human being that I am.

How much easier it would have been if, instead of having now to revise my old habits, I could have known as a child what I’ve learned since. But back then I didn’t understand the structures I was laying down. I was driving, one might say, seeing no further than my headlights could illuminate– completely mindless, at any rate, of what it would feel like, after decades of wearing into those grooves, to have a rib cage that is indeed a cage, confining the creature within.

What is true of the body is no less true of the psyche. Since my teens I have been engaged in a quest for wisdom of the kind that, if practiced, would lead to a life well led. In this search, I have come to believe that many of the attitudes and ideas I adopted on my way to maturity are impediments to fulfillment. And over the years –on my own, and with occasional help and support from others– I have worked to revise in my psychic make-up, to replace the more foolish of my internal programs with wiser versions.

(At the same time, I recognize that that first draft must have had some good material in it to enable me to work to improve on it.)

In many ways, this labor has been richly rewarded. I’m willing, at moments where false modesty is not required, to claim to have achieved some wisdom. I even, in many ways, have been able to act on that wisdom at important crossroads where the first draft of my world view would have dictated a very different course.

But daily, even moment to moment, I am witness to the persistence of my folly. Even where it does not dictate my steps –because of the ability of the disciplined will to make some of the larger decisions– this folly continually colors my experience.

Take my ambition, for example. I emerged into semi-mature consciousness persuaded that great achievement and the goodies that come with it are the key to finding happiness in life. They are, I understood implicitly, the foundation for enduring feelings of self-worth.

It has been a very long time since I came to the conclusion that this is, mostly, foolishness and began seeking to displace the original folly with what I believe to be the greater wisdom.

In many ways, my life reflects the fruits of that work. But in many ways, the old gods still rule. I still experience that primitive mixture of humiliation and resentment, of shame and narcissistic compensation, of bitterness and yearning, when my work does not get the recognition I’d like it to have.

The old emotional structures can be discerned at times when I think of how my radio show is confined to the Shenandoah Valley while a turkey like Rush Limbaugh gets five hundred stations across the country; when I get to do a brief debate on local TV while George Will gets his hour a week on ABC; when my book isn’t even on the shelf at B Dalton while…. well, you get the picture. And every day, I have to propitiate the gods of achievement in some way or another, or they will send upon my head a ponderous cloud of gloom.

This persisting ambition is, of course, just one of a variety of residual texts from my psychic first draft that keep me from living the life of the enlightened sage that, I believe, I might lead if only I could truly erase those parts of my first psychic draft I now judge to be regrettable.

Which brings me to reconsider an earlier point. When I recall more fully what Anne Lamott writes in Bird By Bird in juxtaposition with what I just wrote about my struggles with “ambition,” I’m inclined to take back my earlier statement about her clay and mine hardening differently.

In an entire chapter on “Jealousy,” and throughout the book, she gives often hilarious intimations of a whole labyrinth of foolish and unhappy ways in which she habitually deals with life’s situations. Her humor shows her to have an understanding that transcends her petty and neurotic patterns, but at the same time much of the humor derives its power from how fully it takes for granted that these primeval beasts continue to ravage in the jungle of her psychic life.

She may be better able than I to shake off the imprint of lousy first drafts on her way to writing a novel, but she also seems just as caught as I in the hardened clay in which the basic laws of her psychological and emotional modus operandi were first inscribed.

And in this, both Anne Lamott and I are merely typical human beings. I don’t know a soul who emerged into maturity without serious defects in the first psychic draft.

The Baggage of History

As burdensome as these lousy first drafts are in the unfolding story of our individual lives, they can be positively catastrophic in that collective story we call our history. Everyone quotes George Santayana’s saying that whoever does not learn from history is doomed to repeat it. But there’s ample evidence that more dangerous than our failing to learn from history can be our succeeding in doing so.

Learning from history serves us best when the present resembles the past. This is presumably what Santayana had in mind: when an old problem recurs, we can learn from history which solutions work and which don’t. But such learning can be positively maladaptive when new circumstances make the old strategies obsolete.

Another much-quoted line declares how the generals are always fighting the last war. A striking element in Ken Burns’ marvelous documentary, The Civil War, is the explanation given for the terrible carnage on so many of the battlefields of that conflict: the commanders kept using tactics that were suitable for an earlier stage in military technology. It’s astonishing that the lesson being taught by the new reality –taught so emphatically, so bloodily, with the stakes so high, one would think, as to motivate the swiftest unlearning and relearning– did not get absorbed in a single afternoon. Not even, really, over the years-long course of the entire war.

Even a half century after the American Civil War –in a still bigger conflict in Europe that, in terms of technology and tactics, was in some ways prefigured by that American war– the lesson remained unlearned. The generals in World War I kept sending human waves up against machine guns, as if the old rules of warfare still applied.

I imagine a child –blessed with ignorance of all that obsolete “knowledge”– would have seen the folly of such tactics in a moment. How many thousands of bodies have to pile up in no-man’s land before the point becomes obvious?

Mark Twain said that it isn’t what we don’t know that’s dangerous, it’s what we do know that ain’t so. To which I would add, some of the most dangerous parts of what we know that ain’t so is what was once so but ain’t no longer.

And it’s certainly not only in matters military that we humans continue to once useful ideas to new situations to which they are completely unsuited.

On my radio show where I live in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, I have callers whose answer to the issue of population growth is to quote the biblical verse, “Go forth and multiply.”

I observe to them that this injunction was delivered, reportedly, when the human population of the earth was two, and that perhaps when the population gets to be six billion some different policies may be required. But I don’t think I make any impression.

One can find that same problem of people having learned from history, and blissfully hoping to repeat it, in every other aspect of the environmental crisis– a crisis in which huge numbers of people, each consuming such unprecedented quantities of resources, are having a destructive impact on a finite and ecologically interconnected planet.

The water and air and earth were for centuries good dumping grounds for the thoughtless disposal of our wastes. So why not continue such dumping? George Washington didn’t enter into global treaties to manage planetary systems like the ozone layer or the quantities of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, so why should we? Enshrining national sovereignty as our god preserved us over the ages, people ask, so why not stick with that?

The well-worn grooves in our collective understanding represent both an invaluable heritage and a threat to our survival– now that we’ve stumbled into a world we could scarcely have imagined, and one that requires of us a redrafting of many old texts.

Old Messes

And even when we do manage to learn new lessons, we are stuck with lousy first drafts of another sort.

Take the blessed falling into disfavor of the once-glorified practice of imperial conquest. It seems that in just the past half-dozen generations, civilization has made some real progress in its attitudes on this score. No longer is it considered heroic, as it was in the ancient world, to seize cities and put their inhabitants to the sword. No longer do we admire the society that uses its might to seize the lands of its neighbors. This is not to say that the world is free of bullies and tyrants, of course, but they now bring upon themselves more opprobrium than applause.

This gives us some basis for hoping that we can now revise the world as we have inherited it, making it a place ruled by justice. But once again we come up against that problem of the lousy first drafts, albeit at a different level.

Aside from the persistence of old habits of thought that interfere with our capacity to grasp the nature of our opportunities, there’s the lousy first draft of the civilized world that history has left on our doorstep.

Even if we had the imagination and the moral vision to want to create a world ruled by the lion-lies-down-with-the-lamb values of peace and justice, it’s far from clear how we’d go about revising the map we’ve inherited. What the English did in Ireland over the centuries is atrocious, but nonetheless the Protestants now left in Northern Ireland have every reason to call that place home. The Latvians are understandably resentful of the large numbers of Russians dwelling in their midst, the legacy of an era of imperial conquest. But those ethnic Russians, too, are human beings, and many of them have never lived anywhere other than Latvia. What does a good final draft look like that must start with this as the first draft?

Wouldn’t it be a lot easier to create a world that fulfills our ideas if, somehow, we could sit down together –with all our notes from our millennia of experience– and make a fresh start on an unsullied map?

In any event, we are stuck with history and given no chances for truly fresh starts. And history is not a pretty sight.

How the Moving Finger Writes

The whole human project has been problematic from the dawn of history.

Very early on in the human story, as told by our cultural tradition, we find the Author of the Universe mightily displeased by the way the story of this particular, special character –man– is unfolding. And so the Author decides to deal with his problem of a lousy first draft by using a variant of the bulldozer approach. Destroy it and start over, taking bits and pieces from the first draft, specifically some representative seed for all the non-human forms of life plus the best (Noah and family) of that sorry lot, man.

But though the Flood falls far short of eliminating all the problems with the human narrative, God has meanwhile bound Himself with a promise that He’ll never again just start over. In the future, apparently, God will confine Himself to interventions to revise the pre-existing draft, however lousy it may be.

A crucial question arises: Why did so great an Author have such difficulties with his draft of this particular creature? Seeing human history as having always been a mess –as far back as the eye could see– our culture has grown up around the assumption that there must be some kind of mess at the core of our essential nature.

The most famous version of this assumption is the notion of original sin. According to this idea, God created a first draft that not only was defective, but that inescapably passed along that defect intact to all subsequent editions of humanity.

Although humankind itself does display some kind of “lousy first draft” problem, its essence is different, I believe, from that suggested by the Biblical stories.

Our ancient interpretations were made more plausible by the fact that human history looked grim and troubled as far back as the eye could see. But it turned out that the eye could not see all that far back. It’s only in the past two centuries that the growth of scientific knowledge has pushed immeasurably further how far back into human origins the eye can see. And this expanded timeline puts the problematic nature of our species in a rather different light.

What we see is not a creature that arrived fully human and fresh from the factory at virtually the beginning of time. Rather we got to that place gradually. Not made from the dust in minutes, but emerging from the primeval ooze over several billion years. Either way, we end up being a problem. But how our nature got written has implications for how our problems are to be understood.

The way evolution creates new things accords with the Lamottian embrace of lousy first drafts: don’t worry if the earlier version isn’t just right, you can figure it out as you go along.

Figuring it out as you go along means always building on what already is in order to achieve what might be. Your ancestors had gills? OK, now that we’ve got you on land, we’ll gradually change them into nifty new glands. You’ve come down from a reptilian past, but they weren’t too bright. OK, we’ll append some thinking stuff as a cap to sit atop the old reptilian brain.

The result is a design different from the one you’d use if you were God working in Eden with a clean slate and a free hand with design.

Often, the vestigial remnants of the earlier drafts are inconsequential. The human optical system, for example, gives us a blind spot. This flaw is the consequence of some earlier evolutionary stages where the initial wiring set up didn’t matter; working from a different initial draft for vision, the evolutionary process was able to spare the octopus this particular piece of optical gerry-rigging. But not to worry: we’ve got various compensations that allow us to fill in our blindspots, almost all the time.

But sometimes the price of evolution’s way of proceeding by revision is not so negligible. All of us who have had wisdom teeth removed, for example, are paying the price of the transition from one jaw design to another.

Another somewhat more serious example involves our spinal design. It’s only a handful of million years since our ancestors wore their spines horizontally. For various important reasons, since then we’ve become upright– posturally if not in every other way. And so –wearing vertically a backbone designed, in earlier drafts, to work like a suspension bridge– we suffer from an epidemic of chronically aching backs.

And then there are those crowns that give us dominion over the earth: our brains.

Because of our marvelous brains, our kind has come into the possession of enormous, almost godlike powers. But are these brains up to the job of enabling us to use those powers wisely, or even sanely?

Some people are reflexively sanguine on this score: any challenge humankind creates for itself, it must necessarily be able to meet. It’s easy to see why one would like to believe in such logic, just as the appeal is obvious of such kindred expressions of automatic optimism as “Any problem technology creates, more technology can solve” and “God never gives a person more to bear than he’s able.” But all these cases appear to me a triumph of wishful over rigorous thinking. Certainly logic requires none of these conclusions (and as far as evidence is concerned, on the subject of what God gives people to bear, it’s hard to imagine what refuting evidence would look like if it hasn’t already been amply provided by the world around us.)

The evolutionary perspective supports no such automatic optimism.

Because of its Lamott-like wanton embrace of first drafts, evolution’s way of designing creatures is like Doctorow’s writing of novels: without seeing far down the highway.

The lack of foresight rendered evolution prone, in the human project, to the problems of the Peter Principle. That’s the comical notion that in organizations each person gets promoted to the level of his incompetence: “You did a great job at level X, so you’ll get sent up to level X + 1, and so on till you run into serious problems (and cease to get promoted).”

We keep getting promoted into ever-greater powers, while the effort to develop the corresponding wisdom to go with them lags dangerously behind.

During the years of the cold war, with its nuclear stand-off and doctrines of Mutual Assured Destruction, we certainly had reason to wonder whether creatures whose history showed such a lust for blood could survive their invention of such tools for mass annihilation.

I’m not one of those who, looking at human history, jumps to indict our kind for inherent viciousness. History is indeed full of blood but, as I’ve tried to show in two of my books, the grisly turn in human history can be explained without positing in human nature a corresponding inclination toward violence and brutality. It’s enough that creatures as adaptable as we fell into unavoidable circumstances that rewarded –required– violence and ruthlessness. Among the ways we can become, the way we must become to survive is what we will become– those of us, if any, who survive, anyway.

However much or little truth there may be in my explanation of the role of violence and domination in history in terms of circumstance rather than human nature, however, it is certainly sensible to wonder whether a creature that evolved to fight with fists and (maybe) sticks is likely to be mentally and emotionally equipped to possess weapons that could, in a flash, destroy whole cities or even incinerate the entire biosphere.

That’s the essence of the dilemma of civilized humankind: not whether our impulses and tendencies are inherently evil, but whether they correspond with the new challenges into which we have stumbled. Our organism evolved in adaptation to demands profoundly different from those facing the Colossus our species has now become.

If you were designing a creature to hold the fate of the planet in his hands, you’d probably not want to start with the first draft written for an overbright primate living in little bands and subsisting off what nature spontaneously provides him. But that’s the draft we’ve got: despite the complete overhaul in the structure of human life in the past 10,000 years, that’s the equipment with which, still, each human baby is born.

And so, given how much faster our social evolution has been changing the demands upon us than biological evolution can change the organismic equipment we’re given to meet them, culture must struggle to bridge that gap. Our learning must revise and amend that inborn text so we might perceive the world and respond to it in a manner fitting to our new station as lords of creation.

And how well are we doing at this?

Think of it this way: in an era where it is become increasingly evident that the habits of our daily lives are wreaking changes on the planet and its climate that could deeply threaten future generations, for every minute we spend addressing such challenges we are spending hundreds of hours of our attention on questions of whether a former football star will be convicted of the murder of his former wife and her male companion, and hundreds more investigating the sexual conduct of a high elected official.

It’s not that we’re irresponsible –though that’s one way of looking at it– it seems to be just the way we’re wired. In the circumstances in which our mental equipment was drafted, sex and conflict at the individual level were the news. Managing the global climate wasn’t in our job description. We’re built to attend to the level of the human life-story; the big picture was invisible– too “abstract” — way over our heads.

That’s how it can happen that people will show their good hearts, with tens of millions feeling intense involvement in the saga of some little girl trapped in a well in Texas, while those same people will show their “indifference” to the well-being of other people’s kids through their utter lack of interest in enacting public policies that could save thousands of kids on whom the cameras aren’t trained.

What would it look like, some good draft of a mind for a creature newly designed to play the role humankind now plays on this planet, to inhabit and run a civilization such as we have constructed over the course of the centuries? I don’t know, but I’ve little doubt it would be quite different from the mind through which most of us now see the world. And it’s an open question whether such a rightly-designed mind will ever prove achievable through the revision of the first draft that’s been handed to us by evolution.

When I reached this point, I wasn’t sure if I’d come to the end of the piece or if there was more wanting to be said. Something flashed across my mental screen, and I started a next paragraph with the sentence, “The universe is a mystery.” But whatever was the idea that line was pointing toward somehow vanished from my mind. I looked over the piece, found it still seemed incomplete, and then decided to put the two thus-far-written segments of “Lousy First Drafts” aside to see what time would bring.

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One Response to “The Path of Unfolding Does Not Run Straight (Chapter 5 of THE RIVER AND ITS CHANNEL)”

  1. Galen T. Pickett Says:

    There’s a lot here to chew on … particularly the “why isn’t everything wonderful” question. I’ll have to chew on it more.

    One wrinkle I’ll add, just because I am a short-sighted parochial, is that science would become a branch of engineering if there were no “right brain” element to it. Scientific discovery can be drawn by demand (there’s a lot of this sort of interest in nanotechnology right now) but it just as often goes ahead through unplanned channels. That’s just the way an investigation of the unknown has to go forward. You can’t plow fields, plant seeds, irrigate, and harvest discoveries by pure sweat. Sometimes, these things are hunted and gathered.

    But this is a very, very minor point given the sweep of the chapter.

    I do know enough about the history of science and technology and its impact on society to understand how choices made in the past constrain not just what is possible to do, but what it is possible to discover.

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