posted 6/11/2009; revised 7/7/2013

Human Relationships
[the most important aspect of being human]

by Lloyd Harrison Whitling

Spirituality has a kind of fuzzy unreality about it, like it’s something everybody has a belief or idea about, none of which hits the mark across the board. Most people seem to sense some kind of invisible world into which we are immersed. It is as though air takes on a strange existence similar to water, but much thinner, so that we wade amidst almost perceptible fish, frogs and polliwogs all the while we are alive. It being thinner, this so-called ‘supernatural’ realm, made from some kind of immaterial stuff, lacks substance in any substantial way that can accommodate our senses. That, however anyone attempts to explain it, is what it boils down to by most accounts. Atheists like to describe it as imaginary.

It seems easy to explain the many gods in negative fashions that show them as strictly human creations made up to explain the unknown, thought to be unknowable, aspects of nature that have frightened humans ever since the most ancient times, or to gain control as a result of power plays by one group over another, or simply to enforce a sense of cohesiveness and ability to share habitat in a developing culture. We, who deem ourselves guilty of atheism, like to think of the religious as being lazy-minded and ignorant by choice, are equally guilty of that critique when we, ourselves, go no farther than such as that while indulging ourselves with lah-dee-dah feelings of superiority.

It seems too easy to avoid the clamor of raucous religionists who pounce upon us at every opportunity to tell us about the angel-like fish swimming all around us, the goddish squids whose many arms reach into all aspects of our lives, the bottom-feeding demons who inhabit the earth beneath our feet and reach up to pull us down to their own hellish level. We think them crazy because we see no evidence of any such existences, and nothing from which to infer any testable hypotheses. We swiftly declare such as impossible to exist, that there can be nothing to which we do not have access one way or another through our mighty set of senses. If it is real, it can be somehow measured; if it is not real, it is imagined and has no bearing on anything important to us. We want nothing more to do with any of that.

Perhaps that serves to explain the amount of poverty in which many atheists choose to live. It makes a good example of the limitations inherent to that kind of thinking. Money is something people value as a medium of exchange. Its value is, of course, set by agreements between individuals, or between groups. Other things get valued in accordance with that, and such parameters as depreciation rates, equity, personal worth get stated in accordance. It is a well worked out system of thought, considering its weaknesses and psychological implications.

And, yes, as many stories attest, there are those who throw it away by declaring it worthless and refusing to participate in it. Are they also crazy? They must be, most of us seem to think, if they would throw away a life of relative ease and comfort and choose, as a result, the dire constraints imposed by poverty. But, have they not thrown away something very much akin to what the religious claim to offer us?

Look what we are saying in this, as in many other instances: Value, as affluence, has no existence beyond human agreement, and yet it affects us deeply. The ability to scribble a figure onto a piece of paper called a ‘check’, that represents an electronic impulse made upon a computer hard drive at some untraceable location, enables the grander styles of living for those of us who can legitimately perform such an act. How do we verify our legitimacy? By the same methods as do those who pounce upon us to tell us their stories about the goddish fish and frogs and polliwogs: We present a paper trail that leads us to a trusted source; in this case, to a bank; in their case, to a set of scriptures. It is a matter of trust and agreement, after all, and we can distrust either paper trail if we feel so inclined and are willing to endure whatever consequences might accrue, Pascal’s wager aside.

Now, I know you must be as bright as myself, and so I won’t need to bore you with very many other similar examples of nonexistent things that, one way or another, affect us and impose deep consequences for our avoidance of them, or our refusal to acknowledge them. I would suggest, instead, that you ply your brightness onto the nature of such things as time, color, distance or the beat frequencies in sound and radio waves. There is another aspect of this enigmatic aspect of existence that does not so closely depend upon human agreement to be effective. I’ll use my page space to talk about it.

That is the element of language we call ‘metaphor’. Yes, it doesn’t on its own exist; still, it lies to us in ways more vivid that anything real, can arouse crowds to murderous rage, or by a mere utterance quiet the herd mania that drives humans to do deeds more dastardly than we would wish to acknowledge as part of our capacities. Metaphor is an art-form that talented humans can develop and use, as they choose, to benefit or swindle their fellow beings. It is simple in practice, requires practice and a sense of vision, a developed vocabulary, and a right-brained deftness that can make the difference between a human being as a canoe and the same person as an ocean liner.

The American rightwing religious have applied metaphor to the point of linguicide while making personal attacks to slander those they regard to be their enemies. Seekers of amassed political power, their enemies will be all those who stand in their way. These ones understand very well what I am writing here, while those opposing them appear weak in their grasp of the esoteric, preferring to discount any value to it rather than attempt to gain any understanding of how and why it works so well against themselves. “Truth will win out!” appears untrue after a lifetime of observation. “Great and vivid vision will paint the dreams that conquer all resistance” has always been what wins out. Without the ability to express in vivid language what is actually true, no ears will hear and no eyes will see the message that atheists would tell the world.

We, who fight among ourselves about details and matters strictly of fact, are very poor examples of what could be the best there is of humanity. We may be more ethical and honorable, less murderous, more open and honest, and realize of each other that, somehow, is what it takes to become and maintain our atheism. But, we allow our skepticism to drive us away from what it is that makes us human, our ability to express our thoughts and knowledge in picturesque language that enables others’ eyes to glow with the dawning of insight, and feel the awe, the truly spiritual awe, of realization. It is that awe, that luscious rush of joy-inducing chemicals, that we fail to inspire in each other and in the world. It gives us a bitter taste, where we have any flavor at all.

Our sour flavor rises up from a refusal to acknowledge a valid place for metaphor in our language, and a resultant tendency to reify what amounts to only a picture without realizing that a religious tendency in that exact same vein is what has resulted in a version of reality wherein swim the misty allusions of religion. We, who criticize them for their objective failures, copy them while we gripe.

A reluctance toward metaphor disables us in important ways, even as much as over-employment combined with reification disables the religious. What I am saying here is, it is equally wrong to refuse the image as it is to adopt it as something real. We would not do that with a graphical work of art, we would recognize it as fiction serving a moral lesson, and not insist to the world it is a photograph. Good metaphor places vivid and telling images into human minds and deserves the same kind of recognition.

So, the finny and winged creatures sailing in the sea of air upon whose silted bottom we tread are there for our own benefit. We can recognize them as from the worlds of Rumplestiltskin, Paul Bunyan and The King of Wise Decrees, as placeholders for whatever messages we gained from their stories, as fictional exemplars upon whom we may model ourselves in whatever fashion we can gain from them.

Still, metaphor does not end there for its value to us. We give each other metaphorical examples from out of real events, that serve as descriptors of sorts that make some things understandable without a lot of technicalities. We will, for example, use a cliché about how something “blew up” in somebody’s face when it refused to work as planned. Somebody gets “skunked” when he lost so badly everybody else is ashamed to be associated with him. A race car’s engine is “shot” when it “blows up” during a race. We all recognize such clichés for what they are, and would not accuse each other of actually believing in the details exactly as they get expressed. We would be regarded as fools were we to drive down that road.

Since some of our most valuable metaphors are those about conditions that occupy spans of time, maybe we should ponder about that a bit. We can realize that most of what we perceive requires the passing of time just to generate the perceptions. We would hear no sounds but for the passage of enough time to enable the generation of waves through the air. The same goes for light, whether from the stars or as reflected from objects around us. Very little could exist to our perceptions without the passage of time, if anything could exist at all.

Because of time’s passage, we generate metaphors to represent the effects of all the interplaying events that take place. The school principal who seemed so evil while we went to his school now seems angelic as he deals with our children in exactly the same manner. The nasty cop who wrote us that undeserved ticket last week becomes a hero for his role in breaking up the gang of hoodlums breaking into houses in our neighborhood. That punk kid, the one with the earrings, long stringy hair and guitar, the one who graduated with your daughter, stopped by to announce his first million dollars earned from the Internet and to ask your permission to marry your daughter. All of those are subjects for poetic metaphorical treatment. All of them developed through time.

Something else developed right along with them, something as invisible as any fishes, frogs and polliwogs we can imagine swimming in our sea of air, and still something made visible by its effects through time. Each of those examples carries with it an awareness of the relationships involved. Your relationship with the principle, first on your own and then through your child. The cop you learned to see in a different light as your shared relationship because of the ticket brightened with your appreciation of his enforcement of laws in other places. That scary relationship that you now face as it develops with no input from you, as an unknown element makes its way into your life as a result of your relationship with your daughter.

Add to that, as if that were not enough, all the relationships we each have with the sea of humanity within which we are but a bubble; and with the world around us, the flora, the fauna, and the very soil from which comes our sustenance. We fare best when we tend to all those relationships, care for them, maintain them, and learn to regard them as though we will be somehow be rewarded by them in our own turn. We do not have to call them “God” and make an ideal of them— that is a mistake from long ago that too many of us still practice. No fishes, frogs or polliwogs may swim in the invisible sea of air we all share, but all of it is made up of relationships that we can identify as the third party in any shared event, understand what we mean by that, and tend to it as it deserves. They are the product of our interactions, and only sometimes are the causes. They are real but not concrete, as we can observe them as part of every event that humans share during the passage of time. We need not reify them to identify them; most of them can be labeled, “That time when….”

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One Response to “The Invisible Partner”

  1. Geetar Says:

    Great wit and creativity. I enjoy it when you share.
    Bob

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