Down below you are seemingly endless depths. First, your own body, below the first inch of which is too appalling to consider visually. Then dirt, filled with insects, mud, grime, and a fiery core. Below that? An inhospitable vacuum. That’s above you, too.
There are depths that aren’t physical, as well. The astounding degree to which we are vulnerable is one, as well as the vulnerability of everything and everyone we love. When faced with evidence of this, we are profoundly disturbed. We do our best to make things better, as we must, but in the end we can be left blinded and numb by the enormity of this existential dread.
I like to sing the song “Tightrope” in “The Greatest Showman” when I think about this – how we are so precariously walking a tightrope above all of that, just longing for someone else to take our hand and keep us aloft.
Or there’s always “Encanto”‘s Luisa, who delightfully peppers her stress dream of what lies beneath with dancing donkeys.
Sometimes I can be distracted by what I see ahead of me – tasks, projects, work. Sometimes I can build my own little mini-reality with walls, a theatrical boundary in which there are rules of ethics and physics and meaning. We all do this in the form of stories, religion, culture, relationships, work, etc. To think of all that as just a mental exercise can be awful. If you read a lot of psychology books as I often do, that thinking can be reinforced, making all of us into sad robots stuck in an infinite loop of desperation.
But – and there is a but – but, that belief is also a construct, or an assumption. It assumes we know enough to know that awful, Matrix-like truth of our own irrelevance. That is in itself a form of delusion, one that we sometimes cling to in the name of maturity or in the worship of science. Science is an excellent tool but that is all it is, in the end. That’s why I majored in liberal arts – I think there is more truth in story than in fact. As Wordsworth said, sometimes we “murder to dissect.”
If that is the case, then there can be validity to a lovely little gossamer thread that runs through our lives, that is discernible to baby being held by her mom and the toddler who believes in fantasy as well as to sarcastic teens who find community in friends and to the older and wiser. The stories we tell our children of magic and mystery may seem tragically naïve, but they also can hold within them a precious pearl of a truth we guard in our hearts. In that truth are many things but principal among them at that time is that our love for them is so amazing it can’t be contained, even in those words.
That pearl of truth stretches into that gossamer thread, through experiences we have that inspire our awe, through nature, through beauty, through insight and revelation, through sensory delight. Those on mind-bending plants may say the answer is “love,” and it is trite, but if you can access that thread that way, then why not?
What if “truth” isn’t something gained from a little knowledge gained in young adulthood, but something we inherently know from the beginning and when we are least guarded? That there is love and magic and a deeper meaning, and that there is also horrible evil, but that the evil doesn’t get rid of the good (as the Doctor put so well, “every life is a pile of good things and bad things. The good things don’t soften the bad things, but vice versa, the bad things don’t necessarily spoil the good things or make them unimportant.”)
The truth is that under our (very natural) horror at our insides, there is a pretty amazing internal system that works well for us, most of the time. Under our feet is a planet that sustains us, even as we don’t appreciate it. Around us is space, but what do we really know of it? Why is it strange to assume there is yet more we don’t know?
In C.S. Lewis’ “The Silver Chair,” when an evil witch tries to convince the cave-bound protagonists that they only imagined sunlight because they childishly wanted a bigger, better lamp. But that doesn’t mean the sun doesn’t exist, and the character Puddleglum has an innate knowledge of that. “Suppose… suppose we have only dreamed and made up these things like sun, sky, stars, and moon, and Aslan himself. In that case, it seems to me that the made-up things are a good deal better than the real ones.”
We are little creatures in a big world and a bigger universe, given neither senses nor intellect to truly appreciate any of it. If we need our preschool picture books, our YA novels, and our Hobbits and Jedis and Avengers to help us find the gossamer thread that points in the way in all of it, then perhaps they actually can help us do just that. Perhaps the tightrope is less a precarious act than a form of that thread, one little focus of meaning, with stories as friends to guide us as we go.