I write for an audience of unknown quantity, but one about which I harbor no illusions- it is small. I have wondered from time to time why I write if not to share my thoughts for others to read; if not to stimulate, provoke, or entertain an audience greater than one. Both those who read my work and those who don’t have been too polite to ask me why I bother when the audience is small and my efforts to expand it have never been especially clever or aggressive.
In truth, I am pretty clear about why I write. I would love to share my thoughts with as broad an audience as possible but I write to help me make sense of my experience. Writing to make sense of my experience may be a function of temperament, so I’m not making the case that one’s experience requires you to write about it. But, for me, I have discovered this to be essential.
My mind is a very busy place, managing the various systems that support my survival, as well as sorting through bucket-loads of sensory perceptions I experience from moment to moment. Much of this, like clouds on a breezy day drifts by me with little attention paid to it beyond simply noting it. My last book, NATHANIEL’S GOT THE BLUES, took up this theme as it explored the life of Nathaniel, an aging rat, who had arrived at a point in his life where he found little meaning. His old friend, Mr. Leach rebukes him for attempting to live off the epiphanies of others. Meaning is discovered through the hard work of digging into one’s experience. Leach exhorts Nathaniel to wring from his own experience the unique meaning for his life’s journey. While the book was assigned to the genre of ‘Young Adults’ (I suppose because it involves anthropomorphized animals), it’s subject matter is more likely to appeal to those who have lived long enough to have slogged through life’s desolate valleys and ascended its glorious hill tops more than a few times. Perception without interpretation, and the assignment of its relative importance, is meaningless. Old Nathaniel had become complacent, content to watch his perceptions simply float past. Doing the harder work of looking at our experience from many angles; entering into a dialogue with it, and finding a place for it in our life is how we create and hone our beliefs and discover meaning.
I was an active parish minister for over twenty years. I entered the ministry having no real understanding of what I believed or what I was doing, yet possessing a decent command of philosophical theology and the clinical aspects of pastoral care mostly for those in the midst of crisis. A critical part of what a parish minister does is climbing the stairs of the pulpit week after week where one looms high above the congregation below. This young Minister attempts to assist the assembled, (many with far more experience than his own) with their journeys toward a meaningful life. It is an undertaking of considerable gravity, very difficult for someone in their mid-twenties to fully grasp, although I certainly was unaware of, or willing to admit it at the time. Reflecting back on these years, I can now see that week after week I climbed into that pulpit to hammer out what I believed in the presence of my congregation. I suppose this is true for many and not unique to me. For some in the pews, it must have been tedious and the sometimes sophomoric discoveries I conveyed surely tested their patience. But this process of discovering and shaping one’s beliefs, in some ways, is probably rooted in the original meanings of the words parish and parson. Parish was derived from the Greek, paroikia, meaning sojourning. The word parson is derived from the word Person. The job of the parson is to always be the person in the midst of their congregation; the one who reflects all that it means to be a person…a sojourner. This Parson as Person does not know it at the time, but they stand naked before their congregation and would do well to hope they won’t be killed for doing so. I have had this borne out over the last several decades in dream after dream after dream. Moreover, the role model of Jesus and the dark details of crucifixion ought to inspire some fear and trembling in every parson.
While I live my life out much more privately these days, the quest for extracting meaning from my experience goes on. To do this internally without committing it to words is, for me is a fruitless task. Internal explorations alone are ultimately like smoke which dissipates soon after its shape becomes manifest. For me, meaning and belief are made manifest when they are externalized through the written or spoken word. Does this mean that these words, these beliefs, somehow become immutable? Of course not. They simply mark the path I have trod to bring me to where I am today. To know where you are going, it’s helpful to see where you have been. There are portions of this path I can barely stand to look at today, but there they are as part of that which has brought me to this moment. And of course, to look at this path is in itself a perception in need of interpretation. So, tomorrow, as others have discovered long before me, it may all be just words, words, words, little more than straw.