Jay Michaelson
Thinking despite Doubt and Feeling despite Truth, p.5

The first time I heard this problem expressed remains, for me, the best expression of it: Thornton Wilder's Our Town. The problem of Our Town is the tension between the long view (i.e., of the dead), which is 'more right' but has a tendency to minimize or mock our quotidian concerns, and the local view, which may forget about the great questions of existence but has a down-to-earth reality that is where we all want to live. Only the Stage Manager seems to be able to navigate both worlds, with both the wide perspective of the dead and a real caring for the living. When, in Act III, the dead Emily tries to return to the world of the living, she can't do it. "They're sort of shut up in little boxes, aren't they?" she says. Yet it is she who cannot adapt. With the knowledge that she has of life's transitory nature, and with the earnest desire to make each moment count, she is confronted by ordinary people, going through their ordinary lives, and she can't bear it. "I can't go on. It goes so fast. We don't have time to look at one another." She asks the stage manager, "Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it?-every, every minute?"

At first the Stage Manager answers "No." Then, after a pause, he says: "The saints and poets, maybe -- they do some."

The saints, the poets, and the Stage Manager have the gift of living deliberately and fully in the world, not despite the knowledge that all is evanescent, but, we think, because of it. They are able to embrace this moment fully, in its richness, and not let it disappear. Then again, saints and poets are notoriously bad at parties. They are so involved with the higher levels of their consciousness that, as Wilber himself notes, they are often poorly developed at lower ones. How do we move from the universal to the local, without losing our souls?

I understand that with true, abiding compassion, the contemplative feels the pain of others much more viscerally than most people would, even while not attaching too much to her own. She is present, too, for great joy, and sucks the marrow from life not by seeking ever more intense thrills, but by seeing heaven in a wildflower. But understanding something is not the same as experiencing it. And I wonder: when the stakes are not everything, when our own personal and global tragedies do not mean the difference between fulfillment and frustration, life and death, are we really fully alive?

[1]       [2]       [3]       [4]       5
Top: Lee Phelan, Feet
Bottom: John Greer, Green pepper

Jay Michaelson is Chief Editor of Zeek and director of Nehirim: A Spiritual Initiative for GLBT Jews.
He is on retreat for the New Year.

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From previous issues:

More than This
Dan Friedman

Knowledge, Community, Irony, and Love
Jay Michaelson

With a Bible and a Gun
Samuel Hayim Brody