Friday, March 1, 2019

Undisturbing Bedtime Reading

A grandfatherly humorist
A serious scientist.Among writers' names, theirs are two of the most famous to people in the U.S. -- Mark Twain and Charles Darwin.  But how differently they are thought of:  Twain as the grandfatherly humorist; Darwin as the trouble-causing scientist.  When I was in elementary school, my grandmother was displeased that my school was named after the horror-story writer Edgar Allan Poe, but quite pleased when I moved to an elementary school named after the grandfatherly Mark Twain (pseudonym of Samuel Langhorne Clemens).  And we all know that any proposal to name a school after Charles Darwin would evoke controversy.

The writers Twain and Darwin are also known for different genres of writing --  fiction and nonfiction.  Different also are the ways that Nature is a part of their writings.  Twain, even when writing about his experiences as a young man on the Mississippi, turned them into tall tales about the adventures of people.  In contrast, even Darwin's reminiscences of his journey on the Beagle are strengthened by his scientist's eye for observation of Nature by itself, apart from people.

Despite their many differences, their lives as writers intersected (even if indirectly) in an entertaining incident related by Mark Twain in one of his public presentations.  Twain tells first how he felt flattered when the president of Harvard College, Charles Eliot, who had visited Darwin, told Twain:
Can humor last?"Do you know that there is one room in Darwin's house,
his bedroom, where the housemaid
is never allowed to touch two things?
One is a plant he is growing
and studying while it grows....
The other some books that lie on the night table
at the head of his bed. They are your books,
Mr. Clemens, and Mr. Darwin reads them every night
to lull him to sleep."
What a compliment Twain felt it was to know, as he put it, that "a brain teeming with bugs and squirming things like Darwin's" was reading the American humorists' books.

But Twain's inflated ego was punctured by a subsequent event that Twain also relates.  He tells how, after Darwin died, Twain was visited by the Rev. Joseph Twichell, who he describes as "my oldest friend -- and dearest enemy on occasion."  Twichell had been reading Darwin's Life and Letters, and opened it to show Twain a passage apparently explaining more fully why Twain's books were on that night table.   As Twain tells it:
"Twichell ... said, 'Here, look at this letter from Mr. Darwin to Sir Joseph Hooker.'
What Darwin said -- I give the idea and not the very words -- was this:
I do not know whether I ought to have devoted my whole life to these drudgeries
in natural history and the other sciences 
while I may have gained in one way I have lost in another.
Once I had a fine perception and appreciation of high literature,
but in me that quality is atrophied.  'That was the reason,' said Mr. Twichell,
'he was reading your books.' "

It looks as if in this case, it was Darwin who had the last laugh.  Or did he?  It was Twain who was able to tell of the incidents, and thereby laugh at himself.

~ ~ ~

Do you have bedtime reading that helps you let go of the cares of the day?  What is it?

(The incident and quotations are taken from What about Darwin?,
edited by Thomas F. Glick, © 2010, pp. 439-441. [emphasis added])

Friday, February 1, 2019

Another Word for Love

"Love."  Among four-letter words in the English language, it is one of the most spoken (and most sung).

A common word, even in a hard-edged city.
Sculpture by Robert Indiana,
 in Manhattan
Students of the New Testament are often taught that the Greek language has more than one word translatable as "love."  The Greek word eros is often used for sexual love but is more generally the experience of falling in love.  A second word, philia, expresses the fondness that can develop between people, as in friendships.  A third Greek word, agape, was less specific in the Hellenistic world, thus enabling New-Testament writers to sometimes use it in developing a concept of self-giving love.  Over time, Christianity used that word agape for emphasizing our ultimate experience -- that of knowing God's loving orientation toward the world.

The Greek language, however, also contains another world for love: storge.  It is used to speak of instinctual affection, one example being that of a mother for her child.  Christian writers today sometimes delineate the first three Greek words but make no mention of storge.  (An exception is C.S. Lewis, who in his book The Four Loves writes that "the human loves can be glorious images of Divine love.").  We should not underestimate the power of storge.

Although by using words, we can distinguish between this variety of meanings of the word "love," we can see especially in human relationships how the forms of love overlap:  Two people can love each other in more than one way.  Nevertheless, by possessing that fourth word -- storge -- we can explore better our relationships to non-human animals.

That fourth form of love, not usually mentioned by teachers of New-Testament Greek, is nevertheless implied at times in the Bible.  Being an instinctive response to the feelings of another living being, storge extends to our human affection for animals, which can evoke our care for them.  For example, in the Biblical book of Deuteronomy (25:4, NRSV), farmers are instructed, "You shall not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain," thus emphasizing that the ox gets hungry too.  And one verse in the book of Proverbs (12:10a, NRSV) states that people who live rightly "know the needs of their animals."

Much loved: children and pets
Victorian painting
by Joshua Reynolds
The treatment of animals down through European history is a long, complex story, not reducible to modern enlightenment overcoming medieval darkness.  Nevertheless, especially in England in the 1800’s, the movement of people into cities and the emergence of a middle class with some leisure hours meant that more people kept pets. That dog or cat, rather than being a working animal in the barn, would be kept right beside a person, even on the person’s lap, making it easier for the person to experience the animal’s emotions as being like their own.  In her Jubilee address in 1887, Queen Victoria (a dog owner) spoke of her "real pleasure [in] the growth of more human feelings towards the lower animals."  The contemporary writer Richard D. Ryder spotlights one major cause of that change:
"Was not the growing interest in animal protection also an effect of the increasing stability of society and the extension of affluence?  Never before had so many felt economically and
socially secure. They could afford to show some compassion for the underprivileged,
both human and nonhuman."

An additional advantage of having a word for animal-affection is that it can enable us to recognize that quality between animals of the same species -- not just among mammals, but also, for example, in parent birds' bonds with their offspring. Love is indeed a many-splendored thing!
~ ~ ~

As a child, did you have any pets that helped you learn how to care for others?

(The quotation by Lewis is from The Four Loves, © 1960, p. 9.)
(The quotation by Ryder is from his Animal Revolution, © 1989, p. 152.)
(Love is a Many-Splendored Thing was the title of a 1955 movie and song.
The phrase "many-splendored thing" dates back at least to a 1913 poem by James Kenneth Stephen.)

(Both photographs are in the public domain.)

Friday, January 4, 2019

The Moving Moon

Even though it was a fairly detailed book on science and scientists during the Middle Ages, one paragraph took me back to something delightful I had experienced as a child.  The historian James Hannam writes:
"Children are often convinced that the moon is following them
 when they are travelling by car.  This is because, however far the car moves,
 the direction and size of the moon do not change at all.
 In comparison, all nearby everyday objects move across our field of vision
 as we approach and then pass them."

A mysterious light.I remember that marvelous experience of watching the moon travel alongside us as I rode in the back seat of my parents' car.  (Although I did not tell them about it because it was such a wonderful secret!)

Even when I did not view that moving moon out of the side-window of a traveling car, I was sometimes moved by the moon's luminescence.  What a unique light it gave off, especially when full -- often a white light without being cold or piercing.  Like that light, our Earth's moon is one of a kind among our natural experiences here on Earth.

Changing water-line, caused by an unseen force.
tides on an island
The moon affects us in other ways.  The moon's gravitational pull is the main cause of the movement of tides on shores.  Even ancient people noticed the harmony between the moon's returning to the sky and the height of tides.  But in the 17th century, when Galileo was trying to find proof that the Earth moved, he came up with the notion that the Earth's movements might instead be their cause.  The astronomer Johannes Kepler suggested to Galileo that the moon was indeed what caused tides, but Galileo dismissed the idea of an invisible force at a distance, and would not be budged from his own incorrect tide-theory.  Galileo even included in his famous book Dialogue his notion that the Earth's movement sloshed the tides about, even though other scientists pointed out that his hypothesis would result in only a single daily tide at spring, whereas two spring tides had been observed.

The moon is almost an inflection of the verb "to move":  The moon moves in its orbit, it is continuously moving the tides, and our hearts have been moved by it.

In this age of astronauts, we have reached the moon, but has the sight of the rising moon reached us?  The astronauts found the moon to be dry, gray, and dusty.  From here on Earth, it is beautiful and luminescent -- white, golden, or orange.

Definition of "crescent": Resembling the new moon in shape.Even in our modern cities, in which light-pollution renders most stars invisible, we can often see the moon if we just look up.  With the constant barrage of news and advertising we are subjected to in our modern, technological societies, the days can go by in a blur of information and disinformation.  Perhaps we should pause some early mornings or evenings, look up at the moon, and be calmed by a recollection of its constancy, even with its changing faces.


Can you think of anything that -- like the moon -- remains constant even as it assumes different phases or forms?

(The quotation by Hannam is from The Genesis of Science:
How the Christian Middle Ages Launched the Scientific Revolution
, © 2011, p. 274.)
(The first photo is by SeanMcClean; the second by さかおり. Both used under Creative Commons
 Attribution-Share- Alike licenses.)

Friday, December 7, 2018

A Little Light — But What a Light!

It seems like such a little act:  lighting a candle.  But I have discovered in that act much to meditate upon.

An ungrand beauty.As the year heads into its last few months, more tiny flames are lit around the world as particular religious festivals arrive:  Diwali, Hanukah, Christmas, even the newcomer Kwanza.  All these celebrations light candles in some form as part of their ceremonies.  Sometimes the wicks being lit are at the tip of hard candles; sometimes in a tiny cup of liquid.  But the visual effect is the same.  And it is beautiful.

In the northern hemisphere, the lighting of candles on those holidays late in the year carries an added spiritual meaning through the warmth the candles bring in cold weather.  But even when those religious holidays are practiced in the southern hemisphere, with days getting longer, candle lights can bring a soft yellow glow to what was darkness.  Although I am not a Roman Catholic, I have (as long as I can remember) found pleasing any pictures of Catholics lighting candles in a sometimes dim sanctuary, often accompanied by private prayers.

Before electricity came to our modern world, candles were used where today we use tiny light bulbs.  I feel nervous when I see pictures of some Europeans lighting candles on the branches of evergreen Christmas trees.  And I know the firefighters at my local fire-department can sleep easier knowing that electric lights decorate our trees in the U.S.  But we still desire to light candles in other ways during these festive months.

Before our petroleum age, the material for candles was wax from bees or tallow from sheep or cattle.  We might do well to recognize the flame as also being a gift from Nature.

A power with a string attached.
Scientists who work in the area of evolutionary psychology try to project their thoughts back upon the path of human evolution.  Certainly a significant step in that story would have been being able to start a fire.  The European cultural heritage expresses how momentous that discovery was with its mythological story of Prometheus, who steals fire from the gods.  In the playwright Aeschylus's adaptation Prometheus Bound, Prometheus is also viewed as being the bringer of civilization.  But the god Zeus knew all too well how dangerous humans could be without bounds.  And so, Prometheus is bound to a rocky mountain as punishment.

That danger of possessing fire is why my reflections upon candle-lighting have led me to see it as an example of behaving in a restrained, respectful manner.  In humankind's use of candles, we have found a way to handle fire in a controlled way. If in mythology fire brings civilization, can lighting a candle be a civilizing act today?  In our religious and spiritual lighting of candles, can we—instead of fanning the flames of anger in ourselves and others—turn our hearts toward worship?

The commonality across faith-traditions of lighting candles (whether in sticks or cups of liquid) might enable us to share in the emotions of Howard Thurman, even if our faith-tradition is non-Christian, or if we have none.  He writes in part:
"I Will Light Candles This Christmas.
Candles of joy despite all sadness,
Candles of hope where despair keeps watch,
Candles of courage for fears ever present,
Candles of peace for tempest-tossed days,
Candles of grace to ease heavy burdens."

~ ~ ~

Do you light candles on particular occasions?  When?  What feelings does it bring?

(The lines from "Candles for Christmas" by Howard Thurman are from Meditations of the Heart, © 1953, used under Fair Use.)
(The painting of Prometheus by Jan Cossiers is in the Public Domain.)

Friday, November 2, 2018

Obliging Animals

As I drove home, I was debating in my head what I was going to do to resolve a problem I had encountered upon leaving home a few hours earlier.  Quite soon after exiting my driveway in the morning, I had noticed a dead opossum in the middle of the street.  It had most likely been struck by a car the night before, because its lifeless body was still intact even though surrounded by a swarm of flies.  And so, as I drove back home after running my errands, I wondered what I was going to do about that unpleasant dead animal on my suburban street. Trying to shovel it up to put it in the trash would be difficult by myself, especially given all the flies.  I had a vague recollection that one of the city's many phone numbers was listed as "Dead Animals," but in a sprawling city of a few million people, how long would it take for the overburdened city servants to respond to one small, dead animal?  What was I going to do?

A usually distasteful sight.
As I turned the corner onto the street where I live, I was pleased to see that the problem had been taken care of by some obliging, non-human animals: Four vultures were by the street's curb, two of them picking at what little was left of the corpse.  The nicely-designed hooks on the tips of their beaks enabled them to easily tear off bite-sized pieces of meat.

I was struck by the contrast between my previously anxious mind about how to solve a problem and the relaxed casualness of the vultures.  They reminded me of a group of human diners at a Chinese restaurant who, after sharing a large meal, are in no hurry to leave, and so enjoy lingering together.  Two of them were still nibbling, while the other two lingered with the nibblers.

I do not know where the four vultures had been residing before they spotted the dead opossum.  But my appreciating how obliging they were in solving my clean-up problem led to my recalling the mob of flies that had been swarming around the corpse a few hours earlier.  Although distasteful to me, they too had been beginning Nature's disposal of the dead animal, even if in a much slower fashion.

Busily at work.
How numerous are the species of animals that obligingly help us humans! (And here I am thinking of animals other than those who are coerced into becoming meat on our dinner plates.)  Such animals as bees that make honey, some of which we snitch.  And the many kinds of other insects that pollinate our fruit and nut trees.  Also, the earthworms that help rejuvenate the life-giving soil.  The list goes on at length.

Quietly doing their work.Flies.  Vultures.  Bees.  Insects.  Worms.  These are all among the "Living Things We Love to Hate," as Des Kennedy expresses it in his book's title.  Nevertheless, such obliging animals, going about their own business, make our human work, recreation, and even lives possible.  We can be thankful for that.

~ ~ ~

Can you think of any other animals that help us in easily overlooked ways?

(The book mentioned is Living Things We Love to Hate: Facts, Fantasies & Fallacies by Des Kennedy, © 1992, 2002.)