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"Humans are amphibians - half spirit and half animal. As spirits they belong to the eternal world, but as animals they inhabit time." -- CS Lewis

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Meditating on Mediations

The difference between looking at an experience and looking along it seems nominally small, as both points of observation are directed towards the same incident. While actively experiencing something, you look along it, whereas you look at it when observing the experience from the outside. CS Lewis, however, dispels this thought immediately in his essay, “Meditations in a Toolshed.” Lewis suggests that not only do observing a situation and actually being in it yield two very different experiences, but also that they create two different interpretations of this situation. Lewis gives the example of looking a ray of light through a crack in a toolshed: By standing away from the light and looking at it, all you can see is the light ray peering through the wall into the musty darkness, but step into the light and look directly at it and you see the greenery of the world outside the shed, and all of the rest of the shed seems to disappear into complete blackness. This distinction can be applied to all experiences we have, causing Lewis to question the validity of the different interpretations in each case.

The conclusion Lewis comes to – and that the class came to – was that both angles can be equally important and produce the “best” interpretation in certain instances. A savage dancing for Nyonga, the goddess of fertility, is not actually causing the rain to fall or the plants to grow, despite what he believes, meaning that the outside view trumps the inside one in this case. However, a physiologist analyzing the inner pain of a subject who lost their parents to a car accident will conclude that the grief he is experiencing is purely the result of certain signals being fired in their brain; the physiologist cannot fully comprehend the subject’s condition unless he, too, has tragically lost loved ones. The two different angles both have their place in analyzing situations, but must be seen for they are: interpretations made by an imperfect, human mind.

One of the points Lewis addresses here is that “modern” thinking (which dominated Lewis' mid-nineteenth century culture) tends to attribute more validity to the “looking at rather than the “looking along,” and that empirical, objective observation is more viable than subjective first-hand accounts. As we pointed out, this is not true for all cases, as psychological and emotional issues are often impossible to fully comprehend from an outsider’s perspective. Lewis’ cultural observation led us to ask a different question, though: What would Lewis have written if he were living in our “post-modern” culture today? Just as he had observed that society gravitated towards the modern preference in the 50 years prior to his writing the essay, so has it shifted again, away from the “outside” and towards the “inside,” this time. The individual experience has been given a great deal more validity in our present day, putting it on the same level – if not higher – than empirical analysis. This phenomenon demonstrates the evolving nature of mankind’s thought process, putting the interpretations’ respective weight into further question.

Despite the conclusion that both sides must be seen and taken into account when assessing a situation, the class also asked whether all first-hand situations are truly beneficial to our individual understanding. Is it really necessary to go into an alcohol-induced coma in the interest of understanding what it is like? The consent was, obviously, no. It may indeed be necessary to experience things personally to get a complete picture of them, but this implies that not all things should be understood in their entirety.

Also, if the “full experience” consists of looking at as well as along, we can get the full experience of something in one of two orders: at before along, or along before at. In other words, we can either learn about a situation externally and then come to live it out, or live it out and then come to study it from an external perspective. As small children, we would most often experience and then learn, since we would learn to walk long before learning about the muscular functions involved in the process. However, does this order also have an impact on what we take from the experience? It would seem so, since going into a situation with expectancies can change the experience entirely. It can be highly disappointing to watch a movie that others say is fantastic and for which you have high expectations, only to find it utterly boring; had you gone in with no foreknowledge or expectations, you might have enjoyed it for what it was and not what you thought it would be. Learning before experiencing creates expectancy, and this can then alter the experience completely.

These are just some of the issues raised in class about Lewis’ “Meditations in a Toolshed,” dealing with the two sides one can take in any circumstance. The two sides must always be considered, “on pain of idiocy,” as Lewis puts it. We must also recognize our ignorance in any situation, since stepping out of one interpretation will always immediately create another, and we will circle around the truth without ever knowing it fully. We must entrust the full truth to God, and accept that only He will ever know it.

1 comment:

  1. You have some wonderful examples in this blog! I like the movie one the most. Not all experiences will be like this however. Having a mountain described to you is not the same as actually seeing a mountain for the first time. In the same way, I think that if you had never seen a movie before it would be amazing to you even if it was the most boring movie ever made. Maybe the quality of the experience also depends on the number of times it has been experienced.