Sunday, December 6, 2009

We have been told that innovation is something for the young, and that the old want to keep the status quo. I think that’s hogwash; or rather, it’s something said by those who only see the surface of things. Anyone can see what they want if they only look at the surface of things. Seeing a vast forest from a hill, one person will see a bucolic, peaceful vista of pastoral beauty, while another will see a competitive jungle of natural selection where death is the rule rather than the exception. An argumentative encounter between two people is seen by one as a vicious fight and by another as a robust dialogue…. between Italians. You get the idea. The observation that the old want to keep the status quo while the young are eager for innovation only appears to be a true thing to say. You must look a little deeper.

When you look behind the curtain, you find that the opposite could also be the case. The young tend to want to keep things as they are – in their rooms, in their relationships, in their daily rituals – while the old seek out change and welcome it – in their travels, in their reading, in their daily encounters. Yeah, yeah, I know; both movements happen with both groups. Nevertheless, it's likely that "innovation" is wasted on the young and the status quo is more likely to be a burden on the old. We’re creatures of change, both physically and emotionally and spiritually, and that change manifests itself in similarity within difference or change within continuity. The older we get, the more such sensibilities come to the fore.

Some examples are an appreciation for jazz (same theme, different notes), or classical music (ibid.), foods (How many ways can Starbucks do coffee, anyway?), sports (lots of ways to get that big or little ball where it’s supposed to go), and people (most gossip is finally pretty much the same story told over and over). The older one gets, the more important that mix of sameness and difference becomes, both by observation and engagement. It’s the balance between the two that changes with age. For the young most things are new and so another new thing isn’t a new thing, and for the old most things aren’t new and so another new thing isn’t a new thing either, only different.

So where’s all this going? Only here: All these things are true in a world where people can only see either the surface of things, or see the things that appear beneath the surface of things. Very few people, unfortunately, choose to look much deeper than that, or are forced by circumstances to do so. Those that do, characteristically become more gentle, more forgiving, more quietly insistent, more humble – and they smile more and appreciate things more as well. I think of people like Nelson Mandela (Cf. the new movie about his application of forgiveness ), Mother Teresa and her encounter with untold suffering, St. Therese and her “Little Way”, John Baptist de La Salle and the tenor of his letters and meditations, the early monks in the Egyptian dessert, and so on. These folks tapped into something that lies at the foundation of human life and sensibility; something that is consistent and ever-changing and adaptable; something at least as rich and alive and un-tame as the human person; something profoundly deep and true. They attest to the fact that the most significant, challenging, and rewarding encounter of both innovation and status quo, or both similarity and difference, or both change and continuity, is through the engagement of daily life from that deeper place. I don't pretend to be able to do that well, but all I've seen, read, and done points to the fact that engaging life from that deeper place is a fine adventure that’s ever new and ever old. Balance is simply not a factor.

Without any claim of full understanding, let alone marginal application, here’s one of my favorite quotes, from St. John of the Cross - somone who pitched his tent in that deeper place:

To reach satisfaction in all
desire satisfaction in nothing.
To come to the knowledge of all
desire the knowledge of nothing.
To come to possess all
desire the possession of nothing.
To arrive at being all
desire to be nothing.

To come to enjoy what you have not
you must go by a way in which you enjoy not.
To come to the knowledge you have not
you must go by a way in which you know not.
To come to the possession you have not
you must go by a way in which you possess not.
To come to be what you are not
you must go by a way in which you are not.

(Ascent to Mount Carmel, 1:13:11)