Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Love and Absence

"Do you really believe in ghosts?"
"Maybe I shouldn't even call them ghosts. It's just stuff you can't see. That I believe in, probably more than most people. Certain kinds of love you can't see. That's what I'm calling ghosts."
Barbara Kingsolver, Prodigal Summer, page 357

A savvy supervisor at work is fond of commenting: “The data always tells an important story.” Numbers. How many people attended a conference session? How many more attended than last year? How many people bought a copy of a presenter’s book after the session?

The data often seems to tell a story that we do well to heed. How many diners rated a restaurant’s cooking as excellent? Very good? Fair? Terrible? How many people found a particular review helpful? How many visitors logged onto a blog in the last twenty-four hours? What’s the largest number of comments to appear on any of this blogger’s recent postings?

Are we doing well?

Are we making it?

Do we have the life we want?

Suppose a novel we were reading challenged the notion that the people we loved were only the people that others could see and count or the people we actually managed to see as often as we wanted? Is there any data we could find to counter the idea that love requires the sight of the beloved?

Because love is never more evident than when the object is absent, that being the time when the beloved’s importance cannot be overlooked, Persian poets in particular dwelt on the pangs of separation to deepen their love of God and thereby draw close to him.
Huston Smith, The World’s Religions, page 259

It used to be called The Religions of Man. For the sake of a more enlightened readership, the title was changed to The World’s Religions: Our Great Wisdom Traditions. It is twenty years since I gave the Huston Smith classic my last read before today.

Something made me reach for the text as a diversion during a two-hour session that would call for nothing more than my bodily presence. Today it was just important that someone – anyone – be in a place rather than have it appear unstaffed or unsupervised.

The deeper I read about Sufi mysticism in the chapter on Islam, the more I sensed a world I would not know how to collect data on. The critical question, I understand, is not how many contemporary adherents of the Sufi tradition there are or how many translations of Rumi’s poetry are printed and purchased and made available on library bookshelves and bookstore tables.

Rather…. In a world with so much to count and measure, how does a life ever get to approach absence – or the presence of something you can’t always or maybe ever see – and understand on some level that there is something here to take seriously? That there is a kind of sustenance here that you do not wait for data to validate before you acknowledge your need for it and yield to its power working in you?

1 comment:

Ur-spo said...

what a profound entry.
I will need to read this one a few times before I collect my thoughts enough to say something relevant.