By Ethan Maurice | July 13, 2017
We all know some things are so small that we can't seem them. But what we often forget to consider is that some things are so huge we can't seem them either.
I would like to point out one of the latter to you.
This was a discovery years in the making. I encountered a piece here, a piece there, wondering for a long while what they meant in relation to each other. The first piece I picked up about three years ago reading one of my favorite books, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. In all the books I read, I circle passages that I find useful or profound and write each down on a 3x5 index card after finishing the book. I have well over a thousand of these cards now. Most are useful or convey remarkable insight, but one particular card from this novel pointed to something mysterious, something I wrote down in hopes that I might one day understand:
“And now he began to see for the first time the unbelievable magnitude of what man, when he gained the power to understand and rule the world, had lost. He built empires of scientific capability to manipulate the phenomena of nature into enormous manifestations of his own dreams of power and wealth—but for this he had exchanged an empire of understanding of equal magnitude: an understanding of what it is to be part of the world, and not an enemy of it.”
Two years pass without progress. I'm telling a wildly intelligent friend about another favorite book of mine called Jonathan Livingston Seagull. He’d read it but says there's a better book by the same author—though often overlooked, it's his favorite book of all time. It's called Illusions. I order and read it immediately; it's profound and full of the simplest golden, shining wisdom. An index card from Illusions strikes me with a deep interest in the concept of Yin-Yang:
“There is no such thing as a problem without a gift for you in its hands.”
This quote points to half of the concept of Yin-Yang (in this case, that with a negative must also come a positive) and fascinates me as the event I now cite as the best thing that ever happened to me was also the event I used to cite as the worst thing that ever happened: a mosquito bite that lead to a stroke, coma, and brain damage.
I follow this thread and look deeper into Yin-Yang, the idea of wholeness being split into good and bad, dark and light, life and death, or any other pair of opposites in which one implies the other. Perhaps because of my near death experience, I become particularly interested in observing the positives of negatives and negatives of positives in all the happenings of my own life.
Sticking with the example of my brain-damaging mosquito bite, the negatives were huge and immediately obvious. My ability to speak and fine motor coordination were affected for years. I missed a semester of high school. Life was awkward, hard, and endlessly frustrating for a long time. Eventually, positives emerged, though—the biggest being a remarkable conception of how fickle life is and that death could find us at any time, regardless of how safe we play our hand in life. From such a horrendous happening came this understanding of our temporariness that underlies almost everything wonderful that's happened in my life since. The biggest positive in my life had stemmed from the biggest negative of my life!
So, I understood that in gaining something huge, “the power to understand and rule the world” we also must have lost something huge has well. But what was lost?
*This is a hard question to answer as long ago our ancestors made this trade and we, born into a reality constructed by those of the past, have no concept of what was lost in any of the exchanges society before us made. We see this currently with cell phones, where kids growing up phone-in-hand are unaware of the enjoyment and presence lost by trying to capture everything you do to post on social media. Only the older people who didn't grow up in such a social reward system understand what was lost, and as time goes by, the people who know will gradually disappear.
It all crystallized in my head last month. I was opening cabins for the summer season here in Silver Gate, Montana when a friend, out of the blue, asked if I'd ever heard about Post Avatar Depression Syndrome (PADS), a term coined back in 2010 when the media discovered an online forum where thousands of people had spontaneously congregated to discuss their depression and suicidal thoughts in the wake of watching James Cameron's box-office record breaking movie, Avatar. Their depression, a result of comparing the lives of the Na'vi (the ten foot tall, blue natives of the planet Pandora) to their own.
The Na'vi of Avatar do not live an existence alien to us. They live the culture and lifestyle of our ancestors before we “gained the power to rule the world” and “built empires of scientific capability to manipulate the phenomena of nature into enormous manifestations of his own dreams.” These blue aliens, referred to as the Na'vi, (a creative play on the word “natives”) represent the people we'd refer to here on Earth as natives, people who, as our ancestors of long ago once did, have an “understanding of what it is to be part of the world, and not an enemy of it.”
Why were so many people depressed after watching Avatar? I don't think it has anything to do with wanting to be ten-foot tall blue aliens who rode pterodactyls. Fantastical movies of other worlds have never provoked such strong reactions in us.
Avatar showed us something else—something essential that we didn't know we were missing—the huge negative that came with the huge positive of gaining the power to manipulate and rule the world: effortless presence, connection to our surroundings, rapturous wonder, and participation in the circle of life, which lent a sense of temporariness and an understanding that life is but borrowed from the lives of other living things.
Living in our cities, our homes, our cars—the artificial environment in which we spend our lives—we have isolated ourselves from the world, the source which we are meant to be deeply, rootedly a part of. Avatar illustrated what that Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance quote pointed at: “an understanding of what it is to be part of the world.”
An understanding, a way of life, lost and forgotten long ago, yet still so essential to us that it takes but a story of our past disguised as a story of our future to cause thousands to feel such loss and want nothing more than to return to it.