Tuesday, June 9, 2009

exciting times

There was a program on TV last night about snake-handling as a part of Pentecostal worship. The handling of venomous snakes without being hurt was/is seen as a concrete sign of the power of God based on the biblical verse that goes:

And these signs shall follow them that believe: In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues. They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover. (Mark 16:17-18)

In a turn of logic, those who were bitten and died were seen as blessed by God -- assured of a place in heaven ... perhaps because they, at least, had been willing to put themselves in the hands of a god portrayed in Bible writ. Heaven was no doubt better than the hard-scrabble existence of coal-mining Appalachia where the practice of snake handling largely took root.

Watching the grainy film clips and listening to those who had studied or believed in the practice of snake-handling, I felt a certain kinship and vague sadness. How were such people, the ones wearing perhaps the only suit or dress they owned, very different from those who had built Vatican City or the Masjid al-Haram or put stock in the Vedas or the Tripitaka or sat naked and alone in some mountain cave? How were they different from a singles-bar gathering where celebrants hoped to get laid and would not, even on their worst day, pick up a venomous snake?

Exciting. Isn't it all pretty exciting, whether challenging death or adorning the faith or climbing into bed with someone new and novel? Of course there will be those who opine in well-educated tones laced with semi-colons: "Well, you know, there is a qualitative difference" or, less politely, "No point in being an asshole."

Common sense tells us to be wary of venomous snakes, to husband our lives. But common sense does not suggest we might be wary of our excitements. What is exciting makes us feel more alive. We are comforted and, perhaps, elevated. We are not as boring or unimportant as a coffee cup. We are reaffirmed in our excitements.

And excitements are good because what they imply is attention. Attentive when handling snakes. Attentive to holy places. Attentive to our wisdoms. Attentive to getting laid. Attention strikes me as a good start. If you don't pay attention, how can you ever learn anything, ever get to the bottom of anything?

If there is a worse combination than stupid and lazy, I'm not sure what it is. Stupid is not so bad -- that can be fixed. But lazy is worse than a venomous snake. In laziness, our biases are confirmed and affirmed. In laziness there is a sorrow that creeps up, an uncertainty instilled, and we find ourselves intoning like Popeye, "I yam who I yam" without ever taking the next step to ask or consider, "Who, exactly, 'yam' I?"

I figure it for an acceptable premise: We're all assholes. Now what? Smart people are stupid, stupid people are stupid ... big deal! But what anyone does about it is another question. Will we keep chasing the excitements and use them to shore up who "I yam?" Smart or stupid, well-dressed or in rags, ground down by coal companies or sipping white wine from inside designer-label clothing, who does not seek out the excitements that will assure who "I yam?"

Everyone seeks from within his or her own confines -- confines of education, confines of upbringing, confines of material wealth, confines of bar-hopping, confines of religion, confines of family or ownership or whatever all else.

But no one wants to be confined, right? What are excitements for if not to break the boundaries somehow -- to stand in some wide field of freshness? The trouble arises when the boundary-breaking excitements seem to provide the only way to break out of our own confinements. More and more and more excitements. More and more and more uncertainty. It is sad ... or anyway it felt that way to me, watching the snake-handlers -- people who, like others, had found a curse and called it a blessing: "I yam who I yam."

Still, there is the capacity for attention. The kind of attention anyone might bring to getting laid or expounding on a wondrous holy verse or adding sophisticated semi-colons or feeling wrenching loss or handling a snake.

Attention. In attention there is freshness. Liveliness. Certainty. Lazy inattentions allow things to grow stale and overwhelming and looking for another excitement fix. Attention.

Attention is a good friend when you pick up a boring old coffee cup. No one wants hot coffee in their lap, however exciting it might be.

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