Stay Away from the Light
It has been slightly over three years now since I returned from a coffee date with the Grim Reaper. While hooked up a ventilator fighting a full septic shut down of all my organs, I had a proverbial “come to Jesus moment.” My medical records documented I was on some serious hallucinogenic pain meds, so I don’t doubt that those drugs triggered some of the religious words, symbols, and stories I was born and raised in. I did not literally see a skinny robed man with blue eyes, chiseled features, dirty blonde long hair, and beard, wearing a halo with old wounds on both wrists. I heard a doctor say that I will likely die once they take me off the ventilator (which my family members confirmed was an actual event). Then I heard an inner voice. Not verbal at all, more of a peaceful feeling of “everything will be OK.” The only word that apparently came to my mind in this experience was “Jesus,” which makes a lot of sense because I spent my first 18 years going to Roman Catholic weddings, baptisms (including my own), and Sunday Masses. And I also long dabbled with the many forms of Evangelical Christianity after my short college experiment with atheism. But then middle age cynicism set in. I learned that I didn’t and couldn’t know much and started to care even less.
Jonah and the Whale
Childhood “fairy tales” are truer than given credit. I recall another ICU dream I had of being a sperm whale diving deep in the Monterey Bay Canyon. My medical records actually noted that, when I awoke and was asked by doctors if I knew where I was and why, I said that I was in the ICU due to the bends from diving deep in the ocean. I vividly thought I washed up on a Carmel beach and morphed from a whale to a man. The doctors reminded that I was in Kaiser Walnut Creek due to severe pancreatitis and resulting infection. “Oh yeah, that’s right”. I shared this story with my mom, and, her response was read the Book of Jonah, Chapter 2. “Oh yeah, Jonah ran away from his mission from God and was spit out from the belly of a whale.” Hopefully, every kid who went to Sunday school was taught the underlying message of this story. And I also hope but doubt, it’s not to proselytize. “I was on the wrong path I was meant to be!” The message was loud and clear even if it was from drugs, God, the universe, Karma, or a combination of everything. It did not matter. Our days are limited and each day is a gift to live fully! But how and what is it like to live fully? At its very core, this question is about meaning. The how seems not very difficult once we understand the “what”. I was on a one-year disability leave from my law practice to recover and eventually detox from oxycontin addiction. That, plus getting back to the demands of a law practice, took time and energy away from answering the obvious questions. I am only starting to make sense of it all this last year.
If I am beginning to sound like the wisdom literature of the Bible Ecclesiastes, Psalms, Proverbs), it’s either because I was ingrained with it or they are timeless human wisdom written down. It’s likely a combination of both. Sometimes I remember what I read. Others, I am amazed to find something that I had already concluded from experience like Psalm 90:12. “Teach us to number our days to gain wisdom”. I thought that before I found it. Another one is that everything in life has its own perfect time. Experience and observation teach us that and this idea is expressed so poetically in Ecclesiastes. So I think this Christmas eve is a perfect time to share some of what I have been thinking the last two years.
If you are reading this, then you are a consumer of easily recordable and transmittable audio/visual media. I came of age in the era of such media, specifically TV and the Blockbuster Movie; thus, I am not surprised that TV shows and movies are the most compelling and informative medium to me. I think of movies and TV shows come to my mind first when I think of life in general. Marshall McLuhan, a very insightful critic of media stated that the “medium is the message.” Like Shrek, and wisdom in general, this statement has many layers. From a negative standpoint, this makes sense with social media. That media (Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, etc) is inherently quick and short (and necessarily shallow); thus, that medium’s message is shallowness and lack of nuance. I would also argue (as someone who plays with meanings of words for a living) that spoken and written words are been abused and misused in the past (and even more so today) that they lose meaning to adequately create constructive ties between humans and society. I guess I am cynical enough or just experienced with the “real business world” to know that people make a very good living by studying this phenomenon and exploiting it. I am a trademark attorney and know that companies pay and make a lot of money to market and brand ideas. So as a reader (assuming you get this far), you are probably thinking “what the hell is he talking about?” or “get to the point” or “please explain more.” I will get try to get to the point to not lose you but also invite much further discussions on any of the topics on or not in this post. All that to say, those insightful monks of Monty Python came to mind when I finally got it back – what is “The Meaning of Life?” What I remember most about that movie is there really is no meaning and if there is it is absurd! So true! But yet we still all seek meaning; hence, I think is the reason why we celebrate “high holidays” such as Christmas. I only use December 25 because that is the symbolic date for the Western Christian tradition I happen to be born in. Christmas eve is particularly celebratory for me and my brothers because we were allowed to open presents after midnight Christmas Eve mass. For my wife (born and raised in the Soviet Union and post-Soviet Semi-Orthodox Russia), it is New Years’ Eve. Regardless of the different dates and traditions, I know we share the same common spirit that words are inadequate to define. It’s sad to hear attempts in the various media to define Christmas as meaningless (“war on Christmas”…”pagan holiday”) or purely materialistic. I prefer the term Advent since it is a season that encompasses all the convoluted dates of celebration in my (Filipino Catholic) and my wife’s (Russian Orthodox) traditions.
So what is the point of this post’s photo and title? Actually, the picture and the movie it comes from is the whole point. The picture and the move it comes from symbolizes and retells Christmas (to me Advent) to this Gen-Xer better and richer than any medium I have seen, whether it be the various stories written in the Gospels of Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John, Christmas Masses, or secular and religious movies and songs. That is a picture of the Star Child, who evolved from Modern Man. And Modern Man, in the movie, evolved from Ape Man. And that is the Earth. And that picture is hope for peace on Earth. When I first saw 2001 I did not get it…probably like most people. But I guess after experiencing days, if not months, in a semi-conscious but altered experiential state, I just got used to letting go of linear thinking and learned the limits of media, especially the fragile and many times inadequate written word. I could probably write an extremely long essay on 2001 and actually researched Kubrick. Upon doing so, Kubrick himself shared a very short insight just as brilliant as his film was to me.
When asked of 2001’s message, Kubrick answered:
It’s not a message that I ever intend to convey in words. 2001 is a nonverbal experience; out of two hours and 19 minutes of film, there are only a little less than 40 minutes of dialog. I tried to create a visual experience, one that bypasses verbalized pigeonholing and directly penetrates the subconscious with an emotional and philosophic content. To convolute McLuhan, in 2001, the message is the medium. I intended the film to be an intensely subjective experience that reaches the viewer at an inner level of consciousness, just as music does; to “explain” a Beethoven symphony would be to emasculate it by erecting an artificial barrier between conception and appreciation. You’re free to speculate as you wish about the philosophical and allegorical meaning of the film— and such speculation is one indication that it has succeeded in gripping the audience at a deep level— but I don’t want to spell out a verbal road map for 2001 that every viewer will feel obligated to pursue or else fear he’s missed the point…
Kubrick, Stanley. Stanley Kubrick: The Playboy Interview (50 Years of the Playboy Interview).
After reading that, I have really nothing else to say since Kubrick seems to have said it all that words could express. The rest is the movie. All can I say to all my friends, family, and colleagues is that however you celebrate or remember this Advent season and whatever movie, show, music, mass, or service you participate in, that peace, joy, beauty, truth, love, and hope be more real and deep in your lives (“the point”) than mere words can communicate.