A Flashlight in a Haunted House

by rthieme on October 31, 1998

the-scream In my shorter semi-daily column, “Imaginary Gardens,” I referred last week to the dire forecasts of The End of Civilization as We Know It, which is linked these days to the Y2K computer glitch. The growing contagion of fear and unreason reminds me of the Fallout Shelter episode on Twilight Zone, when fragile bonds of community shredded in the face of a nuclear disaster that never happened.

Survivalists are buying up caves and generators, stockpiling food, checking ammunition. The Y2K bug is the intellectual’s version of millennial fever. Amplified by the Internet, their primordial fears raise hair on the backs of our necks like a scream in the night.

What actions are in our real self interest? We all do what is in our self-interest, however we disguise our actions, but altruism itself seems to be in our self-interest. Those who go it alone have less of a chance to survive in the long run, although in the moment they may make it into the hills.

That’s what I meant when I concluded that column with these words from a study of birds:

“… When flocking birds are looking for food, it’s best not to be near a glutton. The bully birds grab all the good grub. But, the study suggests, smart birds know which piggy-birds to avoid.

Dominant siskins, for example, have larger markings on their chests, so savvy siskins look for birds with smaller spots. When they eat next to a less aggressive neighbor, there’s plenty to go around.

That’s something to remember as the Y2K bug begins to make inroads. Hang with friends who are willing to share, who live in modest houses, drive smaller cars. Humans who know that enough is a feast. Maybe come the millennium, the meek who stick together really will inherit the earth.”

A practical reader responded: “Richard, you know as well as I that the strong, brutal and well-armed will dominate after this crisis as after every other throughout history.”

That made me think. I long ago learned that any spirituality worth its words must be realistic. It doesn’t help to live in a dreamscape floating above the world like a Sky City. But the “facts” have to be held in tension with the extraordinary capacity of humanity to transform its landscape – physically, emotionally, spiritually – by acts of belief, faith, will, or intention. The words differ, but it comes down to the same thing. We are co-creators of our lived experience, and we are resilient, even heroic when the chips are down beyond our capacity to grasp.

My reader must have copied his response to another friend, because I next received a response to his response:

“Hal [wrote Rick],

Upon first reading, the truth of your comment was obvious. Then I recalled the story of Tom Brown, the tracker who wrote in The Way of the Scout that he was asked by police to track and capture a murderer, regarded as an expert survivalist. This survivalist had a ton of tools — rifle, pistol, knife, dehydrated food, water purification tablets, sleeping bag, etc. He was loaded up like a lunar astronaut as he fled through the woods.

Tom Brown had nothing but his clothes and maybe a pocket knife. His power was his knowledge of how to live with the wilderness – how to build brush huts for a warm sleep, where to find clear water, which plants were edible, how to track. He stalked and harassed this violent murderer until the man was completely broken.

Brown set a trap that the killer fell for, causing a painful sprained ankle. Then he poured swamp water into the murderer’s canteen, giving him violent cramps. Then the gun disappeared. Then the backpack. Then the pistol. Then the warm jacket. Then the knife.
Finally, all of the murderer’s clothes disappeared while he was bathing. He had nothing left, and he had never once laid eyes on Tom, nor heard a sound, nor saw a single footprint. Up to this point, Tom Brown was an invisible, terrifying ghost.

Then Tom allowed the naked murderer to see him. Keeping his distance, Tom led the broken, sick, injured, whimpering survivalist into the arms of the police. Without his arsenal, he wasn’t so tough, after all.

Survivalists may be able to go several months on stored foods. But they too are highly reliant on the manufactured products of civilization. The people with the best odds of long-term survival are those who know how to live with the wilderness. When things finally quiet down, the humble will have inherited the Earth, with their profound reverence and respect for the living Earth.”

The original word for “meek” didn’t mean what we mean by “meek.” It’s meaning was closer to the root of aikido, the martial art that suggests that we align our energy with whatever’s coming at us, rather than confronting it directly. It’s a way of saying that the universe moves with its own momentum, and if we can align ourselves with that flow, it’ll take us where it wants us to go.

Meek means the strength at the heart of humanity – and the universe. Some traditions call it God, some don’t. Some call it the Tao, the flowing of the universe. Others call it ki, as in aikido. Those are merely words, meant to be levers under the rocks of our denial and resistance. Words are either walls that imprison us and keep others out or tools that move boulders that block the flow of our lives. The words are less important than that to which they point, the ability of life itself to recall its strengths recursively, strength within nested strength. Not knowing, but knowing that we know, and knowing what we know, moves mountains.

Our fears dance on the walls like shadows. Alone in the cold in the dark is the moment of knowing, candescent and expansive. Digital simulations, nothing but illusions, waking dreams, all disappear, leaving only light illuminating pixels, showing us patterns we created then believed.

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