Showing Up

by rthieme on June 20, 1998

Islands in the ClickstreamMost of us have not lived very long in the digital world, yet the debris of the past is all around us.

One of the kids took an old Apple 2 and shoeboxes full of floppies when he left. An XT sits on a stand in our living room, an object of art. A neighbor bought it for $3400, then we bought it from him for a hundred bucks and sent it with one of the kids to college to use as a word processor. (“You expect me to take an IBM XT to college?!?”) There’s an AT that we use as a doorstop, a 386 with Linux on it, and … why go on? The detritus of our digital play space is everywhere.

Why do we keep that hardware around? I guess we think it isn’t used up, that maybe we can connect again using ASCII Express at 300 bauds and download warez before it was called warez.

The name of the game, we learned early, is to get inside. See how it works. See what we can learn when messages are exchanged silently in the night, more like signing than sound.

Well past midnight, when all the distractions of the day have faded and our minds are focused with clarity and high intentionality on the project at hand … listening to the whisper of our own minds and the clicking of the keyboard as we navigate the maze of data, not quite knowing what we’re searching for … until we find it. For one bright shining moment, the dissonance that drives our need to understand is relieved and everything seems to connect, a missing piece completes the puzzle, the game dissolves and reconstructs itself at a higher level.

We know that the developmental stages in our lives have ended when the illusions that sustained them disappear. It happens again and again. Increasingly we detach from our constructions of reality, seeing them as temporary, not worth dying for. We seek common ground in the bonds that transcend content or form. Eras end too, according to Arthur Miller, when their illusions are exhausted. And planetary cultures. And trans-galactic civilizations. Galaxies explode. Light to light. Atoms to atoms. Dust to dust.

What knowledge is worth knowing? What puzzles are worth solving? What connections are worth the effort to drive our tired minds through the night toward what we believe is the light of another dawn? What matters most?

Premature death always feels … premature, as if something barely used is wasted. But even a timely death can be a reminder that ultimately life wants nothing more than more life.

Those of us who thrive in the digital world love to manipulate symbols. We hope that the world they disclose has some relationship to what we call “reality.” The laughter that echoes in the enlightened mind and the laughter that rattles through cyberspace is the laughter of Zen monks contemplating the paradox that the mind that knows can not know what the knowing mind would know.

When I notified this mailing list that my wife’s mother had died, many of you responded with words of condolence, encouragement or wisdom. My wife was astonished by the degree to which your words, forwarded to her email box, became transparent to the reality of so many human beings behind the visible symbols. Windows were thrown up and the fresh air of genuine connection filled the house.

Out of nowhere, many of you simply chose to show up. The joke is that nine tenths of life is showing up, but showing up means more than moving our bodies from here to there. Faith is the willingness to get out of bed in the morning and just show up, because implicit in the decision is the belief that somehow, something new can emerge in our lives that is redemptive or transforming.

All knowledge is configured to the hard-wiring of our genetic heritage, the contours of our minds and cultures. We think and see only what our ways of thinking and seeing allow us to think and see. So what do we really know?

There are moments in the silence of the night when an unexpected communication or chance discovery connects the dots into a bigger picture. We see more deeply how our civilization works. Or we realize that we are not alone in the universe, that our delusions of grandeur are mere hubris, the fantasies of a toddler at the top of the steps of his front porch, getting ready to go downstairs for the first time.

The impulse at the moment of knowing is often to share what we know. The destiny of a cell is to be part of a body it can never comprehend. Yet we see in that moment of knowing that our language is inadequate to the task of real communication.

“My life belongs to the world, ” George Bernard Shaw said, “and I want to be thoroughly used up when I die. I rejoice in life for its own sake. It is not a brief candle for me but a sort of splendid torch which I have for only a moment and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to future generations.”

To understand what we think is happening within the parameters of our inherited modes of knowing is one way to be conscious. Another is to see that we are momentary configurations of energy and information and we always have the option to become transparent to our destiny, the desire of the heart to belong to one another. When we exercise that option, then cyberspace glows, an explosion of inexplicable splendor magnifies our light before it is transformed. (Light to light.) We are present to ourselves. (Atoms to atoms.) We are more than what we think we know, more than digital symbols, more than the prison of our dead language, the binding constraints of archaic code. (Dust to digital dust.)

In memory of Bernice (1904 – 1998), who never knowingly used a computer. But knew nevertheless how to show up.

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