“And what greater calamity can fall upon a nation, than the loss of worship? Then all things go to decay. Genius leaves the temple, to haunt the senate, or the market. Literature becomes frivolous. Science is cold. The eye of youth is not lighted by the hope of other worlds, and age is without honor. Society lives to trifles, and when men die, we do not mention them.” – An Address, Ralph Waldo Emerson

Studies tell us that suicides and mental health problems are rapidly increasing among younger generations. I believe it—dealing with an abundance of depressions and anxieties myself that have taken me to far edges of gloom, railings and precipices took on terrible symbolism and meaning at a few points in my life. The topic of healthcare will no doubt supersede the other interesting areas this national conversation could take us. And though the topic of healthcare deserves prominence in any conversation about assisting the downtrodden, it will also distract from the significant issues my generation faces—issues of meaning, purpose, and desire. The healthcare system doesn’t have the resources within itself to holistically address the depth of these things, depending as heavily as it does on medication, which assumes the human condition can be solved or even mediated by introducing a happy chemical to the petri dish. I don’t mean to say we shouldn’t expand our healthcare system. My only point here is that it won’t save us from any pervasive, shallow ideas we level at ourselves and others. Humanity’s future depends on ideas that move through us like the tides, sustain us like breath, warm us like light, inspire us to love, and provide hope during death’s horrific approach. What are these ideas? Where do we find them?

“In how many churches, by how many prophets, tell me, is man made sensible that he is an infinite soul; that the earth and heavens are passing into his mind; that he is drinking forever the soul of God?”

Emerson is what some might call an “old white man.” This is grounds for immediate dismissal in more than a few circles. His ideas are beautiful, though. Emerson’s power as a writer lies in his insistence that existence is meaningful, not despite but because its mysteries are abundant and strange, such that his thirst for life ripples through time in the wake of his writing. I’ve found his words to be full of refreshing potential that starkly contrasts the demeaning posturing of the present age. Emerson’s worldview grants holiness to all things animate and inanimate on the basis of their existence alone, whereas the current habit of thought strips holiness from things on the same basis. The systems that allow for our perception and creativity were for him a source of awe, proof of excessive splendor intrinsic to reality itself. Yet he remains an old white man. If we stop there, we remove a depth of spirit, reducing him to a demographic datapoint.

“The time is coming when all men will see, that the gift of God to the soul is not a vaunting, overpowering, excluding sanctity, but a sweet, natural goodness, a goodness like thine and mine, and that so invites thine and mine to be and to grow.”

Thought is one of the most powerful forces in nature. It defines every aspect of our lives, surging invisibly through us at all times like gravitational waves. Thought caused the oceans to rise, and it will be thought that lowers them. It should come as no surprise that these phantoms of images, words, feelings, memories, hopes, and dreams are difficult to manage. We must make choices regarding how to accommodate the demands of our own thoughts—and then there’s the monumental task of interacting with other’s thoughts entirely separate from our own after that. Still, there seems a common habit to view that difficulty as a design flaw. Depression is reducible to a lack of serotonin, fear and anger to an unevolved amygdala, motivation and attention to a lack of dopamine. These supposed facts have been used to denigrate the brain’s potential while claiming to be in service of it. Now I have students in high school classrooms informing me that love is an illusion of feeling resulting from chemical reactions in their brain. When I ask why they love who they love, it’s as if the room changes color, but doubt still lurks that the great love they receive and give could ever mean as much as they want it to.

“For all our penny-wisdom, for all our soul-destroying slavery to habit, it is not to be doubted, that all men have sublime thoughts…”

I went through a period of atheism a couple years ago, which, if nothing else, instilled in me the consequence that choice and imagination have on all interactions within and without the self. It began during a conversation with a friend who casually dropped a very memorable line: “I always thought the world would get smaller when I stopped believing in God. I didn’t expect it to get bigger. But it did.” Given the dark precipices my imagination was standing on at this stage of life, the hope of something bigger sounded attractive. So I let go, and I felt immediately liberated from the burden of trying and failing to imagine a loving God in the day-to-day. My only responsibility was to pay attention to being alive. I could just be. It was a relief. The world got bigger. I reveled in the freedom to be as I chose, to define as I felt, to observe without restriction.

One night, as I imagined humanity’s presence in the universe, I thought it was beautiful that we bloomed from the dirt petaled with consciousness, and I trusted that it was indeed beautiful. Beauty become then a universal property to be observed, a presence like space and time. All at once, God became very real. Meaning beyond understanding followed.

8 Comments

  1. Kyric Koning

    I lost every idea I had of where I thought this post was going, but I’m really ok with being lead to Emerson quotations. A lovely thought journey here.

    Reply
    • Will Montei

      Thanks Kyric!

      Reply
  2. Avatar

    I’ve always really appreciated your posts and this one is no exception. Thanks for giving me things to consider over the next few days

    Reply
    • Will Montei

      Thank you for the kind words, Hannah.

      Reply
  3. Avatar

    I love your depth and honest here. I appreciate you inviting us into this conversation, and I think it’s bold to take on concepts so amorphous and difficult to wrap one’s head around. Also, I’m curious about the cover image; I want to hear your perspective for why you chose it.

    Reply
    • Avatar

      Thank you, Jonathan. It’s a painting by Theodore Rousseau called “The Forest in Winter at Sunset.” I’ve interested in 18th and 19th century landscape paintings lately and how they evoke a sense of the sublime, drawing emotion from things I think are commonly thought of as emotionless. I really love this one in particular, and was gazing at it a lot while I wrote.

      Reply
  4. Avatar

    Really beautiful. Thank you.

    Reply
    • Will Montei

      Thank you, Ansley.

      Reply

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