“Lost in Space” by Mark W. Harris
April 3, 2011 – First Parish of Watertown
Call to Worship – from “Compensation” by Ralph Waldo Emerson
All things are moral. That soul which within us is a sentiment, outside of us is a law. We feel its inspiration; but there in history we can see its fatal strength. “It is in the world, and the world was made by it.” Justice is not postponed. A perfect equity adjusts its balance in all parts of life. The dice of God are always loaded. The world looks like a multiplication table, or a mathematical equation, which, turn it how you will, balances itself. Take what figure you will, its exact value, nor more nor less, still returns to you. Every secret is told, every crime is punished, every virtue rewarded, every wrong redressed, in silence and certainty.
Reading – from The Mind’s Eye by Oliver Sacks
Sermon – “Lost in Space” by Mark W. Harris
At the National Gallery of Art in London, there is a wonderful painting by the Italian Master Caravaggio called The Supper at Emmaus. Painted more than four hundred years ago it depicts Jesus with two of his disciples and a server at an inn. The painting shows the exact moment when the disciples figure out they are eating with the resurrected Jesus, because, as far as they know their master should be dead in his grave. There is a look of astonishment on their faces because they now recognize that the stranger they thought was their dinner companion is in fact someone they know extremely well who should not be looking so healthy. To make matters worse Jesus has apparently been traveling incognito because we see him in the painting without a beard. We have a feeling of witnessing the last second before chaos breaks loose, as one of the disciples has his arms raised in amazement, and a basket of food he has apparently hit with his floundering limb teeters on the edge about to crash to the floor. It is like the embarrassing moments when a dinner guest arrives, just as we are about to take something from the oven, and the entire dinner slides onto the floor.
What especially interests me in all this is that Jesus was or had made himself unrecognizable to his disciples, and by this situation confirms his and their humanity in a different kind of way. A few weeks ago I was having lunch with a theological school student with whom I had just finished a tutorial session. We were down at the Indian restaurant on Main Street enjoying their daily buffet. Over in the corner of the restaurant was an older man who was having lunch. There was a vague familiarity about him, but I didn’t feel as though I knew him, and I passed him off as simply another retired man in his 70’s. Finally, after a half hour of occasionally looking up from our repast, and silently questioning my face recognition skills, we both had a moment of instant awareness. He said, “Mark?”, and I responded, “Thomas?” It turned out that it was the retired minister from First Parish in Cambridge, whom I have known for many years. He even sat on the UUA Fellowship Committee when he was a minister in Iowa, when I went before them, now nearly thirty-five years ago. But Thomas is now older, and so he does not look the same as he did in his youth, or even when he retired five years ago. Plus I have not seen him, as he has moved to the North Adams area in western Massachusetts. Finally, I always saw him at minister’s meetings or planned gatherings, and so to see him in a Watertown restaurant was totally out of context.
Most of us can relate to this problem of failing to recognize someone we know. Even when our memories for faces and names still remains sharp, we can still be fooled by several factors. Children sometimes have a hard time recognizing me if they see me in another place, such as at a supermarket or the library. There is a kind of vague recognition that they know me, but they are not quite sure from where. They expect to see me in suit and tie, and only at church, sometimes assuming that this is where I always am, a perception dangerously close to the truth. Sometimes if we have not seen someone in years, the changes are almost unfathomable. Hair changes colors or falls out, or even when we are younger mustaches come and go, and beards appear and disappear, but hopefully only on the men. Appearance and context and time seem critical. In this struggle to remember the people we know or should know, I remember agonizing once over the seemingly familiar face of my former boss at the UUA, when I thought she appeared in a London airport. We don’t want to embarrass ourselves by acting familiar with a total stranger, but we also want to affirm our relationships. It was a relief when the woman I accosted turned out to be her.
Oliver Sacks, the well known doctor and writer provides insight into the problem of face recognition in his most recent book, The Mind’s Eye. He says studies have shown that humans can recognize faces soon after birth. But after a few months this turns out not to be any old face. Children narrow the model of faces to those they are frequently exposed to. While we used to think it racist to say something like, “they all look alike,” it turns out that that is our natural response because we learn to remember and model a certain type of face, and find others all look the same. This helps us by enabling us to recognize those types of faces we are most likely to see. I have struggled with a similar issue, not with face type, but with name recognition. We had a neighbor on Marshall Street of Chinese ancestry who moved to Los Angeles last spring. I had no problem remembering her husband Andrew with his anglicized name, but for some reason I could never remember her name, still can’t, even going so far as to writing it down in my date book, and repeating it to myself. I kept asking myself, am I being racist or sexist or do I have some kind of block here?
We apparently have face recognition cells that need to be fully developed, but it is also true of our other capacities, including linguistic power. Our natural abilities must be experienced, and selected for use time and again in order for us to develop our capacities.
It makes sense that we would learn to recognize the kinds of faces and places we are likely to encounter. The phrase, “Use it or lose it” seems to have widespread validity. But if we are going to be able to learn Chinese names, then we need to practice. This is especially true for those of us who may have some deficits in this area in the first place.
While Oliver Sacks is concerned especially with those who suffer from brain diseases or severe disabilities, we can all relate to the problem of recognizing faces, names, and even particular kinds of things like birds or trees or cars. Of course it is not just recognition that gives us this knowledge. Familiarity is based on feeling. What we feel an emotional connection to is as important as recognition. Then too, some of us may be able to feel connected or familiar with everyone who is a member of a group, such as a church, but we may have no clue what anyone’s name is. It is a reminder of how complex such functions are. We need all parts of the brain working well. But it is also a good reason for all of us to wear name tags more often.
I have never been great with names, but my historian’s memory for facts has usually helped me remember them once I know them. The same is true for places I have visited. Once I get a route down I remember it, but my instincts for going in the right direction are about as good as remembering a name the first time I hear it. Nil. I could get lost in my own backyard. Like many of us who are getting older, my name and word recall are becoming somewhat frayed. Our culture does not help this much anymore because now many of us are putting dates and names and phone numbers in cell phones and computers. We are relying on external devices to take over our daily memories. Still memory is tied up with identity. Centuries ago memory was critical to ethics, and directly tied to the development of the soul. Memory represents much of how we learned our identity, and continue to learn, develop relationships, and make our way in the world.
So it is dismaying to consider the loss of memory. One only has to have been involved with a friend or loved one who has suffered from Alzeimer’s to know the pain of the loss of knowledge of who we are, and the memory of our loved ones. I think this is why these little losses of name and face and word recognition are so disconcerting to many of us. It makes us worry about what may befall us. And so when I go into the church office, and forget why I was going there in the first place, or have trouble retrieving a word like “pen,” and can only come up with “the thing I write with,” I am troubled.
Oliver Sacks reminds us that we have all failed to recognize a face of someone we should know, fumbled for a word, or read a sentence three times, and still failed to grasp what it said. No memory is perfect all the time. As Emerson said, everything God makes has a crack in it. One common understanding we have is that we share the human condition, and so we understand why each of us wants to retain and even improve our memories as best as we can. Sacks also realizes that there are no miraculous awakenings from many of the afflictions that befall us. Rather what may be most remarkable of all is how we compensate for all that befalls us, and make the best of our circumstances whatever they are.
What comes across most powerfully in Sacks’ book is a modern version of Emerson’s law of compensation. While most of us would not subscribe to Emerson’s strict understanding that everything works out in balance, what is most inspiring is how those who are afflicted learn to compensate with their bodies and their brains. It is like those remarkable stories we hear of those who lose an arm or a leg, and continue to run or ski or surf. Sacks describes a woman who loses her ability to recognize people and objects due to a brain condition. She is a concert pianist, and the first thing she loses is her ability to read music. While this might seem to be a devastating loss, it becomes a motivation for her to use untapped abilities. She employs her memory and her intellectual abilities in place of direct visual recognition, and categorizes and codes things for recall. She made use of other visual mechanisms, color for instance, in her brain to compensate for what she lost. We may employ similar kinds of powers of mind to help us discover our own strengths and weaknesses. We may not be able to retain names or places as easily as when we were young, so perhaps now we write them down, or even work on memorizing them, as I do sometimes when I review the church directory. Or perhaps we are more verbal about seeking assistance, like the people, who instead of driving around forever, stop and ask for directions. Finally, maybe we enable a slight change in the culture so, as I mentioned before, name tags are worn by everyone more frequently. How do we help each other navigate the challenges of living we all encounter?
What is perhaps most difficult of all is coping with change. We feel like we once remembered names or places, but now we don’t, and it is frustrating. I had an interesting experience one day this winter of how the body learns, and if the environment changes, it becomes difficult to adapt. Andrea and I are part of a small group of church members who in rotation pick up left over bread at Panera Bakery every week. We then deliver it to the St. Patrick’s Food Pantry on Monday morning. One day I went to drop it off in our old red station wagon. I opened the rear hatch, where we had stored all the wrapped bread in four large garbage bags. As I reached in to grab the first bag, I smashed my head on the top edge of the rear door. It hurt, and opened a small gash. Apparently I wasn’t paying attention. After I brought in the first bag, I came back for the second bag, and proceeded to smash my head again. How dumb. I thought, this is bizarre, but then noticed that perhaps because of the age of the car or because the grease had coagulated due to the cold that the hatch was not opening all the way. My body was leaning into the car at the exact angle it had learned, but it wasn’t sufficient to prevent me from hitting my head. If I kept doing it the way I had learned before it got old or cold, I would have kept smashing my head. Fortunately, I felt the problem. For the last two bags, I simply ducked and did not hit my head. I had to adapt to meet the needs of the new day.
As you heard in the reading, Sacks describes a woman who is part of the population who have little or no stereo vision. I related to this for two reasons. When my father began his retail oil business more than 65 years ago, he hired a truck driver who only had one eye. I was always amazed that with his loss of depth perception he could take that huge oil truck and back down these narrow little driveways, and generally show other kinds of manual and physical dexterity. Jim Carr, this gruff, wiry man adapted to his loss, and continued to drive for my father until both were well beyond retirement age. Sacks also made me wonder about my own vision, which is marked by a lazy eye, that can go cross eyed, especially if I am tired. It is now more than fifty years since I balked at having surgery on it, but it makes me wonder if I had to forego seeing in depth, too, like Sue Barry in the story. Did I look with one eye and then another all those years? How do we all compensate for our cracks?
Whether we consider how the brain adapts to recognizing faces, or how the body learns the proper height to fit, or how the eyes adjust to see in stereo or not, we come to understand how each of us lives an embodied life. We have grown from the small mimicking child who smiles when we do, and repeats our words. Monkey see, monkey do. Our bodies grow and gain knowledge dozens of times in one life. Our fate, when uninterrupted, presents a parade of distinct bodies from embryo to child and from child to adult, mature, older and aged.
I was reading in another church newsletter the story of a boy who misheard the people in his church, who were speaking about the Lenten season. Instead of the word lent, he thought the people were saying it is the “Season of Lend.” He imagined this to be a very generous thing to do. Each of us has a special time when we give items to others to use, sort of like the ice chipper my neighbor generously loaned me this winter, but I somehow forgot to return. It is useful to live in a place where people can share the things they need. While lent encourages us to fast or to give something up, the season of lend is how best we can help and take care of each other.
This has larger implications as well. Maybe lend can also be the season when we reflect on how our bodies are borrowed , too, taken from the clay of the universe. They are molded by nature and genes, but also by us as we grow into, and change with the many stages of life. Sacks’ book reminds us of how unsettling bodily changes can be, but it also reminds us of our abilities to adapt to new circumstances, and use new strategies to accomplish what we can. Even as some physical abilities diminish we also can find new or other ways to do things, or discover new things we love. Slowing down often means we savor and appreciate something more.
How do we bear up to this task of bodying the many selves of our lifetime?. Our destinies are shaped partly by the body shapes and genes we inherit. The body is a living, creative process, an expression of the creative organizing principle of the universe. Our life is continually forming and reforming, from birth to death. We live through bodies that continually change. One day an infant son becomes a toddler learning to walk, clapping through the success of standing, howling in pain for each fall, or walking into a glass door that he did not see. Another day a child becomes a maturing, developing adult, and then an adult becomes an aging less supple body that aches every morning, and needs a little time to get going. Nevertheless, one can still discover new things to do and discover life’s unfolding beauty and pleasures – in deeper conversations, in truly seeing our environment.
We are not just waiting to die; we are living our selves. Throughout our lives we form bodies appropriate to the age we are. Like the serenity prayer, we try to learn to accept the things the body can and cannot do, but we can also change into new ways of being in the world, and even the brain itself is clamoring for new ways to be used. These bodies that are on loan to us are our vehicles for seeing and experiencing the universe. We live through our bodies, and the changes can be difficult to cope with as we encounter a new stage. But we do not have to feel lost in space., as the disciples did when this stranger revealed himself to be their master, or when I did when the rear hatch whacked me. May we take those moments of stunning change as a sign that we can grow into the next stage of our lives. We represent many generations of change in a congregation, from birth to the near end of the journey, and part of our mission together is to lend to each other the wisdom of what it is to age and try to learn from each other all that we can about the many ways of being in the world. Long ago as a child, I was given a Viewmaster for my birthday. It enabled me to see in stereo all the wonders of the world. Like the woman in our reading, it made me want to see deeper. That is our task as a congregation, we are here together, all ages, all bodies, trying to help each other see deeper.
Closing Words – from Walden by Henry David Thoreau
Every man (or woman) is the builder of a temple, called his body, to the god he worships, after a style purely his own, nor can he get off by hammering marble instead. We are all sculptors and painters, and our material is our own flesh and blood and bones. Any nobleness begins at once to refine [our] features, any meanness . . . to imbrute them.
Meditation – from Gates of Prayer – Reform Jewish Prayerbook – read by Charmian Proskauer
Birth is a beginning
and death a destination.
And life is a journey:
From Childhood to maturity
And youth to age;
From innocence to awareness
and ignorance to knowing;
From foolishness to discretion
And then, perhaps, to wisdom
From weakness-to strength
Or strength to weakness
And, often, back again;
From health to sickness
And back, we pray, to health again;
From offense to forgiveness,
From loneliness to love,
From joy to gratitude,
From pain to compassion
And grief to understanding-
From fear to faith;
From defeat to defeat to defeat-
Until- looking backward or ahead,
We see that victory lies
Not at some high place along the way,
But in having made the journey, stage by stage,
A sacred pilgrimage
Birth is a beginning
And death a destination
And life is a journey,
A sacred pilgrimage-
To the eternal.