Everyone’s lists are different.
Mary Oliver watches a grasshopper on a summer’s day and comes to ask a question:
‘I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?’*
Iris Murdoch reflects on the energy that is the human life:
‘Here neither the inspiring ideas of freedom, sincerity and fiats of will, nor the plain wholesome concept of a rational discernment of duty, seem complex enough to do justice to what we really are.’**
This all seems too orderly and Murdoch suspects there’s what I might suggest is a more complex randomness beyond this:
‘What we really are seems more like an obscure system of energy out of which choices and visible acts will emerge at intervals in ways which are often unclear and often dependent on the condition of the system in between the moments of choice.’**
if this is so, Murdoch ponders, is there some way of bringing some shape and order to this:
‘If this is so […] are there any techniques for the purification and reorientation of an energy which is naturally selfish, in such a way that when moments of choice arrive we shall be sure of acting rightly?’**
Murdoch is thinking about the qualities of being human which, in their absence, I believe cause us to say we are being inhumane. What we can humanly be is indivisibly linked to language. We are our words as a species and as individuals. And each is capable of developing our own vocabularies towards these higher qualities:
‘Ordinary language is not a philosopher. […] Such a reflection requires and generates a rich and diversified vocabulary for mining aspects of goodness.’**
Our language determines what we can imagine. Clearly some can imagine more than others. I do not think of these being comprised of longer, composite, or more obscure words so much as comprising stories and narratives that are meaningful and open up possibilities.
Peter Senge catches my eye when he writes:
‘the primary threats to our survival […] come not from sudden events but from slow, gradual processes’.^
The fact that we’re set up to notice events – there’s the sabre-toothed tiger again – means we miss the gradual:
‘We are conditioned to see life as a series of events, and for every event, we think there is one obvious cause.’^
We need to develop story or process-vocabulary rather than events-vocabulary.
Now we’re creating lists that are more interesting.
(*From Mary Oliver’s poem The Summer’s Day.)
(**From Iris Murdoch’s The Sovereignty of Good.)
(^From Peter Senge’s The Fifth Discipline.)