Balking at the threshold

An idea I have repeated too much: We resist deep change, not because we love the old or hate the new, but because of the intolerable span of dread that separates the old from the new.

At the threshold of deep change, in the face of something so new that it requires a preliminary forgetting of the old before true understanding is possible, a soul will sometimes balk. What can this balking look like?

  • Allowing the message to be interrupted before it is complete
  • Avoidance or distraction, switching focus away from the message
  • Interpretation of the threshold anxiety as evidence of a real threat
  • Questioning motives of the messenger, or otherwise nullifying the validity of the message ad hominem
  • Investigating the causes of the message, rather than receiving its content
  • Subjecting the message to formal analysis before listening to its content
  • Creating conflict, and destroying the conditions for understanding
  • Attempting to silence the messenger
  • Ridiculing the message or the messenger
  • Postponement of hearing the message to a more suitable time
  • Repeating the old truth in place of hearing the new message
  • Asserting personal incapacity to understand the message
  • Accusing the new message of having no coherent meaning to understand
  • Shoehorning the new message into old frameworks, rendering the message incomprehensible
  • Reducing the new message to existing old ones and blurring and denying essential distinctions
  • Assuming a superior spiritual status, rendering this and all messages pointless
  • Dominating the conversation; interrogating instead of listening
  • Shifting focus from content of message to the form of the message (for instance critiquing it as rhetoric)
  • Deflection; treating the message as something to be heard by someone else
  • Assessing the effort required to understand as a bad investment of time and effort
  • Performing active listening, while not listening
  • Letting the messenger talk, but not allowing message to penetrate; moving to the next topic before understanding has occurred
  • Jumping to associated ideas before understanding happens
  • Exalting the form of the message itself as a counterfeit for understanding
  • Adoring the messenger in place of understanding the message
  • Hating the messenger in place of understanding the message
  • Flattering the messenger in place of understanding the message
  • Interpreting the message as non-comprehensible magical incantation
  • Experiencing the message aesthetically instead of understanding
  • Listening to the message but deferring understanding until later

In many myths (including the Easter myth, which is on my mind because today happens to be Easter) an uncanny zone (of time or space or state) separating the old and the new. Traversing that zone is requires considerable skill and (as Joseph Campbell pointed out) often spiritual assistance.


Incidentally, speaking of Easter — which for Christians marks the passing of an old dead faith and the rising of a new living one — this morning I am reading an interesting paper by Bruno Latour, where he relates an amusing Babel-like story:

Jesuits who had settled in China in the XVIIth century, write to Rome complaining about the fact that, under pressure from the Dominican friars, they are obliged to utter the formula of the consecration in Latin. In effect, when the priest says: ’’Hoc est enim corpus meus,” it presents to the ear of a Chinese : “Hocu ye-su-tu ye-nim co-lo-pu-su- me-um,” which, if the Jesuits did not provide a French translation of what the unfortunate Chinese hear at the moment of the transsubstantiation, could pass for a fairly good approximation, give or take a few consonants, of : “emanation, ancient, lord, office, rule, handsome, rest, each, road, flee, thing, meditate, greening, meadows”.

I am imagining a short story where the Chinese receive this string of words as a magical incantation — a Latour liturgy — a rite around which a new religious faith revolves. The rite and its commentary is recorded in a Chinese Newer Testament which relates the miraculous story of a series of wild historical accidents that generated the string of Holy Words, despite the conceits of silly Hebrews and Europeans who thought they understood the meanings, but which were only preparations for something far greater:

Emanation, Ancient Lord!
Office rule handsome!
Rest each road.
Flee thing — meditate!
Greening meadows.


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