As I mentioned in my last post, I’m doing my best to catch up on reading and paying attention to things that used to inspire and entertain, both, as I navigate the challenges that have come along with this physical distancing and isolating thing. When I’m at my most optimistic/least anxious, I feel lucky to have the extra time to revisit writings and readings that were the focus of my life for a couple of decades. It’s making me miss the stories and the studies and the research and the people I got to work and interact with, if not the time/place in which I did the studying and research. That period of my life was a mixed bag, to say the least.
Still, the opportunity to reflect – and hopefully refocus so that I can plan some personal next steps once we are on the other side of this – is something for which I am grateful. I am re/learning lessons about prioritization and the value of stuff that I find important – regardless of whether or not others can understand that value.
The focus of my academic life was pretty esoteric. I get that. It’s not something that everyone gets or cares about or views with any degree of import. It wasn’t practical – by any stretch of the imagination. I’ve been asked, more than once, ‘but what can you do with that kind of a degree? What can you actually do?’ And that was from ‘friends’. Once outside of academia I had no illusions that I’d find employment in an area involving my subject matter expertise. I’ve lived with that for a little over ten years now. It doesn’t even bother me. Most of the time.
The societal crisis we’re experiencing right now is making me really examine how much value I place on my current role, and it’s resulting in some pretty deep soul-mining. I can’t stop thinking about the need for the creation of a new normal that we will have to undertake as cities, provinces, countries and as a global community. And I don’t really think that the job I do right now will permit me to contribute to the required paradigm shift in any meaningful way. I can’t overemphasize how much we need to rethink the ways we determine value – starting with all our frontline essential folks – in medicine, home care, food delivery, emergency response, cleaning and sanitation… the list goes on – but not forgetting our creatives.
So, with time on my hands and the inability to sleep, I’m going back to what I know. And what I love and what I value. And we’ll see where that has taken me once the dust settles.
Over the past couple of weeks I’ve had something come up in the course of business calls and email back-and-forth that was irrationally irritating (to a ridiculous extreme that is indicative, in part, of the tension of isolation, to be sure), so in the spirit of getting it off my chest so I can stop fixating on it, I’ve decided to address that irritation, here.
People keep saying ‘(they’ve) seen the handwriting on the wall.’ It’s making me nuts.
I get that that’s pedantic to the extreme, but I also feel like it’s illustrative of the ways in which we miss the salient point because we misinterpret or misunderstand its context. The reference comes from one of my most favourite bibical texts – one I’ve written about before. I went back to that post (waaaaaay back to 2013!) and, after cringing at some of the writing, realized that the story is super-relevant to the times through which we are living right now. As are so many of our human stories – regardless of when or where they were written.
The Hebrew Scriptures have a lot of pretty cool stories that contain some really cool characters and memorable lines. I’ve been studying the texts of the OT and NT and the Apocrypha, and Pseudipigrapha, and the literatures of neighbouring countries (Egypt, the Ancient Near East, Greece, Rome, and etc.) for so very long now, it’s tricky trying to single out what (and who) makes my absolute top of the pops of ancient literature.
I have resolved my love-hate relationship with the particular text(s) that served as the basis of my doctoral thesis – and I’m back to hanging out and having fun with my gnostics, in all their ‘heretical’ glory. Man, did those guys know how to spin a tale.
The NT and I remain estranged – there are still some residual hard feelings left over from my Master’s thesis, and, to be honest, I’m even more convinced that Saul of Tarsus and I will never see eye-to-eye on things. The Revelation (no ‘s’ – again with the punctiliousness) has a lot of fun stuff, but it’s being used all over the place lately (those Evangelical nutbars in the US are tiresome with their citations taken out of context), so I’m feeling like the over-exposure and forced interpretations take it out of the running for revisiting right now.
I’ve always been fascinated by the character Daniel. He’s a guy you can really cheer for – and the book about him marks the real, canonical, beginnings of apocalyptic literature in the biblical worldview. I’d rather not get into an argument about whether or not the book belongs with the prophetic books or the writings. Some day, perhaps, I’ll talk a bit about biblical prophecy being not so much – or at all – prophetic but very much about the social commentary of the time in which it was written – and therefore a type of early apocalypticism – but right now I’m grooving with Daniel, who belongs with the writings as a proto-apocalyptic.
Next to my gnostics, I love the apocalyptic- and prophetic-types best. The genres and stories tend to overlap a fair bit – hardly surprising since they arise out of discontent and disconnection with the society when the texts were written.
When people are pissed with the status quo things often get a little apocalyptic (I talked about this the other week, in the context of our current state of unrest and anxiety). Daniel – and the pseudonymous book about him – was presented as a harbinger of a whole lot of discontent and attempts at change and it gave us one of the most interesting images of the whole bible.
The narrative tells the story of Daniel, who, as a member of the Judean nobility, is serving some time in the service of Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon. He, and three of his pals, refused to succumb to the lures of the food and wine provided by their captors, and maintained the mandates of their heritage and religion, even while in exile. They catch the eye of the king, who declares them to be superior to his own wise men at court and enlists them to his service. Daniel soon gains a reputation for the accuracy of his dream interpretations, and, since Nebuchadnezzar (I love that name. Just typing it makes me happy. Saying it makes me smile) frequently needs his dreams analysed, he eventually appoints Daniel as his Chief Wise Guy.
While Nebuchadnezzar had his good qualities (like his name. I love his name), he did steal the treasures of the Temple of Jerusalem (during the destruction of the city and the beginning of the Exilic Period) and brought them back to Babylon with him. While Neb deals with his demons (7 years of crazy, living like a wild beast and all that) his son Belshazzar (the Book of Daniel is the only source that lists Belshazzar as Neb’s kid – other historical sources list him as the son of Nabonidus – but we can let him be Neb’s son – no harm to the story) acts as co-regent, and then king in his own right.
One night Belshazzar and his sycophant friends throw a big party – and use the sacred vessels plundered from Solomon’s Temple as pint glasses. They make toasts to their gods – mainly inanimate deities – using Yahweh’s own sacred vessels. Those of you who have read the Hebrew Scriptures up to this point in the continuing story have to realize that this is not a good idea. Yahweh does not (generally) take kindly to his word, his people or his stuff being messed with (Shoah and millennia of antisemitic bullshit notwithstanding).
To the horror of the collected party goers, a mysterious disembodied hand appears and starts writing on the wall. Still reeling from the strange apparition, neither Belshazzar nor his assembled guests can figure out what the writing says, so he calls for Daniel to come and have a look. Daniel, the best-of-the-best and Yahweh-favoured Chief Wise Dude, reads the words as Mene Mene Tekel Upharsin. At first inspection they seem to be meaningless references to weights and measures, but Daniel interprets them as the verbs that correspond to the nouns: numbered, weighed, divided.
As such, he explains that god has numbered the days of Belshazzar’s kingdom and decided that they are at an end. The kingdom (and its king) have been weighed and found wanting, so it will be divided between the Medes and the Persians. Like now. Right now. That very night Belshazzar was killed and Darius the Mede became king.
Generally the story is used (‘the writing on the wall’, ‘the hand writing on the wall’, ‘Mene Mene’) to indicate imminent doom, originating in misbehaviour or inappropriate governance. Those who attended the feast – and shared culpability for the bad politics and decisions – were able to see the hand as it wrote on the wall, yet were totally unable to understand the message that was being imparted. The interpretation had to come from someone who wasn’t in any way responsible for the negative behaviours – or the misuse of the vessels and the sacrosanct ideology behind them. Only Daniel was able to give warning and explain the impending collapse of the Babylonian kingdom by reading the writing on the wall.
Increasingly, these days and with the societies and systems of government that we have created and institutionalized, fewer and fewer people are able to see the imminence of danger as we continue headlong down a path that is becoming less and less equitable and more and more as dictated by those who hold power. That those in power were, ostensibly, chosen by the people (rather than through hereditary ascension, as in the Babylonian example), makes the systemic problems all the more glaring and frustrating.
We are not doing enough to hold our leaders to account while they choose to ignore the disembodied hand and its message entirely. We need to see both the message and take note of its origin – the existence of the hand itself warrants attention.
Before COVID, claims about improvements to the economy (while myriad citizens remain in situations of un/underemployment and the middle class continues shrinking while the divide between the haves and the have nots become more pronounced), to the housing market (as home ownership is increasingly an inaccessible pipe dream in most major Canadian cities), and the short-sighted politics that reflect immediate self-interest rather than long-term nationwide benefits were standard fare for politicians of all stripes.
These things, as serious as they are, only scratch the surface of the current crises we are facing. The entirety of our economic systems will have to undergo revision – as will the way we view essential work and workers. We, in Canada, are fortunate in our leadership. Responses while not perfect, have helped us to come to the right side of the curve more quickly than projected.
The situation in the US is inexplicable – except when you look at hi/story and its many examples of clownish rulers who demand only those things that benefit and enrich them and their intimates directly. That there are those who support them without seeing any direct advantage has to do with lack of education, critical thinking and awareness of hi/story. They barely understand the message – and never even acknowledge the messenger.
As I say over and over and over again, our myths – and their interpretations – have a whole lot of wisdom to offer, if we bother to take the time and pay attention to what those who came before us had to say. Especially since we keep on making the same sorts of mistakes, driven by greed and one-upmanship and the ever-increasing need to hear ourselves speak (or yell) over the voices that might be offering an alternative (and better, more equitable) perspective.
In February 1964, as a response to the assassination of JFK a few months previously, a young lad named Paul Simon wrote a song. The Sound(s) of Silence (the original title was plural) shares an enduring sense of futility and awareness of the dangers of silence – the problems that arise when people fail to effectively listen to and speak out about the cancers growing around us.
As we continue to bow to our own neon (or orange) gods, perhaps we need to take time to listen to this song a little more closely. It might help us to see the hand and decipher the message it is continually writing on the walls that surround us.
And the sign flashed out its warning, in the words that it was forming
And the sign said, ‘the words of the prophets are written on the subway walls and tenement halls’
And whispered in the sounds of silence.
Mene Mene. Take heed, while we have ample time on our hands to be considering the past and planning next directions. The hand is getting pretty emphatic with its messages. Our governments are being weighed and the days of many of them are numbered – if we can look past our own interests and understand that the divide is what is causing our most significant systemic problems. We might have more time than did Belshazzar, but not much. This current crisis is highlighting the fact that we need to look for solutions to all of the sources of our societal discontent once we are released to do so. The signs are all there.