Dancing on the Head of a Pin

Like fear, hope is always about something that might happen in the future. It is never about what is right here and now… hope can remove us from the present and leave us hanging somewhere between what is and what might be…There is a difference, I found, in taking refuge in the hope that present circumstances can be changed and in allowing hope to keep you from knowing that this is one of those things you cannot change.  Kathy Torpie, in her book, Losing Face.

Kathy’s words have remained with me. I look at them from time to time and think about how I am using hope: whether I am acting in an unrealistic way. Kathy’s thought is similar to theologian Reinhold Niebuhr’s prayer, commonly called The Serenity Prayer:  “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.” But there’s an added depth to Kathy’s in “…allowing hope to keep you from knowing…”

For some unknown reason, thinking about hope led me to remembering another oft-repeated phrase, “How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?” Attributed to Aquinas and medieval convoluted arguments, it points to an unknowable quality. In other words, I’m wondering if the ability to know what one can change and what one must accept is unknowable in concept and only knowable in experience.

The experience of knowing what I can change and what I can’t has often been a slow process for me. I can’t even begin to count the times I have, metaphorically, stood in front of an unmovable wall and banged my head against it until my head hurt and I had to stop. Many times, after a rest, I’d return to banging my head as if I could somehow, with the force of my will, made a difference.

Reminds me of the old joke: Doctor, it hurts when I push right here…Well, don’t push there.

But I also know it has taken practice to learn when more effort is required and when effort is futile. When is “surrender” like “giving up” and when is it “letting go?” Where is the balance point? That place of dancing but not forcing? 

I suspect the answer is more in the doing than in the theorizing, more in the personal than in the general. At least, it is for me. I can read and learn and theorize and ponder, but I can only find my balance point in doing and in attention to experience.

It also seems to me that the only way we can find that-which-we-call-Holy is through experience. Peace is an experience; trust – or lack of trust – comes from experience; pain – or healing – comes from experience.

Life – and learning – is such a patchwork quilt! I also know that my primary way of learning is kinesthetic; others have vision or hearing as primary ways of learning. But aren’t those experiences, too? In other words, “The Voice” as I call it, the words that come to teach and guide me, have been words I’ve heard in my head. Auditory from within. Does that mean auditory learning in the same way as learning from auditory sounds that come from without? Does “seeing” and learning from dreams and visions mean the same as visual learning?

I may tangle myself here as tightly as the medieval philosophers managed to do.

But if everything we learn and know happens in the mind, and no one has yet discovered where the “mind” resides, aren’t we all creating it for ourselves as we go along?

“Now faith is the substance of things hoped for; as it was the substance of things which have come to pass…” so reads the Lamsa translation from the Aramaic of Hebrews 11:1. The additional line in that phrase, “the substance of things which have come to pass” seems to point to experience again being the guiding force. If things in the past have come to be in substance, we can believe in the hope we have. 

If what we hope for has no substance in our experiences, we may need to relook at that hope and see if we are standing at a wall rather than dancing on the pin.