Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Unanswerable Quesions



One of the best museums you will ever see is the British Museum.  They have a grand selection of amazing artifacts from all over the world.  Mostly because they have invaded just about every country on earth at one time or another and stole stuff right and left when they did so. The Elgin Marbles are here, named after Lord Elgin who packed them up from their home in Greece and brought them to England.  They’ve got all sorts of wadded-up, dried-out and faded leather and textiles from ancient people before metal was even discovered. They’ve got broken and patched pottery. They’ve got swords and chain mail from so long ago that I just stand there with my mouth opened, realizing that war is not a new concept.  And it appears that we haven’t learned a single thing in all these years.  I am left with the sad deduction that there is a very real possibility that we may NEVER figure it out.

But we keep trying.

One of my favorite objects to see and pay homage to is the Rosetta Stone.

The stone dates back to around 300 BC.  The British sole it from the French who stole it in the late 1700’s when they conquered a town in Egypt named el-Rashid.  El-Rashid translates to “Rosetta.”

I bought this coffee cup in the museum gift shop.  It’s likely that it’s intended for tea since it’s made of porcelain and sold in England.  But you look at the shape and decide what you would drink out of it.

The writing on the stone is a decree affirming the royalty of Ptolemy V of Egypt. They wanted to make damn sure everyone knew this guy was the new head honcho so they wrote the decree in every language they could think of. It bears  inscriptions from three different written languages:  demotic (one of the more common languages in Egypt), Greek, and hieroglyphics.  

At the time the English archeologists had been trying without success to understand the hieroglyphics on all the Egyptian tombs.  That’s what’s written on the top line.  But on this one stone they saw two languages they did understand and one they didn't.  And this was the key they used to unlock their understanding of the third language. 

I love this mug for one reason:  whenever I have a problem I’m struggling with, from recalcitrant children or government to current events like wars and mass shootings-- whenever I can’t figure something out, I go to this mug.  I fall back on the simple thought that if I just stared at the problem long enough the solution will emerge.  That’s what the folks did when they figured out how to read hieroglyphics.  None of the pictures made sense until they looked at the other two languages long enough to realize they were saying the same thing and that might mean the hieroglyphs might be saying the same thing. I don’t claim any rational plan here.  It just makes sense to me on some basic level.

Ponder the problem long enough and voila!—here is the solution. I’m not saying this works.  I just wish it could work for me like it did for the guys trying to understand hieroglyphics. 

I’ve been dragging this cup out of the cabinet so much lately I’m kind of amazed I haven’t broken it or worn it out.

Sometimes stuff just doesn’t make sense.  Every sane human on the planet wants a safe world for their children.  And when I speak of the sane and the not-sane people I am talking about real mental illness.  There are some perfectly sane people who don’t agree with you or me. I don’t think it’s working to just kill all the people who don’t agree with us.  We’ve been trying that from when the first caveman picked up a rock and threw it at another caveman. They tried it by wearing chainmail armor.  They tried it with bayonets when they ran out of bullets at Gettysburg.  Today we use all sorts of stuff from rocket launching drones to chemicals that you breathe. So somebody, somewhere, sometime, is going to have to trade in some of their hubris in exchange for a safe planet.

The problem seems to be who will take the first step and what will they be willing to give up?  Otherwise, we just have to assume they don’t want it bad enough.

Stephen Colbert said it best:

If this is going to be a Christian nation that doesn't help the poor, either we have to pretend that Jesus was just as selfish as we are, or we've got to acknowledge that He commanded us to love the poor and serve the needy without condition and then admit that we just don't want to do it.”

And this is just on the subject of the poor.  What happens when we get to national loyalties and global politics?  It looks more unsolvable every day. From the chain mail armor on display at the British Museum to the movie about Gettysburg,  it is becoming clear to me that we just don’t get it.  Or don’t want to.

I will leave you with my own favorite quote from Rachel Naomi Remen:

“Perhaps the secret of living well is not in having all the answers  but in pursuing unanswerable questions  in good company.”

I am so glad you visited my words today.  It encourages me to continue to pursue unanswerable questions in your good company. Maybe if we stare at it long enough a solution will emerge.

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