“Naturally, we desire knowledge, happiness, and peace;
knowledge, since we see our thoughts curiously investigating
the sources of things: happiness, since each person
and indeed each animal acts with a view to procuring good
or avoiding evil: peace since the pursuit of knowledge
or that of happiness are not followed simply for
the sake of the pursuit but in order that the desire
in which it is born may be appeased by calm and repose.”
~ Etienne Gilson, The Philosophy of Saint Bonaventure, p.87
During difficult winter months, more energy than usual is needed for the basics. Getting from place to place is impaired by weather conditions, and overcoming such variables requires added time for car excavation, window-scraping, and idling the engine. Indeed, all symbolic to this writer. Trying to find hope amidst instability and unease tests all systems. It’s been taking a real stretch of the imagination to stay creative, ambitious, and sharp. There’s plenty to dull the senses and wits, in this present situation. Often, while I’m defrosting my windshield, I stare beyond treelines and rooftops- much as my aspirations set sights beyond the bland anguish of this winter in the East End. Where are the sources of cheer? Certainly not in the news. As much as I want to know the currents, I’ll wade in just enough, avoiding the misery of immersion. Without more than a pertinent acknowledgment, as I want to focus these words upon pursuits that raise my sense of vision, I’ll mention how my housing displacement (and continuing search for a place to live) prompts me to monitor economic news. Well, upon the ground of living in a perpetually depressed and intensely stratified region, the term recession is hardly distant; it’s been here a painfully long time. Atop years of toiling and producing in educational nonprofits, last year shoved me to this present brink. When articles ask readers to compare now with 12 months ago, I needn’t look far to recall living in 40% more space at 30% less rent in a beautiful place that was in a better neighborhood. Alas, it was sold and everyone had to leave. I know to avoid dwelling upon this much further, as trauma runs its course. This type of thing has been happening all over this city. I’m daring for something even better, while as yet unaware of its location.
Survival is more than necessary in order to settle here-and-now responsibilities; it’s also the way to steer toward better horizons. Having to keep on working and contending with expenses, while making an emergency relocation, served to maintain focus. Fear, however, does little to nurture creative energy. Threatening, litigious language abounds- reminding me of how meanness can trickle all the way down to simple transactions and what could otherwise be good-faith agreements. Once more, it is vital to keep finding ways to be motivated by a vision of goodness, over and above the baser goading by impersonal threat. Some of us, even now, continue in our idealism. My previous landlord, may he rest in peace, was a dentist whose office was below my apartment. He was born in that building and my predecessor in “apartment 2" was his mother. When he handed the keys to my twenty year old self, he said to me: “We have one rule in this building; it’s the Golden Rule. You know what that is, right?” I quoted it to him, “Do unto others as you’d have them do unto you,” to which he responded, “that’s right, you know it,” patting my shoulder. That’s all that was needed, and in so many ways it’s the most essential of ethical rules.
A less-ancient saying goes as follows: “Everything is a teachable moment, if we’re willing to be taught.” Though it’s been a strain, dear readers, I’ve been wrenching myself through daily uncertainties, discomfort, and desolation at all hands to learn what I can in this. Revealing how relative these things can be, several months ago during a mid-workday cancellation my director told me I could go home any time I wanted. I replied that I preferred being at work. “The Compartment” is no home to me, and I described that to him. We had a good and relaxed conversation in the empty hallway, and I gratefully kept on working. Better things are surely ahead, and each day is a day closer. Even my mustard seed’s worth of faith is enough to convince me of that. Keep the pursuits in mind. I’m in this life to create, to inspire, to foster the Golden Rule. And that’s just for starters, just like persevering in my work and sanctifying each task and interaction.
As severely as the city of Portland has hollowed itself with its gentrification, I still manage to bump into friends on the streets. “Whatcha reading?” a fellow West End refugee asked, stopping to greet me at my spartan bus stop. Closing my book, I held it up, and my friend said “Philosophy. That’s heavy.” I defended my vice by saying, “Saint Bonaventure; he’s keeping me from jumping off the bridge.” There must be pursuits to raise sights and spirits. Creative projects are just about impossible in cramped and oppressive living quarters, not to mention the daily and nightly stomping and sound system racket penetrating ceilings and walls. But... during my coffee break in the middle of my 8-hour workdays I can scribble a few notes, and late at night when the stampeding herds cease I can steal a few more moments to write and read more philosophy. I’ve invested in a strange “white-noise” machine that has a setting that imitates the sounds of rainstorms. And this returns me to those windchilled bus stops. Just for now, I persist in my insistence. On better days, the wincing and cringing become pointers to remind me of the progress of time. This is surely transitional. I’m wagering my life on it, and my philosopher saints will ride shotgun with me.
Such pursuits as the arts and philosophical studies may appear as goals, but these are indeed means. Bonaventure’s responses to the Sentences of Peter Lombard include the observation that we will not find our fulfilling achievements in the finite. “Our desire tends beyond each finite goodness toward and beyond another finite goodness.” In his enduring Itinerarium, Bonaventure wrote, “To follow the way of the soul towards God means to strive with all one’s strength to live a human life as close as possible to that of the blessed in Heaven.” Reflecting upon Bonaventure, Etienne Gilson wrote of the itinerary’s road as illuminative, and the pilgrimage is adhered to by love of the destination. A brilliant member of my staff whom I mourned last year liked to say, the saints are always teaching us. And I like quoting how she used to tell me this, Elaine surely being among those saints. Submerged in an undefined and intensely anxious time of instability and discomfort, such means as writing, the study and teaching of philosophy, spiritual devotions, and productivity on the job serve to maintain my sanity. I meant what I’d said to my friend at the bus stop. The itinerary trims the undivided highway margin between humiliation and humility. The latter is necessary for the exploration of philosophical truths, admitting that reason alone cannot achieve its object unaided, submitting to the Light which irradiates and moves the conscience.