We travelled to Maine last weekend for a friend’s wedding. On the way back we took a detour through the oldest outlet malls in the nation. Context necessitates me explaining that I’m renowned for not buying new clothes; throughout college my parents frequently asked if I needed more money because the state of my pants begged as much. But as I grow older and develop my professional skills I encounter limited amounts of situations in which jeans and flannel are considered professional.
Driving through the outlets we saw that our favorite store happened to have a sale on khakis, shirts and combinations of outfits which might render me reputable in such occasions. An hour later we walked out with two bags full of clothes. The next morning I tried on a new purchase and looked into the mirror to see a professionalized stranger staring back.
I recall a night during my college days when I was actively involved in an Army training program for officers. I was part of a training exercise somewhere near Timbuktu, Illinois. It was well past midnight and we were on a patrolling mission. I was part of a formation traipsing through the underbrush with only a dim red-light to guide me. Suddenly the battery died and I was surrounded by darkness, thick and pervading darkness.
Both, of course, beg the question: where am I? What has happened to me?
These feelings should be of no surprise. On a patrolling mission, in the middle of an outlet mall, surfing the web, reading theology; I am constantly losing my self. But what’s new? The self has been lost, post-modern theorists say. Nonetheless, my generation prays: Can you hear me? Does anyone hear me?
John Michell was a British scientist. Bill Bryson notes that his work and research concerning magnetism and gravity enabled him to him envision the possibility of black holes almost a quarter of a millennium before anyone else had a clue. Black holes have such a strong density that nothing can escape their grasp. Not even a red-light.
That being said, before now, I’m sure you’d never heard Michell’s name.
“Despite great scientific and technological advances,” wrote Walker Percy, “man has not the faintest idea of who he is or what he is doing”.
Across the globe, Annie Dillard notes, dust collects at a mind-blowing rate. A ton of micrometeorite dust falls on the planet every hour. Mexico City is thirty feet higher today than it was 200 years ago. Quick, Dillard asks, why aren’t you dusting?
Because I am searching, I answer. I walk through the isles of a clothing store and look for my self; I type, type, type, my fingers dancing a rhythm of thought into the night looking for my self. But is no use, dust falls and collects on my words. I am lost in the process of being buried alive like ants running in panicked circles beneath the magnifying glass on a hot summer’s day.
The only hope I have is in accepting the loss of my self. Fighting it is no use; it’s a moot endeavor. Instead: “All we have to decide,” Tolkien wrote, “is what to do with the time that is given us”. So if I have hope, if the Christian faith promotes any sort of optimism, it is not in the finding of myself but the acceptance that the self has been absorbed into the black hole. It is gone and my name is forgotten faster than the light I carried into it. But on the other side is the dissolution of all things into one mysterious thing.
We are the body of Christ, Paul wrote. Take and eat, this is my body, Christ said. And upon all the ends of the earth dust falls, not a particle without the Father’s knowledge.
I recall a night we spent at my parents about twenty minutes west of here. My father has been telling me for weeks about the herds of deer parading through their yard from a neighboring forest. As dusk crept in, we sat and watched by the window, waiting for them to appear. At first I saw nothing.
“Look close,” my father told me.
Then there was a twitch, a movement, a leg, a body. Suddenly I was watching an entire herd trekking through the tree line, right in front of the window, right before my eyes.
Look closely, is the answer. Look closely beyond your self to the dust burying your hands as you type. Look closely and you will see the hope of mankind falling with the dust. Your burial is your salvation and you can’t fight it. It surrounds you, envelopes you, carries you toward the end.
And as dust falls on my hands, I find myself, somehow, miraculously, buried alive by my oh-so-lost self now scattered across the cosmos.