Our passions usher us into a saturated life. Extravagant fondness is the doorway into Oz, propelling us out of a gray-tone existence and into a Technicolor world. And once we have overcome our fear of the witches that await us, we are free to step into the realm of wonder.
According to the philosopher, Jean-Luc Marion, we may encounter any phenomenon—an element of nature, a creation of man, another human being, an idea, an event or experience, even God—as either a saturated or poor phenomenon.* A saturated phenomenon is iconic—it opens us up to complexity and meaning, vastness and beauty, and a kind of energy that transports us into a place of awe. Or we may encounter the very same experience with no awareness, intention, or interest, and in doing so it remains (to us) a poor phenomenon. Poor phenomena are like idols, they strip the infinitely complex of its beauty and its power to inspire. They cage wonder.
At any given moment, we stand at this fork in the road.
The bad news is we tend to be a pretty mindless, inattentive people. Of course, the truth of this is hidden from us: we feel like our attention is constantly multiplying, because our attention is pulled in so-many-directions. As it turns out, though, America doesn’t run on Dunkin’—it runs on the ability keep you distracted from any one thing, convincing you that you need to buy that item or do that activity or go to that place. Multi-tasking has become an antiquated idea. We’ve become omni-taskers, trying to do it all at once. A thirty-minute business meeting gets interrupted by a dozen emails while the market plunges five percent. Or a therapy session plays out to the ping of an endless stream of text messages. Or the kids are demanding Netflix, Wii, and a Blu-ray all at the same time while the lunch burns on the stove and you’re trying to reply to six Facebook messages. But as our attention “expands,” it is only getting stretched wide and thin, and we lose the ability to attend deeply to any one moment, or person, or movement. The world seems to thrive on our mindlessness, and as a result, everything in it is stripped of its capacity to inspire awe and wonder.
The good news is we don’t have to remain a mindless people.
We can become mindful of the awesome complexity in even the simplest things. Take a moment to watch a spider weave its web, and you will know what I mean. Did you know spiders use at least two kinds of silk? The sticky snare-silk is used to catch prey, while the spider walks around on the non-adhesive anchor-silk. And that’s just a spider web! Imagine the awe-inspiring, infinite complexity and depth of your child’s tears, or your lover’s heart, or your spouse’s wounds, or trade winds that carry radiation from a tsunami-shaken Japan to your front door, or tonight’s starry sky that delivers a light that departed those stars before there were humans on the Earth. Everything we encounter in the world can be a saturated phenomenon. And we have a choice. We can walk mindlessly through a world of idols, or we can mindfully encounter the awesome, expansive complexity of even the simplest things, and we can live the saturated life.
But how do we begin? How do we turn away from the distractions of a fractured world, and begin to develop a deep attentiveness to one phenomenon? I think the answer is embedded in our passions. You see, when the inattentive muscles of our minds are weak, we need serious help to focus, and when we find the thing we are passionate about, help has arrived. Because we adore the vocation or the work or the relationship, we come to it with an intense focus and a deep desire to become intimately familiar with its nuance and complexity. Distractions recede as our extravagant fondness takes hold. I know someone who is passionate about the interior lives of her children. She doesn’t write off her kids’ tears, or even their anger, to fatigue or hunger or adolescent hormones. Instead, she approaches the distress as an invitation to learn about the child, and to become extravagantly fond of who they are and what they are becoming. I know someone else who is passionate about how to use technology in the education of children. When the topic arises, so does he: he sits up straight, he moves to the edge of his seat, he starts to use his hands when talking. He attends the best conferences, regardless of distance. There is no book he won’t read. He grows increasingly attentive to the ways in which each of his students is responding to the smart-board. I know someone who loves to write. When he is hunting for the right word, the rest of the world fades. When he is on the scent of an idea that has infinite value to him, his attention to the craft is singular. And he revels when his words leave the world a better place. Our passions saturate the object of our desire.
And the expansive saturation we experience in our passions is contagious. Because once we have touched and tasted this kind of deep knowing, this thrill of discovery, this awe of the bottomless complexity, and the peacefulness that can come from a harnessed attentiveness, we will want more of it. We will want all of life to be soaked in the glory. The dance of light on the ceiling as our eyes open in the morning, the banter of the kids as they brush teeth in the bathroom, the fragrant bloom of an April morning, the vivid colors of a world emerging from a long winter, the story of a close friend, the quiet smile of a stranger on the train, or the unknown sorrow in the eyes of the girl brewing your coffee. When all of life becomes saturated like this, our hearts explode with passion.
But I should probably warn you—a saturated life is also a life in which our hearts break with compassion. The things we love become saturated with meaning and purpose, but so do the things that have been gnawing at our conscience, the things that make our hearts ache and our eyes blur. We may no longer be able to pick up a t-shirt off the rack and experience it as a poor phenomenon.** In a saturated world, it’s a shirt with a story. The cotton was picked and separated by impoverished hands in the South, and then it was shipped half-a-world-away on boats sailed by men and women who don’t see their families for weeks at a time so the little stomachs at home can be full. It’s assembled in Thailand, or Vietnam, or China, by people earning a wage that barely keeps them alive and in conditions that will ultimately jeopardize the life for which they are so steadfastly fighting. A saturated life is a glorious one, but it may also become a life lived in the full awareness of a broken world. This is the mystery of our passions: they may usher us into life and death, joy and sorrow, glory and gore, all at the same time.
Yet there is good news, even in this. Especially in this.
Because, when you can enter into the death of things and bring life there, when you can enter into the sorrow of life and experience joy there, when you can enter into the violence of the world and find communion there, you discover that you are truly free. Death cannot terrorize you, sorrow cannot disable you, and violence cannot isolate you. Our passions are the doorway into the saturated life, and the saturated life is complex—glorious and painful—but it is a life saturated with freedom.
Are you ready to open the door into Oz?
* I actually know very little about the philosophy of Marion. What I know was relayed to me like a game of telephone. For more about how that happened, you can go to my Facebook page, where I share an anecdote about the origination of each post. You can also click here to learn more about Marion.
** I first experienced the “saturation” of retail clothing when I read, The Divine Commodity, by Skye Jethani.
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