Wednesday 16 July 2014

The Astonishing Givenness of the World

By Adam Hincks, S.J.

Photo: John O'Brien, SJ

The whole of nature is something prepared for us, composed for us, given to us, delivered into our care by a supernatural dispensation. – David B. Hart

Being suddenly struck by the sight of the full moon is one of those commonly disarming experiences. The other night as I was walking down the street, I looked up and there it was, perfectly round and full and low on the horizon next to a church spire. I had not been at all aware of its phase, and it took me a bit by surprise. There it just was.

There is a mix of the familiar and the strange when one sees the full moon in this way—or any other weird or beautiful thing: a bridge over a river, a deer in the path, even the dripping of an icicle outside the window. It is not that it is something entirely new, for these are all things that are commonly seen, but rather the being surprised at all by its simple presence that is disarming: one is suddenly reminded that it is, rather than what it is. Such unexpected encounters are, I think, not uncommon, though some more than others have cultivated an attitude that makes them more alive to the sheer givenness of things in the world.

Recognising the givenness of the world—the strange and astonishing fact that it is simply there and yet somehow could be otherwise—can provoke three basic reactions. The first is simply to shrug and to move on with life. This sort of person will probably unlearn their wonder about the world, though I suspect that the world cannot help surprising them every now and then.

The second reaction is to channel the surprise towards absurdity. “There the full moon is,” one might say, “And it offers no explanation or defence for its being there: but why should there be? Ultimately nothing in the world means anything anyway.” The world surprises and provokes and delights, but for no deeper meaning. We are just lucky to happen to be here to see it, and one day will be gone. Even to ask why or how it is is meaningless and breaks the spell. There is a certain thrilling romance to this attitude.

The third reaction is to be surprised but not to revert to meaninglessness. Rather, one accepts the givenness of the world: the astonishing presence of what need not be there. Further, one is struck that being is not only given, but that being is good: being is not just given, but a gift with a Giver. And the natural reaction to this can only be gratitude.

What is your reaction when you are confronted with the thereness of things in the world? For you do have a choice as to how you respond thereafter. The choice you make will determine how you live in the world. And, I dare say, only one of the three choices will help you to live in a self-consistent and joyful way.

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