This life, this adventure we are sharing here on Earth, is an interesting undertaking. And it’s pretty clear to me it’s all too easy to take it for granted.
We tend to get so focused on ourselves and what is happening to us, basically losing track of everything except the sequential material events of our waking lives, that it’s nearly impossible to get any perspective or retain any understanding of what is really going on.
Now, sure, I understand that what we experience moment to moment as we write the story of our lives could be construed as “what is really going on.” But I think all of us have, at one time or another, stepped just a few inches back from that and, in doing so, realized that our perception of “what is really happening” might be mistaken.
It’s a hard concept to explain, what lies beyond our awareness, but a good metaphor can help make it easier to understand and provide a way to glimpse some of the subtle ways our sojourn here can be enhanced.
The Invisible Man
Back in 1897, H.G. Wells wrote a novella about an invisible man. In the story, a scientist manages to make himself invisible. There’s more to that story, but that’s all we need for the metaphor.
So, here’s this invisible man. As long as he is naked, nobody can see him; nobody can agree on where he is or what he is doing. There may be evidence that he has been somewhere, done something, but nobody can really be sure it was him.
But dress him up, put some clothes on him and, suddenly, he becomes visible again. In clothing, he is seen, and people can agree on his actions, on his existence.
Naked, he might or might not be anywhere, doing anything. We have no way of knowing.
Language is like the clothes on the invisible man.
Language makes what is invisible visible. Language is what allows us all to connect with each other and reach agreement about what is going on with ourselves, the universe, and everything.
It’s a hard thing to see, the invisible man behind language. Don’t get hung up thinking about the language we use to describe tables; think love. Don’t think trees; think beauty. Don’t think ice; think sorrow. The language we use to describe objects is much less interesting than the language we use to describe emotions, concepts, situations, experiences.
We dress All That Is up in the clothing of language so we can trade impressions. So we can communicate experience; so we can enjoy a shared relationship with it all. Dressing it up is necessary if we want to move through life in community.
But what we forget is that we are creating the clothing the invisible man wears. So what the invisible man ends up looking like probably says more about us, the creators, than it says about that which is being represented.
Language is something we take for granted. We tend to think that it fairly represents everything that needs to be represented. But the truth is that language only represents a small percentage of that which is not material. There are a vast number of situations and experiences and concepts that we have not yet represented in language.
For example, in English, there are many words for violence, but only one for love. This fact, I think, is sobering.
To me, the spiritual reality running through our existence is yet another invisible man.
Many religious systems dictate the clothing this invisible man must wear. They describe it in detail so followers and adherents can squint their eyes and learn how to create it in just the same way a whole bunch of other people already have. Spirituality is something most of us are taught to do in community and it’s comforting when our community is in agreement about what spirituality looks like, where it is found, and what it is doing in the world.
I used to be able to do it, dress up the invisible man of spirituality in the same way a lot of other people did. But when I walked away from that particular religious community, I had to let go of the clothing they told me to wrap around the invisible man of spirituality.
With the clothing gone, spirituality became invisible again. I got confused. I thought it was gone. It took me a long time to figure out what had happened and what, if anything, could be done about it. I didn’t realize spirituality was an invisible man, one that was still there, only invisible.
At first, I thought it would find me. I thought it would come back to me and I’d say, with much relief, “Oh here it is!” But nothing like that happened.
Then I thought that it must really be gone for good, and if I wanted to experience it ever again I’d have to decide for myself what it would look like and what it would do, and then create it.
At first, this felt heretical, like I was doing something way above my pay grade, and certainly something reserved for people more spiritually proficient than I was. But after a while, I kinda got into it.
And finally, I could see it again. I could tell where my faith was and what it was doing in my life.
What I know now is that I wasn’t really creating spirituality. Spirituality was always there. I was just creating a brand new outfit to put on that invisible man, so I could see it again.
And that’s not above my pay grade, and it’s not reserved for the spiritually adept. It’s what all of us do, all the time. We don’t adopt the clothes other people have put on the invisible man of spirituality. We create them, even when we decide to make them look just like the clothes a bunch of other people are utilizing.
Sometimes, people tell me they’ve lost track of their God, lost track of their spirituality. They feel like God is gone and they have been left alone. It is wrenchingly painful and frightening.
But, by definition, All That Is cannot be gone, and Ruach Elohim never stops moving in and out of our lungs.
It’s just that, sometimes, I think, the clothing falls away from the invisible man, and we lose track of where it is and what it is doing. The resolution comes, I think, when we are able to step back just a few inches and get some perspective, and see what’s behind the sequence of events that has led us to believe we have lost that most precious thing.
Faith is the sacred act of designing a beautiful cloak and gently wrapping it around the shoulders of an invisible man.
Feminist Disclaimer: You’ve gotta know that my feminist sensibilities caused me to search far and wide for a way to use a term more inclusive than “invisible man.” But everything I came up with just sounded weird and missed the whole point of the allusion. When you read “invisible man,” especially when you get to the section on faith, don’t get confused, the “invisible man” is not God. I’ll be using the pronoun “it” and not “he.”