Copyright © by Len Holman, 11/10/10
Let’s take an onion and start peeling it. First layer: gone. Second layer: gone. Third layer: also gone. Eventually, you’ll get to the core, the essence, of that onion. You could call it the ultimate reality of onionness. Today, we have the Glenn Becks, Rush Limbaughs, Jim Demints, and Sarah Palins of the world, plus the good Christians of Murfreesboro, Tennessee, who have finally turned on their Muslim neighbors after thirty years, not to mention all the zealots posing as so-called Muslims, perverting the teachings of the Qur’an, knowing—KNOWING—that there is only one Ultimate Reality, and that reality is the monotheistic Christian God, or an Islamic, fire-breathing one. For these people, that God is the onionness of Divinity, the onionness of human reality—and for those who are not so “religious” that onionness is whatever is left after they peel away the social, ethical, political and social stances of their opponents. This other side has its True Believers also, and BOTH sides don’t hear, or WANT to hear the other.
Of course, peeling that onion leaves a lot of useful, flavorful leaves on the cutting board or in the trash. But that is immaterial for the hunter of True Onionness. It’s not the flavor the hunter is interested in, it’s the core of the onion—even if the core is, in the final analysis, a wee speck (if that) of the onion and pretty much useless for cooking. This is what we see before us in American politics, culture, and thought—if it can be called that. We see a desperate peeking at the onion to get to the core of reality, the Truth. The problem is, there are so-o-o many onions and so little time for those who eagerly seek for this grail. There is one small problem with the main premise that there is one particular onion to peel and one particular, immutable truth to find. The problem is this: there isn’t a “right” onion or an “only” one, immutable truth, a final, Ultimate Reality, so the search is an infinite, ultimately fruitless search for a grail which doesn’t exist. Now it is true that sometimes it’s all about the journey, as the bumper stickers say, that the search for this Ultimate Reality performs the function of making the searcher more self-aware, more open to the beauties, wonders, puzzles, and humor of the world about him—but especially does the journey illuminate the searcher’s Self. But THIS searching we see around us doesn’t make the seeker a better person; it makes her a bitter person, a person who searches but does not find and doesn’t realize that it’s the searching which is the point. Sometimes—often, mostly, there are no answers. I recall my first encounter with a Socratic dialogue. I finished it and asked, “So, what the hell was the point? It had no ending, happy or otherwise. What happened?” I didn’t get the whole journey thing. I was an American, after all, raised to expect an end, a resolution to all conundrums, a black-and-white answer to every mystery. Well, as Socrates knew, as all of King Arthur’s men who chased the grail knew, that’s not how it works. You chase, you encounter problems, you bleed, sometimes you die. But if you DO make it back, you bring back a great treasure. Not gold or jewels or ivory-skinned princesses in sheer purple thongs. You bring back a greater awareness of yourself and your place in this world.
In our present culture war, the soldiers are only concerned with finding the “real” truth, and each side already knows what it is—or thinks it does. There is no seeking, no travails for the purpose of a greater understanding of one’s place in the universe. What there is, is revenge when the other side scores a point. There is anger and retaliation and our last election certainly shows that: so many nasty, dirty, false, misleading, vague, factually unsubstantiated ads, to be rebutted by the same on the other side. Great fun for the chattering classes, but not so much for those who cherish the ideals of democracy. There is not a drop of self-awareness among any of the people who would lead us to greater heights. There is only the onion-peeling, which for most of these ersatz leaders, has been done a long time ago. They have peeled their onions and seen what they deem is the Truth, and then they stopped looking. The leaves and layers of their onions have long since been trashed, never to be smelled or fried or sautéed or tasted. Their onions are gone, their Truth remains, and they are all feeling safe and secure with it because it is their authority and with an authority, one need not think; one need not seek; one need not ever leave the warm and safe cocoon of surety one had built. The result is a complete breakdown in understanding, a complete lack of communication, and a shredding of the strands of the body politic. What can be done about all this?
The way things are now, not much. The voters have their own onions and they are every bit as secure with them as the people they bitch about, the ones who have different onions, I mean. There is so much loud and persistent whining in this country right now that even if there were real attempts at communication, no one would hear it. What we need is a real forum for public debate. Now, you’d think—with all the available ways people communicate today—this would not be a problem. But “I am picking my nose” on Twitter doesn’t count. Neither does a detailed account of the latest shopping spree of some celebrity who will be in a “Where is she now?” column two years from now. But there is no real debate for those who want it, or say they do. What they want, what they do, is visit sites on the web which already have a viewpoint they agree with. They only read (if they read at all) articles and books which espouse the very same worldviews and opinions they already have. They only watch cable or satellite shows that say what they already know and agree with. There is no idea that “If I hear something I don’t presently believe, I might find THAT view more persuading and I might change my mind.” Then that person would have no onion, no Truth which he or she has already acquired—taught by parents or a particular religion or some aspect of the culture. If the schools and synagogues and mosques and churches and local governments were taken over by people who goal is the grail and the rewards which accrue to those who seek, but don’t necessarily have to FIND anything except more questions or other, unthought-of possibilities, then maybe we have a shot at real discourse and real solutions to our problems. After all, when seeking the grail, one can’t have preconceived notions of what’s there, what SHOULD be there. One starts and bad stuff can happen, and self-testing of one’s beliefs and behaviors begins. The Grail is a metaphor. It doesn’t exist. And neither does that onion core. The core is empty and is a metaphor for Nothing. And a search for Nothing is insanity, which is where our culture seems to be heading.
Return to Bylines