Initiative and Calm in Service to Each Other
Tonight begins the 41st Day of the Omer (May 23-24, 2006), which is five weeks and six days of the omer. May that part of me that is broken in Yesod in Yesod be healed on this day.
A scenic spot in Chinese culture is a place where humanity and nature are behaving their best and cooperating fully with each other. Notice bridges and the human-made island in the first picture. They are not natural nor were they put there for significant utility. They are there as part of an elegant dance between the natural and human elements. The human artifacts help people to see the beauty in nature. The natural elements contribute to our ability to see beauty in other human beings.
There were two main beaches on an island I stayed at off the eastern coast of China. One beach was empty, no structures. The other beach had a gazebo. In Western culture most people would have thought that the desolate beach would be more desirable. Not so in China. The beach with the gazebo had hundreds of bathers while the beach without had none.
In the second photo, most of the people on the train had been traveling more than ten hours. There were too many people and too few facilities. But it didn't stop anyone from getting clean. They came prepared with their wash cloths and towels. The body odor that develops while traveling in a packed train and was no match for Chinese planning and ingenuity. Everyone knew what to do.
The connection between the two photos is the idea, pervasive in Chinese culture, that human beings have the ability to improve upon things, whether that means improving upon nature at a scenic spot or making do with limited resources.
In contrast with the Chinese approach, Americans tend to prize scenic spots that are in wilderness areas. The tourist hopes to see no other visitors and the best views are ones in which the human artifacts like trails are hidden from view, creating an illusion of no human presence or impact.
I'm quite suspicious, in general, of the human capacity to "improve" upon nature. The U.S. Army Core of Engineers certainly believes in the human capcity to control, if not improve, upon nature. That approach has sometimes led to great environmental and human disasters, including some of the damage from Hurricane Katrina.
I'm an American and I love the wilderness. But I do see there is something quite honest about the Chinese approach. Human impact is a given. Hiding it is a ruse. Can I honor the human/nature relationship even, as an environmentalist, I advocate for more natural habitats?
Yesod is associated with the last prayer of the Amida (a prayer said in all Jewish services). The theme of that last prayer is peace. You always want to take leave from God with longings for peace on your lips. The photos express to me the hope that human creativity and intervention can be cognizant of the beauty and respectful of the limitations of the natural world.
On this day of Yesod in Yesod, may the source of peace help us to know when to take initiative and when to hold back.