Although my “to-do” list has decreased (for the moment) by one item, there’s still a great deal that needs doing soon. However, given that I’ve low-balled this blog for the past few weeks more often than I’d prefer, I want to devote just a bit more time today to discussing a matter that came up in conversation last month with my Thracian colleague. It was prompted by my discussion of some of the theological issues related to monotheism, polytheism, and the “human totem” idea that I posted on a while back–a post that generated a lot of conversation in the comments on this blog.
The entire matter comes down to a simple fact of experience: we don’t always know what we’re experiencing when we experience it. And, while we may reflect on something at a later time or date, and realize that something occurred or we had a brush with a particular something, our initial ignorance of the fact can often be the crucial difference between having what is a mind-boggling and transformative experience versus something that we just didn’t realize was as out-of-the-ordinary as it may have been.
To illustrate this phenomenon, I’d like to use two examples, both from my college days in New York (or, just slightly outside it, actually): one that happened to a friend of mine in c. 1995-1996, and one that happened to me in August of 1997.
A very good friend of mine in college was a tapdancer, and went back and forth to NYC quite a bit for various events, classes, performances, and other gigs over the years. She often returned from these jaunts with extremely intriguing stories and adventures, and this one was among the more amusing such occurrences. She was on Broadway, and was waiting for a particular place she was going to open for an audition. She knew she was a bit early, but wasn’t carrying a watch (and that was in the days before everyone had a cell phone, much less a smart phone), and so wanted to find out how much time she had before she was scheduled to appear at the place she intended. Not knowing the time, nor seeing an adjacent clock anywhere, she did what anyone in such a situation might do: she asked a person on the street if he had the time.
She approached one such gentleman, and said “Excuse me, do you have the time?” The gentleman looked at her rather nonplussed and said “WHAT?!?” She said once again “Do you have the time?” He paused and then said, “Do you know who I am?” My friend’s immediate thought was that this was perhaps some friend of her parents that she had met on some random occasion that she couldn’t recall at that particular moment, and after a few seconds said “Uhh…no?” The man smiled very big, gave her a hug, said “Thank you so much!” and walked away.
My friend was completely shocked that someone on the streets of New York City in the mid-90s would randomly hug another person and thank them…but for what? She was completely stunned and clueless as to what had just happened.
Just then, a middle-aged woman came up to her on the street and said, “Ohmygod, do you know him?” My friend was still equally uncertain about what was meant by all of this talk of knowing this individual, and finally said, “No! Who was that?” The middle-aged woman replied, “David Letterman!”
Not being someone who watched television, my friend had certainly heard of David Letterman, but wouldn’t have recognized him on the street, as it turned out that she didn’t! But, then she realized she was only about two blocks away from the famous Ed Sullivan Theatre where Letterman’s show is filmed to this very day. And, being that she was not necessarily a “fan” of him, nor would have been that intimidated nor amazed at his celebrity had she known him, the chance meeting wasn’t anything greater or lesser for not having known it was David Letterman that she had asked for the time–and, furthermore, because it was such a novelty for a public figure of his stature to have someone not recognize him, it actually made the experience better and more enjoyable for him!
[Before I tell my own story from that period, I'm reminded just now of something that happened to me not long after I moved back from Ireland, and was in a local store with a friend of mine. We were waiting at the check-stand to pay for our food, and there was the usual spread of tabloids on display. I glanced at several of them, which were talking all about "Nicole," and showing a rather emaciated woman. I said to my friend, "Who's Nicole?" My friend replied "Nicole Richie." I said "So, who is 'Nicole Richie'?" She said "Lionel Richie's daughter." I said, "Okay, I still don't know who she is or why she's on the cover of these magazines." Just then, the check-out clerk--a young woman--said, "Ohmygod, can I please shake your hand?" I said "Sure--why?" She said, "At last, someone who doesn't care about reality shows, and doesn't even know about them!" What a rare and unfortunate thing...and, even less likely now, because I do know about a few of them, sadly.]
The experience I had back in New York occurred in the last few days of August, just about fifteen years ago exactly. I had gone back to my undergraduate college early that year, after I had been in Oxford the academic year before. Not only was I eager to start my senior undergraduate year, but I was also eager to get back and get away from my parents’ house, get fully into the swing of college (which I totally loved and adored as an undergraduate) and have a few extra days to get my room in order before starting classes, see some of my friends, and–to facilitate this entire process–I also was on the orientation committee to help new students (mostly first-years) move in, get to know the college and its eccentricities, and also to be a mentor for a few students who were assigned to me that lived in nearby houses. It was really a fun experience, and a very good friend of mine was one of the main coordinators of the student-run end of orientation, and was the organizer for the talent shows that occurred over the year, the first of which happened in the first few days for new students. (I was in every single one of them that year…but that’s another set of stories!)
The part of my duties I looked forward to the least, however, was actually helping students move in–while it was great to meet them, it also involved “manual labor” (something that I’m not very well suited to at all…but, I was younger and healthier then, so I could do it in most cases) and having to negotiate stairs a lot of the time, which I’ve never been a fan of from earliest childhood. Nonetheless, I felt I could hack it, and I’m happy to say that even under the most challenging of circumstances on that day (e.g. carrying four oversized milk crates full of vinyl albums–REALLY HEAVY!–up two flights of stairs to one new student’s room who was a DJ, who I then nicknamed “Circuit City,” and the nickname stuck!), I was able to hack it. (A very rich New York Jewish mother insisted on tipping me for my assistance, and while I tried to refuse, I was also happy to take her money if she was giving it, since finances have always been on the low end for me!)
I helped one very nice young woman move in, and she was like many other wide-eyed first-years, a bit tired-looking but excited and full of expectation and wonder. Like many such individuals, she introduced me to her family, and I dutifully shook all of their hands and said “Nice to meet you,” and offered to answer any of their questions. I never remembered, nor paid particular attention to, most of the parents that I met on that day, but I tried very hard to remember the names of as many students as possible, given that they’d be people I’d see on a regular basis, whereas I was likely to never see their parents or other family members again. I did manage to remember her name, and to say hello to her on most occasions when I saw her through the rest of the year.
Later in the school year (this was in late January), I started dating a woman who was much better friends with the first-year woman that I helped to move in, and so we ended up hanging out much more in the last half of the year than the first. On one random night, we were hanging out and talking, and the woman who I helped move in mentioned that her family gets special hotel deals on occasion when her brother visits hotels. I asked why that was, and she said, “Because of who he is, it increases their reputation because he’s sort of famous.” I said, “You have a famous brother?” She said “Yes–and you met him.” “What?!?” “Yeah, when you helped me move in, you met him and shook his hand and talked to him for a moment.” “Really?!? I don’t remember that at all, I only remember you.” “Well, you did meet him!” “But, wait, who is your brother?” “Michael Fishman.” “Michael Fishman…I don’t know who that is…” “He was D.J. on Roseanne.”
[He was probably a bit older at the time that I met him, and thus the above photo may not be accurate...and he's certainly older now! But, to be honest, I can't really remember even seeing him at all, because I was mostly looking at his sister and trying to remember her name and her face and to fix it in my mind...which, of course, worked, to the exclusion of all else!]
So, this was a rather amusing thing to find out, as I’d certainly watched Roseanne before college, but had missed the end of it over the few years I was in college at that stage, and thus wasn’t even aware of the matter that the character of D.J. ended up being gay. Thus, I was really unaware of whose hand I was shaking when I did meet him…!
This entire matter brings up a question: even though, objectively, I did “meet” Michael Fishman, and my friend did “meet” David Letterman (only not as formally as I met Michael Fishman), did either of us really meet them? Names were not exchanged, to my knowledge, in either case, and thus identities were not revealed, and thus no recognition could have taken place.
Now, the purpose of this entry has not been to talk about how myself and friends of mine met celebrities even though we didn’t know it (although I do think those stories are rather fun and funny personally!); the purpose has been to use these incidents as occasions to ponder a particular theological question.
For monotheists, there is pretty much only two options when having a spiritual experience involving a personified divine being: either it’s their god, in whichever form (or, perhaps, one of the angels or saints), or, it’s something else, which must therefore be a devil, demon, or some illusion perpetrated by Satan (but, via medieval theological understandings of such, these occasions are still allowed by and approved by their god, which raises all sorts of questions…). But, what if it’s some other god that is initiating the contact? If it is a good and happy experience, they’d no doubt attribute it to their god or one of the angels or saints, even if it happens to be Hermes (the “Good Shepherd”) or Apollon (the “Sun of Justice”) or Dionysos (the “Fruit of the Vine”), or to have an experience of St. Mary that is really Cybele (the “Great Mother”) or Artemis (the “Holy Virgin”) or Isis (the “Queen of Heaven”). If it is a challenging experience, then it must be “the devil” or one of his minions, even if it is Pan or Loki or Ereshkigal.
Certainly, it is possible for a monotheist to have an experience of Iao Sabaoth, or Jesus, or St. Mary, just as much as it is possible for a polytheist to have an experience of these deities and divine figures. But, given that the gods themselves are no respecters of individual human choices about religious affiliation (how many polytheist deities reached out to us while we were still ostensible members of other religions?), why would we ever assume that only the various deities who are interpreted by monotheists as their god or that god’s servants would appear to them? And, given what I know about a great many monotheists, who simply aren’t trained nor prepared even in most clerical training programs to be able to recognize or respond to spiritual contacts and experiences, it’s even more likely that any number of deities and divine figures–including those they might recognize as their own!–are reaching out to them, and yet they’re not aware of them doing so. It’s so many occasions of shaking hands with Michael Fishman…
So, this leads me to two open-ended questions or conclusions (it’s odd when something can be those two things simultaneously!) about all of this matter of ignorance and experience in relation to polytheist viewpoints:
1) If someone doesn’t recognize something as a deity (or anything else) when it happens, can it really be said to have been “an experience” of that something or someone? (I don’t know…)
2) If someone has an experience of a particular being, but thinks it is someone or something else, is there still value to their experience as they interpreted it, even though they’re not at all correct about what actually happened and who was involved? (I’d say on the first part that there can be, but isn’t always the case; but on the second, it would be better all around if they actually realized what was going on.)
I’d be interested in hearing your own thoughts on this matter!