STILLPOINT Archive: last updated 08/07/2009
This past spring I lost my voice due to the flu. It wasn’t the piggy kind, but it made for some memorable why-do-you-sound-like-Tom-Waits moments. On a day when I could at least get out full sentences, the phone rang, and though I didn’t know the number, I recognized the North Shore area code. A voice young and thick with a Gloucester accent said, “Hey! What’s up, man?”
I could not place the voice.
When I don’t know something, I always assume the other person has it all figured out. It never occurred to me that we were both clueless, like drifters meeting in a Harold Pinter play. I was afraid if he discovered I was not “in the know” he’d make fun of me. So, as casually as I would answer my mother, I said, “Nothin’.”
There was a pause.
The ruse reminded me of a trip to Cambridge, Massachusetts, during my sophomore year at Gordon. I had stopped to read some C. S. Lewis on the lawn at Harvard because I vainly wanted onlookers to think I was Harvard material. Lewis, as usual, was using a lot of Latin words, putting them in italics as a way to separate the wheat from the chaff. I felt chaffed. Above me there was a black gate flaking with rust that carried the University’s coat of arms on which was written VERITAS. I asked the man next to me and found out that this is Latin for truth. I looked up, and the know-it-all gate said, “You’re in. But you’re not in.”
Through that shield I felt history. Veritas has been happening here for centuries, it seemed to say, and veritas is probably happening right now behind the brick wall in the foreground, or in the head of that blonde girl—a true Harvardian—who was sitting against a tree holding a giant textbook as if she were posing for a brochure. The weight of knowledge was in her hands, and she was lifting it, doing rep after rep until the crevices in her brain filled with raw meaning, shaping it into something toned, classical and Greek.
“How much veritas can you and your Christian college diploma dead-lift?” asked the gate, the tree, the blonde, the book, the bricks.
The official seal of Harvard University contains three books, pages splayed for anyone to read. But the seal atop the old wrought iron gate is not the same one they use now. In the old one the third book is turned upside down, its spine jutting up. It represents a time when its patrons believed that not all truth was human. There was some truth that only God could reveal. Who was the one that flipped the book? I wondered what the meeting was like in which someone definitively said, “Now we can know everything,” and in so doing decided to write off the transformative power of mystery. Was it the way he/she/they said it that allowed them to reach quovis quorum? Is truth only about sounding convincing?
So it’s not surprising that in the middle of my phone call with the Gloucestah boy, we started questioning validity.
“Your voice sounds weird,” he said.
We paused again, and the silence knotted both brains into question marks. I wondered, “How long can we sound like we actually know what is going on?”
All I had to do was ask, and something would’ve been revealed. But mystery is such because it is elusive. Harvard’s book-flipping error, then, is not due to a shift to humanism but rather to an ignorance of the fact that just because everything could be revealed it means that it will be. I will never know who the person on the other end of that phone was. But it felt like an invitation to never give up trying to create clarity. As Harvard graduate Brian Greene—a scientist who doesn’t just sound convincing—puts it, “It is the mysteries that make the soul ache and render a life of exploration worth living.”
Before he hung up the voice said he had “forgotten” what he wanted to say, and then inadvertently summed up the never-ending search for truth by saying “I’ll talk to you later.”