Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. God saw that the light was good, and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light “day,” and the darkness God called “night.” And there was evening, and there was morning - the first day. -Genesis 1:2-5 (NIV)
Something subtle and profound makes us uniquely human. Something illusive yet extraordinarily powerful animates human genius. In its pure form it “hovered over the surface of the deep” (Genesis 1:2). At the world’s genesis it separated the day and the night by name. It’s a power that arrives at the age of reason (about twelve or thirteen). It’s what some refer to as “full reflective self-consciousness.” This is a more technical phrase for the familiar term, awareness.
It’s amazing how many times we can hear the word “awareness” without fully recognizing its penetrating primal meaning. For a long time, I thought I knew how to spell awareness. I thought I was aware. Only recently I’ve discovered how little I can claim hold of this illusive powerhouse term.
I, like so many people, regularly slip into unconsciousness. On some level I tune out, space-out, check-out. “Out” is the key word. I’m no longer present. If there was a roll call, an astute observer would record “absent” after my name.
There are many intervals throughout the day when I check out. When I make my breakfast, I’m most often absent. I’ve made breakfast so many times in the same way that now I can do it in my sleep. When I sit down to eat after a long day I sometimes pull my chair without thinking - it’s unconscious - I’m not aware of what I’m doing. Then I chew my food while thinking about something else, without tasting it. And when I sit in front of the television, like so many Americans, I check out. I just take in the sound bites and CNN’s glossing of the news. I don’t think about what comes into my senses. I allow mental laziness to creep over me. I just accept what’s said wholesale, even when it insults my intelligence.
It’s always easier to tune out. It’s always easier not to question - to just accept what we’re fed through mass media. It’s always easier not to look beneath the surface, not to listen when it stretches or hurts, not to be present when we pull up a chair. It’s also easier not to check in on our familiar destructive habits. It’s easier just to let things slide. We effortlessly pop the tranquilizer that shuts off awareness. We switch to auto-pilot.
It’s always easier to cut class. But when we get older, we can no longer obtain the permission slip to be absent. We no longer have an excuse to check out. To be an adult in the best sense is to be present. It is to be attentive to our children, to the written and spoken word, to dinner, to brushing teeth, and to our world.
When people check out and appeal to instinct, our world turns to indifference, apathy, bigotry, and violence. When people check in and appeal to reason our world turns to beauty, new monasticism, compassionate understanding, and poise.
Even when we read, we are distracted and check out for a paragraph or two. This is normal. But, do we know that we have checked out and do we know which sentences we missed and why? Or are we so absent, we don’t even know that we’re absent.
“Let there be light” (Genesis 1:3).
“Are you in or out!?”