Encountering Mystery: Life Language or Machine Language?

First published February 24, 2018

What is the core metaphor of your life? Do you have an archetypal aspect that you draw on more than any other comparison to help you explain yourself, the world, or where you fit into your roles? As human beings we are metaphorical thinkers. We have a difficult time building narratives without comparison, and where there is no comparison, no metaphor, we often fail at understanding or explaining. Human beings are woefully bad at allowing for paradoxes, mysteries, or non-understanding. We don’t like to feel like we don’t know. We abhor our ignorance, and thus, we create options for certainty rather than leave spaces that might be filled in later.

Every day I bring in some kind of new information. I read journal articles, popular magazines, watch television shows, news interviews, or hear from my clients or colleagues, about human and animal encounters and how certain aspects of our shared experience are “hard wired”. I hear this from psychologists, therapists, medical doctors, veterinarians, writers, and every day people. The most surprising people from whom I have heard the metaphor of being “hard wired” are from people of faith.

It bothers me that throughout Western culture, and especially in English speaking countries, we have refined our core metaphor, equating living things to machines. When you look back historically at the history of science, the core metaphors of science have been motivated by machines since the end of the 19th century. That is not an accident, it is related to the co-development of science and engineering together from the end of the 17th century and the Industrial Revolution through the present day.

Western culture has had access to, and created many mechanical devices far earlier than the 17th century. Ancient civilizations had water pumps and complex architectural systems. Levers, pulleys, wedges, catapults, wheels, ships, and more have been around since before the modern era, since at least 1500 BCE, long before the industrial revolution. Our communication has evolved into a lingua franca designed for precision, that has somehow lost meaning at the same time. And yet, the language we use to communicate about ourselves, has become simultaneously less precise while still somehow reducing us to our component parts.

Philosophers and scientists in the 17th century debated about precision of language. They longed to do away with the poetic and biblical euphemisms of language that made scientific precision and understanding difficult. Rene Descartes, John Locke, and their contemporaries wanted very much to inhabit a world where language had precision enough to provide clear and concise understanding for anyone who entered a scientific discussion to understand where they had entered the discussion. This had repercussions for both the language itself, and the manner of scientific discourse. They were exhausted by the conflation of science and faith that made scientific understanding challenging.

I bring these historical figures to the discussion because their struggle is familiar to me, but from a contrary perspective. Today the groups who most egregiously over simplify arguments and discussion by making use of science-like reductions are often science deniers. It is people who claim to be people of faith who fall back on scientific materialism most frequently. For example, fundamentalists of multiple faiths claim that men and women are biologically different, in an attempt to bolster an argument for inequality and non-parity. Creationists who don’t believe in evolution, simultaneously argue most vociferously from a social Darwinist perspective in favor of the idea of “survival of the fittest”.

Similarly, our contemporary use of language in the service of science, sees us often use the term “hard wired.” I’ve read it in articles on love and attachment, saying we are hard wired for connection. I’ve read it or heard about it in talks on genetics, that those genes that are not switched on by our environment hard wire us towards seeing a certain way, or particular traits that align us with others, as though we have circuit boards within us, and not living cells. Evolutionary psychologists talk about being hard wired to avoid risk-taking behaviors, and neuroanatomists and developmental psychologists talk about adolescence as a time when the brain is hard wired for precisely more risk taking than rational thought due to the speed of development of particular brain structures (limbic versus frontal rates of growth).

We have internalized a blithe acceptance of the brain as a centrally networked computer, or of our bodies as hard wired for reproduction, violence, nurturing, learning, hate… or any other easily-insertable social idea so as to have it go unchallenged. That process has repercussions and unintended consequences that we should spend some time considering.

I don’t like the idea that we think of ourselves as machines. I have nothing against machines per se. But I am much more in awe of LIFE than I am in awe of my little hybrid hatchback car, (as amazing as it is.) If I were to align myself with a philosopher, I would be more in line with Baruch Spinoza than with Renè Descartes. Descartes’ assertion of a mechanistic order of the universe is in staunch opposition to Spinoza’s viewpoint that God and Nature are inseparable. Nature doesn’t limit God, but rather God is present regardless of what is before us. Spinoza felt that the Divine had many attributes beyond Nature, but that the spirit of God was present in everything around us. The fabric of nature, from this point of view, is like a divine cloak, and mystics and scientists alike from the 17th century onward have sometimes humbly, and sometimes with great hubris attempted to unveil the Divine from beneath the skirts of Nature herself.

Life, therefore, from this point of view, becomes a sacred embodiment of the Divine. If everything is sacred, then every unfolding embodiment of Nature is engaged in the dance of the Living Divine. This is where my hang-up about being hard wired begins to get frustrated by the limits of language. Being hard wired sounds a lot like predetermination. Yes, perhaps I have a more difficult time controlling my temper when my blood sugar drops. That doesn’t mean I am hard wired for a poor temper. Perhaps my teenaged client is more given to act irrationally because of that limbic versus frontal lobe development ratio conflict, that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t hold him accountable for his behavior. Perhaps my husband has more testosterone in his system, and therefore is quicker to anger, does that mean I should expect him to be more given to violent outbursts?

The chemistry, biology, genetics, and neurology of our being is a symbol of LIFE, it is not a foregone conclusion. In our on-going effort to constantly improve the state of our world, we have overlooked the fact that it is pretty amazing, and mysterious already. We don’t have to uncover the procedures of nature in order to find the unfolding mystery miraculous. We do however, owe it to ourselves, each other, and to whatever we think of as Divine, to restore AWE to our awareness. In our colonization of every territory and resource on the planet, we have lost the most basic instinct of our shared humanity, and that is… wonder.

There is a remarkable, unknowable spirit that moves us; it is more than genes, tradition, and language that binds us to each other. We have a hunger for mystery, but our culture does not make room for mystery, awe, or wonder. Indeed those aspects of our world are cut off from us, hidden in materialism. Sometimes this is in commercialism; sometimes it is in moralism. The plain truth is that the hunger is there, and it needs to be filled with something.

At this moment in our history, we feel the hunger, but we lack the understanding of how to satiate it. We suffer from thirst, and it cannot be slaked. What we are looking for cannot be found in a machine body. The nourishment is not from food, sex, or a new Lexus. The quench will not come from alpine spring water, designer electrolytes or the iPhone X. These longings can only be met by encountering the miracle of being with wonder and awe. They can only come when we look around and see that Life is bigger, and more miraculous than anything that we have created. Life is more magical and powerful than the boxes into which we try to cram our lives. Life, including our own lives, and the lives of our children is one continuously unfolding miracle after another. The dance of Life never ceases, never changes, and somehow, also never includes the same footfall of steps in the same places.

I live at the edge of Los Angeles, in a relatively rural area. I live on the side of a small mountain, around domesticated horses, dogs, and chickens, and even more wild animals like coyotes, ravens, mountain lions, hawks, quail, blue jays, and a host of other animals. Sights of animals and plants I cannot name, who in their wildness have no names to themselves or each other, punctuate my days. I live in constant grace of Life happening all around me. Most days I am barely aware of it, though I may make every endeavor to bring consciousness to my encounters.

My goal in this entry is to ask you to think a little differently. What if, rather than see all of the things around you as mechanisms in a great, anonymous machine, you regarded them as strategically placed conscious invitations for a Divine encounter with Life? What if we saw Life as the great metaphor of being? What if instead of asking ourselves if we are hard wired for something, we asked, “What is the Life in this bending towards?” or “How is Life presenting itself in this _____________ (relationship, body, organism, tool, animal, system)?” What would change about how you saw yourself, if you look at your body, face, hair, toes, clothes, and woes as embodied Life, rather than commodities available for your job, partner, sales pitch, children, etc? How would you see the animals in your life differently if you saw them as part of an unfolding pattern of Life with feelings and the ability to love, think and interact, rather than as objects, toys, food, or commodities?

Life makes things different. Seeing Life as unfolding Divinity changes the things we see. Life sees a cow as a living animal with feelings, a six-year-old child as an unfolding being stretching towards growth and learning, an acre of land as a small plot for a home. Our commoditized culture sees these things as a beef product, a student, (maybe for whom things are bought, or whose presence pays a local school), and a piece of real estate. That means that seeing Life as sacred will create problems. We can’t be so quick to create commodities from animals, people, or wild places and resources when we allow Life to be our key metaphor. It is more challenging, more difficult, but well-worth the effort.

When Life is the lens through which we seek to find our place in the world, then we are confronted by our own sacred nature, and the possibility of encountering the sacred in everything around us. The sacred encounter is everywhere, and can be overwhelming. Indeed, it is I believe the origin of the idea of people not being able to “look upon the face of God and Live”. It is not because we could not survive the countenance of the Divine, but rather that we live confronted with the face of God everyday, and have to compartmentalize the overwhelming awe we would feel if we allowed ourselves to see the Divine in every single person, oak tree, or humming bird. We would never be able to get any work done! We would not be able to see the face of God and Live (i.e. go the store, buy the groceries, pay the bills, care for the children), because we would simply see the face of God everywhere and weep in awe.

So how do you introduce this idea into your awareness? First and foremost, please question, and where reasonable, replace the mechanical metaphors in your life. Ask yourself, what is the Life process that should replace them. For example:

We are hard wired for connection. Changes to something like: Life moves us to seek love in each other.

Dogs are hard wired to smell more than humans. Changes to something like: Dogs’ lives are filled with greater capacity for smell, their noses and brains can identify more markers of living things than humans.

Men are hard wired for violence while women are hard wired for nurturing. Changes to something like: There is evidence that men and women have different brain structures and biochemical make-ups, this may lend itself to development of behaviors traditionally associated with gender or sex norms. (Whether these tendencies are the cause of behavior influencing brain structure, or brain structure influencing behavior is as yet undetermined ).

The brain is the body’s central computer, everything is run from the brain. Changes to: The body’s processes are regulated by different aspects of the brain.

So as you reconsider your choices in language and metaphor, give yourself some room to think about what impact it has for you to use machine language versus Life language. Life has far more mystery than any machine (as marvelous as they can be). Invite the mystery, get comfortable with some unknowns, and live in the possibility that there is more in Life than what we have been trained to see.

Invite the encounter with the Divine, make room for wonder. See the Life in your life.


@2016-2020 Stacey Simmons, PhD


Write Women  -Los Angeles, California