Acknowledging Prayers Offered On Our Behalf

On 30th July, I hiked up to Corbet High Camp–operated by Jackson Hole Mountain Guides–in Wyoming’s Teton range in the Grand Teton National Park–to begin an attempt to scale the Grand Teton on August 1st. There, at high camp, my climbing partner and I met another pair of climbers, young lads from Louisiana, headed up the Grand the very next morning; we would be sharing camp with them for the afternoon and evening. We chatted and exchanged pleasantries; many notes of excited and nervous anticipation made the rounds; we each confessed to the peculiar state of excitement and apprehension that seemed to possess us. Later, as time for dinner approached, the older of the two lads asked us if we would mind if he offered a ‘mountain blessing’ before mealtime. We said we had no problem with him doing so.

And so our new friend took off his hat and bent his knee in prayer. He asked his Lord and God for protection on this mountain; to aid him with good luck as he attempted to climb the mountain with his cousin; to bless all those he had met today and made friends with and who would also be climbing the mountain; to lay his protective hand over all of them alike. As he spoke, we laid down our spoons and forks and waited; when he had finished speaking, we all thanked him. (I cannot, in this text, recapture my friend’s distinctive Louisiana accent, but it was present, and it added a little touch of the South to the Western alpine setting.)

I’m an atheist; I do not pray. But I was unambiguously grateful for the prayer that had been offered on my behalf; my thanks were sincere. They were so not because I expected benedictions to now flow my way but rather, because I was deeply appreciative of the gesture of kindness that had just been directed at me. I did not doubt the sincerity of the faith of that young man from Louisiana; he believed all right. And if he did, and had the relationship to his faith that I thought he did, then his asking for blessings to be sent my way which would protect me on the mountain and return me safely to my family were an expression of genuine concern and friendship on his part. Up there on that mountainous perch, the majestic Middle Teton and its enormous snowfields clearly visible, I was conscious of my own insignificance in the face of nature’s grandeur and might; my friend’s blessing was a fortification of my humanity in the face of such natural power, it was a reminder that when we climb mountains we always seek to return to those who love and care for us, that friendships and companionship are ever more important on the mountains, that I would need the help of the others to get up and down safely. Acknowledging the sincerity and warmth and these diverse messages of that blessing, the gesture it made, was the only right thing to do. Even for a non-believer.

Reflections On ‘Imagined Communities’ – I: Children And Humanity

In Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (Verso, New York, 2006, pp. 10-11), Benedict Anderson writes:

[R]eligious thought also responds to obscure intimations of immortality, generally by transforming fatality into continuity (karma, original sin, etc.). In this way, it concerns itself with the links between the dead and yet unborn, the mystery of re-generation. Who experiences their child’s conception and birth without dimly apprehending a combined connectedness, fortuity, and fatality in a language of ‘continuity’?

During the time that my wife became pregnant with our daughter, gave birth to her, and began the long process of rearing her, I began to be aware of an entirely novel sensation as I walked the streets of this city, took the subway to my various destinations, and taught classes to my always-diverse student population: all around me were strangers, their personal histories entirely unknown to me, and yet, I knew something–which felt deeply significant–about them.

I’m not the first parent to report this, and I won’t be the last. (Anderson wouldn’t be making that claim above if I was.) It’s almost a cliché really. Have a kid, and come to realize how you are caught up in the cycles of life and death, how all humans had parents, how they were born naked, helpless, and hapless, how we owe our present lives to the nurturing care provided by others (admittedly, not all of us lucked out in the sweepstakes of loving and attentive parental care), how we all come to be and pass away, how we add a link to the ‘continuity’ of existence.

For all of that supposed banality, my sensations did not feel in the least tired or retreaded; there was a novelty to my experience of them. There were new emotions at play: a warm benevolence of a kind; a peculiar melancholia too, when I would see the unfortunate and the downtrodden, their luck having long run out. I felt in possession of a new vision of sorts: almost as if in the case of every human that I encountered, I could run the film of their time here on earth backwards, all the way back to their first appearance on this stage. I had seen pregnant women before; I had seen countless photos of newborn babies (and even held and cuddled several); but my partner’s pregnancy and the presence of my own child–a mortal from the moment of her birth–told me my place in the world was now different for having gained a connection with not just the community of parents, but indeed with all who had been babies once. That is, with the entire human community, past, present, and perhaps even that of a not-too-radically reconfigured-by-science-and-technology future. A wholly imagined community.

Note: This post kicks off what should be a series of riffs on passages drawn from Anderson’s Imagined Communities. There will be no attempt to provide systematic exegesis (not that I ever have done that here): just brief comments on sections I found provocative or entertaining.