Thoughts, Ideas, Observations

Inside the Prophet's Hat

John Bedell

The Sioux shaman Black Elk once described the excitement created among the plains Indians by Wovoka, the prophet, or Wanekia, of the Ghost Dance. Intrigued by what they heard of him, the Sioux elders sent four men to meet him and report back on his teachings. The men were impressed. As Black Elk told it,

Once, they said, the Wanekia held out his hat for them to look into. And when they did this, all but one saw there the whole world and all that was wonderful. But that one could see only the inside of the hat, they said.
That would be me. I am the one who would go on a long journey to meet the prophet and see only the inside of his hat.

I have a romantic soul and an engineer's mind, and all my life I have been torn between a coarse skepticism and a longing for transcendent wonder. My rational side dismisses everything unmeasured and unseen, but my imagination still roams in search of marvels. I have always loved the worlds of fantasy, often better than the material world I see with my eyes. I used to come close to tears whenever I reflected that there were no dragons in the world, and that no matter how hard I tried I would never become a wizard. I find it unjust that I can't go off on an adventure and find an ogre's castle just over the next hill that my village somehow never knew about.  I wish the stars were close enough for us to reach them.

But despite these disappointments I am proud to be the one who sees only the inside of the hat. I know that I am not so smart as many others, and that I am wrong about many things, but it still thrills me to feel the power of my mind.  I love understanding and knowing and figuring things out, and I would not trade the free operation of my mind for any comforting faith. I like to think that I am not afraid to face the truth, and I know I have never swerved in my quest for knowledge from fear of what I might find out.

The rational world view requires abandoning many wonders, but it does have others to compensate. Would it be a gain to trade knowledge of dinosaurs and the braided ring of Saturn for faith in dragons?  I don't think so.  When I seriously compare our world to that of myth, what most impresses me is how much smaller and less rich the mythic world is. The Old Testament describes only a handful of peoples under the eye of God, while the rational narrative speaks of thousands of peoples, hundreds of nations, and swarms of heroes. Black Elk in his vision saw divine beings whose only concerns were the Sioux, the Buffalo, and the rain, and as I read his words I wondered how a man who had seen New York and Paris could cling to a heaven so much smaller than the earth. Taken together, the myths of the world are wonderfully rich, but it is only because of rational scholarship that I have access to more than one set.

I find the notion of a personal, caring God absurd.  I am interested in the possibility of a creative force that set the universe in motion, but I am comfortable not knowing if such a thing is real.  I have no desire to worship, although I do sometimes want to give thanks.

I am no longer afraid of death. When I first came to contemplate death as nothingness--I must have been about 8 or 9--I was terrified. I felt the dread of non-existence at intervals over the next 15 years or so, but I find that the thought has now lost its force.  I love my life and I have no wish for it to end, but I no longer fear the end I imagine is coming. One thing I fear for my children is having to confront that nothingness, and I wish there were something I could do to take away their fear.  But I think that any other view of death is a lie, and I won't lie to them about something so important.

I am more at peace now than ever before. Perhaps it is only the declining level of some youthful neurotransmitter, but I like to think of it as increasing wisdom. I think perhaps my children have something to do with my increasing appreciation of our mundane world. Really, we have never imagined anything more wonderful than the growth of a person from a single cell, and the flight of dragons cannot be more exciting to watch than a toddler learning to speak or a child learning to read.

I still love imaginary worlds, but it no longer pains me so much that I can't live in them. Given the choice between the worlds of legend and our own, with its unbounded richness, I think I would choose this earth to which I was born.

September 9, 1999

From the 
Commonplace Book

"My worthy friend, gray are all theories, and green alone life's golden tree."



Commonplace Book
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Night Train to LisbonScience Enchants the World
Intelligent Design
Turning 40
Gulliver's Travels
Spiritual Testament
Gender and Children
For Common Things
Inside the Prophet's Hat
I am the Spirit of My Age
Knowing People
Having Children