Today I was thinking about writing more on G.K. Chesterton’s What’s Wrong With the World? But I could not get past the word world. Instead of What’s Wrong With the World? my book will be called What IS the World?
What do we mean when we talk about the world? Usually we aren’t referring to nature or the planet or the universe. Some people say we are advanced animals and therefore our world is as natural as theirs. I disagree. If we really are only advanced animals then we are cheats. We do not play by the rules of the natural world. We twist survival of the fittest to suit our moral sense, our emotions, our historical memories, our beliefs, and all those prejudices our fellow creatures do not have. It is obvious to me that humans are not simply advanced animals, but are in fact a whole different kind of thing.
Nor is human world purely spiritual, despite what some New Age gurus would have us believe. We are forever identified with our mortal forms, these bodies with a head, a torso, two arms, and two legs, organisms beholden to the uncompromising demands of nature. It’s difficult even for the most wildly imaginative writers of science fiction and fantasy to do away with this basic pattern, though many have made vigorous attempts to break free from the humanoid form.
Though we may thwart the law of the jungle, our bodies insist on operating according to plan. We may ingest tons of sugar, chemicals, alcohol, and opium and hope the body will continue to operate unimpeded, but it won’t. It will process whatever substance goes into it according to its hard-coded internal program. No matter how much we meditate, that half gallon of ice cream we consumed will not transcend to the spirit of sweetness but will turn into fat and burden our liver.
Our bodies keep us tied firmly to the natural world and that is as it should be. It keeps us humble, lest we fly off and think we can join the angels. We are not angels and we never will be. We are humans, a distict order of creation, above the animals, below angels. Our origin is planet earth with its specific nature, yet we are not fully at home on planet earth in the wild kingdom/evolutionary sense. When we talk about “what’s wrong with the world” or “world record” or “world war” we are not talking about the world of the wild kingdom. From earliest history, it seems, humans have been aware of that other world that I call spiritual; but that is not really our home either, at least not in the purely spiritual non-material sense.
The human world (I am guessing) is a relatively new experimental creation, currently superimposed between or on top of the natural and the spiritual. Perhaps this age is an early iteration of a world that will eventually become more suitable for human souls than this borrowed and cobbled-together gerry-rigged thing balancing precariously between those two other worlds. I imagine that when we shed these bodies we remain human beings. We do not perish and we do not turn into something essentially other than what we are now. Maybe – probably even – we keep our general form, identity, memories, and mental structures.
Perhaps “up there” will be sort of the flip side of “down here.” We will then follow the rules of that world but our identities will continue to desire the pleasures of earth, just as here we long for the pleasures of heaven. We will be spiritual beings who want to eat, climb trees, walk with companions, and live in houses. We will want to build camp fires, smell flowers and pine trees, have sex. (!?) We will be as different from the angels there we differ from the beasts here.
I can imagine a semi-spiritual world that duplicates the things of earth so that God’s graduated creatures can feel at home. Perhaps, as Plato thought, we will find there the ideal forms of everything. But I fancy those ideal forms will be still further ahead of us and the next world will simply be one created for humans who have journeyed to the next level of our existence. Somewhere along the way, perhaps soon, the experimental cobbled-together world will transform into one perfectly suited to the kind of creation human beings are meant to be, a world that is the perfect integration of nature and spirit.
What would such an integrated world be like? Who knows? I am sure we are all in for plenty of surprises and I wouldn’t want it to be otherwise. Still, it’s fun to make some guesses. I imagine it as a place where nature is more alive and responsive to human thought and emotion: the rocks would truly sing and the mountains would really clap their hands. There would be animals that would speak and love and interact with us in a meaningful way instead of being limited by the demands of survival.
I think we can see small previews of this in our relationships with pets. My dog Cocoa is as close to a loving being as any animal I have ever known. She interacts, responds, and communicates lavish affection. But after living with her brother Pippin for ten years, she saw him die of lymphoma in our living room and the loss seems to have had little effect on her. I do think I notice a few changes I her behavior. She seems more needy for attention since his death and she hates to be left alone in the house. I just don’t honestly think she “cares” the way humans care when a loved one dies. However, I like to fancy she cares an ounce or so more than an animal in the wild cares. Survival in nature leaves little room for grief.
In any case we seem to say world with great frequency, often without the slightest thought as to what it is we mean by it. Generally we seem to have the vague notion that we refer to some kind of comprehensive system. We know well enough what we are trying to communicate. No need to be like me and bog yourself down making problems out of things that are not problems, like the meaning of words. Language usually works like the involuntary organs of the body. The heart beats and the words issue forth. Until you start messing with them.
As part of my research, I noticed that Amazon lists more than 100 pages of books with the word “world” in the title. Here are a few of these titles, just to observe the variety of ways we throw this word around. I have read a few of these….
Books with WORLD in the Title
Brave New World . Aldus Huxley
Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking. Susan Cain
World Order. Henry Kissinger
The World and Will. Arthur Schopenhauer
The Greatest Salesman in the World. Og Mandino
Having a Mary Heart in a Martha World. Joanna Weaver
My Beloved World. Sonia Sotomayor
The World According to Garp. John Irving
A World Undone: The Story of the Great War, 1914 to 1918.
The War of Worlds. H.G. Wells
The Norton Anthology of World Literature. Martin Puchner and Suzanne Conklin Akburi
Ed Emberley’s Drawing Book: Make a World. Ed Emberley
The World of Pooh: The Complete Winnie-the-Pooh and The House of Pooh. A.A. Milne
The World As I See It. Albert Einstein
Danny the Champion of the World. Roald Dahl
How to Survive the End of the World as We Know It. James Wesley Rawls
The Lost World. Arthur Conan Doyle
Parallel Worlds: A Journey Through Creation, Higher Dimensions, and the Future of the Cosmos. Michigan Kaku
America: Imagine a World Without Her. Dinesh D’Souza
And the award for the weirdest title with World goes to…..
Vegan Cupcakes Take Over the World. Ida Chandra Moskowitz and Terry Hope Romero
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And we haven’t even begun with the song titles. “Part of That World” from The Little Mermaid is the first one that pops to mind. Or TV shows. Like The Wonderful World of Disney.
But enough of this. After writing my crazy thoughts I Googled “world” and discovered that the Wikipedia article is not half bad. For one thing it says the English word comes from two Old English words that roughly translate to “Age of Man.” As opposed to the Latin word – mundus – which means “clean, elegant” and is related to the Greek cosmos which means “orderly arrangement.” If our world was once defined as something orderly it is currently becoming more disorderly by the minute. Words themselves are splintering, meanings no longer as clean and elegant as they once were. But orderly or not, we are stuck with this world and might as well make the best of it.
My plan is to read, write, and draw and try to make sense of what I can. What comes of my attempts I share here for what it’s worth. And Happy Valentine Day. Buy someone a cardboard heart full of chocolates and don’t stress too much over the meaning of it all.