Sculpting mashed potatoes

As a kid, when adults asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would answer right back: "A forest ranger! No, a priest!" Up on a shelf in my boyhood closet, corroborating this confusion, were my implements for playing Mass -- a metal cup used to press "hosts" out of stale Wonderbread, homemade vestments cut out of old sheets -- together with hiking books and nature field guides. Torn then between being a wilderness guy or a man concerned with public liturgy, counsel and prayer, to this day I haven't really resolved this conflict.

When Charles Lindbergh was a boy, he was plagued by nightmares of falling from high places, and he even tried to meet this fear by jumping out of trees. Did his deepest innards know even then he was destined to first solo the Atlantic? Surrealist painter Salvador Dali, it is reported by playmates, one day bit into a rotting bat, a surrealistic act if ever there was one. Schoolmates of Robert Baden-Powell, founder of the Boy Scouts, witnessed that he was overeager, always ready to be useful to his teachers, to keep his friends amused and help older people.

Each human life must be, after all, an organic thing, like an oak tree. That tree begins with a blueprint built into genetic material in the lowly acorn and, obedient to that vision, the tree goes dutifully from sprout to sapling to full-fledged oak. Perhaps we humans are the same, developing according to a blueprint that is beyond the purely biological and latent in the embryo and seed of us. Psychologist James Hillman suggest that, instead of studying developmental psychology, we should study essential psychology. The question for psychology, when presented with the bafflingly complex behavior of us human adults, is not, "How did I get this way?" Rather it may be, "What does my acorn or, better, my birthmark -- that image in the seed -- want of me?"

The key to our life lies not so much in the events of our living, what happens to us, as in that fateful seed-image, that original vision of what we are meant to be, from the moment of conception or before.

I wonder if the whole identity in diversity question doesn't go much further than just the four or nine types of the Myers-Briggs or Enneagram models .. down to that unique individual image that resides in all of us six billion types on the planet. It is as if the moment we are born, the universe asks a question, and our lived-out life is the answer. "Events grow," wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson, "on the same stem as persons." Our individual biographies are important.

This past century's science has altered the way we look at everything. The old Newtonian clockwork cosmos has given way. Now the universe is described by relativity theory and by quantum mechanics. It's more like that curious storybook wonderland Alice plummeted into -- a huge swarm of ghostly particles in energetic communion, one with another, bubbling up and bursting out of nothing to expand, along with time itself, into immensity, and one in which the whole is physically implied in each and every part.

"The ultimate aim of this universe," says cosmologist Brian Swimme, "seems to rest in each particular being. The same creative power that created the galaxies and stars is heavily invested in us. We are each given a quantum of emergy at birth and we have this task to accomplish: to identify who we are."

Where is the cosmic adventure taking place? In each and every one of us. We must give birth to ourselves.

Steven Spielberg's popular movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind provides a perfect image for this dynamic, a nutshell sketch of the mystical quest for individuation. In the film, a number of people in a small Indiana town find themselves sharing a compelling inner sense that they must get to a particular location soon. Deep down, they feel themselves "invited" to this place, and each one finds himself or herself trying to draw, sculpt, or paint this inner image. One character uses mashed potatoes. Everyone else thinks they're nuts. But regardless of consequence, each one does that needs to be done to get to that location -- a mountain in Wyoming.

Haven't we all felt this way at times: invited? What is this inner image in you like? What did you most want to be when you grew up? In Close Encounters, the end of each one's quest was a communally shared, awe-filled contact with benevolent wisdom, power and delight. the very definition of the goal of a spiritual life.

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