I’ve recently discovered myself to be a fairly poor runner. I’m consistently inconsistent, and can scarcely muster 2 miles. I know. But on those rare and rough occasions when I strap on the sneakers, I always run past the above statue. Perched on a pedestal amidst a calmingly manicured wooded parcel, it gazes out over the “Midway Plaisance“—a stretch of green space that runs along the south section of the University of Chicago. It was originally a convention space for the 1893 World’s Fair; the site of the first ever ferris wheel.
Plaisance is a French word, which appropriately means, “pleasantness”.
It contains a cryptic plaque emblazoned only with “Linné”. During one such run, I determined to solve the mystery. I learned its likeness to be that of 18th century Swedish botanist, zoologist and physician Carl von Linné, considered the Father of Taxonomy; viz., naming organisms. He devised our modern binomial i.e. genus, species).
The closer we get to know the creatures around us, the clearer is the understanding we obtain of the chain of nature, and its harmony and system, according to which all things appear to have been created.
Naming is a uniquely human activity; a component of what evolutionary biologist have coined niche construction—the way organisms shape their environment. Naming is a form of ordering and understanding, and it carries a power we are prone to under-appreciate—the power of definition.
The Scriptural narrative portrays the fundamental feature of humanity as mirroring the Creator. This involves a synchronicity of being and doing. Of course we would expect beings who are ontologically alike to, in turn, be existentially alike—being similar means doing similar. We first encounter the Creator as one who brings cosmic order into the chaotic through the power of the spoken word.
And so it is that naming becomes the preliminary human mandate in divine image-bearing:
Now out of the ground the Lord God had formed every beast of the field and every bird of the heavens and brought them to the man to see what he would call them.
And whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name.
I wonder at times about that lonely assignment. Presented with every other creature, and, equipped only with language, tasked with defining them. An ostrich, an alligator, a salamander, a squirrel. Here the Creator remained silent. Did man ever glance over his shoulder and shrug? Not yet did man enjoy human companionship. He cleared his throat, opened his mouth and spoke.
Bob Dylan reflected on this event back in 1979. You may remember that Dylan became a Christian. There is no consensus as to whether he un-became one. Still, his Christian albums are some of his best, and they are certainly some of the better forms of Christian songwriting. But I digress.
His account of this nomenclatural genesis unfolds playfully,
Man gave names to all the animals
In the beginning, in the beginning.
Man gave names to all the animals
In the beginning, long time ago.
He saw an animal leavin’ a muddy trail,
Real dirty face and a curly tail.
He wasn’t too small and he wasn’t too big.
“Ah, think I’ll call it a pig.”
But the final verse twists unresolved and portentous,
He saw an animal as smooth as glass
Slithering his way through the grass.
Saw him disappear by a tree near a lake…
We’re left to fill in the final verse with a known and dreaded character. The song pricks a certain disquiet. It hints at a disruptive and disrupting counter-narrative; a corrosive messaging meant to throw into disarray all mankind understood about the Creator, creation and self; carrying the autoimmune spiritual contagion of shame.
Shame is the inner human discord responsible for all outer discord. A terrifying inner chaos of self that leaves its host hurting, susceptible and self-protective. Shame alienates its host from others, but also from self. Yes there are fearsome creatures without, but shame summons countless fearsome creatures from within—anger, depression, hatred, fear. And we are prone respond to both sets of creatures in much the same way: building bonfires to keep them at bay, striking out frantically and raising sturdy barriers. When we glimpse their spectral eyes hovering in the dark, we heap more wood onto the blaze, take a tighter grip on our spear and pray the fencing holds.
Our internal bonfires are those of busyness and distractedness. Strong emotions surface like leviathans from our depths whenever we find ourselves inactive. Unable to administer the coups de grâce, we marshal all efforts toward driving them away and barring their entry. Thus these internal forces exert a brute power over our lives. We cannot name what is driving us, nor can we predict where.
Author Henri Nouwen expressed this condition in his book The Wounded Healer (a term he borrowed from Carl Jung). He spoke of a coming “convulsive generation”:
Many young people are convinced that there is something terribly wrong with the world in which they live and that cooperation with existing models of living would constitute betrayal of themselves. Everywhere we see restless and nervous people, unable to concentrate and often suffering from a growing sense of depression. They know that what is shouldn’t be the way it is, but they see no workable alternatives.
Nouwen describes an erratic generation defined by a hectoring inner restlessness; beset by disorder around them, yet unable to draw from an ordered interior life. (A cursory survey of our modern world might prove him prescient.)
He insists spiritual leaders of the future must become fluent with the interior life,
… to clarify the immense confusion which can arise when people enter this new internal world.
He laments, however, most spiritual leaders to be solely fluent in the ordering of externals—management, vision, planning—while remaining woefully inarticulate regarding the ordering of the internal.
They have become unfamiliar with, and even somewhat afraid of, the deep and significant movements of the spirit.
The key word here is articulation. The man who can articulate the movements of his inner life, who can give names to his varied experiences, need no longer be a victim of himself.
Here Nouwen is conveying an identical sentiment to Linné: “The closer we get to know the creatures… the clearer is the understanding we obtain of the chain of nature, and its harmony and system…”
For humans to venture into their maturity, they must accept this assignment of naming the animals. In this we restore our ordering power of definition; understanding their features, their behaviors, their variations and environs. Like our primeval ancestor, the words may stick in our mouths. Naming is a quantum existential shift. Few have been tutored in this inner-taxonomy. These animals are powerful and so we dread them, but they are also beautiful and majestic. Ours is not to drive them away nor strike frantically to kill. The human distinctive is to draw close enough to these internal creatures that we might understand them, name them and order them toward harmony.
This interior taxonomy demands brave and creative rigor. As with any worthwhile enterprise, one cannot expect immediate dexterity. This involves patient mindfulness, and imaginativeness—creativity. Realizations will come at unexpected times and in unexpected ways.
Is this anger or hurt, anxiety or eagerness, joy or pride, fear or sorrow? If hurt, what is the source of pain? If fear, what is it I’m afraid of? How do varieties of anxiety differ, and, for that matter, excitement? This is an interior safari, of which you yourself become the guide.
This ability endows you with power, rids you of crippling dread and restores your own agency toward your life. We needn’t remain, as Nouwen put it, “victims of ourselves.” The interior beasts needn’t haunt and harass our every move. As you develop this interior bestiary, it becomes a restoration of your human place in the created order; the place of creating order both without and within.
Not only this, but we might become those who tutor others in this interior taxonomy. We might play a role in aiding others “clarify the immense confusion of their interior world.”
The external disorderedness of the human race is nothing but the cumulative of a race marked by internal disorder. Would we be and become more human, we must not shrink from our innate role of naming.
The paradox of this taxonomy is that it is the creation of a nomenclature of self—what Scripture calls “the soul”. Thus we must leave the busy enclosures of our safety, extinguish our towering pyres and, above all, lay aside our weaponry in this endeavor. We are venturing out to espy and become better acquainted with our very selves!
To quote Parker Palmer:
The soul is like a wild animal… tough, resilient, resourceful, savvy, and self-sufficient…
Yet despite its toughness, the soul is also shy. Just like a wild animal, it seeks safety in the dense underbrush, especially when other people are around. If we want to see a wild animal, we know that the last thing we should do is go crashing through the woods yelling for it to come out.
But if we will walk quietly into the woods, sit patiently at the base of a tree…the wild creature we seek might put in an appearance.
In this, we will find our own self both a fearsome and beautiful creature, and we will celebrate how it must exist in this world.