Mystical magic of crossing borders


Every time I drive up to an international border crossing, I feel my heart rate go up ever so slightly. It’s not that I have something to hide, quite the opposite. I don’t like the feeling of someone suspecting me of something I haven’t done.

Every time I drive up to the customs wicket I practise my lines: “Just 23 dollars from Mardens.” “No, three of us; our son is in back.” The questions are simple but fraught with the possibility of eliciting overly complicated, guilty-sounding answers. I doubt I’m alone in feeling this.

This should get worse at Christmas time. But in actual fact, I’m more relaxed at the border at this time of year, even though I have more to declare. And the border guards seem more pleasant, too.

It’s all about trust, and lot of anxiety is generated from lack of it. Put into perspective, our customs officers are hired not to trust anyone. And each time we cross the border we have to earn their trust.

Since landing on the East Coast I’ve had to deal with this earning trust issue on a daily basis, and not just at border crossings. For example, when we first arrived, no one knew us, and we didn’t know anyone here. So how do we begin to trust people we don’t know? Again, we’ve had to earn it.

Growing up in a community, one gets to know the cast of characters from birth. As local kids we’re taught to know the “good” families from the “bad”. And so we begin developing an inner landscape of cultural trust. This person is willow in the wind. That one’s a muddy swamp. This one can be an occasional volcano. And that one over there is solid bedrock.

In a place like this, the cultural landscape extends back 300 years. In Europe it’s more like 2000 years. In parts of Asia it’s double that, with lines stretching back four millennia or more.

Migrants—including me and my family—no longer have those connections. We lack the essential trust markers on the cultural landscape. We arrive in our new homes as tabula rasae, clean slates. And in many ways we, all of us, are becoming migrants. Air travel and the Internet now lift us across all borders, rendering the world borderless, leaving only the face-to-face cultural differences that divide us. As moderns, we are all strangers in a strange land.

The great human struggle of the 21st Century will be trust. And not just in the immediate, practical—and politically complex—matter of weaning an entire planetary human population from excess carbon emissions, fossil fuel gluttony and over-consumption of natural resources. On our crowded planet, we must trust that, as we make concessions and cut back on our consumption, our neighbours in other political jurisdictions will reciprocate. Here in the West, we may, in fact, be facing the prospect of an extended, century long recession, one I would call The Permacession.

The acts of trust needed to accommodate such wide-scale self-sacrifice may be extremely difficult to attain without some global framework of common morality. Secularists, philosophers such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, would suggest that this morality is innate to the human species, and that we can better prevail as a species if we are atheistic. Yet, in reading their work, it’s pretty clear that their “innate” moral assumptions are Judeo-Christian in origin.

And universal atheism is becoming a more remote possibility with every passing day. Fundamentalism of every religious variety has been breaking around the world. Pseudo religions blending pop psychology with mysticism fill in the emotional void felt by those how have “lost their faith”. And mainstream religions are still widely influential, especially in times of crisis. If the major religions are to play a role in easing the strain of a permanent recession, then interdenominational trust becomes a prerequisite feature of international trust.

The key features of such a sea change, both secular and religious, are acceptance and forgiveness. Coincidentally, these are also—as in curbing our resource appetites—self-limiting qualities. So, I wonder, what models do we have for acceptance and trust?

Art, not religion, is the first thing that comes to mind. For one thing, art—like Alex Colville’s famous painting of the woman with binoculars looking directly at you—is an enigma. You can see the picture all right, but you can’t see into the painting; you can’t see either the woman’s face or the thing she’s looking at. She—and the painting itself—remains a mystery.

These mysteries contained in art deal with the membrane between the material world and the metaphysical one. That is the importance of artist Damien Hirst’s sculpture of a dead zebra preserved in formaldehyde or a human skull encrusted with diamonds. At first shocked, we begin to realize that mind, matter and mortality travel together, and as permanent as we’d wish all three to be, they are fleeting and impermanent. The mere act of being alive—the subject of all art—is a mystery. Mystery is the essence of everything. And that’s something that our rational, scientific culture, struggle as it may, can never decode.

Psychologists tell us that art is therapeutic. But that view merely tries to scientifically legitimize art, and diminishes its hidden value. Artists don’t consciously make art as therapy, either for themselves or for their audiences. That’s not to say that there is no healing impulse driving art.

Artists, the good ones at any rate, are prepared to look directly at those things that the rest of us want to avoid. The result is often shock, then perhaps the recognition of a frighteningly sublime new kind of beauty, and a glimpse of the mystery of the human condition.

A good example is the work of Ed Burtynsky, whose photos of industry capture the monumentality of our impact on the landscape. Why, we wonder, are these images of destruction so beautiful? What kind of perverse urge in the human soul created these things?

But Burtynsky isn’t preaching to us. He merely records what he sees, showing without saying: “Trust your eyes, trust your heart.”

Ultimately, the artist exposes us to our own mysteries—so we can heal. We may not understand the content of a particular work of art, but the collective content of our art will inform future generations.

It’s a shame we value it so little. It may be the only thing that can save us from our endless wanting. Merry Christmas, all.


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