A Contemplative Excursion

Although the new big-screen television is dramatically larger than the one it replaced, I can imagine it will seem inadequate after viewing even larger screens. Two years hence, I suspect asserting the need for an 85-inch screen will occur; Scandinavian crime shows deserve to show themselves in all their enormous glory. Yet I can imagine living in a tiny house, instead, in which a 36-inch screen might seem monstrous. That little house, set far from the madding crowd, might seem like a luxurious refuge from a world spiraling into conspiracy-theory-propelled madness. If so, then I crave luxury. But I crave ascetic deprivation, too. And I seek meditative cures to mental maladies; I want to think my way out of a grey ball that resembles depression, but really  may be  unsatisfied greed. Greed need not be a thirst for material things. Greed may be a hunger for knowledge or understanding or acceptance of an imperfect world. What might the experience be like, sitting in a room with nothing to do but think and stare at four blank walls? Would boredom set in, or would one’s mind adjust to the lack of external stimuli by experiencing a lively inner world of its own creation? Or would one escape from the deprivation by forcing oneself to sleep? Odd, how acquisition of an enormous magnet for one’s attention can cause the mind to shrink back and into itself.


My mind this morning wanders between contemplation and meditation. Between reflection and reverie. I can imagine spending the entire day sitting beneath a tree, listening to Plato’s teachings. Or dreaming of sitting, alone, on the deck of an abandoned ferry drifting in the frigid waters of the northern Atlantic off the coast of Iceland.  But I have obligations today. First, I have a doctor’s appointment. Later, I will help fellow church-goers by picking up and disposing of their recycling. And during the course of the day, I must deal with the intricacies of calculating and processing requests for required minimum distributions (RMDs) for the year.


People who privately and quietly create or simply find beautiful, serene places in which to enjoy life have every reason to restrict access to their hidden retreats, because the rest of us hunger for placid places. And our appetites puts those hidden oases at risk. We want the benefits of their creators’ or discoverers’ visions, so we invade their sanctuaries. Our search for asylum transforms the peacefulness of those sanctums into frenzied replicas of the places we leave behind.  Whether quiet little towns, pristine natural wonders, or purpose-built, restricted-access communities, tension exists between “founders” and “intruders.”  The tension is understandable. Founders deserve to quietly enjoy the fruits of their creation or their discovery. But exclusivity is anathema to equality; we seem to insist that everyone should be free to experience all the wonders of existence on the planet. Yet we somehow manage to chisel out restrictions that satisfy almost everyone; our homes are our castles, open only to those we invite in. And we agree to share, otherwise. Public streets and public places are open to all. Some places, though, are subject to fierce disagreement and debate. Those places—home to the fortunate few, in many cases—always are in flux.  Ski resorts, for example, often are carved out of pristine near-wilderness. The lives of the people who live there, who may value the isolation, are disrupted when the area is invaded by people who want recreation, luxury accommodations, and all the amenities of a high-end resort. The same area, though, may be discovered by other groups, though, who want only the privacy and isolation that founders enjoy. Tension from three directions. Who, if anyone, should be given precedence?

These matters are on my mind this morning because I wish I could find that beautiful, private, serene, undisturbed place. But if I found it, I might ruin the quiet a “founder” might have discovered or created. And even if I took care to ensure the continuing privacy and quiet enjoyed by the founder, I can imagine fighting tooth and nail to keep others from invading my new-found private retreat. Where is the fairness in all this? It is not strictly about public property versus private property; it is about access to and enjoyment of both. The dilemma may be just another aspect of the Tragedy of the Commons, adapted to modern desires for the private enjoyment of…everything.


The first person, who, having inclosed a piece of ground, bethought himself of saying, This is mine, and found people simple enough to believe him, was the real founder of civil society. From how many crimes, battles and murders, from how many horrors and misfortunes would not that man have saved mankind, who should have pulled up the stakes, or filled up the ditch, crying out to his fellows, “Beware of listening to this impostor; you are undone if you once forget that the fruits of the earth belong to us all, and that the earth itself belongs to nobody.”

~Jean-Jacques Rousseau ~


Light filters through the trees, calling on me to complete my finger exercises and retreat to the kitchen in search for a suitable breakfast. And so I shall.

About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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