Home Waters: Recompense

MountainOf his awakening, Dogen says, “I came to realize clearly that mind is no other than mountains and rivers, the great wide earth, the sun, the moon, the stars.” Tinged with enlightenment, you see what Dogen saw: that life is borrowed and that mind itself is mooched. Every day you’ll need something old, something new, something borrowed, and something blue.

Mind borrows mountains and rivers, earth, sun, and sky. But you can’t just keep these things forever. Even if they weren’t quite what you wanted, they gave what they had and now some compensation is needed, some recompense is required.

“Recompense is payback,” Handley says. “It means to weigh together, to bring back into balance” (xi). What was loaned must be returned or replaced. What was given must be given back.

Nobody gets to start from scratch, not even God. To make a world is to borrow, recycle, and repurpose the matter that, even if disorganized, is already out there mattering. All creation is reorganization. Even the mind of God must mooch its mountains, cajole them, persuade them, serve them, compensate them.

This is messy and its messiness is compounded by the fact that everything is in motion. “Nothing is still,” Handley reminds us (3). Nothing can be still because recompense is itself never done. Recompense compels the world’s motion: everything is in play as everything borrows from everything else in giant, intermittently harmonious rounds of exchange, compromise, and negotiation. Leaves borrow light, cows borrow leaves, people borrow cows, worms borrow people, etc., etc. The world is the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, everyone’s a broker, and the closing bell never gets rung. The whole thing echoes Anaximander’s famous lines:

Whence things have their origin,

Thence also their destruction happens,

According to necessity;

For they give to each other justice and recompense

For their injustice

In conformity with the ordinance of Time.

This is the world in a nutshell. It will die if it stops swimming. Handley sees it. He goes fly fishing, but “every time I step off the bank and into the water, the shape of the current is noticeably different. The water has risen or fallen, it is muddied, olive, or amber, the banks carved differently than before” (29). Every time he wades in, something new has been borrowed, added, or traded away.

But rivers are a cheap example. Take the mighty mountain instead. Handley sees it here too. “Mountains as landmarks belie what any hiker – or anyone with the eyes of an impressionist – knows, that a mountain never retains the same shape. There are as many mountains as there are steps it takes to climb them, or as there are angles of sun and shifts in the weather” (92). To climb a mountain is to negotiate its shifting face. You can borrow a handhold here in exchange – quid pro quo – for breaking up some ice over there.

Mountains and rivers both wake Handley’s mind to the “fundamental recognition of an ongoing creation” (130).  They wake him to the recognition that creation must be ongoing because creation is compensation. Everything must always start again – and again, and again! – because all the debt is shared, we’ve borrowed against our own lives, and what we’re borrowing is each other.

This is where things get sticky, where we begin to hear more clearly a call for re/pentance in our talk of re/compense.

We should do unto others as we would have them do unto us because we will all – inevitably, necessarily, repeatedly – be doing it unto each other. We will all impose on, borrow from, use up, and trade away parts of one another. Everyone will both repurpose and get repurposed.

Obvious problems result from all this claim-jumping: you will get borrowed as something you don’t want to be and you will have to borrow stuff that isn’t “exactly” what you wanted. Either way, our shared lives are such that the potential for offense abounds.

In response to these offenses, forgiveness must be understood as more than an occasional virtue. Rather, it must be cultivated as a baseline disposition. You will be forgiven only as you forgive, pardoned only as you pardon, free from offense only as you refuse to take it.

You’ll get lots of practice. The world will resist you, it will exceed your grasp, it will practice indifference toward you. Like a borrowed shirt, it will fit you imperfectly, it will be loose in the neck, short in the cuff, and the tag will itch. The world will irritate you, bruise you, thwart you, anger you. In the end, it will even – at least for a time – kill you.

Suffering the indignity of these rounds, you will, by default, be tempted to just flit from one offense to the next, simmering, simmering, simmering in frustration, stewing in quiet desperation.

But to live, you will have to let these offenses go. You will have to learn how to make and accept recompense. You will have to forget the fiction of cash equivalences and barter with whatever is at hand like a Bedouin.

You didn’t get what you wanted? Or even what you needed? Your life was repurposed by others for something other than what you had in mind? Join the party. I’m sympathetic, but in the end these objections are going nowhere. That bus, while always idling, never actually leaves the station. You presume a world that doesn’t exist and you fantasize a fixer-God who, unlike ours, is himself doing something other than divinely serving, borrowing and repurposing.

Ask instead: What were you given? Where were you taken? What was your recompense? Learn to like lemonade.

But you had plans? You didn’t want that recompense? Do not be so proud. You have done to others just the same. You have, in turn, taken, borrowed, and appropriated – and probably with quite a bit less grace and restraint.

What have you taken? At what cost? What recompense have you been withholding from whom?

You’ve been using up mountains and trees, the great wide earth, the sun, the moon, the stars? You’ve been drinking the rivers dry? You’ve been repurposing your spouse, your children, your parents, your friends? You’ve borrowed and wasted at your own convenience? You’ve squeezed hard, turned their other check for them, and then squeezed again? Nursing grievances, you’ve justified such actions with accusation and, often enough, even invoked God in your defense?

This, Handley suggests, is a kind of “ecological apostasy” (130). For my part, I doubt that there is any other kind.

We need to wake up to the recompense of what has been given. We need to freely offer that recompense in return. “We need,” as Handley advocates with a borrowed phrase, “to learn to think like a mountain” (xv).

[Home Waters: Overview, Home Waters: Soul as Watershed, Home Waters: Gene/ecology]

9 comments for “Home Waters: Recompense

  1. Thank you. For writing this and for helping me to understand what to do with the hurt and anger I feel inside.

  2. Angie: I’m very glad.

    Dave: Heraclitus makes a cameo in the first post about the soul as a watershed!

  3. “This, Handley suggests, is a kind of “ecological apostasy” (130). For my part, I doubt that there is any other kind.”

    So true. Thanks Adam.

  4. Adam – Your words remind me of a couple of experiences. One, when I was small, before I started school, my mom was one day explaining the precepts of the Mormon gospel, as she did in one way or another every day. She told me that I need not fear death because I would be resurrected complete and in whole, every part of me that had gone to the grave, right down to the individual hairs on my head.

    This sounded very nice, but I knew that lions sometimes ate people and that people sometimes ate lions. So I asked her how this could be – if a lion were to eat a person, the parts of that person would become the parts of the lion and then when another person ate the lion, the first person would then become a part of him. She got a bit upset at me for that.

    The other memory was all those Sunday mornings at Sunday School or Priesthood Meeting during hunting season. Some of the congregation would be absent. Those of us who were there would be congratulated and warned not to join those who were absent at any time in the future. It would be pointed out that some who were absent would justify it by claiming that out in the country they felt closer to God than at any other place – that the wild country was their church.

    No, we were admonished – the Lord’s house was the one that we had built with our human hands and it was where we to be on the Sabbath.

    Then one Sunday a couple of decades back, I was hiking in the Hatcher Pass area of South Central Alaska’s Talkeetna Mountains. After a few hours I stopped, sat on a rock and observed the sharp rocky peaks above me, the clouds moving past them against the sky of such radiant blue.

    I felt those mountains, those clouds, that sky and I knew that those people who had skipped church had been right. This was creation’s church. This was my church.

  5. Bill,

    I think in religion we can become entrapped in the symbolic forms and can forget the substance. The sacrament represents the atonement. The church represents the community. The temple represents the path to salvation/exaltation. One can sit in church, partake of the sacrament and attend the temple and be far away from witnessing the atonement, finding community and connecting with one’s salvation/exaltation.

    We can also be enmeshed in God’s creation and fail to see the creator or hear his voice.

  6. A couple of thoughts: First, I think Handley’s book and posts like those you’ve given here are examples of dynamic, contemporary Mormon theology at work. Too often we look only at theological principles revealed in Church history without engaging in rich articulations of how our theology relates to our present. Thank you for these posts.

    Second, while I think that the Dostoevkian framework of all being guilty toward all and an existentialist notion of atonement wherein we all forgive and attempt to grow together is spot on, it doesn’t quite get us past the problem of evil. There’s still a problem. It’s not merely a matter of waking up to the fact that wherever we are there are pros and cons, opportunities to grow and express our divinity. This is true particularly given the huge disparity in the sort of repurposing that exists.

    Finally, while not disagreeing with you, I think your reduction of all apostasy to the same sort of exploitive “ecological apostasy” needs further clarification. The danger is that we fail to recognize the serious of our specifically ecological apostasy. Our unjustifiable exploitation of humans and of the environment are clearly related, but we need to be candid about the devastation we’re wreaking without lumping it together with our generally fallen nature. The danger is analogous to telling the abused child, “Yeah, that’s too bad, but we all get exploited; we all have to figure out how to flourish despite that fact.” There’s something particular to our ecological apostasy that needs addressing.

    Thanks again for these posts.

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