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Knowing, Being, and Making- A Reflection

Kelsey's picture

Great Wall of China at Badaling

            To begin, a quote from the ecology of imagination in childhood by Edith Cobb: “The child’s ecological sense of continuity with nature is not what is generally known as mystical.  It is, I believe, basically aesthetic and infused with joy in the power to know and to be.  These equal, for the child, a sense of the power to make...”

            When I was 12 years old, my dad’s musical composition was being performed in Beijing, so my mother, sister, and I travelled there with him for a week.  Most days I spent touristing with my mom and sister while my dad was in rehearsal, but, one day, we all went to the Great Wall of China together.  I remember running up the Wall, outpacing my mom and sister and then my dad, elated in my freedom and the majesty of what surrounded me.  It was only once I climbed almost to the top of a peak that I stopped, and sat.  Sitting on the edge of the Great Wall of China, gazing over the brown-green mountains rising and falling into the horizon like waves, a feeling overwhelmed me.  It cascaded from the space between “tranquility” and “joy” and “oneness”; my stomach resonated silently, high-pitched.  It was only when I glanced at my watch, and realized that I was going to miss the tour bus if I didn’t run all the way down the mountain, that the feeling dissipated.

            Sitting on the Great Wall of China was not the only time I experienced this feeling, a feeling that overwhelmed me a few times in childhood but not since then.  When I read Edith Cobb’s quote, this memory is what immediately came to mind and I knew, even though Cobb’s language differs from how I try to portray my experience, that she was talking about the same thing. 

            The phrase “ecological sense of continuity with nature” is perhaps the closest approximation I have ever read of my experience.  I have never been a spiritual or religious person, and I’ve spent most of my life convinced of the boundaries articulated by science, between nature and human creation, between me and everything else.  But when I sat on the Great Wall of China, and absorbed with my eyes the grand combination of nature and human creation, the boundaries in my mind began to break down, and the joy that sprouted deep in my chest came from feeling connected.  It wasn’t just a sense of “continuity with nature” though, at least not nature in the traditional sense that Cobb seems to mean it; it was a sense of continuity with nature and the whole of humanity, like I was a missing piece of a puzzle that didn’t know I was missing until I found my place in a picture much grander than myself.  Cobb says this feeling isn’t “what is generally known as mystical”, and I would have to agree—nothing about this left me believing in spirits, or gods, or God.  But the peace that came from feeling truly connected to everything around me is the closest to the overwhelming awe of the mystical that I’ve ever felt, and likely ever will.

            Where my experience differs from Cobb’s description, though, is her equation of a sense of “the power to know and to be” to a sense of “the power to make”.  My experience on the Great Wall of China was definitely about knowing and being, as the two concepts feel intrinsically connected to the sense of continuity I have attempted to describe.  However, I would not so easily liken knowing and being to making.  Making feels too personal, too individual, to relate to the unity I was feeling; making places power with me, when the power I experienced was in everything around me.  Knowing and being only allowed me to feel the power of that connectedness and history for a few brief moments. 

            This is not to say that I have never experienced “a sense of the power to make.”  I spent much of my childhood—especially my elementary school years—making, both in the visible world and in my mind.  For years I acted out alternate realities with a plethora of toys, my Thomas the Tank Engine trains and my American Girl Doll and my Polly Pockets and my plastic horses, my class privilege giving me tools to perform my imagination in three dimensions.  My bike served as the horse I could never actually own in suburbia, as my best friend and I pretended to ride up and down the hills in our neighborhood, stopping only to explore the small patch of woods by our houses.  And at night I would create and retell stories in my head, the well-worn refrains lulling me ever-so-softly to sleep.   

            However, my experiences of making, of creativity, never drew from me the same overwhelming joy as I felt on the Great Wall.  In our individualistic society, making has always felt like a personal pursuit (even though it often is not), and my childhood creative endeavors rarely served to make me feel connected to anything outside of my imagination.  On the Great Wall, however, I could see the mountains and the trees and the wall and the people, thousands of people I never knew and never would, and joy bubbled in my throat because I knew that I was somehow part of this picture, and that by being part of something larger than myself I could feel at peace.  I didn’t need to make anything, to do anything; knowing and being was more than enough. 

            Perhaps knowing and being and making are more closely related than I think, though; as I’ve grown older, I’ve ceased to experience the overwhelming joy of knowing and being that I felt on the Great Wall, and have also ceased to be able to make in the same way I could as a child.  I no longer find myself able to exist in alternate realities like the ones I created with my trains and horses and dolls, I’m no longer able to play make-believe or engage in what-if imaginings as easily as I once could.  I don’t think this is biological, a result of my body aging; rather I think the ability to engage fully in make-believe worlds has been trained out of me.  After a certain age, make-believe is no longer acceptable—schools discourage it, peer pressure pushes people out of it, we are told to find other, better things to do with our time.  I don’t remember exactly when I stopped playing make-believe like I used to, but I miss having that facility of imagination, that ability to disengage with the lived world and enter another one.  And I also miss feeling the overwhelming joy that comes from a sense of “continuity with nature”, of connectedness with a wall and mountains it rolls over.  Maybe I lost my ability “to know and to be” because I lost my ability to make?  I don’t know if the relationship can be simplified so easily, or if there even is a relationship, because I don’t know exactly when or how I moved on from these experiences that defined my childhood.  But I do know that, although I’m happy to have grown up most of the time, I sometimes wish I could get those feelings back.  


jccohen's picture

power to know, be, make


Your beginning with the quote from Cobb and following up with that vividly described experience you had on the Great Wall of China open us into such a rich, fascinating terrain.  I find especially satisfying your description of an area that’s so hard to describe, because of its connection with and distinction from mysticism:  how your experience is not mystical in any conventional sense and yet comes “closest to the overwhelming awe of the mystical”…! 

And then the piece takes an intriguing turn as you move into “knowing, being, making”:  “making places power with me, when the power I experienced was in everything around me.  Knowing and being only allowed me to feel the power of that connectedness and history for a few brief moments.”  As Sobel suggests (and elaborates with others’ memories), your experience of this kind of ultimate connectedness (what Bateson might call “the pattern which connects”) seems itself connected with childhood, as does the “making” of your imaginative worlds.  You mull over the possibility that perhaps there’s some relationship here, like the possible causal link:  “Maybe I lost my ability “to know and to be” because I lost my ability to make?”  Ah, I don’t know but I find this a compelling and important question – perhaps one to bring to our 360 at some point and certainly one to keep pondering!