Saturday, February 26, 2011

The man behind the curtain is more interesting, anyway.

Like most children, I absolutely adored magicians. My brother and I would play along with silly television specials - being the late 80s and early 90s they were most often David Copperfield - picking cards through the television and being amazed at disappearing planes, trains, and statues.

The thing I always found most interesting, however, was figuring out how it was done. The trick itself was impressive, but unbelievable. I knew it couldn't be real, but the fact that what I was seeing seemed real is what kept me intrigued. That was the point of the thing, to me. The more I learned about illusionist magic and slight of hand the more I loved it.

People will look where you want them to, they'll believe the impossible, and they'll step into a world that's been completely crafted just to support the entire thing. It's wonderful escapism, little snow globe of mystery and awe they can visit for a time.

But that wasn't enough for me; it was always unsatisfying to be in a world someone else had created. I wanted in on the trick. I wanted to know what was behind it, and beyond it. I wanted to know what it meant.

The rising popularity of the internet when I was a kid made that sort of information increasingly accessible. My parents would scold me, telling me I'd ruin it for myself. But it was never, ever ruined. It always made it that much more enjoyable. I could see exactly what was happening and how, and why it worked. It was precise, controlled, and elegant. The flash melted away and I could see the intense planning and practicing that had to have gone into even the smallest slight of hand.

I have never believed that things have to be mysterious to be inspiring, and I don't think I ever will. One of the many reasons Bizarro Christians reject science is, I think, their fear that it will ruin the trick. They want the illusion; they want a world crafted entirely by someone else for their benefit. They want to look where you tell them to look and see something impressively flashy, emotionally exciting, and completely benign.

Having an understanding of how the universe works can only ever make it more profound and meaningful, never less. To attempt to comprehend the vastness of the universe and our indescribably tiny place in it seems to strike a lot of religious people I've known as being coldly intimidating. To exist, though, in such vast universe fills me with a feeling of gratitude. To observe a world that is so complex and elegant, but works without any seemingly supernatural intrusion thrills me. It functions: messy and strange and orderly and disgusting and beautiful and rational and complicated and chaotic and predictable and unexpected and wonderful. Whether or not it's designed by or for anyone it works, and all the warnings I'd received about this way leading to atheism (as if that would somehow be a bad thing) melted away as I found my faith growing deeper. To discover new mysteries at the edges of our capacity to observe or understand and to not have to settle for "well, god must be doing it." How small and insulting to believe that god's extent is simply the illusion, and not the precision and intricacy that makes it sustainable. How fulfilling it is to believe, without a doubt, that we would be able to unravel any mystery set before us given enough time and determination.

And every time we find out how it works it becomes ever more satisfying. We're in on the trick.

I'm content not to feel like the focus of this entire thing; I'm content to not feel special. Letting go of my place in the illusion and seeing what's behind the curtain means the entirety of the universe is special.

And what could be more wonderful than that?


  1. I always find it interesting that people think that the worlds of fantasy novels are so much more magical than our own. Sure, they're filled with magic, but what do people do? They examine the magic. They codify it. They break it down basic principles. They build huge schools to study and teach it. Sometimes they even build massive bureaucracies around it. It's rare that you come across a fantasy world where magic is anything other than science for a different set of physical laws. I suppose you could argue that their physical laws are cooler than ours, flashier, but they don't actually seem any more... magical.

    I suppose there are really two forms of magic/mystery: the mystery of the unknown, and the mystery of the knowable. One is about escapism, the other is about engagement. One is inherently pessimistic: as long as you don't touch it or taste it or look too closely at it, you can imagine it to be whatever you want. You can enjoy it as much as you want, so long as you never enjoy it. The other is hopeful: there's a chance that you can understand something, possibly master it, and even have new mysteries revealed to you in the process.

  2. I don't remember where I first heard it (slacktivist, if I had to make a guess), but I've said for a while now that there are lots of folks who simply don't find reality terribly compelling.

    That sort of disconnect seeds everything from teenagers who believe themselves to be werewolves, global warming deniers, those who find escape in substance abuse, many manifestations of infidelity, to the very worst kinds of religious activism.

    Really, we all do it to some degree. At some point, I suppose, it's up to us to decide whether reality and truth are valuable enough for us to start to let go of the illusion.