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The Pencil Test ( and what does it have to do with world peace? )

If you’ve ever attended a Christian church for any length of time, you’ve undoubtably heard this passage from Paul of Tarsus, to the Corinthians: ” For now we see as through a glass darkly …” . And, if you listened to the sermon that followed, you’ve heard the explanation of what theological scholars believe those words to mean. The most common version runs something like this; Paul is trying to explain to the new followers of Christianity in the Greek city of Corinth, that their understanding of Christ, his teachings, and his Divinity is imperfect, as is his own. That we cannot, and will not understand the mystery of Christ, until we come fully into God’s presence through resurrection, and at that time we will see all things clearly.

Whether you believe in religious dogma, or not, the allegory of the dark and dim reflection is useful, when we think of our own secular world as well. It suggests that there is more to see, than  that which is directly in front of us. That our understanding of both the self that we dimly discern, and all that surrounds it in the background of our reflection, is imperfect, and incomplete. We see only a little bit; and even that, not very well. Which brings me to the Pencil Test.

The Pencil Test arose from a discussion in a university course entitled Western Political Thought. Yes, we talked about Socrates, and Kant, and John Jacques Rousseau, but we also ventured into fringe territory like Baba Ram Das, also known as Richard Alpert. Alpert was a contemporary and collaborator of a much more familiar Harvard University scholar; Timothy Leary. Like Leary, he experimented with LSD as a means of altering consciousness in the search for a higher state of awareness. Alpert however, chose a different path than Leary. In 1967, disillusioned with his acid experience, fired from Harvard, and despondent over the death of his mother, he took up the invitation of a friend to travel across India. The journey turned out to be a transformative spiritual experience, and from the ashes of Alpert’s old life, arose a new enlightenment, and the birth of Baba Ram Das, which means “Servant of God.”

I relay this only to demonstrate that our course in “Western Political Thought” involved far more that drily digesting the declarations of Descartes. It was a daily challenge to the shaky underpinnings of certitude, in the carefully structured opinions of young students who were long on societal shaping, and short on independent thought. To say the least, some of the discussions became somewhat animated under the intense pressure of that provocation and scrutiny. It was during one of these lively sessions of repartee that I was suddenly confronted, with the unnervingly close proximity of the shaft of a pencil across my line of vision. It was accompanied by a sharp command; ” Describe exactly what you see here. No more, and no less.”

Startled, but game, I offered a description of a thin yellow object with an eraser at one end, tapering to a sharp point at the other. Barely had I offered that observation, when the image that was three inches from the bridge of my nose, suddenly changed. All that I could see and describe now, was a small grey-brown circle, with a black dot in the middle. ” Which description is correct?”, asked my instructor.

If ever I have had a “light-bulb” moment in my life, that was it. I can’t begin to describe the light-speed journey from confusion to the giddy realization that I would never think in exactly the same way again. I think that, minus the acid, it might be the “poor scholar’s” version of what Alpert went through when he first met his yogi, Bhagwan Dass, in the Himalayas. The common thread, no matter how thin, was that we both had a significant moment of enlightenment. For me, it was realizing that there are many descriptions of the same vision, and no single description is necessarily any more valid, than any other. It’s merely different. And it depends entirely, on what angle you’re looking from. Another way to visualize this truth, is to imagine a vast, multi-dimensional kaleidoscope, with infinite facets. Depending on which eye-piece you have in  front of you, you will see a portion of the whole pattern, but not its entirety. No single angle, or eye-piece will reveal the infinite, intricate, and endlessly changing pattern. Each will only reveal a description of a portion of the totality. Some of these revelations may be extensive, and some may reveal almost nothing at all. Only by realizing this, and making a conscious effort to move to as many different portals as possible, can we begin to understand the vast extent and beauty of the construction. We are “seeing through a glass darkly”. in other words.

What this might have to do with global harmony and world peace should be evident by now. Each of the seven Billion souls who currently inhabit the earth, are looking through their individual portals, and seeing a portion of the whole. Many who view in close proximity to one another, will see more or less the same thing, and can find common ground, and even unity in their individual descriptions. Others, on different planes will see radically different visions that will confound consensus, and potentially create conflict. But only if we fail to recognize, that our description is not necessarily any more valid than that of those we oppose. There are those who will read this and argue; ” Well that means that you can’t really believe in anything. Can’t have a system of values, or a codified sense of right and wrong.”  I understand that argument, but discount it entirely. Without diving too deeply into the world of metaphysical philosophy, in which I am not even remotely literate, let me say this; in the description of the physical world in which I find myself, a rock is hard, and will hurt if it hits my head. That is my reality, and I believe firmly from personal experience in its certainty. While our descriptions are not rocks, nor even rock-solid, we may believe in them to the point where they are proven to be inadequate. Not wrong. Just incomplete. As long as we acknowledge that they are inadequate and incomplete, and keep moving from portal to portal to understand more, we will ultimately be moving toward a universal description, of harmony, and peace.



I'm a veteran broadcast journalist, producer, writer, and talk show gadabout. I like to play bad hockey, drink good beer, take sporadic rides on my bicycle and generally annoy my family with Dad jokes and selective memory. ( Lois the dog, excepted. )

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