“How can we continue to be at once astonished at the world and yet at home in it?
How can this queer cosmic town give us at once the fascination of a strange town
and the comfort and honor of being our own town?” G. K. Chesterton
In the above quote, the Christian apologist G. K. Chesterton (1874-1936) asks a essential question. In the constant activity of becoming accustomed to our circumstances, can we still be amazed at the oddness of our being? The philosopher Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) asked this same question in his major work Being and Time and in later writings as well. The German word he uses is ‘unheimlichkeit’ the state of not feeling at home, of feeling the strangeness even of the familiar. This state of ‘unheimlichkeit’ – ‘not-at-home-ness’ is translated into English as the ‘uncanny,’ that which makes us feel strange.
Today, the word ‘uncanny’ usually refers to otherworldly, paranormal experiences, ghosts and goblins and things that go bump in the night. But Heidegger is using the word ‘uncanny’ not to name eerie experiences but to call our attention to the strangeness of everyday life, which has ceased to be uncanny because we have framed our lives to avoid the strangeness. We want to feel at home.
One of the necessary projects we humans take on is attempting to keep uncanniness at bay. We do not like to experience this abnormal (ab = away from normal) ‘not-at-home-ness.’ We construct normative structures (families, religions, cultures, etc.) around us so that we might live comfortably surrounded by the ordinary familiar. We become acclimated and grow accustomed to the way things are. They become our normal and needed zone comfort. As we mature, fewer and fewer of our experiences bring us to the feeling of uncanniness, strangeness. When they do, we see this uncanniness as a problem to be fixed so that we can repossess our refuge of comfort.
The uncanniness Heidegger is describing is not pathological, not a disease. It does not mean something is wrong with us. We do not need to be cured of this uncanniness. This uncanniness is existential. It pushes us against the borders of our existence where we are exposed to the plain fact of just being. This uncanniness is the place where our defenses grow thin to the point where sheer being becomes palpable. In heart and mind, we wake to the throb of Being itself. At this distant point from the middle of things where we mostly live, we can feel deep in our robust fragility the absurd fact that we BE!
There are certain events and activities that put us in touch with being. Zen, yoga, and other meditative practices can open the gate to the garden of strangeness which leads us to the experience of Being. Music, dance, and poetry can be keys in the latch of the doorway opening to the house of Being. Personal illness or the death of loved ones can be the earthquake that shakes our familiar world. In these ways we know that what we have taken for granted have not been granted at all.
We live like the inhabitants of the Netherlands, building our personal and collective barriers to the surrounding sea of mystery. We erect dikes and dig canals to distance ourselves from the overwhelming tide. We get used to our walled life. Our constructs insure a layer of necessary and preferred ordinariness. But every once in a while, a leak occurs in the seawall, or we climb to the top and look out at the deep, and are filled with fearful amazement at the immense and terrifying wonder that surrounds our lives and makes our lives possible.
The poet Mary Oliver has written – “Instructions for Living a Life”:
Tell about it.
Poetic language is designed to do just that:
encourage us to pay attention,
to make room for astonishment, and
to articulate that strange wonder to others.