Some things we only figure out after the fact. I wish this weren’t the case, but the evidence in my life is too strong to argue otherwise. It’s more than the wisdom of hindsight or Monday morning quarterbacking. It is the state of mind that cannot be recognized and named until its absence gives it definition.

Lewis Hyde, a writer/thinker/poet whose books are perennially in my nightstand stack, makes this case in Trickster Makes the World, his exploration into the “disruptive” side of human imagination as seen through myths about the trickster archetype. (The book is much more than that of course, but at least that’s a start.) In discussing Hermes, the Greek pantheon’s most infamous trickster, he talks about the cattle that Hermes steals from Apollo. Of course the symbolism of this famous myth is ripe with many interpretations, but here is one that struck me as particularly potent.

Apollo’s cattle are, up to the point of their theft, not normal. They are neither wild nor domestic, do not reproduce (thus their number is fixed) and their existence is peaceful and beautiful. In other words, they are immortal.

By stealing the cattle, Hermes brings these cows into the real world and gives them a domesticated position. They live in stables, reproduce sexually and are eventually slaughtered to provide food for humankind.

The immortality of the cattle is a state that only exists retroactively. Says Hyde:

So long as the cattle cannot be moved from their unmown meadow they cannot mean anything. Conversely, the moment at which they may be butchered and eaten is the moment at which their earlier state acquires its significance. Their meat means one thing on the hoof, another in the fire, and yet another hung in the barn [referring to Hermes’ actions later.] Hermes-the-Thief moves the meat from one situation to another and by such substitutions it comes to have its significance; it becomes a sign that can “tell” something.

Seems to me we are living in one of those transitions right now. The meat (graphic metaphor, and strangely appropriate IMHO) of our lives is being moved around, and how this period will look in ten years is a wide open guess. How consciousness can be respected as well as receptive during these sorts of periods is an ongoing query. On that topic I’m in a perpetual and humble state of the Buddhist concept of “don’t know” mind.