When investigators debrief the witnesses of a bank robbery, they get wildly divergent accounts of what took place. The explanation seems to be some limit to our mind’s ability to process the unfamiliar — to take in accurately those experiences to which we bring no template, no filter or organizing structure derived from previous experience.

On the other hand, where the mind does have previous experience — and, therefore, expectations — it sees what it expects to see. This problem fascinated the Southern writer, Walker Percy. “Why is it almost impossible to gaze directly at the Grand Canyon… and see it for what it is?” he asks in his wry essay, “Loss of the Creature”:

… because the Grand Canyon, the thing as it is, has been appropriated by the symbolic complex which has already been formed in the sightseer’s mind… [N]o longer the thing as it confronted the [first Spaniard to see it]; it is rather that which has already been formulated by picture postcard, geography book, tourist folders, and the words Grand Canyon… [and] now the sightseer measures his satisfaction by the degree to which the canyon conforms to the preformed complex. If it does so, if it looks just like the postcard, he is pleased; he might even say, “Why it is every bit as beautiful as a picture postcard!”

I found these matters particularly compelling during the early 1980s when I was completing a doctorate in education. One’s theory of the nature and grounds of knowledge — one’s epistemology — animates whatever educational system you construct. During that same period, I was also experimenting a bit with the mind-altering properties of marijuana and — under the influence — watched Ryan’s Daughter by the great British director, David Lean. Though his preceding films, The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) and Lawrence of Arabia (1962), had won Lean Academy Awards, Ryan’s Daughter (1970) was a flawed effort — “Lean’s red-headed stepson,” as one critic phrased it.

One critic called Ryan's Daughter (1970)
“David Lean's red-headed stepson."

In the movie, set in 1916 in an isolated village in Ireland, Robert Mitchum plays the local schoolmaster and Sarah Mills, his precocious student. When she falls in love with him, Mitchum warns her: She loves Dickens and Tolstoy and Beethoven and the dazzling world he has opened to her — not him. He is nothing like them; he is (the truth be known) boring. I watched the movie expecting a reversal. Mitchum always played the anti-hero, not some milksop. After 45 minutes it dawned on me that no reversal was coming. I had been watching a movie that didn’t exist, a movie shaped entirely by my expectations.

Experimenting further (this time without benefit of cannabis, I allowed my former wife to lead me — blindfolded — into a theater, plop me down in a seat, and remove the blindfold only after the movie titles had ended. I then proceeded to have one of the most memorable movie experiences of my life, watching Tender Mercies. Since my blindfolded experiment, I assiduously avoid reading reviews before seeing a movie. I also suspect that my often intense enjoyment of foreign language films derives from the lack of expectations that get created if you’ve seen the actor in another role.

Late bloomer that I was, I had begun my foray in consciousness expansion more than a decade after most of my peers. They had “turned on, tuned in, and dropped out” during the turbulent 1960s. What we were all seeking was access to experiences that engaged us at a level deeper than the mind — deeper than the play of ideas, for example, that opened this article. We somehow knew that “the heart had its reasons of which reason knew nothing.” That was what we wanted to get at.

Well, for all us aging boomers, myself included, there’s good news. We can resume the search and dabble again in altered states of consciousness: “Aging changes consciousness more surely than any narcotic,” Theodore Roszak, the social critic who chronicled the coming of age of the boomers and coined the word “counterculture,” assures us:

[T]he greatest consciousness-transforming agent of all, in fact, comes to us from within our own experience and as naturally as breathing. It is the experience of aging, which brings with it new values and visions, none of them grounded in competition and careerism, none of them beholden to the marketplace.

Tender Mercies (1987) is directed by Bruce Beresford. Robert
Duvall and Horton Foote won Oscars for acting and screen writing.

Roszak writes of “a driving desire to find meaning in our existence that grows stronger as we approach death.” The questions which engage our passion are those which speak directly to our hearts. In Tender Mercies, Max Sledge, the alcoholic country music singer played by Robert Duvall, is offered a chance at redemption when a young widow and her son, Sonny, take him in. Near the end of the movie, after his own daughter has been killed in an automobile accident, he ponders the awful action of grace in his life:

I was almost killed once in a car accident. I was drunk and I ran off the side of the road and I turned over four times. And they took me out of that car for dead, but I lived. I prayed last night to know why I lived and she died, but I got no answer to my prayers. I still don’t know why she died and I lived. I don’t know the answer to nothin’; not a blessed thing. I don’t know why I wandered out to this part of Texas drunk, and you took me in and pitied me and helped me to straighten out, married me. Why? Why did that happen? Is there a reason that happened? And Sonny’s daddy died in the war. My daughter killed in an automobile accident. Why?

These are questions which cannot be answered. They are questions which must be lived. It seems to me that is the task of later life.