Warp and Weft

A man, a rug, and a warped view of life


How many different ways are there of looking at life?

An argument could be made that there are really only two.

This was brought home to me recently while reading a book by G. N. M. Tyrrell called "Grades of Significance." Tyrrell isn’t read too much these days, but back in the nineteen-thirties and forties he was one of the most respected researchers into the question of life after death. In "Grades of Significance," Tyrrell made the novel suggestion that life can be compared to a piece of woven material, with one set of fibers--the warp--running one way, and another set of fibers--the weft--running at a right angle to it.

As Tyrrell laid it out, people can basically be divided up into “warp” types and “weft” types. “Weft” types look at the fabric of human existence from the perspective of this present life and that alone. What matters is what happens to us while we are alive. When we die, all that we accomplish -- all that we are -- essentially dies with us. Imagine a person who was born in, say, 1936 and who died in 2002. From the weft perspective, the events of that life can be seen as a series of horizontal stripes on a rug. Each achievement, each setback or tragedy, all the various stuff that happens in that person’s life are like the horizontal fibers that go to making up the stripes of that rug. And when that life comes to an end, the fibers and the stripes that they create come to a full stop.

With the “warp” type of person, however, it’s just the opposite. In the case of that person, the fibers focused on are the warp fibers: those running at a right angle to the weft. “From the point of view of the world looked at in the direction of the warp,” wrote Tyrrell, “what is interesting and important is the life history of the individual, and its fate beyond the barriers of so-called ‘birth’ and ‘death.’” That is to say, it’s the person, not the stuff that happens to him or her, that really matters, and that person does not come to a halt when the events of an individual life do.

One afternoon over the Christmas holiday, I was reading Tyrrell’s book in the living room of my sister’s house where I was visiting. At my feet, as if placed there to assist me in making sense of Tyrrell’s book, was a particularly lush and colorful carpet woven of thick, rough fibers. As I read, I would occasionally take my eyes up from the book and focus on that rug, to help me get a handle on Tyrrell’s ideas.

I first put my attention on the horizontal “weft” fibers. From this perspective, each fiber running across the rug was an event in my life. My eighth birthday was one fiber. The week I visited Disneyland back in 1974 was another one. On and on it went, one fiber after another telling my story, weaving the pattern of my life, until that future day when my life ended, and the fibers and stripes and the pattern they made would stop, pure and simple.

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