You can tell a lot about a person by what they keep on their desk.
In my case, you can probably tell a little too much. Beyond the usual paperweights and pencil holders, my desk is covered with an overlarge collection of knick-knacks–objects that for one reason or another struck my fancy over the years and that I've been carrying around with me ever since.
Some of these objects–like a small ceramic caveman–date back to my early childhood. Others are replacements–located and secured thanks to the miracle of Ebay–of objects once treasured but long since lost.
In this latter group there is a pair of dinosaurs–a large and small stegosaurus–created by the SRG toy company. SRG dinosaur figures–which were beloved by many kids from the forties through the seventies--are made of metal. Unlike your average plastic dinosaur, they're hard and heavy in the hand like a rock, and this weightiness gives them a special–almost a mystical--kind of appeal.
I don't know why I bother to say almost mystical. The two or three specimens of these dense little dinosaurs that I owned as a child were far more than just toys to me. Turned over and over in the hand, they had the look and feel of objects that had been present since the very dawn of time. Nothing could touch them. Nothing could change them. They were…permanent.
I'm not the only person out there who as a child had a fixation with permanence. In a long essay–one of the last he wrote – called "The Heart of Matter," the Jesuit priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin described a feeling that certain objects awakened in him.
"I was not more than six or seven," wrote Teilhard, "when I began to feel myself drawn by Matter–or, more correctly, by something which 'shone' at the heart of Matter."
This "something" the young Teilhard found especially present in objects made out of iron.
"I can still see," he wrote, "the succession of my 'idols.' In the country there was the lock-pin of a plough which I used to hide carefully in the corner of the yard. In town, there was the hexagonal head of a metal bolt which protruded above the level of the nursery floor. Later, there were shell-splinters lovingly collected on a neighboring firing-range."
Teilhard–both as a boy and later as an adult–wondered about the strange pull that these dense, super-solid objects had for him.
"Why Iron?" he asked. "And why, in particular, one special piece of iron? It can only have been because, so far as my childish experience went, nothing in the world was harder, heavier, tougher, more durable than this marvelous substance."
These little iron objects were, for Teilhard, examples of what he calls the "Incorruptible." In a world where everything is transient, breakable, and uncertain, a world where everything sooner or later cracks up or falls apart, these objects were different. They didn't change, didn't degrade, didn't decay.
"I so well remember," wrote Teilhard a little later in that same piece, "the pathetic despair of the child who one day realizes that Iron can become scratched and pitted–and can rust."
Many of us have had a moment like that in our lives: a moment when we suddenly realize that the things of the world–however beautiful some may be, however eternal some may seem–are all destined to let us down.
As it happens, I had a somewhat Teilhardian moment of my own recently with those two SRG stegosauruses on my desk. Picking one of them up, I noticed that its tail left a scuff mark when I accidentally brushed it against a notepad.
Puzzled, I brushed the tail against the paper again. It left another mark.
My heart speeding up in my chest a little, I held the dinosaur in my hand as I would hold a pencil, and wrote my name on the pad with the tip of its tail.
My name came out vividly. I looked at the tip of the tail, and saw that a small but definite bit of it had been worn away. My dinosaurs–my precious, rock-hard, eternal little dinosaurs--were made of a metal so soft it might as well have been pencil lead.
"Idols." That's what Teilhard would have called them. I'd been suckered.
All of us, I suspect–even the most resolutely un-materialistic--have objects that we end up placing an over-large faith in. Objects we convince ourselves are so solid and substantial that they are immune to age and accident and change.
They never are. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't love them all the same. The trick–if trick there is–seems to lie in understanding that though material objects may let us down, there is something at the heart of all of them–even the most perishable–that lives forever.
Such, at least, was Teilhard's view. He grew up to become not just a priest but a paleontologist as well. His whole life became a search–among rocks, bones, and other such hard-yet-perishable items–for the mystery that lives and shines at the heart of all matter.
Teilhard died in 1955, and his writings have stirred controversy ever since. But Teilhard's real legacy lies not in those controversies but in his dogged faith in matter itself: his conviction that God shines forth in all the objects that surround us, from the sturdiest to the most weak and yielding. For him as for all of us, the search for the truly "incorruptible" shouldn't end with our inevitable discovery of the fragility of the material world.
Instead it should just begin there.
Ptolemy Tompkins is a Senior Editor at Angels on Earth Magazine.
'Incorruptible' by Ptolemy Tompkins reprinted with permission from Angelsonearth.com. Copyright © 2007 by Guideposts, Carmel, New York 10512. All rights reserved.
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