The Choice: Clarity or Obnubilation

At every turn– large and small– we make the choice to take a closer look so we may see as clearly as possible or to look away and let “what is” remain obscured to us. It is the choice between clarity and obnubilation.

(photo by Hasan Almasi on Unsplash)

I didn’t know the verb obnubilate. It’s from the Latin word obnubilare, to cover with clouds, from the Latin word nubes for cloud. For it’s contemporary usages, the definitions in the American Heritage Dictionary’s 5th Edition are helpful:

  • 1. To darken or obscure with clouds; becloud: a storm that obnubilated the sky.
  • 2. To cause to be unable to think clearly; confuse: Superstition obnubilated their minds.
  • 3. To make hard to understand or follow; obscure: an important idea that was obnubilated by poor writing.

But I also like the definition given to me by the friend who introduced me to this word. He explained that it meant to turn away from the truth. With this definition, the concept of obnubilation is helpful in thinking about the many ways we turn away from looking at things as they are and the motivations we may have for doing so.

Sometimes what we are faced with seems too big, too overwhelming to deeply consider in its entirety. At the furthest end of this spectrum, we have abstractions like infinity or a boundless universe, but also concrete events like a brutal war, the death of a loved one, the act of giving birth, or falling deeply in love. Whether abstract or concrete, even in childhood these kinds of overwhelmingly momentous concepts and events have elicited in me a sinking of the stomach and a whole-being feeling of vertigo— it’s nauseating but also electrifying. It’s not hard to imagine how, from a very early point in human evolution, spiritual beliefs and practices became so important in early groups and, later, in more developed cultures. In the simplest terms, these beliefs and practices were a way to cope with the feeling of not being grounded, a lack of stability in the face of such immensity and often extreme ambiguity. Spirituality and religious practices made things more bearably stable and through their obscuring of what was too much to consider, the obnubilation gave us a way to avoid the fear accompanying complete vulnerability.

(photo by EvgenIT on Pixabay)

My own approach sometimes is to “zoom in” to a more manageable scale– if the universe is too big to handle, I zoom in to the realm of the planet; if the violence and destruction of war cause me to question whether there is any good in the world, I remember the act of kindness I witnessed yesterday; if death is too much to handle emotionally, I zoom in to face only the fact of not being able to see my departed loved one tomorrow. That literally puts “ground” back under my feet. I’m grounded once again in the supposed “known.” But this “zooming in” is really just another way to obnubilate. It is a way to not look at what made me so uncomfortable. As a general rule, we do this all the time. We look away from what actually is when it’s too uncomfortable to look at it directly so that we may gain clarity about it. We obnubilate.

Okay, so is this maybe just a particularly handy human super-power applied in whatever ways we are able to do so? Why should we be uncomfortable if there is a way out? Taking my own particular “way out” as an example, should there really be no zooming in at all? If we think that obnubilation undermines personal growth and works against a commitment to truly seeing life as it is in all its dimensions, perhaps one should only zoom out (or whatever your avoidance approach tends to be) until one has such a sense of the biggest picture that one can then zoom in—even all the way in. This may not be right either though because the close-up and the far away inform each other, and the tiny and the grand are fractally connected. Maybe the point is the intention behind the zooming in. If the intention is to feel safe through the avoidance of fear and vulnerability– for obnubilation, then the “way out” isn’t helpful in pursuit of an authentic understanding of life as it truly is.

Sometimes we turn away because the implications of what we don’t want to look at too forcefully undermine our existing belief system or ideology. It’s easier to obscure the facts or muddy the sound argument than to have to work back through what we’ve already convinced ourselves of. After all, looking more closely and gaining more clarity may sometimes mean rather significant behavioral change, or having to say you were wrong, or having to think through even more things if you change on this one until it feels as if your entire mental and emotional edifice is crumbling. Obnubilation often seems the far easier and more comfortable path here as well.

Is it really though? A number of years ago my mother and I were walking on the northern California coast near her house. We walked along the beach for a long time and decided that scrambling up the cliff to the meadow on top was a better idea for our return walk than facing the incoming tide if we turned around to return via the beach. There were no paths heading up the cliff wall so we picked an arbitrary spot and made our way to the top edge. As we made our way up to the edge of the meadow, exactly on the spot where we climbed over, there was a three and a half foot tall, narrow piece of wood planted in the ground. It had a little piece of paper wrapped in clear plastic nailed to the wood. There was no path leading up to this stick and no path leading away from it in any direction.

The wisdom carried by the stick faced the ocean day in and day out like a brave sentinel determined to convey its message. On the piece of paper under the plastic was a single typed sentence:

“You can always handle the truth because you are already living it.”

Because we are always already living with the truth, one must question whether looking away from the ways things actually are is in fact the easier and more comfortable path than moving forward in full cognizance, looking straight at and deeply into whatever is before us, thereby giving ourselves the full opportunity for clarity. We can always handle it because we are already living it.

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2 thoughts on “The Choice: Clarity or Obnubilation

  1. Interesting that you shared our “truth from the cosmos”. I have tried to tell that incident to a few people before and they always seem to brush past it, as if I was making it up. I always wondered why. Maybe some day we can walk and talk again and we’ll discuss obnubilation.

    Sent from my iPad


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