Mystery, Imagination & the Well of the Dead

“Mystery is the catalyst for imagination.” — J.J. Abrams, movie director & TV producer

What is “mystery”? According to the dictionary on my Mac, a mystery is defined as, “Something that is difficult or impossible to explain. The condition or quality of being secret, strange, or difficult to explain.” In other words, a mystery is a question mark. It is a puzzle disassembled, a quiz with blank lines, a map with no names or numbers. It is, essentially, off-the-beaten-path.

And it drives us nuts.

Here in the Western World, we pride ourselves and our societies on the ability to reason and define. A puzzle must not only be assembled but it must be assembled in record time. We’re very competitive, too. Here in the West questions have answers and, even if we’re not sure about an answer, our systems fill the gaps in knowledge so that we have an answer. Scientific theories, for example, that we teach as fact. I saw a documentary on the moon recently and a scientist was trying to explain the existence of the shiny moon dust Neil Armstrong reported seeing in 1969. She basically said we don’t know what it is without ever saying it. She rattled off one possibility after another but, for some reason, she could not come to terms with simply saying, “I don’t know.”

The need to give an answer for everything is ingrained in American (indeed, Western) culture. Nothing drives us batty like an unsolved mystery. As I have studied world cultures the past decade I have noticed a distinct difference in the mindsets of people in the Eastern World (east of Europe) and the West (North America, South America and Europe, primarily). Thanks in large part to the work of the Enlightenment, the West upholds reason as the highest virtue. Rebellion comes hand-in-hand with reason when a party or parties think they know better than another party. The American Revolution was, in large part, fueled by reason. No taxation without representation!

A Reasonable History

The tendency of Western minds to strive for reason comes as part of a great secularization of society that spanned the late 1600’s to the mid 1800s. The “Enlightenment” started in Europe in the 1600’s when scientists and philosophers like Baruch Spinoza, John Locke, Renee DesCartes, Pierre Bayle, Voltaire, and my cousin Ike (Isaac Newton, not really related) started to question some of the basic observations about life and human behavior in light of philosophic reason. Up first on the philosophic chopping block was religion, namely, the long-held and absolute teachings of the Church (Catholic was the primary target). The Church had long stood as a foil of science. What the word of God says it true must not be questioned (example: if the sun rises and sets, then it revolves around the earth. There is no other explanation.). In the centuries prior to 1650, inquisitive chaps like Copernicus, Galileo and Brahe were persecuted by the church for attempting to explain the world around them through scientific observations. But as the 18th Century dawned, world leaders became enamored with the philosophers and universities started churning out disciples of the great teachers. In Scotland, for example, I’ve learned that philosopher David Hume was deeply influenced by John Locke and, in turn, Hume influenced others. Instead of embracing knowledge and learning as a way of helping the faithful understand God’s universe and His ways, the Church continued to oppose science and a great rift divided the two. The Church then stood for mystery. Society wanted answers.

Fast forward 200 years. Nowadays, we Westerners like mystery stories only because we know that in the end the detective will solve the crime. CSI never fails to deliver answers, even when a cliffhanger continues into the next season. Puzzle pieces will be assembled and reason and logic will rule.

In the East the mindset is one of mystery and obedience. primary religions are Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism. These religions lift up mysteries and, if you don’t know something, then don’t ask because you probably weren’t meant to know. Enlightenment and divine mysteries are parts of the framework of spiritual life. The Orthodox churches act in this manner, as well. Greek, Russian, Coptic (Egypt), and Roman Catholic churches all celebrate mystery in their liturgies (worship orders). The main idea is that there is this spiritual world out there that exists outside of science or reason or common knowledge. And without divine enlightenment or specific revelation, that spiritual world will remain mysterious and unknown. In Catholicism, for example, this enlightenment comes through the Holy Scriptures, the writings of the Saints, and the canonical teachings of the pope. There may be other sources (like the Mass liturgy) but those three are big ones.

Mystery & Story

Back to the broad subject of mystery. Mysteries not only lead us to search for answers but they also fire up a creative element somewhere in the back of our brains. Or the front. Science can tell us where that function is located. Or maybe not. even if not, it will give us some form of an answer. But I regress. How about this example of mystery and creativity.

I like to look at maps. It’s an obsession, really. I will spend hours in the evenings scouring over state highway maps, looking for anything interesting. I mentally memorize distances, highway designations and place names as if I’ll be there tomorrow. Geography fascinates me, especially geography with funny or mysterious names. Lately I’ve been pouring over maps of Scotland so I can better understand where everything is and get a firm grip on how the country is divided. Scotland makes for a fascinating map. Around every corner there is a super-cool name like, “Rannoch Moor,” “Bridge of Allan” and “Falls of Acharn.” It’s highest mountain sounds like an alias, “Ben Nevis.” But one day I was looking east of Inverness, a city I visited last March, and saw this name: “Well of the Dead.” Oooh. That’s sounds creepy. What is the “Well of the Dead”? So I did what any academic would do and looked it up on Wikipedia. No hits. Mystery deepens. I looked under the histories of neighboring towns to no avail. So my mind started imagining this place. I could see an old, round stone well with ivy growing all over it. It was a forgotten little well, surrounded by overgrown brush, and boarded up long ago. A sign carved into the stone reads in Gaelic: “Bàirleigeadh! (Warning!) Eol cuir air imrich fuaran brat! (Do not remove this well’s cover!)” What was this well’s story? How did it get its name? Who put the sign there? When? What happens if I open the cover? Will spirits or ghosts come out? What will they do?

A simple name can turn into a mystery which turns into a story. So in that example, just as director J.J. Abrams said in the quote above, mystery was the catalyst for imagination. Of course, our Western minds want the mystery to be decoded but we certainly have fun on the journey between the unknown and the explained. When Abrams co-wrote the first script for the hit TV show Lost, he had mystery in mind. What if there was a plane crash on a seemingly deserted island that forced complete strangers to band together to survive? Even more, what if that island is inhabited by a noisy, scary monster-like creature? The pilot of Lost captivated minds and imaginations. The first season, in fact, kept exploring mystery after mystery. So many mysteries were revealed that audiences and script writers alike realized they were in trouble. After all, American audiences want answers to mysteries. And there were so many open-ended ones that writers had to start closing them one by one while keeping the audience hooked with more mysteries! In fact, the show’s fifth and final season was spent wrapping up mysteries unveiled during the previous four seasons. And by the time the credits rolled on the finale, fans still weren’t satisfied.

Unsolved mysteries leave our reason-fed stomachs feeling empty.

The Artist’s Canvas

When an artist goes about the process of creating, he or she starts with a mystery — a question mark. For a painter, it is a blank canvas; for a songwriter it is that first note; for a sculptor it is a block of marble, and so forth. They look at that mystery and start to imagine what it could become. Some painters know what they want to paint. Say their staring at Victoria Falls in Africa. Inspiration is before them. A white canvas blocks half of their view. Tubes of paint stand at the ready. How will this image be transferred onto the canvas? What will it look like? What do I emphasize? Brush strikes palette, and the process of creating begins. For an artist, mystery drives them to creativity.

I’m a photographer, among many artistic pursuits. I love to look through my viewfinder and move my camera in and out, up and down, twisted to 45-degree angles and focused on objects near and far. It’s amazing how many different “looks” can be achieved by photographing the same thing from multiple angles. Sometimes I approach a picture with a plan. I’m going to get a picture of this waterfall from the north shore at sunset, with my camera framing the water feature and the vivid sky colors. Other times I just grab my camera and start creating. As I’ve grown more experienced as a photographer, I’ve found that the spontaneous, creative shots are my best work. And people around me have agreed. I feel free when I create — alive and happy.

My friend Cheryl is a painter and she creates with an empty mind and music playing in her studio. She just starts with a blank canvas and a subject and then goes to work. To Cheryl, painting is an expression of her worship. She lets her heart and, sometimes the Lord, speak to her and what comes out is an expression of her soul. And she’s an amazing painter.

Mystery is the catalyst for imagination. It’s question mark begins the exploration for truth — even if it’s fiction — and leads us to a result. I like mysteries. Especially when I get to take part in exploring them and using them in my own art. Maybe I’ll write a story about that well. Just writing about it here has fired my imagination. Maybe it has to do with an ancient spell or the disappearance of an entire village. Maybe a dragon is involved or a wizard. Maybe…