W. T. Stace in his writing about mysticism offers a helpful definition. Mysticism, says he, is “first-person religion.” As I wrote the, uh, first word in the last sentence, my fingers played a trick on me as they frequently do and capitalized the first TWO letters. The result: MYsticism. Well, that’s the point. Sometimes you just have to go there yourself. Tom Paine in his Age of Reason takes this concept a step further. Revelation, he writes, is only for the person who received it and mere hearsay for everyone else. (No quotation marks here since I’m quoting from memory, but I’m sure the wording is at least 90% accurate.)
Think about it. Many things you’ll never learn vicariously or theoretically. Here’s an example. What do you call a resident of Sydney, N.S.W., Australia? If you ventured “a Sydneyite,” you’d be wrong. Denizens of that lovely city with its iconic Opera House are called “Sydneysiders,” a nickel’s worth of wisdom I gained during one of my visits there. Again, sometimes you just have to go there.
Richardson, the 18th-century English novelist and author of Pamela, begins his Sentimental Journey with this line: “In France, he said, they do these things differently.” Indeed they do. And not only in France. When I went to spend my junior year in West Germany as a callow 18-year-old in 1958, two things immediately struck me. One, they had better TV than we did. I don’t mean just the programming, although that would have been true. I mean the picture. They had a later patent with more lines, with the result that they had higher resolution and a sharper, less blurry look. Later on, moreover, they had better color TV as well. Thanks again to a later patent, they avoided the green or pink faces we had at the time. Not only that, but back when American showerheads were fixed, West Germany had removable ones so that you could spritz yourself in a more targeted and satisfying manner. These discoveries proved to me that technologically, in these two things at least, Germany 13 years after the end of World War Two was ahead of us—we who had won the War against them and was always portrayed by our leaders as the world’s technological paragon not to mention the greatest country on earth.
In short, to learn certain things, sometimes you really just have to go there. Apparently, education like religion is a first-person enterprise.