On trying to become fully human

Tempe, Arizona

Photo by  Shahan Khan  on  Unsplash

Photo by Shahan Khan on Unsplash

Something ‘powerful’ is holding us back. It keeps us from flight. At times it might feel like a dam holding back a great torrent of water. What is more, we feed this hold over us to the extent that years could pass and we remain grounded to its biggest lie. Whatever this obstacle might be, this ‘big lie’, it is known to our hearts alone. Often it is guilt over something we have done, or should not have done. Other times it is regret at an opportunity not taken to express our love, or to ask for forgiveness. This lie invariably tells us we are “not good” and that we do not deserve the “good fortune” incumbent upon others. Many of these instances which stop us from moving forward have to do with our despondency to set things ‘right’. Then the dreadful moment when suddenly confronted with the reality that it is too late. That is, the best of our intentions can no longer be realized. What then? Do we spend the remainder of our lives weltering in self-recrimination? Perhaps a higher providence has seen best for things to fall precisely as they have. “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Is. 55:9). This was the only way. It was the only way for ‘self-recrimination’ to turn out to be self-revelation. To become fully human, that is, to the extent which such a thing is possible [the ‘unity between head and heart’ Jean Vanier], means to engage with these hard experiences and to live through them. The final destination is what matters. What is done is done. There is the next hour to be lived to its fullest.

Such unbridled joy it does bring to the heart when we happen to come across someone who we sense to be fully human, or at least striving for this end goal. This aspiration towards a human teleology is our spirit’s greatest work. We might discover such people in our everyday encounters “by the well”: our teacher, coach, doctor, grocer, pharmacist, gardener, postal clerk, or cashier worker. If we might borrow from Sufism these are men and women with divinity written on their hearts. Occupation and social status have nothing to do with this luminous heart which is set before us. It is a true humility which recognizes the potential in the other and which possesses a love which moves and breathes outside the margins. Such a human presence is not easily given to cynicism and is slow to judge.

Writing and receiving letters was one of the delights of the ‘bygone age’. Outside the pure enjoyment of the physical processes of pressing out the paper, writing the date on the top left hand corner, putting down the name of the receiver My dear or My dearest…, thinking carefully [‘playfulness’ not excluded] on what you write, and then the final endearments… truly I am yours. And all of it in your own unmistakable scrawl. The letter will often enough, too, carry the unique scent of the sender. What is more the joy of receiving a reply, or a surprise from someone who went to the trouble of looking up your address to then leave his or her ‘biometric’ on the top right hand corner of the envelope. Emails [together with their lifeless emojis] possess little or nothing of such special wonder. Haruki Murakami says it so simply in one of his novels: “How wonderful it is to be able to write someone a letter!”

Little can compare to giving a fellow human being renewed hope, to encourage them through trials, or to inspire in the pursuit of new goals. It is as restorative as saying “I love you”. For love itself, if it be true, takes its first step in the movement of compassion. How can we do this? That is to offer renewed hope to a hurting heart? There are as many ways as there are expressions of love itself. First, the benevolent act of forgiveness. To forgive someone is perhaps the most liberating act for both the giver and the receiver. There are also secret acts of charity where they might most be needed. “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares” (Heb. 13:2). A simple letter sent with kindness and genuine concern in a world where self-centeredness is becoming increasingly the norm can make all the difference. To begin with to offer someone hope means to accept them. And there is besides the constraining of the ego in allowing another in greater need to ‘appropriate’ some of our spotlight. Where there is selfishness, hope cannot deliver.

“It all goes too quick” we will from time to time say to ourselves. In the Old Testament in the Book of Job it is described thus: “For we were born only yesterday and know nothing, and our days on earth are but a shadow” (Job 8:9). The English writer Jenny Diski who endured much as a young person would afterward as an adult add her own addendum to this reality: “Everything passes, but nothing entirely goes away.” We are caught somewhere in the middle. We all know too well it will go quick, but in the meantime we experience profound emotions and our actions leave behind a legacy. The desert dwellers approach this mystery head-on by holding onto “the memory of death”. This contemplation on our brevity upon the earth is neither macabre nor defeatist. It is an act of true anarchism. They joyfully accept our transience looking beyond and live each day with such actual ‘meaningfulness’ as if it was their last hour like leaves of an olive tree which rotate to capture every tiny bit of moisture. So let us hasten to do some good while we can. It is later than we think, it has also been said.

In what ways might I make a difference in my day-to-day encounters with the ‘other’? There are many ways. There are an untold number of opportunities in our everyday exchanges with our neighbor that might not only bring a smile to a needful heart but could also save a life. Are you holding back from sending a message to a friend who might be in need of a word of encouragement? Can you anonymously send a gift to a charity? Delete an email sent to you by someone during a moment of their vulnerability? On your way to work is there a homeless person you might stop to say hello and buy a coffee for? Might you send a card to an ‘enemy’ wishing them a bright day? Could you surprise a loved one with a gift letting them know how precious they are to you? Is it too difficult to nod the head at the stranger who has cut you off at the traffic lights? Make an impromptu visit to a hospital and ask if there is anyone in need of a visitor?  It all goes too quick and yet there is much we can do. In Japanese the word for charity is jizen. The characters of the word beautifully illustrate that at the heart of charity is mercy and compassion. It is amazing too, is it not? That in helping others we are at the same time helping ourselves. And it is no mere coincidence then, that in the New Testament, Jesus Christ would connect the love of God with the love of our neighbor “like unto it” (Matt. 22:36-40).

Many of the world’s problems stem from ‘egoism’. This is the condition where “self-interest” is at the center of one’s morality. One nation considers itself better than the next and robs the other of its rights and resources. And one person thinks he or she is superior to their neighbor so diminishing and blunting their potential. The first can lead to wars and to the spread of famine. The second will lead to despair and to the lessening of our brother’s or our sister’s personality which are the qualities of their character. Both are cruel and will only ever result in suffering, if not to catastrophe, whether on a universal or personal scale.

Realizing the divine within

Gerringong, NSW

One of the great deceptions of our automated world, where people as well as perishable goods are earmarked with an expiry date, is the dreadful lie of the easy path to peace and enlightenment. These two ways are invariably sold and packaged together. The reality is more sobering and gut-wrenching. Most of us know, as if by an inborn instinct, there are no short-cuts to realizing the divine within. For some of us this struggle to realize our potential and come to terms with our “faith seeking understanding” will take many years, if not decades. Anselm knew well what he was talking about with his famous motto fides quaerens intellectum.[1] In other words, “an active love of God seeking a deeper knowledge of God.” And even after having arrived at this “good place”, where we have touched upon some little understanding, the struggle does not end. No one can fight this most important of battles for us; we are alone to work our way through the darkness until we come across one or two shards of blazing light. That is, until we go to sleep one fateful night knowing and believing we would suffer it all again...  All of it… to be at the place where we are at that very moment, when it seemed the heavens opened up for us alone that we might catch a glimpse of our true name: “…and on the white stone is written a new name that no one knows except the one who receives it” (Rev. 2:17).  

There is no hidden secret to peace and enlightenment. If there are any secrets, they are evident ones we all discern and attempt to put into practice knowing in our hearts the truth is stumbling upon us rather than the other way round. Gratia urget nos, “grace presses on us”. There is a mystic in each one of us: we have all prayed, or have been dazzled by the stars, or have wept to music. The search for peace itself is mystical at its core. The problem is though these ‘secrets’ are plain enough to see, it is very difficult to consistently put them into practice. These universal truths, sagacious and sensible lessons, have been freely given to us and put down in writing by the wisdom teachers of our collective spiritual tradition. I lived by these few simple but life-altering lessons for many years until without realizing, I gradually abandoned them as I became immersed in the games and intrigues of the world. When I did begin to understand once more, it was almost too late. I thought that “I” knew better and tried to resolve the suffering in my life on my own terms. This is one of the fundamental mistakes which normally goes by the name of pride and is particularly dangerous for a religious who believes they are practising humility. Of course, there is and will be, that right moment when it seems the great resolution has come, but pride would make us blind to the fact that there are strong forces, even on the outside of ourselves, which influence our decision making and can often determine the journey ahead. These ‘strong forces’, opportunity or chance for instance, cannot be ignored nor can they be underestimated for they are always there. This interplay between the self and the outside is like the flesh and sinews which wrap around the bones of the living.

Everything which was good and peaceful in my life revolved around detachment, for example, making an effort to remain unaffected by either praise or criticism. Detachment is not indifference. [2] It is neither apathy nor absence; it is a dignified and quiet presence. It is from this place of stillness and self-control that most favourable things will flow. I will talk again about these lessons later, but they do revolve around three things: love, humility, and self-knowledge. Above all else self-sacrificing love. “Love, and do what you will” are the famous if not scandalous words of Saint Augustine.[3] But what he really is saying, that everything we do, should find its first cause in love: our silence, our tears, and even all that from which we refrain. Those who genuinely experience and participate in this communion of Love are incapable of causing intentional hurt to others. Admittedly, these are idealistic words and few of us will know what it is like to live wholeheartedly by their creed. Yet whatever our weakness or frailty, it should not exclude or discourage us from sharing in the ancient wisdom of such timeless revelations which have from the beginning been disclosed to the heart.[4] In the Gospels the “heart” is where both “good” and “evil” can be stored up (Lk 6:45) and it is the organ of our spiritual and moral cognisance (Mk 2:6-8). This is typical of spiritual literature and emblematic of the universal comprehension of the heart as the place of the subconscious, and seat of the emotions, passions, and appetites.

One of the enduringly hard questions for those interested in the religious experience of humankind[5] has been: why does it seem that the great religious traditions lead us on different, if not often times diametrically opposing paths. Is not all of this hopelessly misleading for our spirit, and can it not ‘twist’ us out of shape? I will not pretend to know the answer. All I can do is to share something of my own response as I have grappled with the question over many years and after having sat at the feet of some wonderful teachers. In my personal encounters with these wise men and women from both the desert and the city, I could not help but observe a discernible parallel in the philosophy of how “good religion” is both understood and practised. I was profoundly excited by this “discovery” for though it was certainly no hidden secret and it is there in plain print in our wisdom literature, it is a lesson that will not come easy. It is for the individual soul to wrestle with the revelation. None of this belongs entirely to the imaginary realm, but it is real like a deep cut to the flesh or the sharp sting of a red pepper on the tongue.     

[1] Saint Anselm’s Proslogion, Preface.

[2] If you wish to explore “detachment” at the profoundly deeper level and its connection to apatheia [‘passionlessness’ or ‘dispassion’] then please see: Anthony M. Coniaris, A Beginner’s Introduction to the Philokalia, (Light & Life, USA, 2004).

[3] In Epist. Joann. Tractatus, vii, 8.

[4] John Climacus: From the Egyptian Desert to the Sinaite Mountain, John Chryssavgis, [Chapter 3 Kardia: The Heart], (Ashgate, England, 2004).

[5] Ninian Smart, The Religious Experience of Mankind, (Scribner, New York, 1984).