Trepidation — that is what I experience much of the time when I speak of anything important, make an image, write words. The struggle with this, for me, is intense and often crippling: Is this a genuine fear of hubris — of trespassing on matters I am not called to explore? Or is it a form of grandiosity — and, mind you, grandiosity resides in the strangest of locales? I mean, am I afraid to speak because I “know” many will hear and some believe?
Do I really possess that latter power? People will be moved to action because of my words and drawings?
That, truly, is foolishness.
The power to speak, to a degree, is something I can perform; the power to speak rashly and with poor judgment, even incorrectly out of naivete or stupidity — that is a defect that often possesses me. The desire to please: well, that is a wretched thing indeed and often lies behind the moments I’ve played fast and loose with truthfulness in favor of rhetoric. A tongue may be golden because it passes on a genuine gift; or it may be but gold-plated because it is manipulative, seeking lesser things, seeking ultimately to receive, not share, not help, not mentor.
Those moments, the latter sort, are fewer and fewer as I mature, and haste born of passion is something I spend time in extinguishing. Delay and consideration are not luxuries, not for a human being — they are among the necessities.
So, I can speak, I can write, I can make art — and these may emerge from deep meditation and consideration, restrained, or they may be extravagant and self-aggrandizing. Even the silence can be grandiose if not properly motivated… and no one, outside myself, can tell or judge my motivations in such matters without themselves attempting to substitute a manipulating fiction for my own story, the story that is my autobiography, is me in this world.
As for treading where angels fear to go… that is the birthright and responsibility of a human. The world, this world, the world of life was no more made for angels than it was for monstrosities — morally stunted or deformed egomaniacs or zealots who never doubt themselves because “They Know.”
“They Know” what the Absolute Truth is, as if they were gods, and they know what they desire, and they will possess what they want or destroy any who get in their way or resist. In such manner, people make themselves a living plague, something to be completely avoided or resisted.
Angels have no choice. Monstrosities choose to serve the black depths of insatiable ego at any cost, rationalizing and creating whatever fiction suits them best in the moment and in the long-term.
‘Hillel says, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, who am I? If not now, when?” ‘ Ethics of the Fathers, 1:14
I’ve considered this passage from the sage for a very long time. Years. In fact, I meditated on it before knowing Hillel (or anyone else) summed this very human crisis up as succinctly as he did.
Notice the three questions: One without the next is misleading. And the first question has, itself, two portions, and if that question is not adequately faced with some humility, all is lost. The error in interpretation will breed a deadly monstrosity called “egoism.”
The commentaries point out that, in the first question, two “I”s, not one, are referred to — The first is said to be the sacred, holy “soul,” my – and your – true self that has never departed from the presence of HaShem – The Ineffable One. That “I” is pure and untouched by this world, in a deep sense — the sense of the prayer, “My soul within me, she is pure.”
Obviously, I am not pure in any really meaningful way — I am full of error, stupidity, foolishness, imperfections, even evil. Part of me is stained black as night. I have done wrong, many, many times. But that other “I” — she has done no wrong and will not. How odd.
Why? How can such a paradox exist as a unified “me”?
Because, in part, the burning mystery of that Spark of the Divine — the “image and likeness” – is the “I” whom I must strive to bring forth within this world of history, circumstance, flux, through the vehicle of my actions and intentions, however limited. The first “I” is my destiny, the one that I must choose to realize and make my vital project, that guides and gives form to my life in whatever time and in whatever place I am given to perform it.
If justice is to be here in the world, I must choose it, value it, interpret it, and become a just person by consistent and painful degrees. If there is to be mercy, forgiveness, courage, thoughtfulness, carefulness, generosity, peacefulness, beauty, truthfulness, hopefulness… if there are to be qualities such as these, I must bring them into the world in my own way without departing from their standards, their requirements.
Thus, if I am not for me — if my deepest Self does not shine even dimly for me, guide me, orient me, direct me to true Light, and if I do not choose to “become who I am,” to actually perform my proper labor, my destiny, my work… no one else can force me, perform my work – however modest – in my place. No one else can become me… or you, or any of us.
In the words of Ortega y Gasset, paraphrased, “We are each irreplaceable, each necessary,” all of us, each pursuing her destiny, all supporting her. Human existence is a matter of “all of us or none of us.”
Perhaps human life has always seemed cheap to most people — I do not know. We are faced, once more, with entire groups of people, majorities, who have decided those “unlike them” are “The Other”: and The Other is the object of fear and hatred, to be expelled, monitored, locked up, destroyed. Instead of beholding an Alter-Ego, “another I,” when considering others, they take full possession of “I” for themselves and themselves alone, their tribe, their beliefs, their skin color, their fictions. Anyone else, any dissent, any culture, individuality, creativity, belief, even tribe or color or any other form of love than the majority’s becomes threatening.
Threats, if taken seriously enough, get eradicated after being randomly defined as “unnatural,” “wicked,” “abominable,” “lies,” “leeches,” — any and everything except “human” and sacred. Criminals by birth.
So – “If I am only for myself, who am I?” Even HaShem “stooped” to grant humans existence out of nothing; The Divinity shared with us the great gift of being, and there was no necessity in it. We did not have to come into existence — any one of us or all of us together, even this or any other universe. Even the possibility of universes is not, in itself, self-explicable in the sense of metaphysical being. The Divine began – as far as we are concerned – by sharing something beyond comprehension with us, out of a free, creative choice, out of mercy.
Out of an inexplicable love and friendship.
And what is given, then, is given to be shared, not hoarded up. Not given here but refused out of disdain there. We receive, we learn, we create in order to pass on, to share, not because it must be “earned” by the other, but because if I do not share, who do I become by my selfishness? How can I become myself, my true self, without acknowledging the other?
It is not as if I, myself sprang into being without others — in reality, first, there are the others: only afterwards and slowly is there the “I” who exists in the world, who begins to value and choose and create. I emerge from the others and their labor. They gave me language, they gave me beliefs, ideas, they taught me to think, to value, they gave me culture, they passed on to me certain valuable (and not so valuable) practices — and even where wrong or misguided, I cannot turn around and perform the labor — give the gift — of improving, reforming, or even excising errors from the culture for the future without, first, being brought up and given certain gifts.
“If not now, when?”
When will I choose to learn that I and other implicate one another, require one another? When will I begin to doubt myself long enough in to hear my “True Self,” my calling, my vocation, my destiny? When will I perform who I am — become who I truly am?
Now. Or never. You and I have a now that is ever-passing; soon enough, there will be no “now” that includes me, even as a memory. Only a now that includes whether or not I did my work, did it well, did it poorly… and no one save HaShem will have any memory of that.
“…[I]s it your reputation that’s bothering you? But look at how soon we’re all forgotten. The abyss of endless time that swallows it all. The emptiness of those applauding hands. The people who praise us; how capricious they are, how arbitrary. And the tiny region it takes place. The whole earth a point in space – and most of it uninhabited.”
Marcus Aurelius, THE MEDITATIONS
No, it is not that your life is meaningless: It is that your life and the lives of all other people are the only conduits of meaningfulness in this universe we know anything about. Yet meaningfulness and fame, fortune, comfort, and other preferable situations — there is no link between these two sets of things at all except accidentally, in terms of “fortune.” If one only lives for the “preferable” and falls apart when these depart — as they must, one will never strive for meaningfulness. One will fail to value it. One may even grow to find meaning repulsive and painful.
Hence, monstrosities are born, create themselves, serve themselves, demand service for themselves, all while ignoring and discarding… themselves.
And, so, we arrive at the end of all I wish to say for the moment.
Richard Van Ingram
20 November 2016