Driving Ourselves Mad
For those of us who live lives characterized by the luxury of modest self-awareness it seems we are plagued by a persistent sense of dissatisfaction. We know enough about life to realize that under slightly different circumstances we could have it much better. We could have more free time, more resources, live in a nicer climate, etc. Knowing that such things are possible, that others grasp them, and that we, for wholly prudential reasons, don’t, gnaws on us. We want to really live, but for reasons not altogether within our control, we can’t, don’t, or won’t.
This is a toxic script that I am convinced is false in some very important ways. The counter examples of those who live lives with much less “free” time and with much fewer resources and yet who are somehow able to live free from the persistent dissatisfaction I’ve mentioned demonstrates that satisfaction with life does not necessarily correlate with one’s ability to do what one wants. Not to mention those with tremendous resources who end up killing themselves in despair. Yet, if being prevented from doing what one wants is not the root of dissatisfaction, what is it? That answer, I think, is that we are trying too hard to do what we want.
Consider the following metaphors of “structure” and “depth.” Your “self” can be thought of as being constituted by both structure and depth dimensions. The structural self is your conscious, rational, desiring, fearing, embodied self. It’s what most of us, most of the time, mean by “me.” When someone says “Tell me a bit about yourself” we respond with a structural account. “I like to do x, I work for y, my parents are z & a, I’m concerned about b, etc…”
Your deep self, on the other hand, is beyond your conscious awareness. It is essentially mysterious. You can’t name it. You can’t even claim it, for the moment you attempt to lay claim to it, it becomes structure, a determinate thing, and no longer the mystery of depth. And yet it is here that all of your dynamic potential resides. In traditional language, this is the self that is “hidden in God.” To live out of this self is to live in the ever-evolving fullness of your own being.
The trouble is that in order to live out of your true, that is, deep self, one needs to in effect “die” to the structural self. This release must become the fundamental posture of one’s entire life. To the extent that we live out of what we can grasp of ourselves rationally, we live only out of our occurrent desires and fears, and these desires and fears are largely constructed via the accidents of our developmental history. They are limited scripts for a play that that has been over for a long time.
As such, to live merely in the structural dimension is to live in a world of illusion. We chase after, and dream about, what we think we want. We allow ourselves to be saturated with the various fears that threaten to steal the illusion we have embraced. And the result, sadly, is failure to be present to the potential of both our deep self and the world which is right in front of us. Rather than being present to the inexhaustible gift of the moment, we fight against reality on the basis of our own illusory world of hopes and fears. We thus drive ourselves (and those around us) nuts warring against this persistent sense of dissatisfaction. We all have a deep desire for life, but the paradox is that it is only through this death that we can enter into it. And once we are there, we need to continually let go of it in order to keep it.
Merton has a great line about living a joyful life that I will close with. He says,
…the only way to enter into…joy is to dwindle down to the vanishing point and become absorbed in God through the center of your own nothingness. The only way to possess His greatness is to pass through the needle’s eye of your own absolute insufficiency. (New Seeds of Contemplation, 182.)
Read through the metaphors of structure and depth, Merton’s words help us see how the inexhaustible wealth of life is gained only in exposing the poverty of the self we always through we were. Who can say were we would go thus freed from the little dreams and fears that have heretofore motivated our lives?