Friday, May 18, 2012

Becoming more human

Landscapes of Huashan (detail) by Wang Lü
Ming Dynasty (1332-1384)
Shanghai Museum

A longtime student of the biological sciences, I picked up a copy of Edward O Wilson's The Social Conquest of Earth and have begun reading it. Students of esoteric religion might think that biology and science have nothing to do with spiritual interests, but actually, they have everything to do with one another.

As I pointed out in an earlier post, the reasons that life arose on this planet are intimately related to questions of cosmological development. It takes a special kind of ignorance (one commonly found in the sciences) to misunderstand this fact. Anyway, Mr. Wilson touts the superior intelligence of the human species early on in the book, as though it were a given.

Unfortunately, being a genius of the modern order—one with vision that can see through keyholes, but no more—is not enough. We must temper this enthusiasm for man's smarts with the late Stephen Jay Gould's assessment of human intelligence. He pointed out that if we extinct ourselves (certainly a possibility, considering our ongoing and clinically insane destruction of our planet) it will turn out that our supposed intelligence wasn't intelligent at all, but rather, just an immensely spectacular form of stupidity.

It looks more and more like Gould may have the last word on that one.

 Perhaps the essential point is that we are all saturated with hubris. We think we're intelligent. That's well over half the problem. Only a Socratic approach, in which one's intelligence is used first and above all to establish that one is ultimately ignorant, will suffice; yet this kind of objective thinking, so prominently on display in Beelzebub's Tales to his Grandson, is entirely lacking in modern society.

 Perhaps we shouldn't feel bad about it. After all, in this allegory, human beings at much higher cosmological levels than man are seen to make spectacular mistakes. Lack of foresight, it would seem, is a common problem for everyone but God. In point of fact, one could even mount (heretical) arguments that God himself displays an odd lack of foresight in certain circumstances, judging from some biblical tales.

The process of inner development is strictly the process of doing something we think we don't need to do. That something is becoming more human.

We human beings think that we already represent a pinnacle; but all we are is the seed of a potential. All of the ideals, all of the noble aspirations, goals, and aspects of the human heart and soul are on prominent display in human societies; we tout the better aspects of ourselves as though we owned them. The process has become so routine and vulgar as to be almost repulsive, yet the media, politicians, philosophers, religious figures, and others continue to shovel how wonderful humanity is at us.

In reality, we aren't any of these things; we aren't human. This is what Gurdjieff was alluding to when he referred to us as “man in quotation marks.” We think we are men; but we are not human beings, we are simply seeds with the potential of becoming human beings.

 Evolution did not create such seeds casually. If you take a look at flowering plants, you'll understand that it took millions of years to reach a point where plants could produce seeds. Seeds are special things, representing all of an extraordinary future that can be achieved by the next generation. They are responsible for growth and the passing on of their potential to yet another generation. This takes place mechanically in the vegetable kingdom, but in man, a much more conscious responsibility is required.  We aren't plants; we don't know what we are, but it's fairly clear that we're not vegetables, although some of us do a fair imitation of them when presented with a sofa and a television set.

When we assume we are human beings—when we don't come to every moment in life asking ourselves whether or not we are behaving responsibly—we aren't human beings. Nothing can be assumed in this enterprise. A true human being must question every move he makes, every motive he has, and examine every action that he undertakes from the point of view of compassion. The biological imperative—man's responsibility to assume his right place in nature—includes this three-centered effort to become human. Becoming human is, in a nutshell, the process of questioning.

The process of questioning is an excruciating one, as I pointed out in the post on killing a rat. In the midst of that experience, right after I shot the rat, it became necessary to go down to the garden with a shovel and dispatch the rat, who was gravely wounded but not dead. This objectively awful encounter between myself and this poor creature came down to me looking at it right in the eyes, and it looking at  me in the eyes—it knew I was somehow involved with this situation, and was desperately crying for help in its pain.

I stood there poised with the shovel, questioning everything, and the task of executioner now became a grim task of compassion, of taking the rat to the point of death and beyond. So at the same time one part of me cringed in criminal horror, the other part had an understanding that this is how we are on this planet, this is how we all are, participating in this process of life and death which so distresses the creator.

And I did what had to be done.

 Standing in between these moments and suffering what we are and where we are is perhaps the most essential act in becoming human. No wonder great wars and great trials produce so many insights into the human condition; we wouldn't have extraordinary books like Victor Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning if we didn't have concentration camps.

This isn't to excuse the concentration camps, or to celebrate them. It's simply to point out that we suffer together in the midst of a great struggle to live, and that only our effort to become human counts for anything.

 Every religion is a search, an effort to become human. The moment that we think we are human, the moment that we think we are intelligent and compassionate, is the moment we lose the ability to see how we actually are.

And it is only in seeing how we actually are that intelligence and compassion may emerge in us.

 I respectfully hope you will take good care.