Monday, August 4, 2014

The impulse of charity, part II

Gurdjieff spent his time in Paris in the morning, before his pupils saw him, cooking meals for the poor. He never advertised this or talked about it; and few of his pupils knew about it, so it doesn't loom large in the legends about him. So despite all the stories about him where he told people not to give away things too easily, not to engage in mechanical morality, and so on, he exercised practical compassion. There was a pragmatism to the way he handled his responsibility to others; not too little, not too much, not stupidly. Yet he was extraordinarily generous; and the generosity extended to all areas of life, often manifesting itself in ways that did not on the surface appear to be generous. This is the paradox of generosity and help; help does not always look like you think it will. Sometimes helping another is forcing them to do for themselves. This idea can easily be perverted; yet it lies at the core of much that Gurdjieff taught.

 Swedenborg had an equally pragmatic view of charity and doing good for others. He specifically pointed out that doing good for others is actually bad, if the others you do good for are evil or destructive. Charity towards these types of people must be withheld, in his moral universe; and he, a member of the elite aristocracy of Europe, did not hesitate to live a good life with decent food, servants, and respectable places to live. He didn't give all of his money and possessions away to serve the poor, even though his philosophy of life was based strictly and exclusively on the idea that selfishness was of the devil, and that generosity — love of the Lord and one's neighbor — was the most heavenly quality one could cultivate.

Both men, in other words, demanded a strict morality of selflessness, compassion, sacrifice, and generosity; yet both of them offered examples that tell us we mustn't be stupid about this, or deprive ourselves of a proper life or the good things that one finds in it in order to achieve these goals. Parables about not spilling one's seed on the ground or throwing one's pearls before swine are references to these understandings; one is given good and precious things by the Lord, and one ought not squander them uselessly. This requires effort; it requires intelligence, and it requires suffering. If one is intelligent and makes efforts, one suffers more and more, because it becomes apparent that one cannot do everything, and the need for all of these qualities is enormously great. The world demands selflessness; like bees, in a properly ordered society, each individual must contribute intelligently to the whole, and this involves not always putting one's own interests first. (Which is exactly what Swedenborg's selfishness consists of.) The world demands compassion, because there is great suffering in it, as the Buddha pointed out. The world demands sacrifice, because nothing good is achieved without giving something of oneself up in order to achieve it; and the world demands generosity, because without it, too many will not have enough, both emotionally and materially.

Keep firmly in mind that the world is not just the external world; we speak here as well of the inner world. One cannot understand what I am saying in this series of essays without keeping that in front of oneself as one considers these questions.

Suffering is the single most important principle of this question, because one is faced with the anguish that one cannot do everything, that one cannot give everything, and that the need is much greater than one's ability to meet it. On the horns of this dilemma, or—to put it even more succinctly—perched on the edge of this razor blade, one must make choices. And this, indeed, is the crux of Swedenborg's universe, as well as Gurdjieff's: a person must choose how they intend to be, and, furthermore, they must do it consciously, that is, questioning every one of their motives, assumptions, and circumstances. One must suffer the truth of where one is, what one has, and what one can do; and one sees, thereby, how small each of us is and how little we can actually do.

Now, in the modern world of conservatives and liberals, who seem to be polarizing all across the known spectrums, the extremes of either view hypothesize that either we should only do for ourselves, a morally bankrupt and fundamentally egoistic Randian philosophy,  or that we should only do for others, a delusional absurdity that assigns an impossible degree of power to do for others, which is, in the end, equally egoistic, though in an entirely opposite way.

We should not just do for ourselves and be greedy and selfish; and we shouldn't give everything away. Above all, we should not listen to delusional individuals on either end of the spectrum, who tell us we should. What we ought to do, above all, is engage in the truth of where we are and suffer it. This is a complex process that demands much of us; it does not have an endpoint, and it requires us to be flexible in our beliefs and understandings, quick on our toes, and open in our feelings. We have to recognize our limitations first in order to do what is right; and this will always be painful, because right-thinking human beings always want to help everyone. This is, in some ways, the moral underpinning of our world; and yet it is impossible, as any fool can see.

 Tomorrow, we will discuss these moral underpinnings and their mechanical effects, and the question of how being can change our perception of them.


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