Monday, September 14, 2015

Extraction mentality

A few months ago I pointed out, via a facetious Facebook post, that most of man’s activities consist of digging holes in the ground or burning things:

Outline for mankind's modern program of activities:
1. Dig stuff that burns up out of the ground. 
2. Dig more stuff that melts up out of the ground. 
3. Melt that stuff with the stuff that burns to make new things which can both dig more stuff up and either burn that stuff or melt more stuff, or both.
4. Make more stuff out of it. Stuff that gets us to where we can dig up more stuff to burn and melt, for example.
5. Increase the volume of stuff that needs to be burned and stuff that needs to be melted.
6. Find endless ways to craft it into ingenious new stuffs, which support ever more activities that will cause more stuff to be burned and melted.
7. Declare, in the process, that burning stuff and melting stuff is a capital affair, vital to all national and human interests.
8. Burn or melt people who disagree with the way stuff that is burned or melted is distributed.
9. Continue, ad infinitum

I’m reminded of this cynical post by a recent observation about life. We live, I think, within what I’d call an extraction mentality: that is, we see life as a thing we want to extract things from. The process of living becomes a process of mining: we’re constantly looking for what we can get out of life, what it can yield to us in terms of pleasure, satisfaction. The idea is enshrined in the U.S. Constitution as “the pursuit of happiness:” an inalienable right, was well as an activity. When we talk about what we can “get out of life;” it is an essentially selfish point of view.

If I think about what I can put into life, how I can serve life—that is to say, serve life in all its various guises, in terms of objects, events, circumstances, and conditions—and in terms, as the Buddhists might put it, of all sentient Beings—perhaps even all living Beings, for all living things are sentient in one way or another— only then am I thinking unselfishly. 

This idea takes me back to Swedenborg’s view of the aim of life, which is that of serving others, and God. It calls me to a higher purpose than one of extraction; instead, it’s one of insertion. The concept is interesting to me, because so much of my own negative thinking revolves around what I can get for myself, or haven’t yet got, which I want. Once I view my responsibilities and tasks to be done as a privilege—the privilege of serving others, the duty to serve others—things look very different indeed. The point of view is not far off Gurdjieff’s obyvatel, the good householder: the one who attends to what is needed for those around him, his household.

This extraction mentality is encouraged by the excesses of modern living: we can all see that, I think, yet we’re swept away so easily by the flow of events. It’s how I anchor myself in my own personal sense of duty that can make a difference in this matter; and that duty must be, first and foremost, always to God—His Endlessness, as Gurdjieff called him. 

Gurdjieff’s Beelzebub is a character who well understands how his duties lie first in this direction; yet how often do we discuss that when we discuss his character? Beelzebub’s life is, in the end, one of an ever more fully realized service. He is not, in that way, deviant from Swedenborg’s fundamental principles of Being: and therein lies a point of work that both man and angel share.


Lee van Laer is a senior editor at Parabola Magazine.

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