Merode Altarpiece (Detail)
The Cloisters, New York
This “more objective perspective” that I’m interested in emerges as I give up one cherished belief and opinion after another. It involves what Mr. Gurdjieff called outer considering — the placing of myself in another's shoes. This is a fascinating and undervalued exercise which is talked about, but rarely invoked. When, for example, was the last time you heard anyone suggest that we outwardly consider others as a task — that we really take something that we fervently and perhaps even angrily believe in and try very hard to see it from an opponent’s point of view, see it very clearly, so that we become them?
No, we don't try this; because it's damned uncomfortable, and we have to give too much of ourselves up — which is the last thing we ever want to do.
If we try to do it with people like terrorists, it’s a repulsive and perhaps even disgusting suggestion — yet real outer considering has to go that far. We can't ever understand ourselves if we don't try to turn ourselves on our head, turn ourselves upside down to see not just the shiny carapace of our ego with its delightful, carefully crafted colors, but also the underside, with its multiple, verminous legs that scuttle around in filth. ( think of Kafka’s Gregor Samsa here in Die Verwandlung—The Metamorphosis.)
It's only when I get to this point of turning myself upside down and seeing the scuttling legs waving in the air helplessly that I begin to see the creatures I have built within myself, the negative creatures that scuttle around throughout my psyche finding ways to poison my attitudes towards both others and, ultimately, myself — because every poisonous attitude I have ultimately corrupts my own being first, before it touches anyone else.
Now, we all like to think of ourselves as good; and no one thinks they have a scuttling little insect living in them, even though every single one of us does have dozens of them. One of the points of the paintings Hieronymus Bosch left us with was that all of these scenes of hell, which we see outwardly, show us ourselves inwardly. Those hideous, deformed little creatures? They are parts of our psyche, our confirmation bias in action. Each one of them reflects the torment we've probably wished on an enemy; or an opinion we have about them, or ourselves.
Lee van Laer is a senior editor at Parabola Magazine.