Friday, August 19, 2016

No conscience, part I: sobriety

Hudson River Highlands, New York

People conceal their nature and their motives; and the masks we wear don't just conceal our inner nature from one another, they conceal our inner nature from ourselves.

In this way we become the lies we create; and although our innermost soul always knows what we are, because of our sleep, we're unable to see it. Identification, as Gurdjieff referred to it, means among other things an investment in these lies— these bad intentions, as Swedenborg might have put it—which grows so strong that we become the lie, involuntarily: instead of living our lives, our lies live us.

Over the course of my career, this has more than once come to my attention when a series of grave circumstances involving money caused me to see that people around me whom I thought to be decent people and believed I understood actually had no conscience. Whenever this happens, it's surprising and disturbing; it's been said of me that I am too trusting, and perhaps that's true. But others are often very good at hiding what they are; and it is only the worst of circumstances that brings out their true colors.  In this way we sometimes find out we're surrounded by demons who are very effective at posing as angels. It's only the ones with less shame that make themselves obvious.

In the midst of such objective iniquities, I've been re-reading Man's Search for Meaning, by Viktor Frankl; it recounts exactly such circumstances, although, to be sure, the ones he speaks of were much worse than the ones I'm in the midst of.

Outer life and action may compel us (as Arjuna discovers) to participate in awfulness; in Frankl's experience, there were prison guards who had to play their role at the camps as oppressors. Yet he reminds of a commander at Auschwitz who nonetheless found subtle ways to exercise real compassion towards the prisoners, so much so that after the war ended Jewish camp inmates hid the commander and extracted a promise from the Allies not to punish him before they turned him over. 

So there are ways of playing one's role in the midst of a very bad situation and yet preserving, within, the human dignity that recognizes and holds sacred the value of our humanity. This is what distinguishes us from animals; and from one another. In Frankl's book he calls such people decent people—as distinct from that other race (Bosch would have painted them as the race from Hell) non-decent people.

I've too often watched people abandon their compassion, their humanity, all of the deep inner caring for one another that they ought to exhibit in the pursuit of money; it's quite astonishing, really. While this happens they abandon, at the same time, their adulthood, their rationality, their ability to weigh and measure. Suddenly they become the creatures of a corruption of their inner selves, and one sees it; these folk were never the reasonable, gentle, thoughtful or caring people I thought I saw on the outside; they're actually cruel and ruthless and could give a rat's ass, as the saying goes, for others, simply because money might be lost. One watches them then go at one another's throats as though lives destroyed are less important that the piles of cash that ought to be piled up. It reminds me of what a billionaire friend of mine once said of the class of immensely powerful, monied people he routinely works with: they are all morally bankrupt.

It's a very short step from this place of moral bankruptcy, of putting money before human values, to the one where one is pulling the gold teeth out of corpses  next to the gas chambers at Auschwitz; yet folk seem not to see this. The difference is one of circumstance, not of action; and there are many folk who act in exactly this way, but then go home imagining that their values—and their souls—are intact and wholesome.

How did we get here? 

Or have we always been here?

What distinguishes us from one another in these circumstances is conscience; that is a sacred quality which has, I would say, a sobriety in regard to objects, events, circumstances and conditions. It's this inner sobriety that we need to cultivate; else we are consumed by the drunkenness of the events in our own lives. We swallow them and become inebriated.

I know a good deal about sobriety, having practiced it for nearly 35 years; and it only has meaning in regard to drunkenness. That is to say, if one is not an alcoholic, if one simply does not drink—for whatever reason—this isn't what I mean by sobriety. The sobriety of which I speak only arises through abstinence in the face of an overwhelming urge to do otherwise. 

It's the restraint, in other words, that characterizes real sobriety, not the abstinence: and that restraint must arise from well-considered, deepest inner convictions, from a pondering of life and circumstance that arises not in the mind, but the soul. 

Such restraint is more often than not the product of real suffering. This is how we learn.


Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor at Parabola Magazine.

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