From the Altarpiece of St. Margaret
Museé des Beaux Arts, Dijon
Master of the Cobourg Roundels, end 15th century
The difference between awareness and the lack of awareness is the difference between seeing the contradictions as they manifest, and believing that there is nothing contradictory in me.
In reality, I’m made of many competing forces. My awareness occupies a place in the center of them, if it is there.
I have many different wishes and desires. All of them are partially intelligent and wish to satisfy themselves. It takes a greater intelligence to help align them with a greater vision; and even then, they are persistent, because they do contain some fraction of the truth within them. Often, that fraction is close enough related to legitimate motivations and needs of the soul that it gives up its independence reluctantly.
So in a certain sense, I can entertain wishes and desires and even celebrate them, as long as I don’t become their victim. I become their victim if these elements of partiality begin to dictate courses of action that harm others (first) or myself (second.) I put others first because if I harm myself, at least the damage is limited, whereas if I harm others—especially in conditions where I am responsible for their welfare—my sin is grave indeed.
Nonetheless, I will find it inevitable, at times, that I contradict even this, after I know it intelligently. If I do that, I commit a sin which is difficult to redress.
So I am here in Hong Kong, reading Epictetus, digesting his stoic material, and examining my own contradictions. Yesterday in the elevator, I was surrounded by many Chinese people who were doing their best to do what people in elevators do: ignore each other, and be polite when we had to acknowledge one another. It occurred to me at that moment, as I saw the contradictory and abstracted flow of associations moving through my mind, and the impressions that were coming in in the elevator, that every other individual in that elevator had an equally contradictory and abstracted flow of associations taking place at the same time.
All of us were, collectively, in relationship and in community in that elevator, yet the relationship was incomplete and the community was fractured. We live, in this sense, in isolation, each one bringing their own contradictions collectively to each moment in time, which we then experience together. The community is tangible; yet the contradictions we nurse are invisible.
This particular moment may not seem very useful, yet it illustrates quite strikingly how isolated I am. How isolated we all are. No wonder we yearn to discover a loving relationship with other people; to come into relationship in a way that is free, that has a genuine spirit of goodness to it and is unhesitating and uncritical. We are even willing to do harm in order to get such relationships (think of what happened to Troy, which is fresh on my mind as I read Epictetus.)
Following on my earlier meditation on the nature of love on this trip, and of the inevitable contradictions that arise within the context of this question, I’m interested in exactly what our sensitivity to contradiction is. We are required to inhabit it, whether we want to or not; what is not required is that we see it.
To see it — or to even wish to see it — is a higher level of effort, will, and aspiration than to just let the contradictions run my life.
They can run my life; they do, in many cases, run my life.
Yet I need to be in front of them and ask them why they are so insistent, why they have such a great wish to exercise power.
Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor at Parabola Magazine.