So here I am, pondering the events of the last month, my illness — which was compounded and lasted for nearly a month as it was — and the consequences of Being and seeing how one is.
Our identity obscures everything, and we love it and believe in it. We don’t see how much of a garbageman it is, how it has determined what scraps of trash are worthwhile and how it has collected them over a lifetime over and over again. There are people who reflect this habit with an external hoarding which becomes the subject of bemusement or even mockery who those that don’t understand that; we’ve all seen the movies and documentaries about people who have basements (and even whole apartments and houses) filled with paper and junk until they can’t walk around, the walls of trash closing in around them.
This outward pathology is an outer reflection of something that goes on in every human being. We collect what is unreal and glue it to the shell of our personality like a hermit crab disguising itself; then we lug the shell around, tucking ourselves into it whenever a threat appears. If we see someone else with an attractive shell, we will try to steal a bit of it for ourselves, or find something similar to glue it to who we are; and so it goes. We all become trash bearers, envious of one another’s trash, and obsessed with collecting more trash to glue to our shells. And it works the same way as it does in the world of animals: what we collect is used to disguise ourselves:
Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. ( Matthew, 7:15.)
Do we see that almost all of our personality is a defensive posture? What a surprise if we remember that there are actual beings inside the shells! There’s a truth to this much deeper and more mysterious than the colorful, attractive piles of trash we accrete… a living spark of love, of tenderness, of agency and action within each human being that can be touched for a moment if we are willing to be human, instead of defending an identity.
This reminds me of the phrase that was taught to me many years ago, one of the three prayers — there is no I, there is only truth. The way to the truth is through the heart.
One hears something like this and it seems, on the surface, as though one might understand it. It may sound profound; or trite, if one is a devotee of mechanistic rationalism. But it contains a mystery that cannot be so easily penetrated; and it relates to this set of questions about identity, desire, non-desire, who we are and what we think life consists of.
What if there is no identity, no sameness?
What if all there is is truth… which we must meet?
I sense more and more in my life that this is the case; and as I confront my own nothingness and see how inadequate the accreted being— my identity — is to meeting the moment, perhaps it’s no wonder I feel a constant sense of anxiety and even terror. If I’m truthful with myself, most of what I am it is relatively worthless — this entire castle of identity I have built my worth on doesn’t have a real value. Only the actions I take in regard to others has a real value, only the way in which I honor and love them. Let’s face it, 90% or more of those transactions are selfish and egocentric in and of themselves. One can’t begin to confront one’s own being, one’s own identity — both the real one and the imaginary one, which are in inverse proportion to one another in terms of their importance — without suffering in every sense of the word. And that suffering, if it is connected to the higher influences we wish to be related to, is not depressing. It is anguishing.
Depression and anguish are different. What I am describing here is depressing, taken on this level; yet when one looks at the vertical trajectory, when the sister’s influences come in, what it provokes is anguish. Anguish as derived from the Latin word angustus, which means narrow or tight. (The German word angst, which means fear, derives from the same root.) So we might say, using our metaphor, that depression is male and anguish is female.
The difference between anguish and depression becomes more apparent when we look at the root of depression, which comes from the Latin dēprimere, which means to press down. Depression is that which keeps us on this level, which drags us down into ordinary life, and our egoistic concerns. This can be absolutely devastating if it becomes powerful enough, and it absolutely eclipses every other featuring the emotional landscape when it does so. But it is different than anguish, which is a confrontation at the point where we meet the higher spiritual level of our lives. One can only feel anguish if one feels the constriction, the narrowness, of one’s own being and realizes that one is a rich man attempting to pass, like a camel, through the eye of the needle into heaven.
Enter by the narrow gate; for wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction and there are many who go in by it. Because narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it. (Matthew 7:13.)
It is this constriction or narrowness that weaves itself back in to the question of desire, which is of the stars.
At birth, the spark of life is engendered in this carnal being, within which two longings must inevitably arise: the first, the longing of the lower part to remain alive in the body (which dominates us powerfully) and the second, the longing of the higher part to reach back to heaven and reunite with God.
These two longings, or desires — stellar influences — are both necessary. The influence of the brother must inevitably engage in sacrifice, and the influence of the sister cannot become whole and grow back towards God if the brother does not fulfill his duties in this regard. We are born with two parts, one of which has to die in order to help the other part live.
We can see here that the broad way and the narrow way are the way of the brother and the sister. The broad way, generally speaking, is the way of ordinary life, and the narrow way is the way of the spirit.
Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor at Parabola Magazine.