Wednesday, June 3, 2020

Self Contemplation and its Excess; Traditionalism

My experience with words is that people often say things without thinking through what the words actually mean, or what they have actually said — as opposed to what they think they said.

I’ll give you a couple of recent examples. One person made the following public comment in a response to a post I made on facebook:

It’s a shame to believe all humans have the luxury of pursuing self contemplation at the expense of understanding the suffering of others.

I’m not sure whether the author of this comment was implying that I believe such a thing (I don’t.) It does however invite comparison to a comment I made in the selfsame piece, 

"This is what it means and how it feels to be blind in the soul; enraged at the lack of love in others instead of dismayed by the lack of love in myself."

At the same time, after thinking about the comment for a while, in trying to understand exactly what it meant, I asked myself whether self contemplation is actually a luxury. The statement, after all, hinges on this premise; and if there is any weakness there, the statement empties itself into the void.

The word luxury means excess; and it seems difficult to argue that self contemplation is by its nature excessive. There is no doubt some forms of it may be excessive; (mine? hmm.) but we have specific words for those forms, such as narcissism—which in its origins exactly mirrors excessive self-contemplation. 

The argument, in other words, casts far too broad a net to be valid in the first place. I shall explain.

To contemplate is taken from the Latin templum, place of observation: con-templation means nothing more than to be in a place of observation. If we don’t see ourselves and how we are, how can we know how we're behaving, and whether we even begin to understand the suffering of others? It seems to me that the classic conundrum in front of us with many world leaders today, including our own President, is that they spend too little time and energy observing themselves and questioning their own behavior. Every doctorate in insensitivity towards others begins, accidentally or otherwise, with a course in refusing to consider the consequences of one’s own actions. The course is called ITOG 101: "It's The Other Guy 101." 

Everyone gets an A in this course.

In this sense, it's impossible to see self contemplation as a luxury; it is instead an absolutely essential service to others that begins in oneself. 

I will take the point one step further. One cannot understand how others suffer unless one develops compassion. In my own experience, one of the chief aims of self observation is to develop a much deeper and more organic compassion. 

Another example was a comment recently made to me about the difference between tradition and traditionalism. It’s safe to say I didn’t understand that comment either; it was brought to my attention later that I had missed the gist of the comment in its larger sense. Not surprising; and without a doubt my bad. My attention is less than perfect, like everyone else’s, and the one thing that stood out about the remark to me was that the person who made it said that traditionalism was not alive and vital, but dead. 

Now, these were some super-smart people having this discussion, probably out of my league, but I stopped listening at that point because it sounded wrong. I didn’t think about it much at the time, but when I was busted for repeating it in an incorrect context, I began to think about it at a bit more depth to understand why I stopped paying attention and what my negative reaction was all about in the first place. 

Traditionalism, in the Oxford English dictionary, is defined first as a Roman Catholic doctrine from the mid-1800s which maintains that everything that can be understood by man proceeds only from God and is the exclusive result of divine revelation. Traditionalism believes that human reason is ultimately incapable of attaining moral and religious truth. At least this is what the dictionaries all say about it. 

The second, less specific meaning is "the upholding or maintenance of tradition, especially so as to resist change." That force is also, so far as I can see, not only alive and well, but growing and kicking ass. The whole world is engaged on a perpetual mission to defend the future from the present by preserving the past.

The use of the word traditionalism hence seems inaccurate. Something may indeed be dead when it comes to tradition; but this particular thing doesn’t look like it’s the dead one. Religious fundamentalism is all about exactly this idea; and fundamentalism, whether Islamic, Christian, or otherwise, is a major force in today’s societies. Far from dead, it drives a tremendous amount of anger and destructive behavior towards secularism. 

I say things that are inaccurate myself; but generally speaking, when I write, I try to think through what I am saying as carefully as possible and express the ideas I’m up against in the best and most accurate way I can, given my limitations. Among which is the fact that I am, in my own eyes, basically an idiot. 

Both of these examples serve as cautionary tales against the proclamations (shouting-outs, clamor) we are all so prone to making. I make proclamations myself; and everyone around me does it as well. They’re all suspicious; few of them are carefully examined, and they all come out of the starting gate running lean and mean on the four strong legs of assumption, with a jockey who is certain he has already won.

The whole point of questioning everything, which is the idea not just behind the Gurdjieff work but behind the necessity of self-contemplation itself, is to bring a healthy and intelligent suspicion to the act of proclaiming. Thus I hereby proclaim that all proclamations are suspect; and what is suspect should be carefully examined — probably through contemplation. However, don't be sure, for I have proclaimed it. Gavel down.

There is, to be sure, some truth to the idea that many folks are struggling so mightily in their daily lives that it appears they don’t have much time to contemplate themselves. This comes down to what Gurdjieff called “pondering the sense and the aim of existence.” The myth is that those in the midst of poverty and oppression don't have time to think about their lives. 

This however, is simply one more unintentional yet glaring degradation of those who are so challenged: that they aren't able, because of circumstances, to think about their lives with care, the way other people do. They are incapable of philosophy, of self reflection.

I reject this. It is impossible. Give them credit: struggle and suffering generally tends to produce more reflection about life, rather than less. Here again, it is no luxury; there is no excess.

Every person does this in one form or another; human beings have a surprisingly consistent habit of examining their lives. Whether they do it from deep, shallow, small, or large perspectives, the action is nearly unavoidable. We have to see how we are and question ourselves in order to make basic moral decisions, such as, in the case of millennials, whether to get that tattoo we always wanted, or pay our college loan. Whether to use the food stamps for Doritos or fruits and vegetables. 

Unexamined, decisions like this, each one of which defines our relationship between our inner and outer life, our responsibilities, our health, and how mindful we are of our relationship to the world and other people, tend to go off the mark.

Speaking as a recovering alcoholic, I can say for certain that the one thing that helped me get sober was the contemplation — the observation — of where I actually was while I was drinking. AA stresses this kind of self-evaluation. It is not a luxury; it is a necessity for survival. I not only had to see where I was; I had to call up many people I had harmed and make amends to them. That action took place only after I had engaged in enough self observation to understand the harm that I had done others. 

There was no path to putting things right without that work.

This tool can be useful in any ordinary life situation; and the spiritual side of that tool is also emphasized in AA.

As to traditionalism, I think it arose long before the mid-1800s. The idea that all moral and spiritual authority, in fact all knowledge itself, comes from God and is ultimately beyond human understanding, is an ancient one that was, at a minimum, nearly ubiquitous current in medieval European society, even if the word wasn’t used to describe it. 

The 1800s produced a lot of isms — traditionalism, rationalism, transcendentalism. Almost all of these movements seem to be alive and kicking around us as I write this essay. So we basically still live in the 1800's: we are colonial, rationalist, racist, self serving and imperialist. 

In a not-so-strange but instead predictable twist of fate, other nations and peoples who were subjected to these forces by white Europeans more than 200 years ago have followed our own society into the same quicksand, instead of improving things. So many want  to get on the bandwagon of hatred, blame, accusation and discrimination, one almost begins to think there must be something good about it.

We can do better; but not if we don't start by seeing how we actually are.

Go and sense, and be well.


Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor at Parabola Magazine.

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