The best way of tinkering with ourselves is to tinker with something else – a mechanist way of saying that only he who loses his soul will save it.
-- Richard Rorty, “Freud and Moral Reflection”*
After decades of experiment, I learn that I can’t make myself any better than I should be. I have some choice about details: I should remember to bring the milk up from its box before it spoils in the summer heat, and I mostly do so, after having tasted the consequences of delinquency. But to set myself at odds with the broad outlines of my character – with my susceptibilities and insensitivities, lusts and aversions, bursts of enthusiasm and doldrums of despondency – would be like trying to give myself an appendectomy. No surgeon would try the latter, and I should not attempt the former.
Mostly your task is to learn what you are, where your nature locates you, and what investments you were born with. As you learn this, you gain a perspective on how the world might treat you, who might see you as savior and who as mortal enemy before you even meet them, just as you come in the door bearing gifts. A colleague said “My presence precedes me,” which means she will find herself pre-cast in a drama she would not write, in a role for which she did not audition, responsible for motives she does not know as her own.
The moving finger writes, says the sage, and then moves on. The world did not begin at my birth, has scored its history on my first page, and when the last page has been turned will graft its own sequel onto my scratching.. I don’t get to say Once Upon a Time. I only get to say And Then . . .
That’s history for you, and you’re in it. “One damned thing after another.”** If you don’t know you’re in history, that’s because your back-channel, your particular tributary or delta, is far from that main stream that feeds or is fed by it and is so well covered by the media. You are swimming, or kayaking, or sailing in a current and a breeze of personal history, which we all know is also a political history,*** and yet is for the most part only personally political.
And so you swim for your life. You have to learn what the currents are. You have to know your strokes, your limits both of talent and endurance, what movements you can sustain and with what effect and for how long without drowning yourself out of sheer idealism.
The Spiritual Quest is the project of a Department of Reality. We can only recover the soul from its true location.
Heidegger said that we are geworfen, “thrown” into the world like dice. Alea iacta est. We don’t get to choose the ground on which the die stops rolling, or which side of our nature comes up first. And the kingdoms of this world, be they households or councils or empires, have little interest in teaching us that information. The powerful would just as soon we didn’t know. If we discover it, they’d like us, very politely, to keep it to ourselves. Why make the natives restless?
As you learn your terrain, those scars of landscape that are the marks of history, and as you learn your talents, then and only then do you come to know what your next act can be. The truth about your limits makes you free. And then . . .
So how do we, in fact, work on ourselves? Unitarian Universalists like to do this for whole weekends, retreating from the world to enumerate our sins and to shame the sources of our love for justice, naming our very principles offensive to God. For those of means and education, the therapeutic enterprise holds promise of enlightenment and cure. For some of the devout, confession provides an opportunity to learn the boundaries of mortality. For those of us blessed with extreme introversion, self-examination will always be alpha and omega.
And yet -- the self is an elusive thing, and a dubious prize. I find it to be a dark place, lacking illumination of its own. By ourselves or in good company, we can find in the fabled interior as much doubt, and grief, and shame as we desire. Just call on it and it’s there.
Where is the light? And where is the air? They are on the outside, in our re-commitment to the place and the time, to the living creatures whose eyes we meet, with the urges and instincts, foibles and sublimities that were given us, for those purposes that only now become apparent. Introspection, therapy, confession and the weekend workshop are not ends in themselves; expecting salvation from them is a narcissistic idolatry. The proof of these disciplines is how we live in the world. Get out of yourself. Go back to your life and save it. Love kindness, do justice, walk humbly. Speak truth. Bless what is holy. Relieve someone’s pain. Honor someone’s sacrifice. Give a name to what is nameless. Salvation isn’t feeling good but doing good at something. And we won’t feel better until we do better. And then . . .
*Essays on Heidegger and Others
**Attributed to Elbert Hubbard (1856 - 1915)
***”The personal is the political,” a phrase commonly attributed to Carol Hanisch