“The danger is not lest the soul should doubt whether there is any bread, but lest, by a lie, it should persuade itself that it is not hungry.”
—From Simone Weil’s “Waiting for God” (1951)
As the Buddha let us know, the story of humanity is one long grappling with desire—mostly unfulfilled. This Great Longing projects itself in a million different forms, all of them stand-ins, in fundamental ways, for the eternal life human beings desire as conscious, self-aware creatures whose most painful and challenging awareness is of their own finitude.
Our animal friends seek only their next meal, their next night’s burrowing into a protected space for their sleep. We see beyond that and exclaim, “Hey, what’s the deal here?”
I can remember lying in bed one night as a young boy, maybe 10 years old, dumbstruck at the realization that my parents would one day die. And if my parents, then…my brother and sisters and…me, too?
Though I was already beginning to steer clear of the repressive and exclusivist Catholicism that represented my first exposure to religion, I prayed that night with utter, desperate fervor to a sky God whom I entreated to do me a great favor: Please, please make my family the exception, and allow us to live forever.
My pleadings seemed to work for quite a few years, but by then I had come to know what the deal really was: There would be no getting out of this predicament for anyone I knew—myself, most outrageously, included.
Yet still I long—if not anymore for eternal life, then for its many and varied substitutes: the ultimate great book that finally sets everything in order (the groaning shelves of my home library particularly reflect that longing), the perfect multi-hued sunrise or sunset in that perfect synapse between dark and light, the perfect poem or lyric or sequence of musical notes that can launch me (however temporarily) to the stars.
Even more acutely: the perfect understanding of and from another, which equates, of course, to perfect love.
Our intimates are, in this way, the adult elaboration of the care and nurturance we know from the first moments with our mother, who is the earthly (and time-bound) provider of the love and life we always seek, and which humans have historically ascribed to the notion of God.
To be human and alive is to long to connect with that idea of the eternal. This longing has its everyday twin in our looking forward to things: the morning’s first cup of coffee, the visit with a friend, the coming weekend, the vacation, the retirement.
These bits of soul-stirring sanctity (or at least the idea and hope of them) beckon us forward, giving us a reason to get up in the morning and greet the day. We need them in a kind of sustained abundance; we can’t live with any sense of purpose or meaning absent something to look forward to, something calling us from the just-beyond.
Depression and even suicide are the tragic results of that lack.
So: Is the cycle of longing/temporary fulfillment/renewed longing our never-ending plight that expires only with our last breath? Or as the Buddha suggests, is it only the final conquering of our baseline desire for eternal life that gets us off this wheel of ultimately unquenchable need?
Simone Weil and her Christian mystic brethren see this longing for eternal life as the simple cry of the soul seeking union with the majesty of a loving God, who is the only sufficient source for our need. The brilliant anthropologist Ernest Becker notes, with a kind of rueful admiration, the different perspective offered by Asian religions:
“All historical religions addressed themselves to this same problem of how to bear the end of life. Religions like Hinduism and Buddhism performed the ingenious trick of pretending not to want to be reborn, which is a sort of negative magic: claiming not to want what you really want most.”
One of the salient aspects of religious community is that we seek perspective on these matters from our ministers and each other, as a kind of bulwark against the existential loneliness such questions can entail. We are not so different, in many ways, from the animal herd that huddles closely for protection, warmth, and the solace that they bring.
But the solace is in our case spiritual, framing against the gauntlet thrown down by contingent existence our answer: that it is in love for and service to each other, in the “God” seen and expressed through the eyes and hearts of our fellow humans, that this longing for ultimate relationship is finally fulfilled.
Only in relationship is the fear and reality of existential isolation overcome.
Aside from occasional solo wanderings on retreat, even monks pledged to silent contemplation live in community. None of us are meant to live in one-person caves, or even with our most intimate life partners if we are not also part of a larger social fabric.
Community is what gives texture and completion to individual relationships. In fellowship with multiple Others, we come to know our deepest Selves, whose existence is precious and always has been, and whose full expression is the answer to whatever longings trouble our souls in the tossings of night.
Some vintage Neil Young here, even then searching and mining and “gettin’ old…”
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If only human community could take the place of God …
I would not say that fear and existential isolation are overcome by relationship and community, but they are made bearable, at least for most people. Community can’t solve the problem of the foreknowledge of death, but at least it gives us company during the free-fall.
I wouldn’t quibble in the least with your observation, Ellenska, but would only say that relationship and community and the company they afford us is no small consolation for God and immortality having flown the coop from our psyches over the centuries. Nature gives it a pretty good go as well at times, but even Henry in his solitude had to tell Ralph all about his insights whenever they crossed paths, and then make all those jottings in his so-very-public journals to share himself with the rest of us!
I would argue that for us humans, things are sweeter because they are finite…and while death is a fear, the bigger fear is suffering and loss. But then I have a more Eastern outlook. Can we be content if we are always longing?
Probably true, Joan, but sweeter with an undertone of bittersweetness, I’d say, as in witnessing a beautiful death of a beautiful person. And yes, I think for most people, incapacitation and the loss of autonomy it entails is the bigger dread than death.
Buddha would say heck no, contentment is impossible when one still desires, but let me try a thought experiment here and ask: Is contentment perhaps overrated? Desire and even wild, abandoned wanting have their own role in the poetry of life, it would seem. What would the world look like full of contented, undesiring souls?
Here’s a vote for contentment, and for wild desire: simultaneously! I see no imperative to choose.
Now there’s a thought, Angela! I think I’ve heard that basic sentiment referred to as “the whole nine yards.” (!!!!!!!!!) I do still think you’d get an argument from the Buddha about that wild desire thing, though. But that’s OK; it’s like that book title–”If You See the Buddha on the Side of the Road, Argue With Him…”
Somewhere in my Eastern readings, I read that we are not a single entity, that we are really linked with all those we have loved and influenced throughout life. So, as long as our influence lives on, we have not really died. Perhaps the key to living forever is to love “Others” more than we love “ourselves.”
Loren, you make a persuasive case for other-directedness that rests on pretty solid theological ground, it seems to me, and this particular view seems more and more married to physics as well. What is culture and consciousness but the sum total, the pushes and pulls and lives lived over eons, of all who have engaged with them?
Finally getting around to reading this, shortly after attending a 2 day workshop at the Baseball Hall of Fame & Museum on “Care & Conservation” of our treasured memorabilia. Interesting experience. Theme was that all our “stuff” is deteriorating every day, and all we can do is use the best materials to hold off the inevitable as long as we can. Couldn’t help but make the connection to our bodies, deteriorating every day as we move closer and closer to the day when its all over for us in this life. All we can do is use the best materials available (food, exercise, good mental and spiritual health) to hold it off as long as we can. Meanwhile, community or fellowship does a good job of taking our minds off the Grim Reaper who looms in the near or distant future, and gives meaning and purpose to our existence on this side of the curtain.
I can’t imagine anything more depressing than being sentenced to immortality of the self (klein geschrieben). Now if I could realize the Self (gross geschrieben), that would be a quite different sentence.
Michael, I wish I could say I spent five years of deep thinking before I felt adequate to a response here, but actually, your comment way back when escaped me somehow or other, and this morning, when I had occasion to come across this post again, here it was—prompting a question, which I hope finds its way to you:
The distinction you cite between small & big selves is rife through the mystical and humanistic psychology literature, but I’m wondering what the immortality of the big Self looks like to you. How do you conceptualize it? Does it have anything to do with the person known to himself and others as Michael James? Rooted in that person somehow, or transcending any such mortal, individual being?
Thanks for having me thinking again on this matter almost 1,900 days later!
The problem that I have with Christianity is the idea that Christ is the only way and if you don’t accept Christ as your savior your are headed for an extremely warm afterlife. There have been masters throughout time and in all nations throughout the world who attract those souls who want to go back to God. Although I believe that Jesus was God incarnate, I also believe that there have been other God realized souls that have come to guide those who want to go back to their creator. I think it takes having a real and profound personal spiritual experience that we humans really begin to understand that we know almost nothing about God and it is not through the intellect but through the heart and through love that we will know God.
I’m with you, Vince, in your antipathy to the exclusivist streak that runs through various, mostly evangelical strains of Christianity, and in the actual profundity of the Christian message. I think it’s unfortunate that the exclusivist streak seems to represent the vast bulk of the Christian “brand” in modern popular culture. It’s particularly odious when wedded to a muscular, unthinking nationalism and an emphasis on material wealth in the so-called “prosperity gospel.”
All this built on the tireless witness of a shoeless, penniless fisherman exhorting his followers to drop material concerns, serve the poor, turn the other cheek and love their enemies? Such extraordinary deviation and twisting of a transcendent spiritual message, alas! But none of that is to obscure the powerful symbolism of God coming into time, assuming a human body, suffering, being misunderstood, reviled and perishing. Powerful stuff…
Meanwhile, you might enjoy this and find it a useful exercise in sharpening/clarifying your own spiritual sensibilities—I did! Thanks for stopping in!