Sunday, September 13, 2015

I try my best to be just like I am…

I heard Bob Dylan's Maggie's Farm on NPR recently, and these lines especially struck me:
Well, I try my best
To be just like I am
But everybody wants you
To be just like them
A worthy endeavor, that. But it's difficult. As Thomas Merton wrote:
We cannot be ourselves unless we know ourselves. But self-knowledge is impossible when thoughtless and automatic activity keeps our souls in confusion. In order to know ourselves … we have to cut down our activity to the point where we can think calmly and reasonably about our actions.
Merton, No Man Is an Island (1955) 7.8 (p. 126)
Thoughtless and automatic activity: that'll keep us from knowing who we are, what we actually admire, what we want to become.

Tolstoy's Ivan Ilych was bedridden as he neared death; I think this enforced reduction in activity was part of how he discovered the vanity in his life:

It occurred to him that what had appeared perfectly impossible before, namely that he had not spent his life as he should have done, might after all be true. It occurred to him that his scarcely perceptible attempts to struggle against what was considered good by the most highly placed people, those scarcely noticeable impulses which he had immediately suppressed, might have been the real thing, and all the rest false.
The Death of Ivan Ilych by Leo Tolstoy, XI (p. 55)
trans. Louise and Aylmar Maude
(downloaded September 2015)
Ivan Ilych's life was certainly not as busy and distracted as the life of a middle-class Millennial, but he kept busy enough with his work and social engagements. It was only when those distractions were curtailed, and when he contemplated his suffering, that he realized that the only real thing in his life may have been the feeble impulses to resist the values of high-status people—impulses which he'd immediately suppressed anyway.

If I do not know who I am, it is because I think I am the sort of person everyone around me wants to be. Perhaps I have never asked myself whether I really wanted to become what everybody else seems to want to become. Perhaps if I only realized that I do not admire what everyone seems to admire, I would really begin to live after all.
Merton, op. cit. 77.8 (pp. 125f)
Ivan Ilych didn't know who he was, really; he didn't know what he actually admired. His folly was also Merton's at times, and I dare say ours as well.

Does it matter, really, if we know ourselves? In the introduction to No Man Is an Island, Merton writes that it's quite important—that it's part of salvation, part of what everyone seeks:

What every man looks for in life is his own salvation and the salvation of the men he lives with. By salvation I mean first of all the full discovery of who he himself really is. Then I mean something of the fulfillment of his own God-given powers, in the love of others and of God.
Merton, op. cit. p. xv
He has more to say about salvation, but he lists self-discovery first. I've been thinking lately about "salvation" so I found Merton's comments particularly interesting.

When he says "salvation," what is he talking about? What are we being saved from? We need to be saved from a life Merton describes here:

Why do we have to spend our lives striving to be something that we would never want to be, if we only knew what we wanted? Why do we waste our time doing things which, if we only stopped to think about them, are just the opposite of what we were made for?
op. cit. 7.8 (p. 126)
There is an even more basic thing we need: we need to know that we are loved by God. We need to know that we're not perfect, and we need to know that it's okay, because nobody is. We need to know that life doesn't consist in possessions or status or even physical health.

And so we must disconnect from thoughtless and automatic activity once in a while. We need to take time for what's important, to tend to our souls. To have unscheduled time. As Buechner wrote in Secrets in the Dark, there are times when it is quiet and you don't really have to do anything, when

[t]he time is ripe for looking back over the day, the week, the year, and trying to figure out where we have come from and where we are going to, for sifting through the things we have done and the things we have left undone for a clue to who we are and who, for better or worse, we are becoming. (59)
Rather than doing the usual thing, once in a while we need to look back, to consider the clues about who we are and who we are becoming.

I'm doing that now, particularly as I try to adjust to the idea of a world where my earthly father no longer lives.

No comments: