I used to be afraid that deliberately entering into a spiritual practice would lead to the end of my individuality. But the opposite is the case.
Union and higher purpose — a sends of the ultimate universality of all true Law, of Love, and of Life — actually free us up to be ourselves. That is, I am, for example, happier to be a white man, an American, of such and such means and such and such abilities, than I ever was back when I insisted with much more pained stridency in the special uniqueness of my own soul.
A paradox. Not am I more happy to accept what is good about my particular situation (I am happy to note the accomplishments and great qualities of my ancestors and my native culture, for example); but I also am more happy to notice and admit to my failings.
I don’t just mean my spiritual failings (indeed these, I probably vastly under-rate… if I rated them as serious as they deserve, they might well be much lesser failings). But I am talking here instead about my limitations as a physical being — my particular mental deficiencies, my physical deficiencies, the diseases that run in my family, etc. I have much less of a feeling of “Why meeeee?” when I dwell on the problems that beset me (such as they are).
It might be overstating it to claim I don’t feel bothered at all by my various (small) pieces of bad luck. But I can say in all honesty that I am perfectly capable of feeling cheerful about my own problems in a way that I never was before. The only sense of cheer I could get before out of a bad situation was a kind of bitter ironic humor. This might have its place sometimes, but unless leavened with real joy, I find we’re left with a hard puck of … bitter irony. Sometimes, nowadays, I manage the joy without any bitterness or irony at all! (Please don’t ask me to demonstrate this on spot-request… I might still be brimming over with resentment on any given day!)
When I think about my good particularities and my bad particularities, I can see how I fit into the bigger picture (at least to a degree I can see it… if I can’t see all the specifics at least I get the feeling, I grasp the concept of fitting into a bigger picture).
It’s ok to be just little old me, because I know that’s just one sliver of what is going on in the universe, and I know that I’m a fully integrated part of that greater whole. I do not need to contain multitudes because I am a part of a much, much greater whole, and entire creation of meaning.
The opposite feeling, a feeling of alienation, leads one to reject specificity. Cultural specificity, the burden of family history, the peculiarity of one’s hometown: all this becomes unbearable restricting.
The alienated soul feels an intense desire to burst out of its bonds. Everything specific, most especially those things which come closest to home (one’s own family, history, religion) is like a tie that binds. The alienated soul still dimly senses that there is something very powerful within — a great soul yearning for fulfillment — and so interprets the given world as a horrible prison to be rejected and thrown off. The alienated soul will become a god-man, it declares. “I shall contain all possibilities”
It ends, of course, by containing none… ends in nothingness, and a total lack of personality.
This is an interesting comment. I wonder what relation this idea has with the quality of integration within a personality. By this I mean the concordance of virtues and opinions across a person’s character, ideas, and projects.
Some great men have had big gaps in their non-integration: contrast the spirituality of Dostoevsky’s novels with his gambling addiction. Others seem to have integration: for example, Tolkien. I hope I am distinguishing this properly from “hypocrisy” or “badness.” Nixon, for instance, was integrated in that intelligence, energy, and manipulativeness manifested themselves in every area of his life. Bruce Charlton made a critique on these lines of J.K. Rowling, I think.
Is a lack of integration within a personality related in any way to the personality’s integration with the world?
It’s hard for me to say, though it bears further reflection. The line between non-integration and hypocrisy is hard to make out, though I understand your intention to distinguish the two. As someone who’s been both a hypocrite and (in my better moments) a merely non-integrated soul (in the sense I think you mean with your Dostoevsky example), it’s hard for me to speak on cases like Tolkien. Pray for me and ask again in 20 years perhaps! =)
Off the cuff, I would say that the answer to your last question — is self-integration related to world-integration — the obvious answer would seem to be: Yes. After all, one is a part of the world, n’est-ce pas? The former leads to an inner strength that allows one to open up to the world around, and the latter helps ground a person in a way that should (does) make self-integration more natural.
Still, there must be room for the infinite variations of man. For some, madness seems to be a form of integration, perhaps even for Dostoevsky. The heartbreaking loveliness of Alyosha and Father Zossima in “The Brothers Karamazov” depend in great part on the contrasting (and totally believable) carnal passion of Dmitry and even the foul baseness of the elder Karamazov. 600 pages of Father Zossima’s reminiscing would be dreadfully dull and not very spiritual in the end. He’d be too easy to dismiss if it weren’t for the Smerdyakovs and Ivans who race to dismiss him so articulately, prompting the reader to consider who right. Reading Dostoevsky, we never get the sense that a moralist is trying to hoodwink us, but rather that the strongest possible arguments for both sides are being advanced — and it is THAT which lends such power to the spirituality. Who else but the tormented Dostoevsky could have written them all so convincingly?
(Note: this is NOT an endorsement of the modern cult of the “insane genius artist.” Nevertheless, just as careful quiet philology and steady, loving Catholic marriage made Tokien capable of Beren and Luthien; and just as the author of “Paradise Lost” must be blind and the composer of the Symphony No. 9 in D, deaf; perhaps Dostoevsky’s degenerate gambling is more integrated with his spirituality than it appears at first blush. An example, perhaps, of “the fool becoming wise through his foolishness.” But I don’t know enough about any of these cases to go beyond bald speculation.)
(And now I just want to go read the Brothers Karamazov again! Ha ha.)
Wow, fantastic article.