The Unfolding Self
by Rebecca Bynum (November 2012)
Nothing is so important to a man as his own state, nothing is so formidable to him as eternity; and thus it is not natural that there should be men indifferent to the loss of their existence…
– Blaise Pascal Pensées #194 (emphasis added)
[T]he torment of despair is precisely the inability to die…he cannot consume himself, cannot be rid of himself, cannot become nothing. This is the heightened formula for despair, the rising fever in the sickness of the self.
– Søren Kierkegaard, The Sickness Unto Death
It seems to me there is present in modern humanity a growing ambivalence towards living. Suicide is now the primary cause of injury-related death in the United States and this urge to embrace death is steadily rising. Parallel to this, there seems to be a growing tendency to want to remake ourselves as other people - younger, better-looking, different. Advancing technology and medicine are allowing us to play out our fantasies like never before, and yet we cannot be rid of ourselves, we cannot become different persons no matter how much we may pretend or wish to be so.
Incredibly, we find ourselves marooned upon a small island of reality bracketed by a profound and unknown eternity. We don’t know why we are here in this place and time, yet in pondering the question the possibility of something more, some greater purpose, certainly arises. Still, many people seem entirely willing to toss away the opportunity for eternal life (just like the old woman at the end of the movie Titanic who dropped her priceless gem into the sea – plop, gone, lost forever), without a second thought. How shall we view this unseriousness toward our selves and our destinies? Certainly it is a symptom of the decline of civilization that our culture is not providing people a reason to go on living let alone a reason to cultivate our inner lives in hope that something real will live on in a future existence.
Reality as we know it seems to be one great dynamic process of the potential becoming actual. The potential for the tree is in the seed, the potential for water is in the molecules of hydrogen and oxygen, the potential for the growth of the soul lies in the combination of the material and the spiritual in human experience.
For the mortal man with immortal aspirations (like Martin Buber), it is true that the concerns of this life tend to fall away as the concerns of the next life, of securing one’s place in the next life, loom large. When life is looked upon in this way, what does it matter if one lives during times of civilizational vigor or decline? What does it matter if nations rise or fall? From the eternal viewpoint, life is a testing ground, and is never seen as the sum total of reality. We are just pushing through the dirt and muck of this life in order to reach the sunlight which is almost hidden above. It is easy to lose our way and to move toward the depths, but those who strive to convince others that the way toward darkness is just as life sustaining as the way toward light, should not be given any more credence. We are tired of death and destruction. Eternal life is not only possible, but once that possibility is admitted, it is everything. Nothing else in human experience can compare to the stakes at hand.
We did not create ourselves and we cannot uncreate ourselves. We can be envious and covet that which others have and what they seem to be, but we cannot change who we really are or the potential we alone hold. All we can do is cooperate in the gradual unfolding of our potential. And just as a tree grows more branches so that more leaves, buds and fruit can appear, the more we actualize, the more we grow in potential as well. “For to everyone who has, more will be given.” (Matthew 25:29)
In a sense, our mind and will are the stewards of our eternal selves and so the duty we owe to our creator is found in the development of our true natures, the multiplication of our “talents” according to the parable. We must cooperate in our own becoming, the process of releasing our eternal potential into actual being. This process involves a willingness to be led and directed by our highest moral perception, no matter the material consequences. It involves the process of embracing oneself and accepting all the aspects of one's own being and entails the effort to cultivate our true talents, however small and insignificant they may seem at first. The slow and often painful process of personal growth cannot be bypassed. However much we may want to skip ahead and be now what we have not yet become, time must intervene. The way of the universe is slow, but sure. All growth requires time and we are creatures of time. Our potential unfolds slowly over the course of our lives and this unfolding will continue eternally if we so choose.
The atheist will say, I have no duty to God, rather, if there is a God, he has a duty to me. The believer feels gratitude for his existence, even in suffering, and seeks to find his duty to God. The believer will seek to find and then to do the will of God, he will seek higher motives to replace lower ones, he will seek an ever higher morality and he will seek to do that which is right even in the face of complex emotion and conflicting feelings. He will lay down his will and his life for a greater will and a greater life – he must give all that he has in order to become more than he is.
There is no easy way to enter eternal life. For every person, the cost is steep, very steep, and it will never be less. “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and hid; and for joy over it he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.” (Matthew 13:44) The cost of entrance is sometimes one last secret sin which must be placed upon the scale. One might possibly do hundreds or thousands of good works, but without that final sacrifice, small as it may be, the door will remain locked.
Eternal life has to be the thing desired above all else. There is no way around the cost, the cost is all men really have, the only thing of value to God, and that is our will. When we give our will to God it is not a passive thing. It is not simply a matter of following the rules laid out by scripture, rather, the seeking and doing of God’s will is dynamic and all encompassing. We give God not only our actions, but our thoughts as well. We allow him to enter our minds and change our thoughts. There is no hiding, there can be nothing held back, and there is no going back once that threshold is crossed.
Thereafter, one may feel like a stranger in a strange land – a sojourner on earth. But it is incumbent upon all those who have seen the promised land to become thereafter ambassadors of that land and to represent it to their fellows who have yet to see it. The end of the earth is not dust and death. There is a place where all things of value are saved, where the wheat is separated from the chaff, that is, where the real is separated from the unreal. This has been called the kingdom of heaven but it might also be called the kingdom of permanence, the kingdom of the real.
Rebecca Bynum's latest book is Allah is Dead, Why Islam is Not a Religion.
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