I went to see a movie with a friend last weekend... "Uncle Boonmee Who can Recall his Past Lives", a film by the Thai director, Apichatpong Weerasethakul. The film received very favourable reviews and was awarded the prestigious Palme d'Or at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival. My friend and I were both a little dumbfounded... While the film meanders through the past lives of the principal character, Boonmee, who is dying from kidney disease (that he allegedly attributes to bad karma for the killing of insects and Communists), it never really seems to go anywhere. A water buffalo who enjoys a short-lived few minutes of freedom, a princess who cavorts with a catfish, a tamarind farmer who cultivates delicious honey and fathers a son who runs away to live with ghost monkeys and whose dead wife returns to haunt him ("Heaven is over-rated", she tells him)... there doesn't seem to be anything that connects it all together. Admittedly, though the film proved great fodder for our post-viewing existential analysis of its content, I'm not sure we ever arrived at a theme. Life can be like that, sometimes. If you don't know where you're going, it really doesn't matter how you get there.
It is only in retrospect, that we can come to glean the underlying themes that thread their way through our lives, meandering like the myriad rivulets and streams that join into rivers before disgorging themselves into the ocean. When I look back, for example, I see themes that suggest a strong connection to learning and devotion or service. I have spent the principal part of my career working in the not-for-profit sector (for example, providing services for persons with disabilities, or connected with public safety), or in roles that have a strong teaching or learning component (bookselling, literacy and adult basic education, writing). I think it is well for us to understand our strengths. They can help us to chart our course and mark our future destination.
In their book, "Now, Discover your Strengths", Marcus Buckingham and Donald O. Clifton, Ph.D. invite readers to "discover their talents, build them into strengths and enjoy consistent, near-perfect performance". The authors ask us to put aside our natural tendency to dwell on our failings and weaknesses and instead to embrace our strengths in a journey of self-discovery and empowerment. Built on Gallup research, the original book (now enhanced with Strengthsfinder 2.0) asks the reader to complete a short online assessment that then returns "signature themes" that the reader can explore in some detail to help them to manage and develop these strengths to greater advantage. The emphasis on positive psychology and the sound, technical basis for the assessment tool are particularly compelling. I found that the themes strongly resonated with my own conscious reflection of who I am.
Of course, in delineating our destination, we must begin with the right premises, for if our premises are false, any conclusion is possible. There is this anecdote, often attributed to the mathematician and philosopher, Bertrand Russell, on the folly of drawing conclusions from questionable premises and the nature of contradiction: Russell was asked to prove from a mathematical contradiction that he was the Pope. He is quoted as follows:
"Let us start with the contradiction 3=2. Subtract unity from both sides. We get 2=1.
Now, the Pope and I are two. But, since 2=1, the Pope and I are one."
As a matter of interest, there is a delightful YouTube video that features a short excerpt of a BBC interview with the elder Russell in which the interviewer prompts Lord Russell for advice he would give to his descendents. Russell first gives an intellectual response: "When you are studying any matter or considering any philosophy, ask yourself only what are the facts and what is the truth that the facts bear out. Never let yourself be diverted either by what you wish to believe or by what you think would have beneficent social effects if it were believed..." In turn, this is followed by a moral teaching: "Love is wise, hatred is foolish". The video is to be found here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g3jnEqXhDNI
It is a matter of some difficulty, certainly, to be able to define ourselves in strictly objective terms. For to "know yourself" is to entertain the notion that the knower and the thing to be known are one and the same and subject to some degree of subjectivity and error. But we are not looking for a precise measure and it is enough, I think that our past actions and feedback from others can constitute a pretty fair barometer of our character. The critical thing here, is to be able to participate whole-heartedly in self-inquiry, never ceasing to ask, "who am I"? and never being satisfied with the answer.
The Book of Genesis describes an extraordinary event: Jacob, son of Isaac, grandson of the Patriarch, Abraham, wrestles with God:
"And Jacob was left alone; and there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day. And when he saw that he prevailed not against him, he touched the hollow of his thigh; and the hollow of Jacob's thigh was out of joint, as he wrestled with him. And he said, Let me go, for the day breaketh. And he said, I will not let thee go, except thou bless me. And he said unto him, What is thy name? And he said, Jacob. And he said, Thy name shall be called no more Jacob, but Israel: for as a prince hast thou power with God and with men, and hast prevailed. And Jacob asked him, and said, Tell me, I pray thee, thy name. And he said, Wherefore is it that thou dost ask after my name? And he blessed him there. And Jacob called the name of the place Peniel: for I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved."
Genesis, Chapter 32
Many religions and sacred teachings speak about the goal of being united with God, of becoming one with the divine, of discovering our nature as whole and complete beings. Intellectually, it is easy for us to say, "O.K." I'm one with the universe. What's the big deal?" In practice, things are a little different. The vicissitudes of daily life pull us and push us and stretch us and strain us. We are far from the equanimity, the peace, the tranquility and the happiness that we imagine is our birthright. Jacob had all kinds of troubles of his own... he had plotted with his mother to steal his birthright from his brother, Esau (a brother intent on killing him whom he was going home to meet the very day after his encounter with God), marital difficulties... A man plagued by troubles and fear and doubt. He had a lot on the line. We must, like Jacob, enter into the ring, and grapple with God. We must be willing to put ourselves on the line ("to belly up to the bar", as a friend of mine so quaintly put it). We struggle. We suffer.
Where are we going? We are all going into that dark night of the soul. That is our ultimate destination. And so our journey takes on a special meaning. It is critically important that we understand its nature: that it is not the things we acquire or own, the accoutrements of our travels that are important. It is what we become by virtue of our struggle to understand the meaning of our existence.
A Swahili warrior song says,
"Life has meaning only in the struggle. Triumph or defeat is in the hands of the Gods... So let us celebrate the struggle!"
The 17th Century philosopher, Baruch Spinoza offers an alternate, but very Buddhist view:
"The more you struggle to live, the less you live. Give up the notion that you must be sure of what you are doing. Instead, surrender to what is real within you, for that alone is sure. As stars high above earth, you are above everything distressing. But you must awaken to it. Wake up!"
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