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Sunday, 27 March 2011

Realising Balance

Unusually, I don’t really feel much like writing at the moment. Oh, there are themes enough – and I have a couple of posts half finished – but the motivation to complete them is pretty weak. Do the world, the internet, you, dear reader, really need my views about the pros and cons of the current actions of the so-called “coalition of the willing” against Ghadaffi in Libya? There’s enough discussion going on elsewhere about it – pick the commentator of your choice and have your own preconceptions affirmed.

I feel a certain sense of cynicism and powerlessness about many things right now. Looked at from a rational point of view, there’re so many messes in the world which could be better dealt with if people were only prepared to be more reasonable, to be less sure that they were absolutely right. If people were prepared to listen more, to approach each other with an attitude of tolerance and generosity. But they’re not and so the messes continue, many of them getting worse as a result.

If I’m going to be really honest about it though, this sense of cynicism and powerlessness probably has more to do with me personally. Too much time spent at work recently (much of which I don’t particularly enjoy at the moment), the feeling that the winter has been too long, some banal aches and pains …

Nothing serious, nothing that I’m not capable of dealing with. Even the stuff at work – but that’s a longer term project, something I’m not really ready to talk about yet; there are some alternatives I’m working at the moment which won’t be clearer for another couple of months.

Maybe that’s part of the problem. I am well aware that some things can’t be changed overnight, that the phrase, “with one fell swoop our hero broke free,” is something better suited to penny-dreadfuls than to real life. Often, real life involves patience and compromise; doing things by degrees, waiting for processes to ripen, working things through. The important part is remaining open and flexible, seeing and being ready for opportunities to grow. The changes that we wish for don’t always come easily, or immediately – but this doesn’t mean that we should give up working on them, for them, towards them.

Pocket psychology, I know; truth in truisms. The feeling that we need to change something in our lives is often a result of a gradual awareness of discontentment, dissatisfaction; there follows an analysis of the situation and then decisions about actions which we judge will improve the situation, fix it, make it right.

Our ability to analyse situations and conditions, to judge them as unsatisfactory and imperfect and to long for some kind of perfection as a solution is one of humanity’s greatest blessings and, at the same time, possibly its greatest curse. The image of the restless heart has been frequently used as a kind of argument for the necessity of the existence of the Absolute, God, call it what you will – particularly in western thought. It is as much behind Plato’s thinking in his famous Allegory of the Cave in The Republic, as it is in Augustine’s famous phrase in The Confessions, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”

I call this urge for perfection a blessing because it constantly drives us to look at what we have, at concrete situations, to imagine something better and to work to change things. It is the motor behind any kind of progress, our best weapon against fatalism. It is what drives researchers and scientists, doctors and relief workers, philanthropists and idealists. It is what gives power and energy to protestors and revolutionaries – and also provides some kind of vicarious justification for tyrants, ideologues and dictators.

For it also a curse; a constant source of dissatisfaction, a nagging feeling that what we have, what we have achieved, isn’t really it, isn’t that perfection we were longing for, striving towards. Having obtained our heart’s desire, it turns to dust. We realise that this too is not perfect, that it cannot live up to that imagined, inchoate fantasy of perfection which inspired us. So we frequently set ourselves new goals, dream new dreams, move on to possess or conquer more – only to fail to fulfil ourselves again. Sisyphus, doomed to continually push his rock up the hill.

For Plato and Augustine the reason for this is clear; we are chasing shadows on the wall, phantasms, trying to satisfy our longing for the true infinity and perfection of the Absolute with substitutes which cannot content us.

Yet I wonder. We can only describe perfection with reference to that which it is not – all that we experience, anything we can achieve or think. It is an almost instinctive affirmation that there must be something more. But is there any other reason for this apart from our feeling, our longing for it? Oh, we can turn this longing easily enough into a logical postulate – this is, in my view, the basis of all the various forms of what is called in philosophy the ontological argument, (though those who defend it will inevitably immediately disagree) – but I have always viewed such arguments as smacking of logical legerdemain, attempts to prove something to be true because we would so badly like it to be so.

We are indeed driven by a continual desire for something more, a desire which can be seen as insatiable. In the end, I think, it is the result of rational self-awareness combining with that already present deeper characteristic, primate inquisitiveness. Like so many other characteristics of human behaviour, basically monkey business.

But there is another way of seeing things. Instead of letting ourselves be driven by a search for an unattainable perfection, seeing our lives and our existence as an exile from the ineffable, a constant questing for a paradise lost, an unhappy sense of incompletion, we can understand ourselves as part of a dynamic sense of becoming; a wonderful complexity of processes coming into being, maturing and fading away, a-borning, a-growing and a-dying, feeding into each other, influencing and changing each other, creating myriads of ever-changing patterns. More ancient than Plato, there is another strand even to western philosophical thinking; the Πάντα ῥεῖ [panta rhei] of Heraclitus, meaning “everything flows.” According to such a view, perfection itself becomes meaningless – we are instead part of a continual process of flux, with countless beautiful patterns forever morphing into something else. And we “go with the flow,” though not simply as flotsam on the stream, but as active agents, contributing with everything we do to all the stories, the pictures, the symphonies continually being made of and in life; dramas and tragedies, comedies and farces.

Seen this way, Sisyphus (as Albert Camus recognised in his essay The Myth of Sisyphus in 1942) indeed becomes a metaphor for the human condition, one who, for all the senselessness of his task, is not unfulfilled. Camus concludes his work with the observation, “The struggle itself ... is enough to fill a man's heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”

It’s nearly a week since I started writing this. I’ve spent a lot of that time visiting my parents in Ireland with my daughter and her four-year-old son. Perhaps it has something to do with doing something very different; taking a week off work, being on the move with my grandson, experiencing the immediacy of life the way he lives it. Maybe it has a little to do with just writing this, following the flow of my own thoughts in what could be seen as an awfully convoluted explanation to myself about why I have been finding writing more difficult recently. At any rate, I have a feeling of some kind of balance regained, or perhaps just a realisation that that balance was always there, the balance which comes from movement in dynamism. It’s just not always so easy to be aware of it.

Life is like riding a bicycle; you can only find your balance when you’re moving.


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