Life’s Contradictions

It has struck me recently how much we are full of contradictory feelings. For myself after a morning walk followed by some reflective reading over coffee, there is a kind of gentle contentedness. Upon venturing out a little later, that mood is easily disrupted by a mildly irritable edginess. Or a sense of accomplishment in some small matter is readily overwhelmed by feelings of inadequacy. We have said before that an ongoing challenge is to retain or recover a sense of our sacred worth that includes a recognition and even an acceptance of limitations and mistakes.

Henri Nouwen has written: “Self-rejection is the greatest enemy of the spiritual life because it contradicts the sacred voice that calls us the ‘Beloved.’ Being the Beloved constitutes the core truth of our existence.” Along similar lines, Thomas Merton has written in one of his journals that there was a period of immense inner upheaval in his life, yet beneath this churning turmoil, there remained a deep inner peace that proved to be more real. Years ago, I attempted a one-sentence summary of Merton’s extensive writings in these words. For Merton, each of us is a unique word uttered with meaning and love from the heart of the universe.

Sometimes it is easy to lose sight of and feeling for this sense of underlying worth and sacredness, amid the weight of the hurts, fears, and hostilities that can sometimes govern our thoughts, attitudes, and actions. Yet somehow that inner voice is always there, quietly calling us to remember that sacredness, to return to our inmost home.

So often it takes someone else to call us home, to remind us of that sacred worth beneath and yet inclusive of the turmoil, the shadows of our lives.

A favourite sonnet of Shakespeare (XXX) is also a reminder of this difficult but necessary truth, often realized only through friendship..
When to the sessions of sweet silent thought
I summon up remembrance of things past,
I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought,
And with old woes new wail my dear time’s waste:

But if the while I think on thee, dear friend,
All losses are restor’d, and sorrows end.

Humanistic psychologist, Erich Fromm, contrasts what he calls selfishness with a genuine self-love. He sees selfishness as rooted in a lack of self-love. It is a greediness rooted in the frustration of the real self, and is an over-compensation for the basic lack of self-love. In his words: “Greed is a bottomless pit which exhausts the person in an endless effort to satisfy the need without ever reaching satisfaction.” and “Greed has no satiation point, since its consummation does not fill the inner emptiness, boredom, loneliness, and depression it is meant to overcome.”

In brief, without a sense of our own sacred worth, we become an emptiness that forever tries to fill that void by taking from outside. A genuine sense of worth moves towards a sense of fulness, a sense that one has something to give; it moves towards a fulness that overflows rather than an insatiable emptiness that is never filled. And yet there is probably a life-long struggle within most of us between these two polarities.

In a similar vein, what we may call “spiritual” writers with a holistic sense, such as Karl Rahner, Wilfrid Cantwell Smith, Sam Keen, and Roger Schutz of Taizé, affirm in a similar way that a basic trust in the meaningfulness of life is foundational for everything else in a person.. They offer a positive answer to Einstein’s basic question: Is the universe friendly or not? This underlying attitude of trust involves both a trust in the meaningfulness of life and in the unfolding process of life within ourselves, despite and even inclusive of the events from without and the conflicts and struggles from within that impel us to close ourselves in a defensive mistrust.

The opposite approach is pointed out by David Steindl-Rast, whose writing is focused on gratefulness. He says how we talk about not being able to “take” it anymore, and then we “give” up. This language reflects an approach that sees life as a matter of taking, grasping, possessing things and persons from outside. And it sees giving as giving up, as loss, as diminishing. Erich Fromm against suggests the opposite. In his words. “Not the one who has much is rich, but the one who gives much.” The taking approach presumes a never-ending insatiable emptiness. The giving approach reflects a sense of fulness that overflows. Of course, not only culturally but personally, there is often a struggle between these polarities. The use of possessive language, such as the term “my”in front of relationships, such as my friend or my child, reflects implicitly that orientation. The term “befriend” suggests the opposite, a reaching out from within rather than a grasping from without.

May each of you come more and more to realize that your inner self is a place of fulness, not emptiness, and that, even with its contradictions and struggles, it can be a real home not only for yourselves but for others as well.

Norman King, May 09, 2021