Monday, June 04, 2007

Are You Experienced?

A common unspoken assumption among many today holds that success in life depends on attaining the broadest span of experiences to be had. To give an example: young persons are often dissuaded from 'settling down' in marriage on the grounds that they haven't 'seen enough of life yet'. Or people leave perfectly good jobs only to prove that they are not 'tied down'. To marry early, have kids and work the same job for forty years, once a symbol of civic virtue, has been renamed 'selling out'.

Over 2500 years ago the philosopher Heracleitus taught that one cannot step twice into the same river because the river is constantly changing, the water constantly flowing. The world around me is always changing, and I, as a part of this world, also change constantly, if often imperceptibly.

What this means is that every moment, if we cultivate the awareness for it, is a new experience, no matter what formal activity we are undertaking. The person who grows a garden for the first time cannot know what it is like to grow a garden for the fortieth time. This observation elicits an important conclusion: we can only achieve certain experiences by stability. What is it like to be married to the same person for fifty years? One can only have that particular experience by attempting it and receiving the grace to see it through. What is it like to be Horowitz at the piano? While most of us lack the talent ever to have any glimpse of this experience, we can say with certainty that it can only be achieved by allowing oneself to be 'tied down' to practicing scales everyday for decades. Furthermore, by seeking these particular experiences, one also eschews other experiences, some worthy (a pianist cannot also be a construction worker) and some not (constant philandering jeopardizes a marriage).

An objection foten voiced to those entering the cloister is that by leaving the world behind, one is 'missing out on life'. I hope that the above reflection demonstrates the absurdity of this. We pray the same Psalms week after week, it is true, but it remains to me to cultivate the attentiveness that hears the voice of Jesus Christ speaking in them ever new. We live with the same persons day in and day out, but I can choose to grow in love toward them, or pay no particular attention to this dynamic possibility and instead daydream about what I will get to do when my daily obligations are finished.

Instead of cultivating a personal presence to the immediate and real, an awareness of life as it is happening right now, our escapist cultural biases pressure us constantly to imagine life somewhere else, some other 'new' experience that we might miss out on if we 'get in a rut'. This is the demon of accedia. The way to defeat it is by stability of place and of heart.


Halden said...

This is an excellent post. I'd be curious about your reflections on a post I recently wrote on stability at my blog:

Thanks again, this is awesome and very encouraging!


Anonymous said...

Whoa - good stuff! This is exactly what I've given myself to over the years - wanting to be elsewhere, living vicariously, etc.

That you've connected it with acedia is interesting, because I've seen resentment ("I won't do something because it is too difficult, so I will therefore de-value it.") linked to sloth. Definitely a connection there.


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