Suspending Judgment, Embracing Wonder
There are some books whose urgency and vitality penetrate past the judgmental mind. These demand a move and counter move, a contest not meant to win but to experience. This endless grasping and holding and pushing away brings intimacy. The Need for Roots and The Human Condition are works that require the reader to become intimate with the needs of humanity and to find peace with the conflicted tension of our human condition. Through these works we encounter intimacy with how we fall apart—and how we can be made whole. For beyond all else these books are intimate encounters with vital minds – survivors of suffering harvesting the seeds of life and finding fertile ground from which to sprout new imaginations of human possibility.
The sheer boldness of purpose of Weil’s efforts to advise the future of France after the Nazi occupation, of Arendt’s demonstration that the human condition is one both admirable and contemptible but most of all shapeable to either of those ends, makes for reading that brings me out of judgment and into wonder.
When I first read these texts, the scholar’s impulse to judge and question came first, but these texts do not surrender to such analysis. I held these words for months, and eventually in the holding the mystic’s instinct for experience, and the mage’s impulse for creative imagination I moved from an academic analysis towards an exercise of imaginative possibilities. I then found myself stateless with Arendt in the aftermath of the war—a person and not a person. I find myself starving and sick with Weil as solidarity with her people slowly killed her body but electrified her mind. Both straddled the end of one age and the sprouts of another, and in this liminal space both dared to imagine, inspire, open, and invite rather than fall to the impulse to argue, convince, close and reject.
It is no accident that these texts brought me back into communion with spiritual texts. They share the very subject of nearly every wisdom work; how we break, how we suffer, how we find faith to heal and hope the world better. The shape of our experienced selves is much the same as that of our collective communities. And this shape denies classification and cataloging. It denies knowing and demands living with possibility and wonder—with endless mystery endlessly experienced.
I used to wonder why history so often skips so much time. But there is a reason we don’t dig into the lives of the mundane every day. We are fascinated by endings and beginnings. Wars particularly punctuate our story of humanity. This seems depressing, until we see these times not as endings, but as thresholds, possibilities held in tension until all the possibilities that were break down and new possibilities have to be imagined. Our endlessly mysterious potential for hope, hope that fuels faith in a tomorrow better than today, awakens in the darkest depths of the human condition.
It is this spirit which infuses these texts, and beyond right or wrong, informs us not simply of what should be, but that what could be is bound only by the horizons of our minds. This seems a great optimism until we understand that those horizons are bounded by our collective and individual memory and experience. Thus, within our hope is the ever present knowledge of future tragedy, and within our tragedy the ever renewable faith that we will outgrow the restrictions of our previous potential—that we will break again and again and again and again the boarders of what has held both our hope and our suffering.
Arendt pays close attention to the walls that have closed in on the modern mind. Walls of society, economy, and power that hem in our imagined possibilities. History itself is the horde at the gates, and if we are to make our world better we must imagine our public and private worlds larger by tearing down the very walls that we think protect us—before those walls collapse under the inescapable pressures of history.
I find the most interesting ideas are born at these edges in time, born of the tension between idealism and realism. Take for example Weil’s idea that individual minds must be utterly free, but that collective minds—media, journalism, scholarship, literature, must not tell us how to think. I understand this impulse. Having seen what the ends of propaganda and perpetuated lies bring, she imagines that something is needed to contain them. This something must always be some organization of people, some select group that determines what is good and what is ill. Thus, the judgment moves from a free judgment of one’s own mind and into a social judgment, which cannot hold any grand ideal for long. The urge for expediency or for conformity in a collective always erode that collective’s ideals. Still, the society that allows falsehoods wide dissemination risks sacrificing the lessons of science, of experience, and of truth. Exposing this fundamental tension between allowing a mind to be free in its own opinion, and yet inhibited from freely evangelizing that opinion dramatizes the conflict at the heart of every liberal, democratic society.
It is here that I think these texts speak so intimately to one another, for while Weil dramatizes these conflicts, Arendt seeks a framework for how to understand human experience from our tripartite lives—individual, public, and social. The ancient Greeks, from her perspective, saw the individual life as the most base, the realm of human necessities of life, sleep, food, sex, waste. The public life was the life that only a few select could hope to attend to, and here they left behind the base needs and attended to the needs of the collective. Only in this realm could one distinguish themselves. Not in service to self, or accumulation of wealth, or even of power, but by accomplishing something great for the commonweal.
The Walls of Self and Social Limitation
Arendt saw that the private realm and the public realm had been largely absorbed into a social realm that didn’t seek to distinguish but to socialize through sameness. She saw our conflicts held in check by expanding social norms that through time and tradition and culture more and more closely intrude on our public and private lives. These social boarders form the all the “shoulds and musts” of life that we swim in without even noticing. These become the invisible walls that block thought, feeling, and experience.
What then makes the social realm so dangerous is that it takes conflicts that can be constructive—take for example the public working out of Weil’s tension—and it makes these conflicts destructive. Societal harmony requires that ideas, opinions, ways of being must be eliminated or prevented rather than integrated or even simply observed. Peace goes beyond harmony, not to the absence of conflict, but to the rejection of violence. Social harmony is not itself an evil, but it can become so when we cease to work and make peace when required in order to absent ourselves from all conflict.
This is why in order to work and make peace, we must first create/hold/inhabit a place of safety. When we are unsafe in body, in mind, in place, in health, the work of peace is nigh impossible. Only extraordinary souls find it possible when in danger to maintain the mindset and embodiment required to create peace. When we create a society in which many find themselves unsafe or actively assaulted by suffering chronic states of fear—when many are required by society to submit to this state so that others who are distant from danger can imagine themselves freed of even the stress of standard discomfort—we sacrifice peace for a enforced veneer of social harmony that perpetuates pain.
This is why in liberal democracies we make conflict within the public sphere a duty—a task to be worked through together. This public duty is in contrast to the social sphere where the work is to avoid conflict. This avoidance often takes on the form of demand and suppresses individual expression. When this occurs it requires alienating individuals that don’t ascribe to the norms imposed either explicitly or implicitly. We often require the acceptance to work from the direction of societal culture. We wait for society to accept difference before we allow difference to be fully present. We make being different a right to be granted by society rather than accepting that the beholding the difference of others is a human obligation of every person.
Peace as the Praxis of Beholding Difference
The real work of peace begins in the public sphere, where space for the outcast, the suffering, and the non-normative is actively made and enforced—not suppressed—through the intentional effort of allowing the being of difference. But never imagine this is simple, easy, straightforward work. Because before this public space can be created, we need a critical mass of individuals who first build this peace within themselves and lead/teach the greater community in the public sphere. Before we can build a society of peace, enough of us have to do the more difficult work of entering into conflict with our own comfort before we can create safety for endangered lives and souls. This becomes the public work of creating public space and making it safe together. The more who can move into peace themselves, the more we can enlarge this sphere, the more we can create safety with one another, the more that we can withstand together without breaking down or out into violence. When enough of us hold peace, this shared space binds us together so that pain is witnessed and felt in community. When held in such a communal space, pain and suffering, and even violence, can be transformed.
In our society, we consider the binding force of self the mind, thus many philosophers have come to believe that society must also be led by a single mind, or leader, or ideal. But a community is not a body. It is a collection of bodies, minds, wills, forces, ideas, stories, beliefs, dangers, and delights. It is a flux. Always changing, flowing together, breaking apart in places, and combining anew. No one can control the flow, and when we try to control it the flow destroys the attempt. Direction, not control, guides the flow. The motion of our collective humanity finds the paths of least resistance, and so carves the landscape of our collective history. The building of empires that dam humanity into one great reservoir, generating wealth and power like we generate electricity, do hold the flow for a time. Yet, ultimately all such constructs break down. When they do, the unrestrained forces unleashed lay waste.
By holding in the great forces of conflict, rather than working out ways to move through these conflicts, we have come to associate peace with a lack of conflict. Peace, rather, is a choice to work out conflict in ways other than by violence. And because conflict feels like harm, because it feels like danger, our very beings rebel against moving into it and making a place of peace within the conflict. We have come to associate conflict with violence, even turning creative conflicts like business into metaphors of war and domination. We story even non-violent conflict in violent terms. We require something like “professionalism” or “courtesy” to hold our violence in check. Doing so, we often deny conflict because we imagine that if we allow the conflict to be fully expressed, we will destroy the safety of our team or workplace or family or community. Yet, conflict denied grows into violence, whereas conflict held and respected and moved through peacefully grows into greater peace.
But our desire but for rest, for sanctuary from conflict, especially after such an event as the war that Weil and Arendt bore witness to, is great. In the aftermath we tend toward a kind of peace that irons out differences and that subsumes our internal struggles—this sows the seeds of future conflict. This process is seen through such actions as the invention or exaggeration of a social enemy. Rather than work to make peace in society, we allow the easy fear of another enemy to bind us together. When this happens, war of one sort seems inevitable. Either we war with the other, or if the other proves unwilling or unable to meet the force of our fear, we find closer “others” to expend our fear upon. The mantra we hold for inner or outer enemies is the same. “You are the reason I am unsafe. You are the reason that all is not well. You are the agent of destruction that I must work to destroy. Once you are gone I will have peace.”
This is why the peace we seek cannot be found in a retreat to our individual lives, nor in the practice of social participation, but only through the action of public life. In the public life we can interact and agitate and work out a peace not through idle avoidance but through an intimacy of respectful communion. But this is action is a choice, and a difficult and rare one. And the seeds of our damnation or salvation are sewn in this choice.
What I fear is occurring in the world, is that the skills to come into communion, to be fully present across differences, across perspectives, across otherness, don’t have a sufficient public training ground. With our need for communion now global, we find our industrial technologies of communication have exceed our technologies for making and holding common ground. Perhaps in the root of religious traditions we have minor models for how to do this work within a community, and perhaps at one time in our history that was enough. But in a world where everyone is our neighbor, and where we are the neighbor of all, we must make new models that work beyond “our community”. No isolated idea, no isolated community, can offer an answer. The praxis of intimate intra-communal conflict will not suffice for inter-communal conflicts. Our inter-communal peace must be worked out and worked through together.
Dance and Banquet as the Practice of Intimacy
The best metaphors I can find for this creative, intimate communion are dance and banquet. In dance, we fully come into presence of our body in community with music with others. While dancing alone can be enjoyable, it is rarely transcendent. And dancing with the right partner, or in a community of joy, is often transcendent. We are both fully ourselves and fully integrated into a more complex presence. The music holds the tension for us, and provides us a medium in which to commune. In banquet, we are both present in ourselves as we eat, and the table forms both that which keeps us apart and brings us together. Remove the table and the image becomes absurd—the table holds the space and the medium of our encounter. As we feed one another and converse and celebrate and often argue, the table holds us in the tension of the meal and the space. There, we are forced to be both self and community. There, we experience intimacy.
Perhaps it is not the conflict that we fear, but the intimacy that creative conflict brings. We prefer the cold, distant conflict of destructive conflict. There, the only emotions that we have to contend with are our own. Perhaps this is why this conflict is so destructive, our emotions, in isolation, don’t flow. They stagnate and decay. Isolation breeds alienation, and alienation is the death of the soul. The alienated soul both craves intimacy and cannot cope with it, so it creates the only intimacy it can, intimate destruction. It takes that which is close to it, and breaks it apart, hoping that this breaking creates release, or expression, or anything that can free the soul from isolation. In this way, destruction points back toward the ultimate need for communion. Since the sick soul cannot commune with what is, it takes that which is and makes it what is not. The act of destruction manifests the sickness we hold inside, makes it external to us, and its destruction gives us an opportunity to witness what is happening internally. It gives others the chance to witness the same. To intervene.
But most often, our destructiveness pushes us further into isolation. Something else is needed to generate transformation into wholeness and peace.
Sick and alienated souls can’t bear the presence of themselves, let along bear the burden of holding space for others as well. And a soul that does not learn to hold their space, and the space of others, is destined to become isolated and ultimately alienated. This is how souls become sick, become diseased, become agents of the ultimate human infectious disease—suffering.
The first step to healing, to communion, is a willingness to get proximate to suffering, to become intimately vulnerable to the suffering of another. Compassion, not isolation and blame, would make a revolution in the treatment of suffering. We cannot blame, isolation, segregation, quarantine, exterminate ourselves out of suffering. Peace requires the willingness of another to encounter your suffering with you, experience it with you without judgment, and walk with you through the dark places. There is no avoiding the human condition we carry within us. And our condition is not fundamentally flawed, it is simply, fundamentally, human. We are fundamentally conflicted, creatively so, both within ourselves and within and among our communities.
Wiel’s observation of the needs of the soul, that they all require a holding of tension of two opposing forces, is deeply true. But rather than an Aristotelian golden mean, the holding of tension requires a movement between the two, moving toward order, and moving toward freedom, never sacrificing the requirement of the other. Those that argue for perfection miss the delight of the dance of the life of the soul. Judging and moralizing they make life an isolated intellectual pursuit, rather than an embodied dance that melds mind and body and spirit into a celebration of union and communion. There is no perfect, there is only the dance. The steps are not so important. As with banquet, the particulars of conversation and food are mostly forgotten in time, but the intension of the participants, the desire to be together is remembered and held.
The magic that makes a vital, vibrant, healthy community is not a formula. You can’t calculate and measure and craft and construct a perfect community. You can only cultivate community itself. Community is not a state that can be ensured, it is only ever a possibility to be held, nurtured, respected. We like to imagine that if we only get the rules right, the community will be ideal. This is the lie that Plato deconstructs in the Republic. If you demand a completely just society, the actions needed to craft such society force it to be extremely unjust.
How Evil Organizes
And here, I turn to the central question that Rivkah and I want to explore: How is evil organized?
I have come to hold that evil organizes to demand absolutism—of all kinds. It is a force that denies what is, because it fears what might become. Evil is thus organized against intimacy. It is most fundamentally manifest as the forces that break us apart, forces that demand separateness to ensure an imagined purity. Evil denies tension yet celebrates violence. It lies that through sufficient violence, otherness can be eliminated. Evil works to deny public conflict by organizing social violence as a force restraining individuality. It crafts a false purity then organizes to enforce itself as an ideal model. The demand for absolute, the inability to hold disappointment of any kind, is the most destructive impulse in humanity.
When we see the framework of social evil, we can come to see how the common good can be organized as well. Evil separates. Good makes whole. Evil cleaves. Good heals. What is most good is most whole. The society of the common good is a whole society. It embraces all. It makes and maintains space for all. It respects and values and dignifies all. It is not an absence of anything, but a completely full presence—removal of anything would make it less than whole.
To Behold Together
In the modern world of social media, we find ourselves bereft of intimacy. The medium trades in social currency, not in communion. Ideas are less important than likes. We flatten out ourselves to be more likeable, more viewable, more sharable, and in doing so we take all the mystic, mythic, tension that mobilizes our souls and say to ourselves and to each other: “You are too much.” You are too much me to be seen, let alone shared or liked. We stop seeing the mystic, mythic magic of others. We start to seek sameness and satiety. We craft and see only a static performance, a stand-in for the fullness of who they, and who we, are. We deny the tension because we haven’t exercised the skills to build confidence with conflict, and thus we can’t bear the vulnerability of the true intimacy of wholeness—we can’t behold.
Thus, my hope for this dialog with Rivkah, and with Weil and Arendt, is to hold this conversation, this experiment, in this spirit of vulnerable peace, of respected difference, of mutual beholding. Let us dance together.