­Through the glass darkly

The tyranny of self-absorption

People grow less self-aware the more self-absorbed they become. An explanation for this apparent incongruity would be that genuine self-awareness entails the overcoming or transcendence of the self. The principle of self-denial, so foundational to Buddhism or asceticism more broadly, exemplifies this ancient piece of wisdom. Enlightenment demands a degree of perspective or proportion that brings with it an eclipse of the self and invites a humbling and liberating self-awareness.

As Simone Weil wrote, “The self is only the shadow cast by sin, which blocks the light of God”.

But the self-absorption that is so prominently on display in the present day precludes such transcendence. It involves an inflation of the self that results in the eclipse of all phenomena transcendent to it. The question that materializes in this age is not so much, what do I matter, but what does anything else matter but me? In the ego-centric cosmos, the I is the center around which all else revolves.

To appreciate the mindset that prevailed in an earlier day, consider the cathedrals that arose in Europe in the Middle Ages. For their erection, centuries were needed. In that time and in those endeavours, uncounted lives were spent. Yet of those lives, hardly anything is recorded. Their architects, their laborers are, for the most part, nameless. It is not so much that the passage of time consigned them to oblivion; rather, as philosopher Owen Barfield has noted, Early man’s lack of ego was in marked contrast to the insect-like self-preoccupation of modern man. Man may have occupied a privileged place in God’s creation, but there was nothing privileged or exceptional about individuals. Yet it was egoless men who constructed Chartres, Canterbury, Notre Dame, and so many other great works.

Of what comparable glories can modern man boast? Of comforts and conveniences, he has plenty. And such innovations do merit astonishment, however commonplace they now may seem. But the wonders of the modern age are self-serving and, in the end, abasing. They are the impetuously-begotten brainchildren of beings whose paramount aim is to preserve themselves in comfort.

There is then the narrowness of a modern man’s quest for knowledge, a quest predicated on the conceit that the only knowledge that counts is what is quantifiable and scientific. In relentlessly probing the material universe, man has blinded himself to the spiritual outlook of an earlier day, an outlook that inspired works of sublimity that man no longer appears capable of conceiving.

A lack of courage and honesty is evident in the inability or unwillingness to confront what science discloses about the nature of reality, namely that it is meaningless. The crude distortion of science, as presented by Dawkins, Harris, and so many others who “would unweave the rainbow” declare that man is but a brute, the product of chance mutations and a blind evolutionary process, occupying some random and remote rock circling an incidental star at the center of a solar system belonging to a galaxy of more than one hundred billion stars in a universe that embraces an estimated two trillion galaxies. The disquieting revelation that man’s entire world amounts to and means nothing, embraced with enthusiasm by the new atheists, an earlier generation, facing these conclusions, including Frederic Nietzsche, Mathew Arnold, and Albert Camus, honestly and courageously mourned the loss of transcendent meaning.

Modern man is not simply unheroic, but anti-heroic. Yet in spite of all this, he maintains an air of self-importance that, on the one hand, allows him to discount the nihilistic consequences of his convictions and on the other, makes it so difficult for him to countenance any depreciation of his self-determined worth. Thus, the same person who is utterly unperturbed by the knowledge that he is aimlessly adrift in a cosmic void becomes upset when microaggressed or misgendered.

Those who came before were able to endure so much not simply because it was their lot, but because their ego was limited. In a world riddled with uncertainty, they beheld and accepted the precariousness of life; that it could be lost at any moment. What today would be considered the intolerable transience of existence was made bearable by the knowledge that one belonged to something much larger than oneself; that one was inextricably entwined with generations past and generations to come; that one’s sojourn on this earth, however ephemeral, possessed transcendent meaning. We today are able to endure so little not only because we are so unaccustomed to hardship, but because our egos are all-consuming. In making themselves the centers of the universe, while the inhabitant of an earlier day understood that the divine comedy would play on once he exited the stage, the inhabitant of this age knows that his one-man show concludes with his departure from the scene.

Barnaby ffrench

 

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