From Thomas Merton’s No Man Is An Island:
“… the loss of faith has involved at the same time a complete loss of all sense of reality. Being means nothing to those who hate and fear what they themselves are. Therefore they cannot have peace in their own reality (which reflects the reality of God). They must struggle to escape their true being, and verify a false existence by constantly viewing what they themselves do. They have to keep looking in the mirror for reassurance… They are hoping for some sign that they have become the god they hope to become by means of their own frantic activity – invulnerable, all powerful, infinitely wise, unbearably beautiful, unable to die!”
I would not dispute the truth of this statement. In fact with just some cursory effort and a little insight it is plainly evident in our so progressive western world. However what I cannot get onboard with is his sort of accusatory tone, as if all of us are completely aware of our choice between valuing who and what we really are vs. what we think is valuable which is to say power and invulnerability or that which we think makes us powerful and invulnerable. Money is power, owning things, a big house, a fancy car is to be admired. Power and prestige in our social and professional circles make us invulnerable. I out rank you therefore I have power over you therefore I am invulnerable to you. This is what we think, this is what we are taught, whether by word or deed that these are the truths of life.
Most of us are not aware of the other option, plain and simple. We are taught from the beginning of life to strive for power and avoid vulnerability from other people who were taught right from the beginning of life to strive for power and avoid vulnerability. It is all we know, it is all we ever knew so how could we know any other way and why does he make it sound so downright morally reprehensible? This of course is easy to do when we come to a place of feeling morally superior when we think we have ‘found’ God. I know that feeling, that attitude because I had a bit of it not all that long ago. You start to figure a few things out, you get to thinking you’re on the right track to the secret that’s hidden from everyone else, you start to thinking that you’ve got it all worked out and you’re feeling pretty good about yourself. And so it becomes easy to point out how others are completely missing the point. They don’t get it those silly, ignorant, spiritually bereft people. Look at them with their big cars and their big, important jobs and their high-falutin social life. But I know those things means nothing, I just don’t understand why they don’t get it.
I do believe that those people that Mr. Merton speaks of above are indeed struggling to escape their true being and quite possibly verify a false existence but I would venture to guess that very few of them are really, truly looking in the mirror at themselves and you see there’s the rub; they’re not necessarily aware that there is a mirror that needs looking into.
I am coming to believe – most certainly it is true for me and I would venture to guess for every other individual who spends their days struggling to escape their true being that the denial, the struggle for power, the quest for invulnerability, the striving for external rewards to validate their lives is not only the product of the education handed down to us via our environment but more importantly and far more tragically it is the result of our instinct for self-preservation.
Our need for power and invulnerability is a response to a position whereby we were completely powerless and totally vulnerable, oftentimes to those who chose to abuse their position of power and authority, who chose to stomp on our vulnerability instead of treating it with kindness and gentleness and respect. It has to happen, loved ones get sick, they die, they develop addictions or simply become mean and bitter. People we love hurt us in their efforts to tackle and subdue their own demons. It cannot be helped. Our need for power and invulnerability is a normal, human response to a version of life that includes disappointment and pain and suffering, these things cannot be avoided in any life.
If I continue directing all my energy towards striving for power and invulnerability, material things, all that is characteristic of our external world then I don’t have to notice myself. I don’t have to notice my feelings. I don’t have to notice my vulnerability and I don’t have to notice any pain that might still linger long after the stomping has occurred. This is what we fear, laying our hearts open and running the risk of having it stomped on yet again. And if I stop striving long enough to realize that there is an inner world to go along with that outer world than I am faced with the realization that I might have to look into that world and see what’s there.. and feel what’s there. Who in their right mind wouldn’t choose a sports car and a big fancy house over that?
And all I can think to say is I never knew. I never, ever knew I was doing this.