The Greatest Risk
Listening to On Being, on the way home from work today: Jean Vanier talks about the wisdom of tenderness. He talks about St. Francis of Assisi, who said that his encounter with lepers brought a “new gentleness” to his body, and his spirit. To his body, and his spirit.
If you aren’t familiar with On Being, the question that drives the podcast is, “What does it mean to be human?”
The answer for Vanier is bound up in reality, and for him, that means the body. He mentions the joy and freedom he has found ageing in his body. How his ageing body solicits new, and different responses from the people around him. He’s hugged more often.
Maybe that is something that comes with the wisdom gained by moving through the world, this gentleness of the body and spirit. More hugs.
I am still working out the connection between the body and the spirit. Between the spirit and the phenomenological, day to day reality of the body acting in the world. The tongue articulating, the fingers producing symbols that force other people’s perceptions into existence, right or wrong.
The counselling textbook I’m reading claims that, according to existential theory, our “essence” is the product of our actions. I have problems accepting this. For one thing, an essence must be unchanging. An essence, by definition, determines character. Character determines the choices we make. How can we grow if our choices are (pre)determined by an unchanging, true self? If our choices and actions create our essence, at which point is this essence fully-formed?
It seems to me existentialist would have to drop the idea of essence all together. Didn’t Sartre?
I am probably missing something; I’ve forgotten my Kierkegaard. But I am wondering if it would be a wise use of my time, at this point, to go back and attempt to rehash the old, one-sided arguments I’ve had with dead philosophers.
The fact is, I don’t believe that any of us have an essence, a real “I” that will be discovered, uncovered or freed through an epiphany of any sort. I recognise the person I was ten years ago. Thirty years ago. Two. But I’ve changed, in ways that defy an essence (though, granted, people who’ve known me throughout those years may not perceive what I know are a series of sea changes).
If a mean, little god were to take me, as I am now, to any time period in my life and drop me there, I would experience shame in regard to my actions. It seems simple to me: if I were the product of those actions, if those actions created my essence, I would not be ashamed of them.
Unless the essence of my being is bound with shame in some way.
But I’m beginning to understand that shame is not an essential part of me. Only now, heading toward 50, I’m beginning to look at the person I was and let go of shame, in favour of sorrow. I am learning compassion. And I think that compassion is probably what St. Francis meant when he spoke of gentleness.
There is a dialogue repeated on twitter in various forms:
“How should we treat others?”
“There are no others.”
We may just as reasonably ask the guru how should we treat ourselves. Compassion is all-encompassing.
There is an interesting project called “What’s Underneath“. Women of all ages answer simple questions while undressing. There is nothing provocative about it. Not in the way that word is usually used.
These women are demonstrating compassion towards their humanness. What it means to be human. To be a body. In the world. And, often, one of the questions is “What is the greatest risk you’ve ever taken?”
I used to think the greatest risk I ever took was moving from my home country. Traveling alone. Getting in a car with a stranger. The women in the project have some very interesting answers.
But I think we are all wrong.
I think the greatest risk is bound up with self-compassion, with gentleness, with forgiveness. It’s stripping down to the human essence that transcends any one of us: the mortal body. And walking around in the world without shame.
It’s an inspiring project.