Being Human — a Profound Paradox

Posted on May 5, 2012


“Do not grow old, no matter how long you live. Never cease to stand like curious children before the Great Mystery into which we were born.” (Albert Einstein)

“You are not a human being in search of a spiritual experience. You are a spiritual being immersed in a human experience.” (Pierre Teilhard de Chardin)

What a Great Mystery we have been born into. Who are we? Why are we here? What are we doing about it?

In the heart of humanity, I see a deep confusion, a disintegration that leaves us all wondering what this craziness is all about.

As I walked down the streets of my inner city neighborhood today, I looked into the eyes of many people. So many friendly and cordial people. But there were a few that could not even look back. In their eyes an emptiness and despair that seemed to overtake their lives like a malignant cancer. Far too often “hope” is seen only in terms of the next blow from a crack pipe. Something visibly accessible on the corners of these streets, but totally inaccessible to a person in extreme poverty without selling a piece of their soul. For others, it is simply the extreme poverty itself engulfing them with its isolating, suffocating walls of seeming impossibilities and inaccessibilities; leaving hope hanging there as some sort of joke dangling from a stick. One lady about my age caught my eye. I kept glancing on the way by hoping for a “hi”. She sat all balled up, fetal-like, on the steps of a church furiously puffing her cigarette. I passed within four feet of her, saying hi, but her eyes, shifting back and forth, had no intention of connecting with any form of life that might pass by; caught up deeply in a world of despair, longing for what she cannot have and for what will give only fleeting satisfaction. My heart wept as I walked on.

But on the other end of the spectrum, with those that are cordial and friendly in the middle, there were those that had a depth, a confidence in who they are, a sense of the eternal within, an “old soul” if you will. As I rounded the corner on my block, I saw a lady I’ve been hoping to meet; a tiny, elderly, African American lady that had lived on this block for 40 years, full of stories of families and children; but also of shootings and violence, gangs and drug dealers. I stopped with delight on my face and introduced myself. Her face lit up with a smile as deep as it was wide and said, “Well, my name is Grace…” Then she nodded and continued, “Yep, Amazing Grace. That’s my name.” She said it in such a way that it left me no doubt I was in the presence of Amazing Grace. I walked away smiling and tearfully grateful to have Amazing Grace living right here on my block; and to have met her face to face.

The next morning I awoke with these two ladies in my heart bringing tears of both joy and sadness simultaneously.

What a diverse spectrum of perspectives on life.

Those in despair engulfed in a darkness of the here and now suffocating them…

Those playing the game of cordiality, hoping to find something, somehow, someday…

Those with depth of spirituality, old souls with maturity and understanding, curious observers of the Great and Profound Mystery…

“As a blind man, I think that I see a lot better than I did when I was sighted because I don’t really think we see with our eyes. I think we live in darkness when we don’t look at what’s real about ourselves, about others, or about life. No operation can do that. When you see what’s real about yourself, you see a lot. And you don’t need eyes for that.” (At First Sight 1999 Val Kilmer)

Is life really so hard to understand, to cope with, to live? What is it about the human existence and experience that is at the heart of the struggle?

A word comes to mind that seems to resonate within about the essence of humanity. Incarnation. Typically, in many religions and cultures around the world, this word is used to refer to the divine becoming flesh and living among us. But I also think it speaks loud and clear to the human experience.

We are created in the Image of God. Some say that there is “that of God” in each of us. Or if you prefer a different way of looking at it and speaking of it; integrally bound up within our frail, temporal bodies is something very spiritual and eternal, sacred and boundless.

Some people live life as if this is all there is. There is nothing more than what we see. Others are continually striving to find and create something more. Then there are those that know of this sacred heart, boundless core, that is within.

This paradox is never more evident than in the crib and in the grave, birth and death.

Out of silence we come and to silence we return. Yet we cling to the “noise” of this life like it is all we have.

Out of darkness we come and to darkness we return. Yet we keep flipping the switch of glitz and glamour, clinging to our stuff, our image, our pride.

We are born with absolutely nothing but the Self. No airs. No pretenses. Nothing to offer but our presence.

We leave this earth in the same way, with nothing but the Self. No airs. No pretenses. Nothing to leave behind but the memory of our presence.

What is this temporay lure of material possessions? All those things we cling to begin to decay even before we leave them behind. Our pride, our image, our self esteem all go up in smoke.

What is it that we hang on to? What is it we are endlessly seeking and striving after?

What is this temporal lure of pleasure? Can we grasp smoke? Why do we chase after the wind?

What is the temporal pull of beauty? Our eyes, continually seeking, roaming this world after that which is beautiful. When we find a glimmer of beauty, we cling to it like life itself, knowing it is fleeting and even more temporary than life itself; never going deeper to find that eternal beauty that lies at the heart of all things; that is so inextricably bound up in our human existence.

What is this blindness to our own incarnation? Is the Profound Paradox, this Great Mystery, too great? Or do we just prefer not to See?

Where are the Curious Children of this world?

“We need but look into the cemetery and see the ten thousand upturned faces; ten thousand breathless bosoms. There was a time when fire flashed through those vacant orbs; when warm ambitions, hopes, joys, and the loving life pushed in those bosoms. Dreams of fame and power once haunted those empty skulls . . . Approach the tomb of the proud man; see the haughty countenance dreadfully disfigured, and the tongue that spoke the most lofty things condemned to eternal silence . . . Behold the consequences of intemperance in the tomb of the glutton; see his appetite now fully satiated, his senses destroyed and his bones scattered” (p. 590 of the book, The Royal Path of Life, 1877).

“Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them.” (Henry David Thoreau)

“For darkness restores what light cannot repair.” (Joseph Brodsky)

“Sometimes the best map will not guide you
You can’t see what’s round the bend
Sometimes the road leads through dark places
Sometimes the darkness is your friend” (Bruce Cockburn lyrics)

Life’s Rhythm Is Silence

Life is not to be regarded as an uninterrupted flow of words which is finally silenced by death. Its rhythm develops in silence, comes to the surface in moments of necessary expression, returns to deeper silence, culminates in a final declaration, then ascends quietly into the silence of Heaven which resounds with unending praise.

Thomas Merton
Source: No Man Is an Island