Looking at Ourselves

Looking at Ourselves

Van Gogh. Self Portrait as an Artist. 1888

Look. Really look. And listen. So few of us do. Which is a bit of a contradiction, and perhaps even a paradox, given the fact that we so often are very much self-involved and self-centered. But we don’t see the Self. We don’t hear it. Or its multiplicity.

I think the aggressive ones, the financial winners, the political and social elite, rush headlong toward their goals, most without knowing who is behind that rush, behind the desires. They do so selfishly, crushing many in their way. But they don’t see themselves doing it. Strangely enough. If they bother to justify it, they do so without thought, quickly, angrily, self-righteously.

Humans are most likely the only beings that are selfishly unaware. Because we live outside and against nature now, we don’t run on instinct alone. Instinct alone prevents true selfishness. It also prevents true generosity. We have the capacity for both, but mostly choose one over the other.

A special kind of selfishness or obliviousness is needed, at times, to create. No must be said. A lot. No. I can’t do that right now. No. Leave me alone! That, of course, is problematic. But a far worse form, a far more treacherous form of selfishness and obliviousness is . . . obviously . . . when it’s not in the service of creation, but destruction. Some might argue that their destruction is creative. I would argue that they aren’t fooling anyone who sees. Really sees.

Many things can bring us out of selfishness and obliviousness. And, another paradox, many of these things help us see and know ourselves. Focusing on the Self can obscure it. Letting it go can open it up to the light. Discovering it, means letting it slip away long enough to create your journey back. All sages know this. Most of us never take their advice:

Do you know what makes the prison disappear? Every deep, genuine affection. Being friends, being brothers, loving, that is what opens the prison, with supreme power, by some magic force. Without these one stays dead. But whenever affection is revived, there life revives.

— Vincent Van Gogh

This is never simple or easy. There is always a price to be paid for the journey and the search. Other sages have told us that no good deed goes unpunished. Perhaps the Buddha is saying as much with shadows:

We are formed and molded by our thoughts. Those whose minds are shaped by selfless thoughts give joy when they speak or act. Joy follows them like a shadow that never leaves them.

— The Buddha

I wish to live in a world of heightened contrast. I don’t wish to live in a flat world. Sameness. Boring sameness. Boring copies of copies. But I wouldn’t mind a bit more weight tossed on one side of the Great Balance, the side that favors good deeds over bad.


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