Last week a long-forgotten interaction with the Boys In Blue came back to haunt me. A couple of sleepless nights saw me peering into the dark recesses of my soul, enquiring into whether I am good, bad or just a…
Last week a long-forgotten interaction with the Boys In Blue came back to haunt me. A couple of sleepless nights saw me peering into the dark recesses of my soul, enquiring into whether I am good, bad or just a little bit ugly.
For me at any rate, the System, the Law – or as Jack Black calls it The Man – has always felt oppressive, controlling and dominating. Partly this is because, well, it is. Hierarchies were born to keep us thinking, feeling, creative and inherently free human beings in check (whilst ensuring we produce things efficiently for our masters). This force has often led me to a revolutionary urge to ‘Stick It’ to that man. This dance is vital for social progress. But, as ever, an effective revolution can only ever occur inside us – the rest just create more of the violence and oppression we wished to dissolve. And the violent revolutionary can only ever expect the system to react with violence against her.
Yet – at the same – time part of me has always wanted to be accepted by that same system – whether through high-school prizes or peerless press plaudits. An often hidden part of me has wanted someone out there to consider me valuable. To be received. To be recognised. To be welcomed. This inner tension – between rejecting and courting the system – surely cannot lead to self-liberation and creative confidence.
Protagoras, an early Greek philosopher interested in questions of virtue, said: “Man is the measure of all things: of things which are, that they are, and of things which are not, that they are not”.
This could mean that there is no absolute truth, no transcendent reality such as that which Plato proposed a while later with his ‘Forms’ (ideas or things that exist across all space and time). These can be such timeless concepts as ‘Good’ or ‘Evil’ or ‘Beauty’ – that murder is wrong and that honour is right, for example. Protagoras seems to be giving us an invitation to see Man’s interpretation as the only reality, that everything is therefore relative, and therefore by conclusion – if a tribe in Africa want to mutilate their teenage girl’s genitals, then it is right for them and we have no right to say otherwise. This battle has raged particularly strongly for that last 50 years across the universities and courtrooms of the world.
But I don’t subscribe to these opposites. For me they are resolved by knowing that there is indeed one absolute Truth (Nature, the Universe or whatever we call it), but that our only access to it is through our own inner worlds. This is logical if we think about it. If we are an intrinsic part of the Universe, with all our atoms and cells part of the great field of electromagnetic energy, then our only access to that field is through our own body, mind and consciousness. There is no point looking ‘out there’ for truth, something the objectifying sciences have done (and which the lawyers and economists have attempted to follow suit). We have to look ‘in here’ and become masters at self-scanning, searching for things that feel uncomfortable, painful and at odds with our true humanity.
Therefore to return to my youthful proclivities, it seems that one life’s greatest challenges to transition from a need for validation from parents, teachers, society or anyone external to us – to the realisation that the only person who can ever judge our value is ourselves. Only we can lie awake in the middle of the darkest of nights and know that we are really good, no matter what idiocy or darkness we have caused. Only we can know deep in ever cell that we are part of the Universe and just as valuable and natural as any other part of it. I’ll even go further and say that if we consider ourselves in any way somehow bad or evil, then we are necessarily questioning the beauty of every vermillion sunset, every baby’s giggle and every breath-taking musical masterpiece. They are all part of Nature – as are each one of us – and together every part is necessarily of value.
This does not get us away from owning and transforming our own destructive behaviours or damaging thoughts. Far from it. If we are the only measure of ourselves, then we must dig deep inside and bring every mistake – whether murder or simply miserly behaviour – to light in the fearless appraisal of our own steely gaze. We cannot shirk from this duty; nor avert our gaze from our own darkness.
But to be judge and jury on ourselves does not help. The work is to penetrate to the hidden order of things, the reasons why our shortcomings came into being, the process by which we have moved from loving, caring infant to angry, abusive or excessive adult. In this way we can understand our behaviour – not judge it – and use the insight to let go of old traumas, old thoughts and old behaviours. They have only ever been designed to protect us from more pain anyway. Until we do this, no matter how seemingly dark we are nobody can condemn us – we are already condemned by our ignorance to a life of suffering and failed potential. And if we are acting in gleeful ignorance with violence, force and aggression then we will have to accept that others are likely to react against us in the same way.
Whilst engaging in the meaning of my mistake I came across some words from a wonderful fellow thinker, Paul Tillich.
“The awareness of the ambiguity of one’s highest achievements (as well as one’s deepest failures) is a definite symptom of maturity.”
If we take this on board we can step back from the obvious (which is rarely ever the truth) and start to see that in every mistake we may have learnt a great lesson; and in every success we may have revealed that what we thought we wanted was not as important as we once thought… and therefore may not need to hungrily chase after it again.
We can only ever do our best to fully engage in every part of our deeply messy and ambiguous lives; and wonder at the elegance and beauty of a universe that provides us so many opportunities – though few of them appear beautiful, sexy or pretty – to become more of whom we have always been.