Why


I have been reading Antony Beevor's Berlin, a book about the fall of the German capital to the Red Army in April 1945. It is a harrowing tale of atrocity by the Red Army, performed at least in part as revenge for the horrors earlier inflicted on occupied Russia by the Germans. A question that continually surfaces for me in reading such a book is Why? Why did decent law abiding fathers and sons and husbands on both sides of the conflict behave so appalingly? Why would a man be a hard working farmer in the Urals and a rapist, thief and murderer once he entered Germany? Why would reasonable, intelligent people become fanatical Nazis? We can say, of course that the people who acted in the way they did chose to act that way, and that therefore, they are responsible for their own actions, but that only begs the question: why did they choose so? More tellingly, I ask myself, if I had been a twenty year old Red Army soldier would I have acted any differently? If I had been thirteen in pre-war Germany would I have joined the Hitler Youth? Or the SS? Would I have been as willing to ignore or profit from or even participate in the extermination of my Jewish neighbours? Who can tell? But I expect the answer is yes. Who am I to think that I would be somehow exempt from the historical pressures which caused millions of people to act the way they did back in the 1940s?

We, all of us, most of the time, labour under the great delusion that we are in control of our own destinies and that we choose the path before us. In reality, our brains, all of them, are a great seething mass of activity; of perceptions , experiences, thoughts, impulses, dreams, ambitions memories and judgements, none of which are really of our own making. They come to us from our genes and history and body chemistry. They form patterns we deem to be cohesive and focus themselves into decisions which we then act out, but really, we have limited or no control over the stuff that happens between our ears. All this great swirl of synaptic activity, this collection of arbirtrarily related mental phenomena produced by our envoronment and by our brain we look at and label "me". We have the illusion that we possess and control MY thoughts and MY dreams and MY ambitions but really, they control us. We don't think our thoughts, our thoughts think us.

There is another illusion: that this self is real, whereas, in fact, the whirling cloud of impressions labelled "me"is a product of our personal and cultural and biological environment and is just as temporary. It shifts and changes as we grow and as we develop through life. It changes from moment to moment. It will not survive the extinguishing of our bodies by much time, if at all, but we treat it as though it is something lasting and valuable and go to extraordinary lengths to preserve it. We identify with it and act out its impulses, which is why, without realising the absudity of our decisions, we can become fanatical Nazis. Or collective farmers. Or vicars of suburban parishes. And in every case, whether we are acting one month as the decent Urals farmer or the next as the rampaging red Army soldier, we will see our activities as logical and consistent and perfectly under our own control. How preposterous. Anthony De Mello says that most of us, though we don't realise it are asleep, and that the task we face is to wake up.

This journey has been part of that waking; the movement through the dark parts of the early morning towards the dawn.

What I can do to get away from the tyranny of my temporary and arbitrary self is to be more conscious. That is, if I can, for even a short while, stop identifying with the jumble of impressions which I am used to calling ME, I can stop being swept around by the nonsense in my head and begin to live in the world from a base that is deep and real and lasting. It's not that I have to produce anything: the deep self is already there, waiting to be released like a burning coal from underneath a pile of ash. Spiritual growth is a bit of a misnomer, because it's not really about building something up, but rather it's about removing something. This is what De Mello meant by waking up. It's what Jesus meant when he talked about losing our life that we might live. It is what Meister Eckhart meant when he talked about finding The Ground.

HOW we do this is at once the simplest and the most difficult thing we will ever have to do, but it is important. In fact, I suspect performing this task is the ONLY reason we exist.

Comments

Anonymous said…
Kelvin - one man, at least, did face these questions and answered and acted as God's grace allowed him:

Who am I? They often tell me
I stepped from my cell’s confinement
Calmly, cheerfully, firmly,
Like a squire from his country-house.
Who am I? They often tell me
I used to speak to my warders
Freely and friendly and clearly,
As though it were mine to command.
Who am I? They also tell me
I bore the days of misfortune
Equally, smilingly, proudly,
Like one accustomed to win.

Am I then really all that which other men tell of?
Or am I only what I myself know of myself?
Restless and longing and sick, like a bird in a cage,
Struggling for breath, as though hands were
compressing my throat,
Yearning for colors, for flowers, for the voices of birds,
Thirsting for words of kindness, for neighborliness,
Tossing in expectation of great events,
Powerlessly trembling for friends at an infinite distance,
Weary and empty at praying, at thinking, at making,
Faint, and ready to say farewell to it all?

Who am I? This or the other?
Am I one person today and tomorrow another?
Am I both at once? A hypocrite before others,
And before myself a contemptibly woebegone weakling?
Or is something within me still like a beaten army,
Fleeing in disorder from victory already achieved?
Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine.
Whoever I am, Thou knowest, O God, I am Thine!

D. Bonhoeffer
March 4,1946
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Brian
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Dan Gurney said…
Wonderful post! Thank you.

It reads like someone who's spent a lot of time in meditation/prayer/contemplation. Enough time to slow down and actually hear the cacophony of thoughts that can arise when we pay close attention to them. And to have learned not to take those thoughts too personally.

I know you're writing from within a Christian perspective, but what you have to say about thoughts, self, and waking up to what you call deep self sounds almost Buddhist.

For me, seeing the walls between Buddhism and Christianity become more permeable is most encouraging. Why encouraging? Because I was raised in a Christian household, but turned to Buddhism to seek to understand what Jesus taught. (It seemed clear even to my child's mind that the church did not always align with what Jesus taught.) Now, having traveled along the Buddhist path I can see that travelers on another path--a Christian path--seem to enjoy to similar views. This has the effect of reconciling me to my Christian roots.

Thank you for this thoughtful and heartfelt post.