“Philosophy” conjures dusty places and donnish faces, elbow patches on corduroy jackets, fusty squares straining to split hairs. But when I look back on this year, it is a problem in philosophy that commands my attention and gives meaning to my journey. Anyone who feels the suffering of our fellows and sees the hope of healing has struggled with the same elemental conundrum.
The simple truth is that we marvelous human beings possess both the means and the capacities to transform our violent and indifferent social institutions into repositories of creativity, caring and healing. Can anyone dispute the proposition that a simple change of heart could wrap our aching planet in a loving embrace, soothing its cries as a good mother soothes her child?
It’s true that we cannot know the consequences of even our best-intended actions, so no one can say whether efforts undertaken with healing intention will ultimately have that effect. Forget about grand schemes, then. Focus on right now. In every moment, we have the choice to eschew inflicting what is clearly harm. If all who—just for today—would otherwise have lifted a hand in violence, spoken out to wound or slander, or turned a blind eye to the suffering directly in our paths were simply to refrain, imagine the righteous, loving energy that would unleash.
And it is also the simple truth we may know this and still do harm, allowing habit, indifference, rationalization, self-interest or fatigue to shape our actions.
In philosophy, the idealist position sees the perfectibility of the human subject. Its mistakes and excesses come from forcing actual human beings into the shape of its ideals. The blood spilled in pursuit of ideals would overflow an ocean. The tragic-romantic position sees the crooked timber of humanity and abandons all hope of building anything like the ideal. Its mistakes and excesses come from the normalization or acceptance of what can actually be fixed, if not perfected. As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, “A silent justification, it makes possible an evil erupting as an exception becoming the rule and being in turn accepted.”
I have lived for a long time in the space between these philosophical poles, where one may see—simultaneously and equally—our true capability for good and our true capacity to ignore it or pretend it doesn’t exist. I have the conviction that holding both truths is where I belong, camped out besides whomever feels this calling.
I’ve been inspired many times this year by the words of Rabbi Heschel, a great soul whose memory has blessed all who encounter his work. So often, his words have the ring of truth for me. He wrote: “This is the most important experience in the life of every human being: something is asked of me. Every human being has had a moment in which he sensed a mystery waiting for him. Meaning is found in responding to the demand, meaning is found in sensing the demand.”
My blessing for all in the new year is to hear these words with new ears, to know what is asked of us, to feel the demand in body, emotion, mind and spirit, and to respond with our full capability. Happy new ears 2010!