“You were wrong to count on me.” Who can speak in such terms? God and the Failure. — E. M. Cioran, The Trouble With Being Born
[I]t is always important to choose rightly …. — Victor Eremita (Søren Kierkegaard), Either/Or
When a lifetime’s choices and compromises seem to coalesce in a dense, dark cloud that threatens catastrophe, popular wisdom may suggest a kind of soap opera psychology: “Put it all behind you and get on with your life.” But that’s not possible. Decisions never end: each day, already shaped by the past, demands more, and the new choices combine with the continuing consequences of the old in a tightly twisted rope of cause and effect. Tangling into an invincible knot that blunts the swords of power and wisdom, it mocks prophecies of mastery and promises of liberation and salvation.
Were I alone enmeshed in this knot, I might not desire to escape the weight of my choices, because only I would carry it. But I am not alone: my choices affect others whose lives are interwoven with mine, and therefore those choices are morally and emotionally fraught. Perhaps it was an inchoate understanding of that fact that attracted me, when I was much younger, to the eremetical life, a life from which others are excluded. Even now, that way of solitude sometimes sings to me siren-like, but I know that its song is the call of a daydream. I am inextricably interconnected with others. Complete isolation is not an option for me; realistically, it never was.
If isolation is not possible because I cannot exist alone, is cessation of existence my answer? To disappear completely, perhaps to swallow some pills and sleep into nothingness, would be to bear no further pain; to escape not only past but also, and especially, future; to make the only choice which, whatever its effects on others, can have no consequences for me beyond its actualization. But to take that way out would be to betray, not for the first time but more brutally than ever before, those who, to borrow the Buddhist image of “Indra’s net,” are like gems embedded in the web of relationship with me, each of us reflecting the others on many levels. Paradoxically, I am preserved from suicide by the very connections that would lead me to consider it.
Of course, there are many religious figures who would sell me a program of ego death, promising that I can shake off karma and live as a detached, enlightened being who does no harm, or offer me an Alexandrian sword such as sola fide‘s fantasy of instant immunity from moral responsibility. Simply pledge trust, troth, and tithe, they say, and “all manner of thing shall be well.” After almost half a century of study and practice, and after having taken the lure more than once, I know that sort of thing for what it is: a spiritual Ponzi scheme. Inka‘d egos selling egolessness? Pie-in-the-sky-mongers hawking cheap grace at a markup? No help there. The promises of religion, I find, are empty. I can’t regress to life as it was before darkness fell, nor can I move forward into something wholly new, beyond the reach of the past. The Garden of Eden never was, and the Kingdom of Heaven never will be. The children of the saints, pace George Fox, are not perfect. Nor, pace Buddha, can we save ourselves from karma: the dharma is a raft in a typhoon. There is no seaworthy barque of salvation: hopes of deliverance are always broken on the rocks; the only unsinkable vessel sails the Styx.
The inescapable fact is that there is no escape from the consequences of my choices. They, I, and others are inseparably interrelated. They travel with me, as it were, casting a shadow over present and future, obscuring the way ahead. Walking in that gloom, I try to be guided by the dim light of love — when I can see it. Sometimes I move in a thoroughly dark night. Having no Lord to uphold me, I often stumble and fall, taking others down with me. A time may come when I wander off an unseen edge, or when continuing through gloom and darkness becomes more than I can do. In any case, the time will certainly come when life itself fails. After all, failure is our human fate.
Until the finality of failure takes me, I can only try to love more mindfully, particularly in the ambiguous, precarious, and blighted circumstances that some of my choices have helped, and will ineluctably continue to help, create. Although others have graciously forgiven me many times, I know that I can’t hope always to be forgiven my part, which is sometimes most significant, in shaping those circumstances. Certainly, responsibility is not in question: regardless of the extent, if any, to which my choices are not free or are shared with others, ultimately they are mine — as are the failures of love and wisdom which many of them reflect.
There was a time when I believed in the possibility of success, but, at this point, any ambition for that, understood as the opposite of failure, would be patent delusion. In order to continue at all, truth by now being undeniable, I must unreservedly accept my failure. That’s distressing in itself. But knowing that my failings harm others tears my heart. That wound is reopened every day.
Every day, therefore, is a painful time of decision. If I choose to live, which I do today, it is in the knowledge that, despite my intentions and efforts, I will continue to wound others and, therefore, myself. I recognize that, my sincerity notwithstanding, I am not to be trusted, that I will inevitably create new suffering even as the harmful karma of the past continues to unfold. I try, and want to try better, to minimize the harm, but past, present, and future are strands in this one knotted rope, and my measure of love’s wisdom is compromised by myopia and fear: I know that my possibilities are limited. I know, too, though, that while I can do no more than I can do, I cannot assume that my limits — or others’ — are either obvious or fixed. In that I find hope: not for a new beginning, a bright future, an against-all-odds deus ex machina, but that those whom I harm can survive what I do to them in my ignorance and weakness, and that, by more diligently waiting upon and attending to the light of love, I can find the will and the wisdom to live less harmfully.
Standing still awhile, finding my balance between resignation and hope, I am acutely aware that survival, which for me means living with love and grace amid guilt and uncertainty, requires increasing courage, clarity, and care. Although the way ahead is dark, at least I know where I stand as I wait upon light.