On Vision: A New Year's Eve Confession

December 31, 2018

In every field, from business to politics to marketing to education, the dominant mode of experience has become entertainment.

-- Michael Crichton

I am surrounded by both beauty and ugliness, but I cannot see either. The bloody stripes of my mind’s constant self-flagellation go without feeling. Constantly I cast about for some diversion that will keep my will from its duty, some intemperance with which I can shroud my intellectual senses, hiding from my certain knowledge that they have left their duties derelict through a complete identification with my basest appetites.

I entertain myself. What does it mean to entertain myself? It is procrastination of the will; that when faced with the difficulty of choosing between good and evil, between all the grains in the great sandstorm of thoughts with which it is constantly besieged, it abdicates all responsibility, and retreats to the temporary peace of pure sensory experience. In pure experience, no choice is necessary, and I can achieve complete passivity. In closing my eyes to the stinging sandstorm, I am at peace, yet I cannot see. Through my soul’s negligence, I have become blind.

But what is ‘myself’? What is this thing which I so dutifully entertain? What is the essential part of my being that I so identify with? Is it my body? Surely not. My body, the instrument of my soul, is merely the physical tool that I express myself with. This is not what I entertain, but merely the chief and principle toy with which I occupy myself. Is it my mind? What, in my mind? Is it my desires for bodily comfort, for warmth, food, or sexual pleasure? What of higher desires, for inner peace, or satisfaction with my situation in life, or composure at my lack of knowledge of the future? Is it this that I entertain? No, of course not, for these things are not my mind, but only the flights of fancy that proceed from it. Ah, this perhaps is the trouble. I am disgusted with the products of my own mind, with its fears, vain desires, and dark dreams, and I foolishly identify the worst parts of myself with my most essential nature.

I say that I hate myself. But I do not truly hate myself. I hate my desires. I am not my desires, but I have blinded myself. Unable to see my true nature, I close my eyes still harder to the terrible choices of existence, and imagine that the sand beating against my closed eyelids is in fact simply myself, the stinging sensation against my face merely the existential pain of existence.

Far out in the Egyptian desert, an ancient monk sat at the opening of his cave, eating a piece of bread, the crumbs falling softly on his frazzled, white beard. The lilting sound of the wind in the rocks was broken by footsteps. The elderly monk looked up, and saw a much younger man, wrapped in the same humble cloak as himself.

“Only a few short months ago, you committed yourself to a solitary life of prayer,” said the old man.

“I am weak, and sad,” said the young man. “I am ill-suited to a solitary life. I am incapable of prayer, and all the eagerness which I used to have for the spiritual life seems to have vanished. When I kneel to pray, I am besieged by doubt. Most of all I am torn by doubts of my own worth, whether my meager acts of service are any good, tainted as they are by the sins of the flesh.”

The old man got up silently, and set his remaining bread on a flat rock ten yards or so from the cave. “Wait with me,” he said, when he returned to the young man.

After an hour, two ravens which had been circling overhead landed near the bread, cawed raucously, and approached the rock.

The old man pointed at the ravens. “These ravens are your thoughts. Not merely fleshly temptations, but also thoughts of anger and self-hatred sent to you by the demons to distract you from your great calling. We are your soul, your will, the part of you to which you refer most when you say, ‘myself.’ The ravens are completely external to us. We have observed them flying above our heads in peace. But we chose first to set out food for them, and then to entertain them. Now that they are here, they are much harder to drive away. It is difficult to stop hating yourself, once you have started it. But your self-hatred is external to yourself, like these ravens. Take away their food, cease entertaining them, and they shall depart as easily as they came.”

“Brother,” said the young man, “what is this food, that I may take it away?”

“Selfish desire. The belief that you are no more than your desires, and that therefore you must entertain your thoughts as your own children. It is great pride to attribute so much value to your own thoughts. They are only ravens, sent by the devil to devour your sustenance. Empty yourself of such vanities, and be filled with the love of God.”

“I will go,” said the young man. “I will pray, for mercy.”

“Pray also for me,” said the old man, getting up to drive off the ravens. “For I too am weak, and dependent on the mercy of God.”

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Michael Helvey

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