Sunday, April 06, 2008

Who it is that Chooses

I've been taking a lot of breaks in the midst of my reading of Proust. During these breaks, I've been reading non-fiction (somehow it doesn't feel right for me to begin another narrative before completing my journey with Proust). At the moment, I'm in the middle of reading Thomas Merton, the Christian existentialist. From what I've read so far, I think Merton has much to say to us today, whether Christian or not. In "Learning to Live", the first essay of his posthumous collection Love and Living, he begins thus:
Life consists in learning to live on one's own, spontaneous, freewheeling: to do this one must recognize what is one's own--be familiar and at home with oneself. This means basically learning who one is, and learning what one has to offer to the contemporary world, and then learning how to make that offering valid.

The purpose of education is to show a person how to define himself authentically and spontaneously in relation to his world--not to impose a prefabricated definition of the world, still less an arbitrary definition of the individual himself. The world is made up of the people who are fully alive in it: that is, of the people who can be themselves in it and can enter into a living and fruitful relationship with each other in it. The world is, therefore, more real in proportion as the people in it are able to be more fully and more humanly alive: that is to say, better able to make a lucid and conscious use of their freedom. Basically, this freedom must consist first of all in the capacity to choose their own lives, to find themselves on the deepest possible level. A superficial freedom to wander aimlessly here or there, to taste this or that, to make a choice of distractions (in Pascal's sense) is simply a sham. It claims to be a freedom of "choice" when it has evaded the basic task of discovering who it is that chooses. It is not free because it is unwilling to face the risk of self-discovery.
Countless things could be said about our current methods of education. That they in general show people how to "define [themselves] authentically" is not one of them. And do we choose our own lives? How many of us drift aimlessly to a certain point, before we realize what's happened to us? My life in particular has been marked by this aimlessness. Over the years, I've become aware of the un-freedom of our modern freedom, a freedom that allows us innumerable pointless consumer decisions, but few real options, few alternatives. But this awareness has been essentially intellectual: I've scrupulously avoided dealing with it at an existential level. In recent months this has started to change. . . (we could call this post yet another placeholder, till such time as I am able to expand on various points with the detail and coherence they deserve).

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