To have spoken of a new vision is to be asked, in the next breath, what good it will do. When you come to think of it, this is astonishing, but it is invariably true in speaking with people brought up in the environment of Protestantism. Catholics, Hindus, Buddhists, Moslems, and Taoists understand that vision, or contemplation, is good in itself, even the supreme good in the sense of the Beatific Vision where all beings are eternally absorbed in the knowledge and love of God. But this possibility makes Protestants nervous, and one of their official prayers asks that those in heaven may be granted “continual growth in thy love and service,” because, after all, you can’t stop Progress. Even heaven must be a growing community.
The reason is, I suppose, that modern Protestantism in particular, in its liberal and progressive forms, is the religion most strongly influenced by the mythology of the world of objects, and of man as the separate ego. Man so defined and so experienced is, of course, incapable of pleasure and contentment, let alone creative power. Hoaxed into the illusion of being an independent, responsible source of actions, he cannot understand why what he does never comes up to what he should do, for a society which has defined him as separate cannot persuade him to behave as if he really belonged. Thus he feels chronic guilt and makes the most heroic efforts to placate his conscience.
From these efforts come social services, hospitals, peace movements, foreign-aid programs, free education, and the whole philosophy of the welfare state. Yet we are bedeviled by the fact that the more these heroic and admirable enterprises succeed, the more they provoke new and increasingly horrendous problems. For one thing, few of us have ever thought through the problem of what good such enterprises are ultimately supposed to achieve. When we have fed the hungry, clothed the naked, and housed the homeless, what then? Is the object to enable unfortunate people to help those still more unfortunate? To convert Hindus and Africans into a huge bourgeoisie, where every Bengali and every Zulu has the privilege of joining our special rat-race, buying appliances on time and a television set to keep him running?
Some years ago a friend of mine was walking through tea plantations near Darjeeling, and noticed one particular group of fields where the bushes were all shriveled. On asking why, it was explained that the owner had felt so sorry for his impoverished workers that he had paid them double. But as a result, they had turned up for work only half the time, which was disastrous in the critical season when the plants have to be tended every day. My friend put this problem to an Indian communist. His solution was to pay them double and compel them to work. He then put it to an American businessman. His solution was to pay them double—and put radios in their homes! No one seemed to understand that those workers valued time for goofing off more than money.
It is hard for compulsive activists to see that the vast social and economic problems of the world cannot be settled by mere effort and technique. The outsider cannot just barge in like Santa Claus and put things to right—especially our kind of outsider who, because he has no sense of belonging in the world, invariably smells like an interferer. He does not really know what he wants, and therefore everyone suspects that there are limitless strings attached to his gifts. For if you know what you want, and will be content with it, you can be trusted. But if you do not know, your desires are limitless and no one can tell how to deal with you. Nothing satisfies an individual incapable of enjoyment. I am not saying that American and European corporations are run by greedy villains who live off the fat of the land at everyone else’s expense. The point becomes clear only as one realizes, with compassion and sorrow, that many of our most powerful and wealthy men are miserable dupes and captives in a treadmill, who—with the rarest exceptions—have not the ghost of a notion how to spend and enjoy money.
The startling truth is that our best efforts for civil rights, international peace, population control, conservation of natural resources, and assistance to the starving of the earth—urgent as they are—will destroy rather than help if made in the present spirit. For, as things stand, we have nothing to give. If our own riches and our own way of life are not enjoyed here, they will not be enjoyed anywhere else. Certainly they will supply the immediate jolt of energy and hope that methedrine, and similar drugs, give in extreme fatigue.
But peace can be made only by those who are peaceful, and love can be shown only by those who love. No work of love will flourish out of guilt, fear, or hollowness of heart, just as no valid plans for the future can be made by those who have no capacity for living now.
The separate person is without content, in both senses of the word. He lives perpetually on hope, on looking forward to tomorrow, having been brought up this way from childhood, when his uncomprehending rage at double-binds was propitiated with toys.
A Chinese philosophical work called “The Secret of the Golden Flower” says that “when purpose has been used to achieve purposelessness, the thing has been grasped.” For a society surviving to no purpose is one that makes no provision for purposeless behavior— that is, for actions not directly aimed at survival, which fulfill themselves in being done in the present and do not necessarily imply some future reward. But indirectly and unintentionally, such behavior is useful for survival because it gives a point to surviving—not, however, when pursued for that reason. To play so as to be relaxed and refreshed for work is not to play, and no work is well and finely done unless it, too, is a form of play.
To be released from the “You must survive” double-bind is to see that life is at root playing. The difficulty in understanding this is that the idea of “play” has two distinct meanings which are often confused. On the one hand, to do something only or merely in play, is to be trivial and insincere, and here we should use the word “toying” instead of “playing.” But if some woman should say to me, “I love you,” would it be right to answer, “Are you serious, or are you just playing with me?” After all, if this relationship is to flourish, I very much hope that she is not serious and that she will play with me. No, the better question would be, “Are you sincere, or are you just toying with me?” Sincerity is better than seriousness, for who wants to be loved gravely?
No one who has been hoaxed into the belief that he is nothing but his ego, or nothing but his individual organism, can be chivalrous, let alone a civilized, sensitive, and intelligent member of the cosmos.
But to be lived this way, the life-game has to be purged of self contradictory rules. This, and not some kind of moral effort, is the way out of the hoax of separateness.
Thus when a game sets the players an impossible and not simply difficult task, it comes quickly to the point where it is no longer worth playing. There is no way of observing a rule set in the form of a double-bind—that is, a two-part rule whose parts are mutually exclusive. No one can be compelled to behave freely or forced to act independently.
Yet whole cultures and civilizations have befuddled themselves with this kind of nonsense, and, through failing to spot the self-contradiction, their members have been haunted all through their lives by the sense that individual existence is a problem and a predicament—a form of nature doomed to perpetual frustration.
The sense of ego is at root a discomfort and a bore, and nothing shows it more clearly than such everyday phrases as: “I need to get away from myself” or “You should find something to take you out of yourself” or “I read to forget myself.“
Get lost! Hence the fanaticisms and intoxications—religious, political, and sexual, the Nazis, the Klan, Hell’s Angels, the Circus Maximus, the dreary fascination of the TV screen, witch-burnings, Mickey Spillane and James Bond, pachinko parlors, alcoholic stupors, revivals, tabloid newspapers, and juvenile gangs—all of which, as things stand, are the necessary safety-valves and palliatives for human beings whose very existence is defined in self contradictory and self-defeating terms.
Finally, the game of life as Western man has been “playing” it for the past century needs less emphasis on practicality, results, progress, and aggression. This is why I am discussing vision, and keeping off the subject of justifying the vision in terms of its practical applications and consequences. Whatever may be true for the Chinese and the Hindus, it is timely for us to recognize that the future is an ever-retreating mirage, and to switch our immense energy and technical skill to contemplation instead of action. However much we may now disagree with Aristotle’s logic and his metaphors, he must still be respected for reminding us that the goal of action is always contemplation—knowing and being rather than seeking and becoming.
As it is, we are merely bolting our lives—gulping down undigested experiences as fast as we can stuff them in—because awareness of our own existence is so superficial and so narrow that nothing seems to us more boring than simple being. If I ask you what you did, saw, heard, smelled, touched, and tasted yesterday, I am likely to get nothing more than the thin, sketchy outline of the few things that you noticed, and of those only what you thought worth remembering. Is it surprising that an existence so experienced seems so empty and bare that its hunger for an infinite future is insatiable?
But suppose you could answer, “It would take me forever to tell you, and I am much too interested in what’s happening now.” How is it possible that a being with such sensitive jewels as the eyes, such enchanted musical instruments as the ears, and such a fabulous arabesque of nerves as the brain can experience itself as anything less than a god? And, when you consider that this incalculably subtle organism is inseparable from the still more marvelous patterns of its environment—from the minutest electrical designs to the whole company of the galaxies—how is it conceivable that this incarnation of all eternity can be bored with being?