Living on the surface is an art form modern humanity has appeared to have mastered. Even those of us who strive for depth and integrity have, if we are honest with ourselves, to admit to not being the person we publicly seem to be. While we can appear to master this art for many years, the mask will slip and we will appear to others as we really are at some point.
The danger is we can hide behind the fallibility of others and fail to firstly recognise and then deal with the imperfections in our own lives. Modern media with its moral outrage aids us in this project and we can go through life either comfortable with our own dark secrets or, at least able to live with them, albeit in some degree of tension. Often those of us who are the most strident in our criticisms of others are living fragile lives on the edge of imploding if our real self is exposed.
In many ways this need for duplicity in living sits at the centre of mental health issues and addictions. Unable to be honest and open about who we are forces us to live balancing on the high-wire of public and private expectations and at some point the high-wire snaps.
How do we get to the point of honesty and acceptance, firstly of our own hidden struggles and then of those very same struggles we witness in others? How do we get to understand that those struggles do not disqualify us as both valued and valuable human beings. In fact they actually verify us as human so we are able to celebrate our ordinariness and cease to strive for perfection, being able to live in that space-in-between where all fall short.
If we look closely at all the great people past and present we will find personal failings, faults and, sometimes, seemingly incongruous contradictions and passions. Yet those very same people were and are able to rise above or live in tension with their inner shadow in such a way as to make their mark on the world. Sadly we do not want our heroes to be too ordinary, it would ruin the illusion firstly, but it would also ask us to make something of our ordinariness as well.
Two people have made an impact on my life: Thomas Merton and Rainer Maria Rilke. Both were recognised as poets with Rilke possibly one the greatest European poets of the 20th Century. Both inspired others to great heights of spirituality, one within the traditional Christian setting for most of his life, and the other outside the traditional realm but always within the world.
Yet the tale of both men point to great incongruity within their lives. Both experienced a challenge to their inner being through love. For Merton this was a passionate love affair as well as with his engagement with controversial issues, and for Rilke many such love affairs and strange behaviours. Yet their desire to pursue pure art and spirituality never wavered and, one could argue, was in fact enriched by their seemingly outrageous actions.
It is for these very reasons that I and many others embrace their work. For it is in this space-in-between perfection and ordinariness, desire and reality, hope and despair, questions and answers that one finds the still place of not being that saves us. When we start on this journey and begin to jettison the unnecessary cultural and societal collateral we have gathered around ourselves we begin the journey (which is no journey) into the place (which is no place) and find that we no longer are. It is not that we no longer exist but that we no longer are who we were or who we thought we had to be. As we begin to drop the veil of illusions we come face to face with our hidden self and find ourselves in a fight for our soul.
Like a snake who slithers out of the old skin into the new, and does so every year, we shed our illusions one after another, and continue to do so while we still have breath, seeking always the very place we began, innocent as a new born child who’s imagination welcomes the world into theirs.
This unnerving journey of hidden beauty is the mysterious reason for our being and can never be accomplished while we inhabit the surface. Go into the deep seeking not to breathe the everywhere air but to breathe under water.