“I have had to experience so much stupidity, so many vices, so much error, so much nausea, disillusionment, and sorrow, just in order to become a child again and begin anew. But it was right that it should be so; my eyes and heart acclaim it. I had to experience despair, I had to sink to the greatest mental depths, to thoughts of suicide in order to experience grace again…. I had to sin in order to live again.”
Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse is a beautiful story, a story of a man who perceived himself as wise but failed to slow an insidious fall from grace. It was only through suffering that Siddhartha was eventually saved. On his route from and back to grace he endured the loss of loved ones, sin, and most of all the loss of himself. He became dislocated from all that was good in and of himself and became governed by the organism. Hesse talked of a little bird trapped, tapping at Siddhartha's chest and it was only at his lowest ebb that this bird, his subconscious, pecked so hard that it cut him open and its song was so loud he had no choice but to listen.
This story is a common one, lived and told throughout time, we are conflicted beings. On one hand capable of acts of great kindness, sacrifice, and love. Yet on the other, we all share common weaknesses, and if we fail to recognize these, to struggle against them we will gradually spoil some core piece of ourselves. We will not be as good as we want to be and we will hurt the bird that sings inside all of us.
The lesson that Hesse teaches is one of humility born from suffering. It is a reminder that the most essential parts of life are matters of volition, decisions; left or right, virtue or vice, to help or hinder, faithful or disloyal, good or bad, the Self or the All, moral questions that exist in every moment. The danger of choosing the wrong answer, the quick reward, the endorphin, is that sin feeds on itself, we eradicate our own boundaries and lose a lifelong war of attrition in one battle. A foot over the line on Monday becomes a leap on Friday. Character is built in the struggle against our own weakness and “If you don't make a conscious effort to build inner integrity, eventually your watergate, your scandal, your betrayal will happen, this is the duality of human nature.”
In these times of social media and cancel culture we are all hypocrites together, all too willing to cast the first stone in the hope of a like, a share, or a bigger piece of the pie. More often than not we see our own failings in others and hold them to account for our shortcomings, like sneering hyenas or playground bullies afraid to become the source of ire. In a fallen world it is the tainted that have the opportunity to find grace, to descend into the valley of humility, and eventually, quietly, day by day rebuild themselves, with empathy towards others, and sympathy towards the human condition. They won’t judge or virtue signal because they have learned this duality is inescapable. People develop strength from their weakness and become worthy of their own self-respect because they have defeated or at least struggled with their own demons. They have found it is better to be a human suffering than a satisfied pig.
“if we acknowledge that our inclinication to sin is part of our natures and that we will never wholly eradicate it, there is at least something for us to do in our lives that will not in the end seem just futile and absurd”
Suffering takes many forms, the organism never tires of trying to find ways to bring us to our knees and to help us in finding humility. Over the course of last year, many people will have gone on this journey and experienced true suffering for the first time.
In Hollywood films in times of crisis, the world and its agents act against each other, putting the self first. But I think we have learned a different reality, a nobler truth. The moral hierarchy of the heart, something that we are all capable of sharing in times of need has shown that suffering, when turned towards purpose, places us in solidarity, pain takes us to new depths but those depths bring us closer to a truth that exists for all of us to discover, a wholeness and a unity.
Existence, something that we would normally take for granted now becomes urgent, we become aware that the love we have been given, the affection and support we receive from families and friends is more than we deserve, our suffering opens the door to boundless gratitude. We don't come out healed, we come out different, more appreciative, the most grateful of us, the most considerate of their living fortune have endured a season or more of suffering and have learned the importance of their moment of existence and of the utter permanence of the abyss that is beyond it.
Humility is a moral quality, a quality of knowing and not knowing, of acting with prudence, cautious, considerate, and reflective steps, persistent, brave ones. It is wisdom's easiest taught, hardest learned, and most valuable lesson.
It is the end and it is the beginning.
The Road to Character — David Brooks
Siddhartha — Herman Hesse