…as Nansen told Joshu, we are more likely to stumble upon the Way when we cease our vaunting efforts to “attain” it. Rather, when we succumb with grace to the fact that we are, basically, hopeless cases, we have an extraordinary opportunity to discover in what sense we are not hopeless.
Chekhov said that the fiction writer’s task is only to present a problem fully. Once he has done that, the story is complete. One interpretation of what he meant by “fully” is that he wanted the problem to be manifestly intractable. In “The Lady with the Dog,” for example, an adulterous couple are shown to have found a real enduring love that is deeply redemptive yet also to have stumbled into an impasse. For various reasons, they simply cannot live together. Our reflexive desire to find resolution is thwarted, and this may be the key to the story’s timeless power: there really is no solution. It’s that that paradoxically offers us, the reader, an unexpected sense of liberation, which derives—once again—from our giving up our need for resolution. It comes as a total surprise. Chekhov has practiced an almost magical misdirection on us: we thought the story was all about the protagonists and their love, yet somehow, as we leave them in their quandary, we discover it was more about us and our own thirst for conclusion. He leads us to the brink of the resolution we desire, then divests us of that very need. Somehow we are left better off for our disappointment.
This kind of reversal in understanding, or setting-back of our way of seeing things, leads not just to a shift in how we view the world but, most importantly, to new levels of empathy, to a sense of connectedness to others, if not to all beings, that can radically undermine our normal faith in ourselves as self-sufficient entities. As our preconceptions are torn open, there comes a corresponding opening of our affections. In other words, these reversals do not have arbitrary or scattershot consequences: humility is, after all, the ground zero of spirituality, from which other helpful conditions may arise, such as gratitude and compassion. Reversals seem to lead us to a discovery of radical connectedness, which itself has implications for our actions.
Here too literature and spiritual paths run in parallel. It turns out their processes are far from ethically neutral. Somehow when the limits on our world get undermined, and we see it in a new and better way, freed of some of our mental and psychological filters, our ability to relate to it gets better. In this way, peripeteia is instructive. Peace and kindness have their best shot at establishing themselves when we accept our own inadequacy, when limitation and error become aspects of ourselves we can embrace rather than strive to mask. There is surely no Christianity without hamartia—in Christian writings often translated as “sin,” though the Greek word literally means “missing the mark.” To embrace one’s “sinfulness,” or error, and to repent is to open oneself to a radical and positive turning around. Similarly…
as Nansen told Joshu, we are more likely to stumble upon the Way when we cease our vaunting efforts to “attain” it. Rather, when we succumb with grace to the fact that we are, basically, hopeless cases, we have an extraordinary opportunity to discover in what sense we are not hopeless.
Or to put it another way: being a basket case can turn out to be the most wonderful thing. Or more simply: being wrong can be the best thing that ever happened to us.
A powerful fictional example of this is Tolstoy’s short novel Master and Man, which takes place on a single winter’s night. A wealthy businessman, accompanied by his servant, heads off into a terrible snowstorm in a horse-drawn sleigh. He has sniffed a business opportunity and can’t bear to let the weather delay him. The businessman rides wrapped up in furs, while his servant shivers beside him in miserable rags. The weather worsens, they get lost and finally stuck in a drift. Night wears on, and though the master realizes his servant is severely cold, he worries only about his business dealings and the cigarettes he can’t manage to light. It’s a night of hell, but somewhere in the middle of it, the master notices his servant is actually dying of cold. Spontaneously, against all his prior impulses, he rips open his fur coat and covers the dying man with all the warmth he can muster. In that one act of perfect self-sacrifice, all his troubles drop away, and a sweet, delirious joy unlike anything he has ever known sweeps over him.
It is surely one of fiction’s great experiences—this moment when selfishness turns on its head, and to his own amazement, the man discovers what an error his instinct for self-preservation has been, blocking him from a far greater life. When the reversal comes, we feel it as a shock to us as much as it must be to him. We too are shocked awake, into an empathic identification with the compassion he suddenly feels.
Stay tuned for part 4…. It will be published February 6.
The Art of Being Wrong, by Henry Shukman, was first published in Tricycle Magazine, Spring 2013.
Image: Bubbles, by Taftar, CC0 at Pixabay.com