…a truth of spiritual life: that there are moments we come to when our thinking is suspended, and when an old knowing has been dropped and the attachment to a new knowing has not yet arisen.
One sees a comparable pattern in various types of psychotherapy. Cognitive therapy seeks to bring us to a discovery of our hidden beliefs and then to expose their falsehoods. In the moment of seeing their error, we experience a renewed possibility of freedom and affection. In psychoanalysis, whatever one’s life narrative is, one retells it, and through that process, the significance of trauma in the narrative is reshuffled and turned around.
Turning to philosophy, we see in Socrates a comparable method: using questions to unearth hidden assumptions and then questioning those assumptions until they are given up. Thus Socrates’s famous creed: “I know only one thing: that I know nothing,” which is curiously reminiscent of such Zen locutions as Nansen’s “dropping the net of knowledge,” and Kyogen’s “forgetting everything I knew.”
Perhaps when we read fiction, there’s a deep recognition that this is how life works. Whether conscious or barely recognized, there’s a resonance, an understanding that something embedded deep in the nature of experience is being revealed, namely, that we grow spiritually through reversals. Life has to be this way, because we can never see more than we can see at any one time and because the way we see things is always the problem.
After all, what is an “Aha” moment, an insight of any kind, if not a realization that our habitual view has been misguided? It’s odd that we should so commonly miss this: we tend to cherish the new insight rather than notice the more important giving up of the old viewpoint. Perhaps this is the very mechanism by which we all but inevitably end up turning the new view into the next old one, which must in turn also be relinquished. And so our path goes on.
What if we love the art we love not for its style, form, or content but for something else, a quality of being its creator may not even have been aware of transfusing—a clarity, a stillness-in-action that is a component of a life of compassion? In other words, one consequence of the interruption of the story of our lives produced by a spiritual reversal, and paralleled by a fictional one, may be that with the exigencies of personal narrative suspended, we can open up to a vivid sense of connectedness. Story can awaken this in us, as our own “sympathetic understanding,” as George Eliot called it, is aroused not only by a character’s troubles and reversals but also by the fact that we ourselves are practicing it, even as we identify with the characters and empathize with them as if they were we ourselves.
As the writer Karen Armstrong has said of her scholarly work [Tricycle, Summer 2003]:
My study is a spiritual quest. Studying texts is my form of prayer and meditation, and often, while studying, I experience moments of awe and wonder. The effort of getting beyond my own preconceptions to enter another form of faith and thought is also a means of transcendence—a transcendence of self. . . A scholar called this discipline ‘the science of compassion’ because in this kind of study you have to put yourself to one side and learn to feel with others.
This is exactly what fictional peripeteia can also teach us. The suspension that the literary device brings us to, between the way we have been and the way we will become, is the key.
Literature models—it enacts–a truth of spiritual life: that there are moments we come to when our thinking is suspended, and when an old knowing has been dropped and the attachment to a new knowing has not yet arisen.
That gap is everything.
The Art of Being Wrong, by Henry Shukman, was first published in Tricycle Magazine, Spring 2013.
Image: Water-drop, by Vishvanavanjana, CC0 at Pixabay.com