31 October 2008

Bernard on Where Life Is

Bernard sighed.

“How is it going, Bernard?”

“I’ve been spending too much time alone,” he said.

“That’s not all bad, is it?” I asked, trying to point to the positive.

“Ha!” he said. “You and the tiresome optimism.”

“Well, alone can be restful,” I said.

“Left alone we’re animals,” Bernard muttered. “Our brains are too big for us to live alone, big enough that they become just an annoyance. When we’re made a part of a community, our brains have a place to be.”

“Yeah, but in community you can so easily feel outnumbered,” I protested.

“Sure. Sure,” Bernard surprised me by agreeing. “But that’s because we look at it all wrong. Everyone is made to feel ineffectual. Even the president, the leader of the free world.”

“Meaning?” I raised my eyebrows.

“Well, we don’t acknowledge that we only exist in relationships. All of our thinking about the world imagines the oddest thing – it imagines that we exist in isolation from each other. If your model of the world is wrong, you can't be very effective.”


“Well part of it is the issue of reductionist thinking – the tradition of analysis in Western thought that loves to pull apart things to understand them, as if communities and markets and people were watches. But it is more than that,” Bernard took a sip of his coffee. “We get alone to think and then we make that assumption – this matter of being alone – the default assumption about the context. There was a reason that Socrates did his work in conversations. He knew that philosophy outside of a community was meaningless.”

“But they killed him.”

“Sure. But that was because what he did impacted the community. They wouldn’t have executed him if not for the fact that he actually had an influence.”

“So, what truth do we miss when we’re thinking in isolation, Bernard?” I knew he had something more to say.

“A hermit has no opportunity for love or compassion. Life comes out of interaction – our own lives get defined by our relationships. The quality and intensity of our relationships determine the quality and intensity of our lives. Your relationship to people you love or hate, your work or your play, the ideas that swirl around you. This is what you you experience of life. When loathing or contempt or apathy comes creeping into your relationships, that is what you experience of life. If your relationships get defined by love or engagement, that too is what you experience of life.”

“Wow.” I shook my head. “What’s in your coffee?”

Bernard smiled as warmly as I’ve seen him smile. “It is not a question of what is in my drink but instead, who is at my table.” He reached out to squeeze my hand, a gesture that suddenly felt oddly intimate, and said, “Thanks for giving me a place to be today. I needed this.”

"We all need to be," I said stupidly.

1 comment:

exskindiver said...

dear ron,
i read this and somehow i feel this could speak to me this morning.
the problem is (and i am being serious) my children (2 +1 niece) are so loudly singing, trading chocolate and talking that i can't concentrate.
i certainly have lots of opportunity for love and compassion since rarely am i in the position to be a hermit.
i guess its all a matter of choice, isn't it?
Choosing love and compassion as opposed to being cynical and discontented about life as it swirls around you.
thanks for giving me a place to be today, ron.