New Thought, Vol. 85, No. 1, p. 26-27, 42. Spring 2001.
"The Highest Human Perfection"
Whether we buy a car or a gas stove, we want it to function to perfection. A tiny flaw in the space shuttle can be fatal. We don't want mistakes. When something breaks, we fix it. If we can't, we throw the thing out. It's the attitude we take with our possessions -- and it's the one we too often carry over to ourselves.
Let's face it! It's painful to live with human flaws, glaring deficiencies. Many of us have turned to drink to ease that pain, or drugs -- or overwork. We have hidden behind a holy doctrine or ideology, buried ourselves under a worthy cause or belief system, folded our lives into an organizational structure, or given ourselves over to a cosmetic prosperity. No matter which strategy we choose to look good, we end up trading ourselves in for a diminished version of what we are. We throw our real selves out like a piece of junk and operate behind a glittery mask. It looks positive. But, underneath something festers. Evil, surreptitiously, begins to enter our world. We haven't the faintest idea where it's coming from. Certainly not from anything we're doing!
Gas stoves, automobiles or space shuttles function to perfection when they perform as intended. But, as often as not, with us the opposite is the case. We frequently reach our highest potential as human beings in ways that come as a surprise and were not in the conscious plan. The chemist dreams of a snake biting its tail and hits upon a ring structure for the benzene molecule. The employee of a patent office, while shaving, is visited with notions of the relativity of time and space and devises an equation that reinvents our concept of the universe. An arid religious scholar stumbles across a homeless wanderer in the town marketplace, is brought to the experience of union with the divine and goes on to become one of the world's greatest mystical poets.
What is perfect about us is not what we are but what can come through us at these unlikely moments of creativity or divine inspiration. A marvelous light lies buried within. Where we are broken, it can shine out. For this reason, in the human realm the highest perfection is intimately interrelated with what we see as our imperfection. It might even be said for each and every one of us, that our own highest human perfection is precisely what we see as our imperfection.
Through our flaws what's highest in us can come into being. To the extent we blot them out of awareness with numbing addictions, cover them up with inane "positive" affirmations, or distract ourselves from them with substitute successes that come easy to us and look big in the eyes of the world, we miss our chance -- the only real chance we may ever have -- to achieve greatness.
What all those phony strategies fail to take into consideration is that we envision ourselves wrongly. We are not competent to judge -- ourselves or others. Contrary to our thinking, it is what is marred about us, perhaps what has been damaged or crushed, thwarted or stunted -- that alone is capable of bringing out our highest and most authentic note.
All the higher our perfection, if a faculty be lacking -- if something broken nevertheless functions and fulfills the need. Sheng-yen, a farm boy from outside Shanghai unable to read until an advanced age becomes the great modern-day Ch'an master in Taiwan, a Buddhist scholar, a Ph.D. A boy like this to become in his mature years the author of countless acclaimed books translated into many languages -- all the more remarkable! A superior accomplishment, this, to somebody naturally gifted and graced with all the advantages falling, as we might expect, into a life of renowned scholarship.
We all know intuitively the achievement of the one who has surmounted many obstacles is of a higher order than the one who has been provided all the advantages. It's the obstacles, indeed, that make the man in a case like this -- give him his unique, inimitable, aspect and accord him a faculty that another can't possibly attain to.
We can't be perfect. None of us can be perfect. Yet we are, all of us, already perfect. The two opposites are true in their own way. The one: we don't need reminding. Our faults and shortcomings are only too painfully evident to us. The other: hard of realizing. It is not so apparent to us how the flaws in our grain work so powerfully in our favor.
This is a much-misunderstood issue and I am certainly way over my head in this area. As a creative person, being way over my head is my element. When I am way over my head something within me starts to swim. It's because of my shortcoming, not in spite of it, that I am uniquely suited to explore this paradoxical topic.
What is my shortcoming? How to explore the paradoxical? These two questions are related. My shortcoming is I have been broken by life. Things which just fall into place in other people's lives, with me have proved an insurmountable difficulty. I have really not been able to get to first base. The simplest obstacles have succeeded in breaking me. I set out to be a novelist. At 55, I still don't have a single book to my name.
Now, a paradox is not to be understood. It is not something that can be understood. It can not be broken down into categories, organized into a working outline and then dispensed with point by point until we have it nailed in place by a pattern of understanding -- like a frog pinned in a dissecting pan. Cut open. Labeled. Dead.
No! The paradox is the one that hopped away. You don't quite catch it. It got out the classroom window and lost itself in the bushes. Once, as a child in Cuba, I went hunting with some friends for giant bullfrogs. We shot their heads right off but they just swam away. Little did we know the ganglia were in the backbone. A paradox is like that. We can shoot its head right off and it just paddles off. It doesn't go by our rules. We stand there empty-handed, befuddled.
No! We don't work on the paradox. We can't work at that level. The paradox works on us. This is the thing. The paradox breaks us. It shoots our head off, in the metaphorical sense that it fractures our self-concept. To be undone so easily is an unfortunate quality, in this world. But it can be a strong point too in those circumstances where it's requisite to give up, and let ourselves be broken by something that needs to break us in order to work its effect upon us, that needs to break us in order to impart its truth to us -- that needs to break out through us in order to enter into the world.
I am not a big person in the scheme of things. Many years ago I left college teaching to lead the simple creative life of a writer. I pay the rent by means of a part-time evening job in a midtown Manhattan consulting firm. I am by far the lowest person on the rung in that firm and it sometimes seems to me I have no power at all from where I stand, to change the world for the better. But for the last few years I have undertaken a small program of my own to recycle everything recyclable that comes through my workstation. I work at a secretary's desk after she goes home. Here's one desk in a big firm with hundreds of desks in a tall skyscraper with thousands of desks. The difference is that at this desk no paper is thrown away. I set in place a system whereby the secretary who works there during the day, just as I do at night, recycles every little scrap. I have calculated that I recycle in this way somewhere between 15 and 30 lbs. of paper a week, which adds up to between 780 and 1,560 lbs. a year. If you multiplied this by the thousands of other people who could be doing this in the building, the effect would be remarkable. If you multiplied it by all the hundreds of other similar buildings in the immediate area alone, it would be staggering. As it is, though, you might say that this is a piecemeal effort I'm involved in and that, as such, it can have no real effect.
Well, this is not exactly so. It has already had one very real effect in that the doing of it has brought me to a realization I would never otherwise have had. I chanced to notice one day while bundling up the paper for the week how much more exciting it was for me to be able to include in my recycling some little tiny insignificant piece of paper like the covering of a straw, say, or a discarded phone message -- a scrap of paper that would have gone to waste for sure and never have amounted to anything. What a feeling of satisfaction there was in giving it a second life, a second chance -- this little thing of no consequence. How strangely meaningful this felt! It was interesting to notice this was obviously also true for the secretary who worked at that station during the day. She even threw her gum wrappers into my recycling bin! Something there is in us that loves to find value in what is least -- so that we feel better about ourselves saving something little sometimes than we do when we save something appreciable.
Noticing this, it struck me out of the blue that if there were some God up in the sky -- an old man in the clouds with a white beard, who cares for us, like I was taught to believe in as a child -- he would be so much more excited to turn to good some broken and meager soul from the gutter -- a dirty man who has sinned greatly and possesses few redeeming characteristics -- than to tend to people who are respectable and dress well, bathe, always say their prayers, and earn a lot of money.
We do something sometimes, that like my recycling effort seems flawed in its very concept -- something so small you would think it could come to nothing; produce no effect. And yet in the doing of it, a realization arrives. An effect is produced -- on consciousness . It struck me: "Am I recycling paper? Or myself?" I saw in a flash the meaning of my humble life, the importance of my every little effort -- no matter how small or late in coming.
I set out to save some small quantity of paper that was going to waste, slipping through the cracks, and ended up myself being saved by the beautiful realization of how important the life and work of someone like me can be -- someone as far gone as I am, who has amounted to as little. If I do manage to accomplish something with my life, if I somehow turn it belatedly to account, then this -- no matter how small the results -- would be an act of great consequence: it would make "God" smile, give "him" special pleasure.
The small gift is the large boon; the tiny step, the great leap. It's a life such as yours or mine -- a life that sometimes seems so far gone or so badly smashed that it couldn't anymore be of use -- it's precisely such a life that holds the richest promise. Those of us who are most broken are, in a strange way, most real. Reality has broken in upon us. We are like the seed sprouting or the egg hatching. Open. Through us, a new order is being born. Unfortunately, not having a way to see this, we take inventory of our lives and only see what's busted and shattered. The fissures in our life can be seen in the ways we've been taught to see things. We don't so readily see what is hatching forth.
What seems to be our failure stands out ugly. Others are whole. We are broken. As often as not, though, it is through what we see as our imperfections that a higher perfection is coming forth. Our weak point is our point of birth -- which is to say, it is really our strong point. Let us love it accordingly, accept it, and get out of the way of what's trying to come through.