Saturday, June 7, 2008

the person and the individual

Awhile back there was a theatre review in the New Yorker magazine of Caryl Churchill’s 1982 play “Top Girls”. The review included the following quote from Thomas Merton, describing the individual:

“I have what you have not. I am what you are not. I have taken what you have failed to take and I have seized what you could never get. Therefore you suffer and I am happy, you are despised and I am praised, you die and I live; you are nothing and I am something, and I am all the more something because you are nothing. And thus I spend my life admiring the distance between you and me.”

Does that sound like Merton?

Correspondence among Merton friends resulted in finding the source of the quote on page 48 of New Seeds of Contemplation. What was missing was context. One understands it much better when the previous sentence is included:

"The man who lives in division is not a person but an 'individual.'

"I have what you have not. I am what you are not. I have taken what you have failed to take and I have seized what you could never get. Therefore you suffer and I am happy, you are despised and I am praised, you die and I live; you are nothing and I am something, and I am all the more something because you are nothing. And thus I spend my life admiring the distance between you and me
" [here the New Yorker had a period; it should have been a semicolon];

Then here is what follows:

"... at times this even helps me to forget the other men who have what I have not and who have taken what I was too slow to take and who have seized what was beyond my reach, who are praised as I cannot be praised and who live on my death....

"The man who lives in division is living in death. He cannot find himself because he is lost; he has ceased to be a reality. The person he believes himself to be is a bad dream...."

[Thanks to Jim Forest and his friends for this conversation.]

8 comments:

  1. Ah yes, context always makes all the difference, doesn't it? ;)

    A from Minnesota

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  2. Sure does, A.

    The thing about Merton is that his writing is good enough that he could reveal what he felt by uttering its opposite.

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  3. There is a pleasure I suspect many of us enjoy, at being witness of the misfortunes of others (I find this within myself: maybe this creed of individualism we inherited feeds off of that partially) . There must be a split in the American psyche between the myth of the Self-Made Man and Christian charity and eschewing riches. Yet somehow we live with it schizophrenically.

    Americans generally believe that individual rights is a universal good. It goes hand in hand with the land of opportunity.

    I just noticed how important words are here: what if the credo was "we believe in the rights of all persons" instead? It has a much different feel to it. I think I could emblazon that on my banner into foreign lands. Or does "persons" sound socialist for some reason? "Indviduals" sounds like it excludes children as well.

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  4. I am just beginning to mull over this idea of person and individual, Marc, and haven't yet come to anything close to being able to say. But the "split", as you say, seems to me to be especially pronounced in the American psyche (as opposed to, say, the European psyche).

    In Europe, the socialist and capitalistic ideals are not so distinct. They meld better, and a system is in place where there is a little of this and a little of that. In America, the very word "socialism" seems to drum up sentiments that are antithetic to our very foundation.

    And then there is Christianity.

    How does this fit into the political system?

    America seems to have become skewed to an extreme, and drastic corrective measures are in order. A society must be structured so that all of its members can live. Capitalism, in the name of PROFIT, has put an outrageous measure of our nation's wealth in the hands of the rich, while working class Americans are denied basic health coverage or living wages.

    Maybe this is getting away from "person" and "individual" concepts and wordage - but I don't know how to separate WE from I. We are all members of each other. We find our true selves in context of each other. Any one person's "success" is built on a thousand others who came before and supported her/him. The adulation of the "Individual" ignores that, not to mention the psychic division spiritual lostness and "bad dream" that Merton mentions.

    We have a lot to learn about spiritual wholeness from the Native Americans and the African Americans, I think. If he becomes President, I think that Barack Obama could, in some way, just by his being from another background than the same old White Protestant pool, bring about a change in our awareness of who we are.

    Boy, I was all over the place with that!

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  5. Hi Beth, it is Sean from jersey here. I think that you are right about that. I have tortured myself trying to convince my brother in law that there really is no such thing as an "individual" He has a blog called individ and the stuff he spouts off about could not be more opposite to my own thoughts and passions. (my wife has banned me from visiting the site to preserve family relations) she is much more evolved than me. She says he is my brother and I love him, I don't have to agree with him and can let it go at that.
    Anyway, thanks for the posts and comments. You have been quiet for a while. One of these days soon, I want to send you an email or post a comment regarding my retreat at Gethsemani in early May. It was better than I could have ever imagined.
    Take care
    Peace
    Sean

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  6. Hi Sean,
    Nice to hear from you again. Yep, your wife sounds very evolved :-) ... I'd love to hear about your retreat at Gethsemani. Please write!

    I "spout off" a bit more often these days on my other blog - Quotes and Musings, http://quotesandmusings.blogspot.com

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  7. When I read your response to A. from Minnesota, I thought of Neils Bohr who quoted his father by saying that there were two sorts of truths, profound truths recognized by the fact that the opposite is also a profound truth, in contrast to trivialities where opposites are obviously absurd. I used to put that on one of my assignments to confound and amaze them.

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  8. I have been musing over that quote of Neils Bohr's father today, Barbara, and it seems strangely true. Every profound truth has an opposite that is also a profound truth. Like, the command to LIVE is accompanied by the willingness to DIE.

    I wonder if that is why we get so divided, as people, into conservative and liberal camps?

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