I know you’ve been thinking it all along, but I’ll say it anyway: W Somerset Maugham’s The razor’s edge is a very aptly titled novel. It tells the story about a young man who sets out in search of the Absolute, and while I don’t agree with the conclusions that this protagonist reaches, the title of the novel still manages to capture the delicate nature of his quest. To seek truth — to find wholeness and a sense of wellbeing — is to be balanced on a razor’s edge. You see, the absolute itself, however we may try to define it and however we encounter the ways that our words fail to capture it, seems to also be fragile; it is, perhaps, something discovered in fleeting glances, in ideas that escape representation, in brief experiences of the sublime, in gestures, in clouds that bend and shift to the whims of the wind. It is often most present when we feel that we have lost it, and somehow most absent when we claim to have a handle on it. Perhaps it is when we understand the fragility of this absolute, or at least the fragility of our ability to be present to it, that we can come to appreciate most profoundly what it means to be human.
William Desmond, a remarkable philosopher whose work I have been grappling with recently, presents this very simple but very profound idea that ‘to be’ — that is, to ‘take a stand’ on being human (to risk a Heideggerian phrase) — is to be ‘in the between’. It’s a simple idea — an idea that I may unfairly over-simplify here — that has some very profound and illuminating implications for how we might understand our experience within what is often a traumatically complex world. It presents us with the truth that our ordinary experience of the world is paradoxical: this is to say that existence is riddled with riddles that are always and forever dancing in, through and beyond the known.
Desmond writes that “[o]ur understanding of what it means to be comes to definition in a complex interplay between indetermination and determination, transcendence and immanence, otherness and sameness, difference and identity”. This “betweenness” is grappled with and taken in most elegantly through a somewhat mystical stance towards being that Desmond refers to as the metaxological, which is “[a] sense of plurally intermediated relatedness between identity and difference, offering a renewal of the openness of this between, where identity exceeds its own self-mediating and difference can define robust otherness irreducible to any dialectical self-mediation” (see Desmond, Desire, dialectic and otherness, 2014). I know there are a lot of big ideas here that I can’t quite get into in the kind of detail I would like, but suffice it to say that this metaxological stance is a stance of openness; it stresses “the mediated community of mind and being” and “calls attention to a pluralized mediation beyond closed self-mediation from the side of the same, and hospitable to the mediation of the other, or transcendent, out of its own otherness”. In other words, the metaxological sense “keeps open the spaces of otherness in the between, and it does not domesticate the ruptures that shake the complacencies of our mediations of being” (see The William Desmond Reader, edited by Christopher Ben Simpson).
This open relationship to otherness — this openness to that which escapes our attempts at domesticating reality and which leaves us often gasping for breath in the face of the tumultuous — is beautifully captured in the philosophy of John O’Donohue (especially in his book Eternal echoes). O’Donohue places our experience of being in the tension between longing and belonging. We all long for things — we are hungry, needy, lustful; we are seekers, trippers, askers, fumblers, fallforwarders. We all need to belong — to feel as if we, and the things we experience, fit. If we were only in a state of longing, we would all be addicts — always consuming, but never sated. We would be Erysichthonites and flounderabouters. But if we were only in a state of forced belonging, we’d all be fundamentalists and psychotics who try to control reality through language, actions and various permutations of bureaucratic institutionalization. To avoid these extremes, we need to have this tension between longing and belonging maintained in ourselves: we need a sense of adventure and a sense of the comfort of home, as Chesterton says. It is only in this tension that the “original astonishment” of being (as Desmond calls it) can be reclaimed (although, perhaps, this tension may also produce more perplexity than it does astonishment).
But, as I said, we’re on a razor’s edge. Our desire to stay in a right relationship with these tensions — with this delicate sense of the between — is disrupted almost continuously, both by the wondrous and the terrible, both by the awe-inspiring and the dread-inciting. We may tell stories and myths to stress belonging, but in so doing may also forget that we are hungry. Or we may wander around in the desert looking for water while forgetting that we’ve got everything we need right there with us. We are so easily thrown off kilter.
I know that you are like me in that you too are fragile. And I want to offer just this one thing that I have found to be true in what has turned out to be a beautiful-difficult year — a year of death and new life, of grieving great losses and celebrating new arrivals: the more we try to balance ourselves on this razor’s edge, the more likely it is that we will simply fall off. Because the absolute or the divine is not ultimately something we find. Rather, it is something that finds us when we let ourselves simply be — when we breathe, when we try to indicate towards that which cannot be named, when we accept that there are mysteries that we will never fully grasp. This, it turns out is grace. To be inbetween is, ultimately, insofar as I can tell, grace. I know it’s a difficult word to explain, but I think Paul Tillich (in Shaking the foundations) gets pretty close:
“Grace strikes us when we are in great pain and restlessness. It strikes us when we walk through the dark valley of a meaningless and empty life. It strikes us when we feel that our separation is deeper than usual, because we have violated another life, a life which we loved, or from which we were estranged. It strikes us when our disgust for our own being, our indifference, our weakness, our hostility, and our lack of direction and composure have become intolerable to us. It strikes us when, year after year, the longed-for perfection of life does not appear, when the old compulsions reign within us as they have for decades, when despair destroys all joy and courage. Sometimes at that moment a wave of light breaks into our darkness, and it is as though a voice were saying: “You are accepted. You are accepted, accepted by that which is greater than you, and the name of which you do not know. Do not ask for the name now; perhaps you will find it later. Do not try to do anything now; perhaps later you will do much. Do not seek for anything; do not perform anything; do not intend anything. Simply accept the fact that you are accepted!” If that happens to us, we experience grace After such an experience we may not be better than before, and we may not believe more than before. But everything is transformed. In that moment, grace conquers sin, and reconciliation bridges the gulf of estrangement. And nothing is demanded of this experience, no religious or moral or intellectual presupposition, nothing but acceptance.
In the light of this grace we perceive the power of grace in our relation to others and to ourselves. We experience the grace of being able to look frankly into the eyes of another, the miraculous grace of reunion of life with life. We experience the grace of understanding each other’s words. We understand not merely the literal meaning of the words, but also that which lies behind them, even when they are harsh or angry. For even then there is a longing to break through the walls of separation. We experience the grace of being able to accept the life of another, even if it be hostile and harmful to us, for, through grace, we know that it belongs to the same Ground to which we belong, and by which we have been accepted. We experience the grace which is able to overcome the tragic separation of the sexes, of the generations, of the nations, of the races, and even the utter strangeness between man and nature. Sometimes grace appears in all these separations to reunite us with those to whom we belong. For life belong to life.
And in the light of this grace we perceive the power of grace in our relation to ourselves. We experience moments in which we accept ourselves, because we feel that we have been accepted by that which is greater than we.”