Whence Cometh Our Help?

Little Water. Dalarö. August Strindberg, 1892. Oil on cardboard. Nationalmuseum, Stockholm

Is there such a thing as deciduous ideas? Ideas that have had their season. Some flare into color as a last statement of themselves, others dry modestly and fall away. There is a process of this kind, an autumn of ideas. I’ve noticed myself entering into it. New ideas are needed for this time and its astonishing issues.

This is a time for experimental, austere thought. I suppose that many of us felt that we were conducting a standard, reasonably comprehensible twenty-first century, our honor intact, the worst of things remote from us. There have been historic disasters, evil, cruelty, political stupidity, some of a magnitude and kind never seen before. But what was stubbornly normal about the century until not long ago was that all these things were more or less local. Some had larger, even worldwide impact, but still they had local origins.

Greta Thunberg, August 2018. Photograph by Anders Hellberg

It’s difficult to remember when one first began to assimilate the notion of climate change and its attendant global threats of irreversible disruption of land, air, ocean, populations, civilization. It surely wasn’t when the beautiful, honest face of Greta Thunberg first reached us—she arrived little more than a year ago, it was before that. For most of us I’m also certain that it wasn’t thirty and forty years ago, when the first ominous scientific reports were published. It could have been then, but for me and perhaps many it was not. The reports concerned, so to speak, someone else, somewhere else. I barely noticed them.

But in this past year, particularly, I have noticed, as you may have; there are now daily, serious articles in print and online media, books of real merit and careful argument, scientific reports from the United Nations and its agencies, from governments, and from trusted nongovernmental organizations. As I engaged at last with this growing literature, I also resisted. It is nearly unbearable, nearly unreadable—so I felt. Do we really have just eleven years, not even, to take strong measures, failing which we reach an irreversible tipping point? Must I really read about a requiem conducted in all seriousness in Iceland for a glacier that had melted away, a landscape feature that everyone had loved? The first of many that may be lost. Must I read about polar glaciers calving vast icebergs that in time will raise ocean levels, about densely inhabited coastal regions worldwide that may flood and disappear, about island nations that may simply drown? Must I read about the threat of extinction of one million species, and the significant loss already of populations of birds in many regions? Of grueling and lethal heat waves, wildfires consuming massive acreage, hurricanes and typhoons that level habitation and lives—all of this now, not later. The material is unreadable, or nearly so; it is appalling.

Perhaps instinctively, in response to this information and my uneasiness, I launched an informal inquiry inspired by one of G. I. Gurdjieff’s heroes in his challenging, essential book, All and Everything. That hero is Belcultassi by name, citizen of the fabled continent Atlantis, a man of initially ordinary intelligence who set out to understand himself. Gurdjieff implicitly proposes him as a model for the practice of self-inquiry. One day, as some readers will recall, during Belcultassi’s customary period of contemplation he discovered that something insistently occurred in his inner life “not according to sane logic.” Instead of skipping over that recognition or minimizing its significance, he bore down: he was moved to conduct the most thorough self-examination, exploring where his internal impulses originated in body, feeling, mind, what was their character, what was their impact on people and the world around him, did it change anything if he was more conscious of himself or less so. He became his own question. In a word, who am I? Not in a metaphysical or spiritual style, as if all inner search leads to bliss, but through a relentlessly concrete approach, relentlessly observational. He meant to live here, not elsewhere, and he meant to live responsibly. I couldn’t begin to duplicate his rigor, he sets the ideal—but like us all, I could look, I could be honest with myself.

I should state at this point that much of what I wish to say is deliberately placed under the protection and I hope good will of three tutelary deities. Well, not deities, but outstanding individuals of our time. However much I may have wished to evade the truth about climate change and its consequences, I have not wished to evade the inspiring influence of this earthly trinity. I’m referring again to Gurdjieff (1866?-1949), a teacher as he might have put it of “all and everything,” whose gifts to us remain too little recognized. And the next member of this earthly trinity, Václav Havel (1936-2011), principal leader of the so-called Velvet Revolution of 1989 in Czechoslovakia and president in sequence of that country and of the Czech Republic that emerged from it.

Václav Havel. Photograph by Jiří Jiroutek, cropped by ThecentreCZ

Like Gurdjieff, he offers more of value than we have so far received. Though he left us not long ago, just in 2011, we are forgetting him when we would be better off exploring his legacy—his thought, on the basis of hard experience, about what he called “politics as morality in practice,” his thought about conscience, about the “moral minimum” required between nations, about responsibility, and about what he called Being, the far, firm presence to which we belong and which, like a divine mirror, reflects back to us what we are. All of this repays attention. Havel is an older, wiser brother, somehow able to feel deeply not just for his patch of humanity in Central Europe but for humanity as a whole. I think of him as the first postmodern prophet. His thought has prophetic force.

The third member of this wise trinity is Dag Hammarskjöld (1905-1961), second secretary-general of the United Nations, a person of enormous depth, religious insight, practical intelligence, and courage who engaged in high and risky politics in service of humanity. His private journal, published posthumously as Markings, and the public papers chronicling his eight-plus years in office, offer again a resource too little explored. What he understood of personal integrity, conscience, the need for breadth of vision, for clarity of mind in urgent circumstances, should be part of our map of good things.

Belcultassi’s approach was unceasing attention to himself. My approach was more like a theme embraced, a willingness to encounter dissonance in the field of the self—joined to a willingness to be surprised, to suddenly see and grasp attitudes I scarcely knew were there. With fewer than eleven years remaining to resolve the worst of our climate challenges, how dare I, as a sample human being, deflect and avoid what Al Gore first called “inconvenient truths”? What psychic objects cluttered the field of vision? What sort of mind and heart were to that degree willingly blind?

This was the most Gurdjieffian part of the journey. I remembered, I was even periodically haunted by something he had written: that we need all of the species on earth for our own development. Not all minus a few, and certainly not all minus a million. What a mysterious thing to say, and I take him at his word. But this part of the journey was experiential. It concerned who am I, who are we?

G.I. Gurdjieff

Unexpectedly, in flashes of insight I began to confirm much that Gurdjieff had written about human weakness. I was the living diagram of his charges against sleeping humanity; you could trace it all on my person. I came first upon what he called “the disease of tomorrow.” The whole thing can wait. It’s quite far off in time. If there is anything to be done or thought, do or think it “tomorrow,” whenever that is. What a shabby attitude! But there it was, at some crossroad of the self. In one of his press conferences, Dag Hammarskjöld spoke to the needed antidote. Spring 1955: “I feel that when a danger does exist,” he said, “we should act on the basis of that very fact that there is a danger and not give ourselves any leeway as to false speculations that the danger is far off in time; that is to say, whatever your guesses are concerning the time of certain possible threatening developments, you should act as if things might happen tomorrow.” Well, yes.

Then I came upon what Gurdjieff called “self-calming,” which he considered to be one of our most intractable psychic weaknesses. Self-calming is somewhat difficult to describe. It is an envelope of vagueness, a tissue of reassuring dreams, self-contentment without basis. It neutralizes the force of perceptions. It is all the things one thinks when there is indisputably something else that needs to be thought through. A shabby condition of mind, but there it was at some crossroad of the self.

Then I came upon the absence of what Gurdjieff called a “wide being-horizon.” This is his language; he often used the word being as an adjective. We might refer more simply to a “wide horizon” of thought, of information and reflection gathered from many sources on a specific topic. But Gurdjieff seems to have wished to emphasize that thought at best is not merely mental: it is rooted in and expresses the whole being, all that one is. Be that as it may, I discovered that I was narrow-minded, unwilling to assimilate facts and thoughts situated past my territorial boundary. I had few thoughts about climate change, about planetary collapse—and didn’t really want more. I passed over the obvious need to synthesize something closer to a whole understanding. Nearly a third of North American birds no longer there for themselves or for us, the exquisite English swift endangered by climate change—that is very bad. Massive methane seepage into the atmosphere as permafrost melts in once frozen regions—that is very bad. But I allowed crucial scientific findings to remain in fragments, made no fearless overall assessment for further reflection. This too is shabby, it is the small man doing his best to keep things small. Gurdjieff urged his pupils to learn ever more and more about what he called the laws of world creation and world maintenance. But I wanted my morning coffee.

This sequence of internal discoveries, migrating from Gurdjieff’s pages to my flesh as a sample human being of our time, sums to a single word: egotism. Now that I had seen these things and felt their impact on what I must dare to call conscience, I was more ready. Ready to think, feel, and explore with clarity and willingness. This was the scouring. It is inevitable, and it is not once for all. I am reasonably certain that it needs to be periodically renewed when new refusals, acquiescences, or passions again appear that lack “sane logic.”

I’m unable to debate about conscience. I agree with Gurdjieff instinctively that it is innate in human beings and that it is “buried”, as he puts it, covered over, hidden safely away, calling to us but also needing to be called. Why would it take interest in us if we don’t call? But there is something more to recognize: we need living examples of conscience at work, need to be taught the sound and “feel” of conscience at work by those in whom it is vividly alive, uncovered, accessible. Their example, their courage, can become ours. For this, Václav Havel is a touching, quite ideal teacher. For the next part of the journey toward understanding which I’m recounting, Havel is the “deity”, the guiding wisdom figure.

If it is sufferings that shape us in depth—if this is inevitably so in part, and common knowledge—he was one who suffered. The son of well-to-do parents, he was denied a systematic university education by the postwar communist regime of Czechoslovakia; he had to piece together something resembling the education he sought while working in a brewery. That experience too became part of his education. Yet he fulfilled his nature in those earlier years as a stagehand in a small theater in Prague, and soon after as a playwright of great gifts and growing international fame. Some internal factor—call it conscience—moved him in the 1970s to write and disseminate two now-classic essays on freedom, fear, and what he called “living in truth” despite the atmosphere of fear imposed by the regime. He became a bold political dissident of startling analytic power and eloquence. His writings reached a world audience in translation. His reward from the regime for all of this was imprisonment for some five years, his health gradually and irreparably weakening in the course of those years. He was finally released only when the government feared that this man about whom the world cared would die in its prison. In 1989, he was among the most prominent negotiators in the transition from the communist regime to the new democratic government which he served as its first president.

It was a miracle or fairy tale, as he often put it, and the world celebrated the miracle. A few months after becoming president, he spoke in the United States before a joint session of Congress, meaning that some six hundred legislators and other high officials sat down to listen to him. In what he said on that occasion, the sound and feel of conscience at work was evident. Who but Havel would have said to a crowded hall of American legislators that “consciousness precedes being”? But this he did say. Here is what followed from that. I quote:

Consciousness precedes being, and not the other way around, as the Marxists claim. For this reason, the salvation of this human world lies nowhere else than in the human heart, in the human power to reflect, in human modesty, and in human responsibility. Without a global revolution in the sphere of human consciousness, nothing will change for the better in the sphere of our Being as humans, and the catastrophe toward which this world is headed, whether it be ecological, social, demographic, or a general breakdown of civilization, will be unavoidable….Interests of all kinds—personal, selfish, state, national, group, and, if you like, company interests— still considerably outweigh genuinely common and global interests….We are still destroying the planet that was entrusted to us….We still don’t know how to put morality ahead of politics, science and economics. We are still incapable of understanding that the only genuine core of all our actions—if they are to be moral—is responsibility. Responsibility to something higher than my family, my country, my firm, my success. Responsibility to the order of Being, where all our actions are indelibly recorded and where, and only where, they will be properly judged. The interpreter or mediator between us and this higher authority is what is traditionally referred to as human conscience. If I subordinate my political behavior to this imperative, I can’t go far wrong. If, on the contrary, I am not guided by this voice, not even ten presidential schools with two thousand of the best political scientists in the world could help me.

I find this breathtaking. It is the sound of conscience at work; that note is struck. Those who genuinely hear it may in turn find their own note. Conscience is a blessed contagion. A further metaphor suggests itself: we are like fledgling birds—innately they know how to fly but still need to be taught, need the initial example and encouragement. Innately we are made to find and live by conscience—but all the same we need examples.

You can see—so can I—where I discover that fine substance called wisdom: not every kind and level of wisdom, but the wisdom that suits these times when we might, but need not, sleepwalk toward the global catastrophe foreseen by Havel, foreseen and measured by the scientific community. It is to be found in experienced, awakened, eloquent individuals who live close or lived close to challenging circumstances—those upon whom I rely this evening and others whom you may well have in mind. Those I have mentioned preserved their inner freedom, they belonged to themselves and not exclusively to the ragged world of events, they had marvelously deep inner lives partly disclosed, partly and forever undisclosed. And they explored toward what could genuinely help humanity. Dag Hammarskjöld was decisively of this company. It is to him now, the third watchful deity, that we can turn.

Dag Hammarskjöld

It would so please me to quote from Hammarskjöld’s journal the deep, and in his lifetime wholly private record of his spiritual search and discoveries. But that voice is mostly for another time and context; what we need here is practical wisdom from the porous boundary between his deep life and his work in the world. For example, writing from the Middle East to his chief of staff in 1955, in the course of a month of shuttle diplomacy among regional capitals, he said: “We happen to be those on the spot, and we have to play ball with both guts and prudence….Once you go head first into it, even the most impossible task may show unexpected opportunities.” This could be our watchword as we collectively face the challenges undoubtedly ahead. In that same year, speaking with a student group, he declared that “no lasting success is possible without the patience and the courage to face facts, any more than it is possible without the faith that mankind will reach its goal if we, every one in his own place, are willing to pay the price.” This degree of steady courage and lucidity is what we need. Science is characterizing the situation; in stringently practical ways, we must respond. Yet something more is needed from us. Hammarskjöld thought about the central importance of faith and inspiration in the context of the UN, but his words carry farther, they belong to us all at this time. “The United Nations stands outside,” he said, —necessarily outside—all confessions, but it is, nevertheless, an instrument of faith. As such it is inspired by what unites and not by what divides the great religions of the world….It may be said of the United Nations that what is required from the Organization—and from the governments and peoples therein represented—is a renewed faith, a faith renewed every day, expressed in a never abandoned, everyday newly initiated, responsible action for peace….There is….in the international field, a need for practical action….But…there is also a need for inspiration.

Courage, lucidity, perseverance, faith that we can achieve what must be achieved— these are among the values Hammarskjöld lived and that he asks us now, in effect, to live.

He once made an arresting distinction between levels of duty. He was writing to the prime minister of Israel, David Ben-Gurion, with whom he had a strong affinity but also periodic and serious policy disputes. “I fear that in our never-abandoned efforts to get nearer to the target we have in common,” Hammarskjöld wrote, “—in your case peace for Israel, in my case perhaps just simply peace—we may have reached a dead point….Such a situation requires some boldness. Indeed, it seems to me to be a situation where we must individually try to transcend our immediate duty in order to fulfill the higher duty of creative action.” The higher duty of creative action…Again I find this breathtaking; it opens toward the hope that some at least in positions of leadership can look past their narrow interests to the much greater good now needed.

It would be unkind to Hammarskjöld to take leave of him without evoking the rigorous and fruitful spiritual search to which he bore public witness on rare occasions only. It was no one’s business but his own, yet it fueled his dedicated work in the world, gave him clarity, redirection when needed, and a prayer life of great sensitivity, of intimacy with the Lord to whom he spoke as “Thou.” What to choose among so many marvelous passages in his private journal, Markings? “Each day the first day,” he wrote in 1957. “Each day a life. Each morning we must hold out the chalice of our being to receive, to carry, and give back. It must be held out empty—for the past must only be reflected in its polish, its shape, its capacity.” Emptiness of this kind is the source of radical renewal, of readiness.

Whence cometh our help? Words, as you know, from Psalm 121, a psalm that still has the power to melt one inside, to uncover the anguish, hope, and trust that live within us undetected until a true voice speaks. To melt in that way, to experience at last our vulnerability and need for help, reveals also a longing to take things in hand: to think and act effectively as agents of our own salvation. Many things on this Earth call for partnership—in this instance between higher and lower, between God, however named, and those who care.

My help cometh from the Lord, which made heaven and earth.

He will not suffer thy foot to be moved: he that keepeth thee will not slumber.

Behold, he that keepeth Israel shall neither slumber nor sleep.

. . .

The sun shall not smite thee by day, nor the moon by night.

The Lord shall preserve thee from all evil: he shall preserve thy soul.

The Lord will not sleep—but what of us? To this point I have integrated three necessities through the thought and practice of outstanding individuals. From Gurdjieff, an indication of lifelong, deeply interesting work toward self-knowledge as a basis for clarity of mind and heart, and action undistorted by egotism. From Havel, the call to conscience, to responsibility, and a shy but luminous reminder of our relation to the Being that unites and knows all things. From Hammarskjöld, an enlightened, courageous approach to political, economic, and societal change: he was one of God’s negotiators, there are not many in each generation. Of course, much more is needed, and of another order. We must count on the science and technology communities to convey the truth about the continuing degradation of our planetary home and to care fiercely about developing solutions. They must assault us with facts, grace us with solutions. And in response we can act, and act sensibly, if the collective will to act is there. We must count on political leaders around the world to awaken to the global emergency. Some—but will they be numerous enough?—should be capable of this, they will find their voices and reach us. This is not the moment for the disease of tomorrow, for self-calming, for narrowness of mind, for unfeeling egotism in high places. And then, corporate leaders must be intelligent and public-spirited—but will they be numerous enough?—to turn their capital investments away from products and systems that accelerate climate change. They must be brilliant—nothing short of brilliance and daring will simultaneously preserve their capital and the Earth. What a deeply engaging challenge.

The fourth stage of this journey toward understanding must be contemporary. It cannot but rely in good part on our own possible wisdom, our discoveries, our voices reaching one another. It is time to acknowledge the novel task of generations now living: care of the Earth. Who would have thought that this would be our shared task? Care of a planet. In a marvelous lecture delivered last spring, Professor Charles Langmuir, an earth scientist at Harvard University, suggested that the logic of planetary development, not only on this Earth but elsewhere and again and again, eventually generates sentient life: the consciousness of the planet, resident in organisms that begin to reflect. And at a certain level of scientific knowledge, that sentient life becomes responsible for planetary welfare. Partly in ignorance, partly with disregard, we have lived badly on our planet. The costs of doing so have become evident and urgent. Now we must understand how to care for our planet. That is our task. It is marvelous, it is grave.

Peaceable Kingdom. Edward Hicks, c. 1830-1832. Oil on canvas, Metropolitan Museum of Art

We will need gifted men and women to call to us, to help us remember. The Lord in His mercy and with His characteristic, almost playful irony, has already appointed, so to speak, a prophet of unquestionable moral power and preternatural eloquence: young Greta Thunberg. There will and must be others—wise scientists, business leaders of conscience, elected leaders of real merit, writers, teachers, musicians, and yes, prophets who scorch us with their perceptions. We can hope that collectively they will bring to light the changes we must make both in our minds and in our material culture. I’m thinking particularly of our romance with violence, with war and its weaponry. It is nearly unbearable to see the leaders of scientifically adept nations crow about their latest destructive inventions. One is embarrassed for humanity, as if we should be struck from whatever records there are. Is that what we have achieved? Is that who we are?

There is exquisite science now. Authors such as Brian Swimme and the late Thomas Berry speak of cosmogenesis—the chronicle of creation from the Big Bang to galaxy and star formation to planetary life—as a new sacred narrative. We could love it, revere it, they say, and it is constantly being enriched by new discoveries. The image I chose for the announcement of this evening’s talk1 is a color-enhanced photograph of entangled photons, particles of light, generated in a quantum physics lab. The special feature of entangled photons is that, however great the distance between them, however astronomical that distance may be, they remain in touch and affect each other. Interdependence, community, is characteristic of the universe at its most fundamental level. What a remarkable discovery. Does this reflect who we are and our irreversibly mingled lives on this Earth? I think so.

I happen to be a member of a tribe, so to speak, that appreciates tasks. We like to know what there is to do, and to know it with some precision. Tasks brighten the day, give it direction and shape. They bring out one’s genius. Without a task, we soon find ourselves turning in habitual circles, awaiting word and eventually forgetting even to wait for a word. My tribe prefers to be serious, to contribute to life, when possible in original ways: new music in the broadest sense, new thought and avenues for action. I do not know—who knows?—whether today’s generations are equal to the task facing us now. But word has reached us.

We need a renaissance. In a renaissance, everybody inspires everybody else. A new culture appears that enfolds the old and gives it new meaning and force. Our renaissance, if there is to be one, will summon into being a global coalition of science and wisdom. I can already see it and feel it: an obedience to the Earth, new knowledge, an enrichment of what it means to be human. But it’s not yet real.

My mind returns now to the three tutelary deities with whom I began: Gurdjieff, Havel, Hammarskjöld. Gurdjieff showed what “work on oneself” could be toward awakening, toward the resurgence of conscience as a guide, toward a direct sense of kinship, as he put it, with all breathing things. He also said that time is now limited. We need to get on with it. Havel embodied a new politics; he too evoked with unique eloquence and truthfulness the necessity of conscience. “We must make values and imperatives,” he said, “the starting point of all our acts, of all our personally attested, openly contemplated, and ideologically uncensored lived experience. We must trust the voice of our conscience.” And Mr. Hammarskjöld, what did he say? He said this: “It is difficult …to hear the low voice of reason or see the clear little light of decency, but, of course, both endure and both remain perfectly safe guides.” ♦

1 This is essay is adapted from a talk given by the author on November 10th, 2019, in London as a Clarendon Event sponsored by the Gurdjieff Society. A video of the talk is available here.

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