Friday, April 1, 2011



Other people are afraid of being themselves. They play a continual game, fashioning a careful persona which they think the world will accept or admire. Even when they are in their solitude they remain afraid of meeting themselves. One of the most sacred duties of one's destiny is the duty to be yourself. When you come to accept yourself and like yourself, you learn not to be afraid of your own nature. At that moment you come into rhythm with your soul and then you are on your own ground. You are sure and poised. You are balanced. It is so futile to weary your life with the politics of fashioning a persona in order to meet the expectations of other people. Life is very short and we have a special destiny waiting to unfold for us. Sometimes through our fear of being ourselves, we sidestep that destiny and end up hungry and impoverished in a famine of our own making.

The best story I know about the presence of fear is an old story from India about a man condemned to spend the night in a cell with a poisonous snake. If he made the slightest movement, the snake would kill him. All night the man stood petrified in the corner of the cell, afraid even to breathe for fear of alerting the snake. As the first light of dawn reached into the cell, he could make out the shape of the snake in the other corner. He was deeply relieved not to have alerted it. Then, as the light of dawn increased further and it became really bright, he saw that it was not a snake but an old rope lying in the corner of the cell. The moral of the story suggests that if there are harmless things, like that old rope, lying around in many of the rooms of our minds, then our anxiousness works on them until we convert them into monsters which hold us imprisoned and petrified in small rooms in our lives.

One of the ways of transfiguring the power and presence of your death is to transfigure your fear. I find it very helpful when I am anxious or afraid to ask myself of what am I really afraid? This is a liberating quesion. Fear is like fog; it spreads everywhere and falsifies the shape of everything. When you pin it down to that one question, it shrinks back to a proportion that you are able to engage. When you know what is frightening you, you take back the power you had invested in fear. This also separates your fear from the night of the unknown, out of which every fear lives. Fear multiplies in anonymity, it shuns the name. When you can name your fear, your fear begins to shrink.

All fear is rooted in the fear of death. There is a time or phase in every life when you are really terrified of dying. We live in time and time is notoriously contingent. No-one can say with certainty what is going to happen to us tonight, tomorrow or next week. Time can bring anything to the door of your life. One of the terrifying aspects fo life is this unpredictability. Anything can happen to you. Now, as you are reading this, there are people all over the world who are being savagely visited by the unexpected. Things are now happening to them which will utterly disturb their lives for ever. Their nest of belonging is broken, their lives will never be the same again. Someone in a doctor's surgery is receiving bad news; someone in a road accident will never walk again; someone's lover is leaving, never to return. When we lok into the future of our lives, we cannot predict what will happen. We can be sure of nothing. Yet there is one fact that is certain, namely, that a time will come, a morning, an evening or a night, when you will be called to make the journey out of this world, when you will have to die. Though that fact is certain, the nature of the fact remains completely contingent. In other words you do not know where you will die, how you will die, when you will die or who will be there or how will you feel. These facts about the nature of your death, the most decisive event in your life, remain completely opaque.

Though death is the most powerful and ultimate experience in one's life, our culture goes to great pains to deny its presence. In a certain sense, the whole world of media, image and advertising are trying to cultivate a cult of immortality; consequently, the rhythm of death in life is rarely acknowledged. As Emmanuel Levinas puts it, 'My death comes from an instant upon which I can in no way exercise my power. I do not run up against an obstacle which at last I touch in that collision, which, in surmounting or in enduring it, I integrate into my life, suspending its otherness. Death is a menace that approaches me as mystery; its secrecy determines it – it approaches without being able to be assumed, such that the time that separates me from any death dwindles and dwindles without end, involves a sort of last interval which my consciousness cannot traverse, and where a leap will somehow be produced from death to me. The last part of the route will be crossed without me; the time of death flows upstream...'

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