Esteemed Reader of Our Magazine:
What is a human being for?
This is a question that appears in my consciousness like Hale-Bopp streaking across the sky at unpredictable intervals. It appears at random times, on a schedule completely independent of the regular movements of celestial bodies or other contrivances like hours, weeks, or years.
The question popped in yesterday as I watched a high school theater group perform a production of the Broadway musical "Pippin." A cast of young adults paraded across the stage in a grand spectacle, meant, as best I could tell, to convey the myriad alluring characters and contexts of ordinary life.
In the play a protagonist, Pippin, is a narcissistic and self-involved "spoiled brat" seeking "fulfillment" through diverse experiences—excelling in learning at the academy, finding glory in battle, exercising political power, partaking of sexual extravagance and the creative fervor of art, even familial domesticity—and none contain the answer he craves. Meanwhile, there's a "lead player" orchestrating the unfolding events to keep Pippin preoccupied with his quest for elusive assuagement, and in a perpetual state of vexation.
The play reminded me of P. D. Ouspensky's book of short stories, Talks with a Devil, in which the devil's mission is to keep characters occupied with the satisfaction of desires and ambitions, fleeing discomfort and failure, and always striving beyond their current experience.
Like the devil in Ouspensky's story, the goal of the lead player and the cast representing the thousands of relationships and situations of life is to lead Pippin into "the grand finale"—a pyretic act of terminal self-indulgence—suicide. But Pippin turns away to a more essential, albeit ordinary, path and the lead player and cast boycott the event, removing all the props, music, and costumes. Pippin and his mate and adoptive child are left on the stage naked and content (though there are portents of a recurring cycle of illusion-chasing).
Meanwhile, I had my doubts that high school students playing the players had a sense of the multileveled, self-conscious implications of the play they performed, though perhaps I am wrong. The play invites an existential inquiry: What is the purpose of human life and of my life in particular? There is, it seems, an opportunity to inhabit the same set of circumstances in diametrically different ways. At one end of the spectrum is to waste one's circumstances in pursuit of satisfaction, comfort, and "fulfillment"; while at the other end is a wish and willingness to make use of the raw joy and suffering offered up in the moment, to "digest" and refine the material to give rise to a "something," which is the correct product of a human life.
For me, a step in the direction of arousing answers to the question is indicated in the Sufi suggestion to know the difference between the container and its contents. There's two elements in this equation. Discerning their difference gives conceptions and birth to a third—the knower of both the container and its contents.
The container for a human being is her instrument—the apparatus of her inner life, just as the cello or the pipe organ has the possibility of conveying a characteristic timbre, modes of musicality, and musical compositions. The container is the instrument playing an endlessly varied polyphony. It is a magnificent instrument, conducting a range of intelligences, an instrument we barely know from the inside, in the way that Pythagoras meant, when he inscribed in the lintel of the entrance to his academy: Know Thyself.
The content for a human being comprises the whole spectrum of experience, this endlessly varied and infinitely rich blend of thoughts, sensations, feelings, moving, instinctive, and sexual intelligences that are the media through which all experience is known. It is through this media of the inner life that all apparently outer experiences—all relationships and roles, achievements and thrills, acquisitions and accomplishments—are known.
Beyond this, what a person can do or manifest is a resultant of the concerted quality of these blended streams of intelligence, and every deed is imbued and impregnated with the resultant emanations.
"Every tree is known by her own fruit."
The knower is both the result and the reconciler of the container and the contained. The knower is invoked when one undertakes to tell the difference. Herein is a paradox—attempting to discern, in the moment of experience, the difference between the instrument and its sound evokes a third part, a knower, or witness; and the presence of the witness itself alters the integrity of the instrument and its voice.
Like Pippin, our collective malaise is to seek experience to provide fulfillment, and as an escape from some undesirable experience. Meanwhile experience is the gift given to us in general and in particular to inhabit fully as it is, not in surrender but with a will to inhabit every iota of experience we are given.