There seems to me to be a paradox to life that I cannot quite fully grasp, though I am beginning to hear whispers of it the more I stop and listen.
There is, as we know, a Deep Magic (to quote from C.S. Lewis in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe) written into the fabric of the human condition that pushes us to fulfill our needs of belonging, survival, contentment, comfort, and pleasure. This Deep Magic is written into the story of the schoolhouse (get a degree to go to college to get a job to make money to buy stuff), media advertisements (buy our products or use our services in order to feel happy, content, and satisfied), the marketplace (work hard, get ahead, meet your needs, satisfy your wants), politics (elect me, and I promise to make life better for you), and even the church (come and tithe, and in return, we will offer you the promise of peace, prosperity, and purpose).
And yet, it is this Deep Magic that so often enslaves us to our own sense of angst, purposelessness, apathy, stress, addiction, and general physiological malaise. I am convinced this is so because we forget that there is a Deeper Magic (to continue to borrow from Lewis) also written into the human experience whose truth is right before us, though we either ignore it because we fear it is too painful, or deny it because we believe we do not need to heed it.
This Deeper Magic acknowledges that, in order to gain life, one must lose it; that there is something written into the fabric of the human condition (even into all creation) that claims that the more one holds onto one’s self, the less self one has to hold onto, but that the more one intentionally dies to one’s self, the more of that self one finds.
This is the great paradox that seems to claim both the natural world and the human experience.
We see this in the natural world all around us. Take both the acorn and the caterpillar as but two examples.
Let’s observe, for a moment, the caterpillar in his caterpillar day. We watch him eat his caterpillar breakfast, do his caterpillar yoga, study for his caterpillar exams, sit at his caterpillar desk, surf his caterpillar Facebook, watch his caterpillar tv. All day he strives, making plans, setting goals, working hard, climbing social and professional ladders, putting money away in his caterpillar Roth IRA, hoping one day to make it big so that he can move his family into the gated caterpillar neighborhood across town.
The same applies for the lowly acorn. She has worked hard to get where she is, one of the youngest acorn vice-presidents in her company’s history. She drives the right acorn car, attends the right acorn social events, sits on the board of the right acorn charities, even volunteers to read to underprivileged acorns at the local acorn school. She has a retirement account, savings account, two mutual funds, and an acorn stock portfolio managed by her acorn brother-in-law. She even sings in the acorn choir at church.
In short, both the caterpillar and the acorn spend every day working hard to make nice, comfortable lives for themselves.
But that is just the rub! Caterpillars were not meant to be caterpillars and acorns were not meant to be acorns!
Caterpillars were meant to move beyond limbs and branches and grass to soar with the wind beneath carefully sculpted wings more beautiful than any stained-glass window, and acorns were meant to rise from the earth, soaring skyward as giant oak trees with limbs sturdy and strong, a thing mighty and majestic to behold.
But neither happens without a death. A long, slow, perhaps painful death to what once was with all of its dreams, ambitions, plans, goals, savings, friendships, comfort, accomplishments and accumulations.
In other words, it is after the acorn and the caterpillar give their lives away (one in the chrysalis and one in the dirt) that they find themselves most fully and are most fully known.
What is true in the natural world seems to hold true for the human experience as well. Those I find to be “most human” are those who, at every turn, think not of themselves (their own gain, ambition, profit, largesse, etc.) but rather are, again and again, emptying themselves for others. The wisest, most humane, most noble men and women I know are giving themselves away every day in ways that are sacrificial, literally “making holy” (sacra=holy/fice=to make) their lives as they do so.
It is paradoxical because it calls us to sacrifice that which we hold most dear, own deep sense of self in all of its guises (self: righteousness, loathing, centeredness, respect) and become vulnerable to a process that is painful, lonely, slow, laborious and costly.
It is to live from the inside out, to resist the dominant cultural sirens, to live from a place of service rather than power, to pursue deeper longings and avoid immediate desires, to seek meaning rather than money, to make a life beyond making a living.
In the end, caterpillars were not meant to slug along through life, and acorns were not meant to just be squirrel food.
The paradox of the Deeper Magic offers us the life we know we were meant to live.