At times I am captivated by dizzying anticipations of a far more incandescent and electrically charged existence—an existence that seems to have been within my reach, but one that I have mysteriously shied away from, practically run from. The truth is, I have never looked all that deeply and unflinchingly into this ticklish question. I am dimly aware, nonetheless, of an array of inhibitions that stand between me and this fiery, luminous existence from which I appear to have opted out.
I am left with the rather damning conviction that I have fallen short of fulfilling some promise—of untying and emptying a packet of golden potentials that was dropped into my cradle at birth. I sometimes have the dreadful sensation that I have ‘missed my life’—that I have somehow evaded my destiny. There is the vague sense that I should have been a major player in an arena I was supposed to enter but that somehow I got side-tracked. When I got off this path I was intended to follow I began wandering around in territory and in the company of persons who have become increasingly alien to me—persons who, as it turns out, have never really been my spiritual kin, as I had innocently supposed. Because I am possessed of a resilient constitution, spiritually, I have been able to abide this prolonged ordeal of being alone and of having quite possibly missed my boat.
Strangely enough, my will has not been broken by these perceived misfortunes. Nor has it become tainted with rancor, resentment, or self-loathing—although I am certainly no stranger to these and other potentially crippling and deforming affects. A curious factor of my muted (or repressed?) ambition is a vexing suspicion that I might become a victim of my success, were I to attain some sort of renown or notoriety. By this I mean that I suffer from recurring doubts respecting my powers of self-control if I were faced with the various temptations that might come with worldly renown and success. Interesting and attractive women, refined pleasures, prestige, and other allurements would suddenly be within my grasp. They might enchant and overwhelm me and then I would really despise myself. Or, so my fear-fantasy goes.
The reason I just offered for my shying away from a path that could lead to recognized power among or even over others—to fame and wealth—is perhaps the shallowest and thinnest of them all, but worth mentioning on my way down into deeper issues which have chronically placed a check on my public and ‘worldly’ ambitions.
But before plunging into those issues, though, I want to continue with my examination of this ‘missed life’ that I spoke of. What am I really talking about here? I enjoy (or have contented myself with, depending on how one looks at it) a comparatively quiet, leisurely, and private sort of existence—a life that is well removed from the limelight—a life which does not vie for the attention and approval of the general public. Up till now, the warm and lively interactions I have enjoyed with a handful of loyal friends has satisfied my moderate human need for close contact. And yet, lately I find myself caring less and less even about the attention and approval of these beloved, if imperfect (like myself), intimates.
The incandescent life I claim to have avoided would presumably have been a rather different sort of life than the modest, semi-reclusive one I actually live. It would have been a more highly visible and dynamically influential life—one thoroughly engaged in public affairs in one way or another. Perhaps most importantly, it would have been a life among kindred spirits and true peers. I would have been provided with potent alliances and formidable enemies—all of us, friend and foe alike, positioned rather like Greeks and Trojans on a lofty, well-observed battlefield. Such stature and public esteem befit my potentials, my inner worth and distinction—or, so I seem to believe. Why did I not pursue and rightfully claim such a life for myself if indeed it lay ever within my power to seize it for myself? Who in his right mind wouldn’t vigorously pursue the honors, the privileges, the pleasures, and the wealth that surely could have been amassed if that person was imbued with such promise and potential as I am here crediting myself with?
Can these questions be summarily answered with I was too lazy or I got sidetracked by personal problems that derailed me from the path of worldly success that I was predestined for? Or, adopting even more blunt honesty, mightn’t I humbly confess that in fact I have wound up precisely with the life I deserve, since these grand potentials and this superior innate worthiness have turned out not to be quite so grand or superior as I pompously imagined them to be? In short—am I not just one more deluded dreamer who consoles himself in his isolated impotence with fantasies of what things might have been like if he had only chosen a life career of worldly eminence and accomplishment—and diligently stuck with the program? Many persons are innately endowed with seeds which, when properly germinated and tended with care, will grow into the very sorts of success stories that I claim to have shied away from. But how many ‘acorns’ that fall to the earth wind up as tall, strong oaks?
What happened to my acorn? Was it defective in itself, or did it fall upon unsuitable soil—or upon a patch of earth where insufficient sunlight and water are to blame for a stunted growth? At this point I feel I must pause and introduce a paradox. When viewed through the lens of this fantasy of outward, worldly success and fulfillment, my own life—well into its 52nd year—seems rather ordinary and unspectacular. However, when viewed from the standpoint of inner growth and development, or psychological transformation, my life seems not only quite fortunate—successful, if you wish—but more or less where it’s supposed to be. Moreover, it is fortunate and where it should be, I want to suggest, precisely because I have made an ongoing effort to heed my ‘daimonic’ inner voice—a faintly audible and mysterious voice that has repeatedly warned me against the avid pursuit of conventional and worldly forms of pleasure, success, and security—those more or less easily attained desiderata which are relentlessly being pitched in a this culture. Consequently, these naturally occurring desires, where they have not been half-heartedly pursued, have remained comparatively suppressed or ignored in me. By the world’s—or conventional society’s—yardstick, this counsel by my ‘daimon’ is regarded as irrational and perhaps even ‘unhealthy.’ If you’ve got talent and energy, you develop that talent, you hone and perfect it, and you make your mark in the world. What this basically amounts to from one angle, of course, is ‘cashing in’ on that talent, which entails translating it into widely recognized currency: wealth, prestige or standing among one’s peers, privileges of every stripe, and so forth.
Within the past few years or so, I have begun to appreciate with increasing keenness what the daimon seems to have been up to all along—what lay behind these regularly recurring, gentle discouragements against cashing in my flickering inner light for a more or less steady stream of material, social, and sensual rewards. There has always been an acorn—and so far as I can tell, there are no insuperable defects with the acorn. Moreover, I would argue that the soil in which my acorn was planted—the peculiar circumstances and the ‘formative,’ defining experiences of my life—have been uncannily suited for the germination and nourishment of this slow-growing oak. But there is something very irregular indeed about my variety of oak, something that sets it apart from much of the surrounding flora. For, instead of growing up and out into the light of day, it does something quite peculiar. It appears to grow down and into the darkness of the unlit psyche.
This is my bent—and so far as I can remember, it always has been. I am natively inclined to perceive things invertedly, upside-down. Another way of saying this is that I tend ultimately to see all things, events, and persons symbolically, rather than personally or literally—and this is clearly not the normal way of seeing things, judging from the norms adhered to by most persons in my midst. If my way of seeing the world and my fellow humans is abnormal, then I suppose I must admit to being something of an anomaly—or (God forbid!) a freak.
Or perhaps not. Certainly my inverted, symbolic way of seeing may be starkly contrasted with the literalistic, matter-of-fact way of seeing that constitutes the norm in present-day America. Nevertheless, I sense that there are many persons who readily understand what I am talking about here and that what I’m describing in connection with my own experience applies to a large extent to them, as well. These persons may or may not have explored teachings (of a religious, philosophical, or psychological nature) that address these questions, but they nonetheless have a deep intuitive awareness of the significance of this inverted way of seeing, feeling, and evaluating. Perhaps without their being aware of it in precisely these terms, their ‘trees,’ like mine, are primarily growing inwards—into the unlit interior—and not outward into the common light of day. Moreover, because their inner-directed attention and concern flows against the prevailing current of our extraverted, object-fixated culture, not a few of these native ‘inverts’ may feel the need to downplay, conceal, and occasionally even oppose their natural inclinations, lest they be penalized in some way, or simply deemed ‘weirdos.’
Heraclitus told us that ‘Character is fate’—and the Greek word for fate is ‘daimon.’ These matters I’ve been examining in connection with the daimon (my inner guiding image, or ‘angel’) are felt by me to be intimately bound up with fate—my fate. And by fate I do not mean to emphasize the mundane particulars of my personal biography or the specific day-to-day events of my life—as if each of these were being relentlessly determined by an invisible governing hand. By fate I mean, rather, that seed or acorn (as James Hillman would say) that each of us carries within (or that carries us?)—and which has been there since (or possibly before) birth. It is the seed—peculiar to each of us—of the life intended for us, the life that the daimon wants to live through us. As I said earlier, we may or may not realize (or make manifest) the life we are intended by our daimon to live. We may only sense that daimon in the form of a deep yearning or strong calling but—for one reason or another—turn our will and our attention away from it. There may, in fact, be very good practical (or even moral) reasons or justifications for resisting our fate, but I do not think we can ever fully extinguish or erase it.
Jung writes: ‘In the final analysis, we count for something only because of the essential we embody, and if we do not embody that, life is wasted.’ I will not for a moment deny that I don’t momentarily freeze up in horror when I read this sobering passage from Jung. It provokes the unsettling suspicion that I may have in fact failed to embody my essential character and that much of my life has accordingly been misspent. Why is this? I have spoken above about my acorn being different from others—that my fate, when judged by collective standards, has been embodied as a kind of inversion of the ‘outwards and upwards’ mode of development that constitutes the norm in this day and age. If this is true, and I am where I’m supposed to be (and not where I’m not supposed to be), as I claimed, then why the occasional, haunting suspicion that I may have missed my boat? Am I merely attempting to put the best face—the most flattering interpretation—on an otherwise insignificant or humdrum life by dressing up my fate in these fetching, apologetic terms? If I am going to be completely honest with myself here, mustn’t I admit that I only have my own laziness, shyness, love of ease and privacy, to blame for what has, so far, turned out to be a rather ordinary outer life? Haven’t I simply contented myself with much, much less than I was capable of accomplishing? And don’t I now console myself and justify my lukewarm efforts by constantly reassuring myself that worldly success and renown are of no real value to a quiet, unassuming person like me? Aren’t there sour grapes lurking somewhere behind these justifications and excuses?
But, in the end, what does the question of worldly success and renown necessarily have to do with living one’s potentials—one’s fated task—to the fullest? Aren’t renown, recognition, and worldly rewards always of secondary or peripheral importance here? Isn’t full and thoroughly disciplined dedication to the work—one’s essential task or calling—the matter of supreme importance?
In the Iliad, τίμή (‘honor’) is not primarily an internal sense of self-respect, as tends to be the case with many persons today, but very much a tangible, publicly perceived good. When, at the beginning of the epic, the arrogant Agamemnon essentially confiscates Briseis, Achilles’ concubine (awarded by his fellow soldiers as an enviable prize deserving of his greatness in battle), he is in effect stealing some of Achilles’ precious τίμή. A good deal more than sexual jealousy is at work behind Achilles’ tears of outrage. His honor is what he lives (and will die young) for—and a sizable portion of that honor has just been forcibly snatched from him by a man he could easily trounce in single combat.
The quest for τίμή is a zero-sum game, insofar as any increase for one warrior means a decrease for the others. There is a finite supply, as it were, to go around. Achilles and all the other Greeks and Trojans understand this perfectly well. One cannot have too much of such a thing as τίμή —rather as some greedy persons perceive money or as reckless profligates regard sensual pleasures. Τίμή is a desirable possession that one may desire immoderately.
Or is it? There are not a few who see the Iliad itself as a great meditation on precisely this question, for at the very end of the work we recognize a significant moral lesson being learned by Achilles, the hero of the epic. His immoderate, hyper-inflated sense of τίμή has so thoroughly possessed him that he has dragged the body of the slain Hector behind his chariot around the walls of Troy. When the aged king Priam visits his tent, risking his own life to plead for the mangled corpse of his beloved son, we find Achilles mysteriously changed. Recalling to mind his own aged father, with Priam before him, Achilles is moved by compassion. He surrenders the slain hero to the king and provides a break in the battle so that a proper cremation ceremony may be celebrated in Hector’s honor.
If, by the end of the Iliad, moderation of the craving for τίμή has been introduced, the Passion of Christ goes much, much further in its radical ‘revisioning’ of honor. As an object of mockery and public abuse, Jesus is, in effect, stripped of the last shred of τίμή in its outward, concrete aspect. He has not been robbed of his concubine or of his just portion of the spoils of war. But neither has he been robbed of his dignity, which has become spiritualized and relocated entirely within him. This interiorization of Jesus’ worth and value is so complete and total that had Jesus balked or rebelled against the shameful abuses to his body and to his name, it would have been perceived as a lapse of, or blight against, his true dignity and honor. Jesus’ dignity is the inversion of ‘heroic’ τίμή, for Christ’s dignity is revealed in the all but complete indifference he shows towards the external signs and concrete forms that mattered so much to the Greeks—and to Jesus’ Roman tormentors.
If we take these two notable examples from our cultural past, we see that the Western tradition has been reckoning with this question for thousands of years—providing us with much food for thought and reflection. Is it possible that Nietzsche, in his excessive dismissal of Christianity (and all so-called ‘ascetic’ religions and moralities), somehow failed to fully recognize the enormous spiritual and psychological significance of this particular form of ‘otherworldliness’—this profound wariness towards the ‘honors’ and ‘pleasures’ and ‘powers’ of this world?