I have written much in the past about detachment, but precious little about the other pole—involvement. I must confess that, for me, involvement occasionally feels a bit like grueling anthropological fieldwork or laborious experimental research. Something that is not undertaken for its own sake, but for the sake of knowledge—and the sort of knowledge that I personally prize the most, it seems, is that knowledge distilled slowly in leisured hours of quiet reflection. In actual immersion (say, as Malinowski immersed himself into the daily lives of the Trobriand islanders), I suffer from the vexing stresses and strains of inner disorientation, surging affects that powerfully draw me to—or repel me from—other persons in a compelling way; anxiety about what I’m getting into and where it is all leading; fear of committing injustices against others who are, likewise, becoming involved with me; and just the general vulnerability that comes with being exposed.
From one angle, being involved with another person means being committed to living out a fantasy or mythic narrative with that person—either provisionally and tentatively (with one foot in, one foot out) or unswervingly and doggedly (both feet, head, heart, savings account, and privates on the table). To be doggedly and unswervingly committed to any involvement—to an idea, a spouse, one’s children, one’s title, office, or country—may begin to resemble madness at some point, precisely because such commitment is typically, though invisibly, supported by a willful blindness to all those complicating factors and corrosive questions that threaten to expose not so much the worthlessness of the commitment itself, but its arbitrariness, fragility, and one-sidedness. What the doggedly committed person is loath to admit is that his commitment is ultimately founded upon nothing stronger than his own little will. To be sure, there is something conventionally heroic about this sort of commitment—and the dauntless upholder of his commitments draws much strength and inner reinforcement from this reflected consciousness of his stout-hearted heroism.
But what happens to the original fantasy or mythic narrative into which our committed man stepped into long ago—and in which he is still glutinously ensconced? Doesn’t the increasingly inflexible and rigid determination to ‘make it work’ year after year after year somehow begin to taint or to squeeze out all the freshness, spontaneity, and animation that lured him into the involvement in the first place? Has the single-mindedness of the commitment itself somehow become a secret enemy or rival to the actual day-to-day involvement—choking the life out of it? How could such a paradoxical thing have happened? How does the heroic will to preserve an involvement or relationship, at all costs, become so much of a preoccupation that the real needs and actual qualities of the person or program with whom we’re ensconced are all but forgotten about? These situations such as I am sketching here, which are as common as the rain, tend only to further degrade over time because our psyches, our hearts and our minds, our bodies and our imaginations, secretly rebel against such inflexible and sterile conditions, as we all know. This insurrection from within ferments and gathers momentum. Everyone is familiar with that one button that must not be pushed or that one question that cannot be raised—lest the dam break once again and chaos is unleashed. Interestingly, these are precisely the buttons or questions that plunge directly into the life that is being blocked out and forcibly ignored in order to keep the whole precarious house of cards upright.
Are we then to make no commitments at all? Are we to avoid becoming involved because such commitments and involvements ultimately must be broken (or at least dramatically disturbed and radically transformed, from time to time) in order to let life enter through the windows and doors of our too, too solid marriages, friendships, duties, obligations, and other commitments? Of course not. To avoid involvement in this way—as matter of principle or fixed habit—is to miss out altogether on life, on our one chance to take all the chances we need to drink our fill from a full and overflowing cup. Sure, some persons’ drinking capacity is greater than others. There are those who never gulp, but only sip at life. This wine is intoxicating (and sobering at the same time!)—let there be no doubt about that—but with regular bouts of toping one becomes better at coping with those states of drunken-sobering immersion—say, in a pair of enchanting eyes, or with the thrills and responsibilities of command over the fates of others, or with the ecstasies and the horrors of exploration of the interior world of the psyche.
The principal danger involved in involvement, then, is the threat of being swallowed up by events, by our faithful attachments and commitments—while the (opposite) danger of excessive detachment (or un-involvement) lies in its rendering us utterly unfit for the rigors, the shocks, the tedium, and the ordinary demands of daily life in the world. The dangers and drawbacks of plunging, without a map or compass, into life are perhaps ultimately no greater than those of timidly withdrawing from involvement every time things get a little messy. The truth of the matter is that an involved life is bound to get messy from time to time. In fact, it is probably fair to admit at the outset that life is normally and reliably messy most of the time—and this ‘trying’ condition is only intermittently relieved by brief respites of order, peace, and stability for anyone who is more than superficially engaged with life and with those he or she loves.
We may, with some justice, be likened to that anthropomorphic deity conceived by our ancestors from the Levant, thousands of years ago. Are we not thrust into the role of ‘little creators’ moving across the ‘waters of chaos’—the often complicated mess into which we are born and which, while we are here, we strive with mixed success to mold and to sculpt into beautiful and orderly, if ephemeral, shapes? The mess may happen to center itself in our kids, our marriages, our professional careers, or our own psyches. We dive in. We are bitten and kissed, cuffed and caressed. We get seduced by lovely and treacherous mermaids, kidnapped and then abandoned by princes from picaresque tales. We step back and climb out of the bubbling soup and watch other happy or tormented ‘victims’ bobbing and writhing about with the carrots, potatoes, and chunks of meat. We observe how things might be different—better—more meaningful and beautiful—if certain adjustments were made to the seasoning or the cooking time or the placement of the lid upon the soup kettle. Eventually, we can no longer endure perching ourselves idly above the stove—up on the condiment and cookbook shelf with all our valuable hints and suggestions. We brace ourselves. We hold our nose and…we jump back in.
The image that is becoming sharper and more complete, perhaps, is that of a life which seasonally alternates between two different poles of emphasis—now, towards active involvement, then towards withdrawal and reflective reassessment. Everything in our lives—our marriages, our professional careers, our friendships, our spiritual lives, our relationships with our children and our parents, the living and the dead—is thus regarded as an ongoing ‘work in progress.’ Nothing within the realm of the living is ever completely finished. Nothing ever attains complete perfection. All is evolving, dissolving, transforming, coagulating, cooking, rotting, and being reborn. People, things, and events are moving where invisible currents, dreams, and impulses are taking them. Nevertheless, the transformations of the relationships, activities, and pursuits that we are involved in do not evolve in a merely mechanical or deterministic manner, but with emotional and imaginative investment on our parts.
The sense of this creative participation in our own lives becomes vivid and exciting, I would argue, only when we have learned how to allow for this natural alternation or oscillation between active involvement and contemplative un-involvement, between immersion and reflection. If we get stuck on either side of the alternating current, our creative potentials will begin to decline and wither. Too far to one side and we become crippled and ghostlike ‘onlookers’ as life speeds past us like a bullet train. Too far to the other side and life sweeps us along like flotsam from one day to the next without our really being aware of anything other than the fact that we were busy or bored or distracted by this, that, or the other. Sometimes, these two lopsided, ‘stuck’ types meet each other and have the powerful but misleading impression that the other embodies the compensating solution to his/her imbalanced condition. It’s the familiar old ‘opposites attract’ idea. This is misleading because they are both only half right. In fact, it is as if each of them is on one side of a huge pane of glass such as we see in prisons, where visitors speak with the inmates. Only here, both persons are in their own prison on either side of the glass pane, for they are stuck, one in unconscious immersion in the ceaseless flux of meaningless events, the other looking down from the lonely heights to a boiling and bubbling battlefield of competing, needy, desirable, demanding, and frightening possibilities that one dare not dip one’s toe into.
The path to the fully lived life is invariably a crooked one that zigzags back and forth between immersion and withdrawal, spring and winter, light and shadow. Of course, such a life is broken open, drained, and replenished again and again in a long series of little and large deaths and rebirths. It is a perplexing and inconsistent life when viewed from an orthodox or even ‘commonsense’ perspective because in following its inner laws and promptings, its movements are never quite calculable or predictable—like the plot of an exceptionally good film or novel. In surrendering to the embrace of the great alternation, it breaks a million rules as it heals and re-heals its ever-dying self. It is the doer and the undoer of its life, the maker and the destroyer of the rungs on its ladders of ascent and descent. It devours everything of substance that it can cram into its soul, only to give it all back to the world with its own distinctive scent or perfume added thereunto. Thus, it never dies, for it becomes fuel in the fire of the continuing incarnation of that Dreamer whose very dream is the world.