Man becomes a riddle to himself
New York, January 6th, 2011
You might wonder why I am writing you this letter, but the other day I felt inclined to continue our conversation and to look together for some answers to your perplexing questions. I am not suggesting this is a sure method, but at least by it we might overcome the temptation to hastily find ready answers. And if we fail to find adequate answers, it will not be because we did not accept the challenge and did not take seriously the quest.
I am writing you not only because I am still a romantic professor and find the method of correspondence attractive (and profound), but also because, as I told you, after so many years of teaching hard, now I am taking a sabbatical year in which am going to spend time traveling around. I want to test whether my ideas hold water and that my teaching is not remote from reality. I wonder whether reality appears for everybody on the same horizon.
As you see, my first stop is New York. A place where questions would seem to turn into skyscrapers. Enormous, bottomless... and we are up here on the scaffolding, like the famous photograph of the workers eating their sandwiches hundreds of meters above the ground. How small and how naïve they are!... And yet they are there! Constructing a building with the desire of reaching the sky (do you remember the day when we discussed in class the pretension that sustained the Tower of Babel?) and... there they are, eating sandwiches.
Well, that is exactly the way I feel now that I am facing your worrisome question. ‘What is life good for?’ – you asked me and you felt pretty good about tackling the big quest that permeates the whole of the history of mankind. And me, after hundreds of lectures in the class room I am staring at the sky skirted by skyscrapers and posing the question together with you: ‘What is life good for?’
What I will recount to you is simply my experience, as it is provoked by your questioning. And this experience – I am even more convinced as years pass by – is given as a gift, a certainty that does not belong to me, but helps to distinguish the sun behind the huge mass of concrete. Dear Ignacio, of what I write, receive what you will as a gift, something I could not enjoy alone. As if sitting on the scaffolding, I am sharing half of my sandwich with you.
The first thing I have to say is that nothing is wrong with you. Don’t feel strange about being overwhelmed with a stream of questions you don’t know how to answer, while at the same time you also feel an enormous desire to launch yourself into life impatiently, without waiting to feel secure. Welcome to existence! There is an internal urgency to a quest within us, a need to find out what we live for, to anchor our life to something or to someone who could give meaning to our life.
We all have this preoccupation. Indeed the questions you asked me the other day show the signs of authentic concerns. These questions are not only raised by philosophers, wise men or someone who lives an idle life. You and me, just like all other human beings – independently of age, culture, formulation or wording – we all ask these questions.
These concerns stem from our inner life; nobody is putting them in our head or in our heart. They appear because we are seekers by nature; we are made like this. And what is at stake is very serious: the meaning of our life, everything that we are and do.
The questions that burn within us appear when the reality of life impacts upon us in some way: when we are in deep sorrow or receive good news, or when there is a serious decision that we are obliged to take... we are puzzled: why should we do so, what is it good for? When did I realize that it is very urgent to find some answers? The day my younger brother died.
But please don’t think I am proposing pain as the only trigger that prompts us to cope with life! It has been my way, but yours will be different. Do you recall any of those moments when you felt overwhelmed? Perhaps by a conversation with a colleague, or the discovery of something small but relevant for that day, or when you had the intuition that some small coincidence was someone else’s plan? Have you ever felt your own smallness when contemplating the starry sky on a summer night? Have you ever fallen in love, Ignacio? What do you say about this?
Whenever we come across utter beauty (which is often interwoven with daily routine) the question arises: and me, who am I? Who is this ‘I’ who is amazed by life? I am the question. I am the desire. And I desire happiness (with all my heart!), I desire beauty, I want justice, I want real things in my life, I want good things to last forever, I want to be loved (always, even when I make mistakes), and I want to love... In short, I want to find the answer to the question of my life in order that my life not be, as the Shakespearian tragic-hero puts it, ‘full of sound and fury, signifying nothing...’.[i]
Now I remember that day when, at some point in the conversation, I asked you to formulate your yearning and you answered me with the poem of José Hierro:
I wish you understood me without words.
Without words speak to you, as my people speak to each other (...)
Ignacio, it is now me who does not have any words but words from the same poem you once offered to me:
You ask me, my friend, and I do not know what answer I should give.
Long ago I learnt deep reasons you do not comprehend.
Reveal them, I’d wish, putting the invisible sun into my eyes (...)
And if I told you now you had to cross lost cities
and cry on their dark streets feeling weak. [ii]
I only know that my reason is far broader than the words I used to pronounce in class; that my reason and yours are made up of the same things, intellect and heart; and that, just like you, I also yearn for faithful company, for an honest embrace, to find peace in the depth of my soul.
Nothing of this is mere theory or a game. Indeed, think of it: what has been or is your life if you do not respond to this?
‘I confess that I have not lived and don’t live the lack of
faith with the despair of a Guerriero or of a Prezzolini
(...). Nevertheless, I always felt and I feel it as a profound
injustice that deprives my life, now that the time has
come to give accounts, of whatever meaning there is. If
my destiny is to close my eyes without knowing where
I came from and where I am going to and what I came
here for, it would have been better not to open them at
all. I hope that Cardinal Martini does not consider this
confession of mine as something impertinent. At least, I
don’t pretend anything else but to declare my failure’. [iii]
You know the author of these words. I recalled them quite often in class. Anyone who takes his life seriously could sign his name to this affirmation of the great historian and journalist, Montanelli. But signing one’s name to these words makes the hand of that soul tremble. Our quest, however, if taken seriously, entails this risk. It is in no way banal. Nobody wants to cross the battlefield of life without finding something at the end.
I expect you will agree with me, that if the question points to Infinity, the response likewise cannot be limited. Only an ultimate answer can respond to an ultimate question; and these are ultimate questions because there are no questions beyond them. We are looking for the meaning of everything, of life, death, love, suffering, work, loneliness... We can give partial answers that resolve more or less the question, but what our heart really yearns for is a meaning that illuminates the whole: life and death.
Free to escape or to confront
Nevertheless the loom of life has many threads, and not all are simply arranged in the shuttle. Sometimes the thread of freedom comes to make the final design more complex, even if it is true that this is what gives color to the whole. All the looms are not simply determined by the same hand, rather it is freedom that makes it possible for each and everyone of us to take up our particular position before the quest, before the answers that come to us. One can listen to them or cover one’s ears, or pretend that nothing ever happens and ignore everything...
From the lectern in the classroom one can see well what I am saying to you: the eyes that do no wonder why wait only for the recess bell... These eyes have already escaped and this student has already given up on life. Without being aware of it, this student has already discovered that existence, his existence, is bottomless: and he has decided to surrender. I have never mentioned it to you, but I am grateful. I thank you because your face was always raised to me like a profound question anticipating the reply of a teacher... I hope I have not resigned because of the vertigo that overcomes someone standing at the lectern in the loneliness of a silent classroom. [iv]
The paradox is that we are born with a thirst, a yearning, we have not chosen, even if we are free to do with it what we want, to confront it or ignore it, to seek to satisfy it once and for all, or merely from time to time. Therefore, we can refuse to search for the meaning, even though it is a difficult choice, since our heart cries out for something else.
In any case, Ignacio, we are not always so obvious. We can be very sophisticated when it comes to surrendering and looking askance at reality. But there are distractions that are subtle and escape us, as there are also timid questions that are masks of the authentic quest for meaning. Especially today, when urgency always seems to get the better of importance, and if somebody proposes another direction, it is immediately dismissed as decadent. Hyperactivity is often a respected as an ‘honorable’ way of avoiding the encounter with oneself and with life. I can tell you this, for I spent years getting lost in what seemed to me ‘urgent’ for the world.
The profound impulse that prompts us to look for the ‘why’ of what happens to us is something that is here: a desire, a yearning for something more. Repressing it, ignoring it, and getting ‘distracted’ and leaving it aside without resolving it can only be to run from it, or better to run from ourselves.
For years we fought against the censorship that was imposed on us by the Establishment, but we never realized that the most harmful censorship was provoked by ourselves against our own humanity, a self-censorship that uproots us from our relentless quest. And I hope, too, that this journey I have just started will help to take away the parachute I kept opening unconsciously because of my vertigo.
The instinct to look up
Your youth obliges me to recall my own and ‘to remember things that I’d like to forget’ as the poet would say... but it was then that I mentioned earlier, that I sensed the intuition that we are made for something bigger than ourselves and that we have the total freedom to search for it. I became aware that in order to wonder about the meaning of life I had to start with looking up to heaven. regardless of what idea one might have about what is ‘up there’. Where else, if not ‘up there’ could I ever embrace my brother again?
Right now I am in a city thousands of miles from home. And I am experiencing what I studied: each and every one, every human being, with the words of his time according to his resources, from within his own culture and geographic coordinates, each man throughout all of history has expressed, in one form of another, his religious sense. To not recognize this tendency, must be the fault of some huge blockage, some ideological prejudice or a wound in the soul.
A simple look at ancient history clearly showed me how, at different times and in different parts of the Earth, within diverse cultures, the religious questions that characterize all human existence have nevertheless emerged: who am I?; where do I go and where do I come from?; why does evil exist?; what is there after life? These questions are to be found in the sacred texts of Israel, the writings of Confucius and Lao Tzu, the preaching of Tirthankara and Buddha, in the poems of Homer and in the tragedies of Euripides and Sophocles, and in the philosophical writings of Plato and Aristotle. The answers they gave to these questions were indeed decisive with respect to how they oriented their own existence.
They do not all have a precise idea of God, but virtually all affirm that He exists. I also have had this certainty at a point in my life. And from that certainty I will speak.
The question that you asked without any irony in our last conversation – ‘if God exists, so what?’ – it made me think. Your wit is fantastic! Truly, either God is moved to draw near to man, or that bundle of restlessness intuition we call the human being is hopeless to arrive at God... This might lead you to wonder: ‘Should God not then be able to intervene for our sake in human history in order to give us the answer [to the question that is every human life]? If he could not, what kind of God would he be?’ It does not seem logical to imagine a God that ignores the answers human beings need. Nothing would make much sense. If we are His creation, did He create us for nothing and being hungry for something that did not exist yet? If you reflect on it, the question that best expresses our queries preoccupying our head and heart is this: Is there a God that intervenes in human affairs?
On that note, I have to go. I am writing you from the street; it is very cold and the sun is gone. I am sorry to leave you with a question, but that’s life: a question and the time it will take to answer it... I think your name already indicates the way. ‘Ignacio’ means ardent, the one who is passionate about the goal, the truth... You have all the impulse to discover it.
Get well prepared for your exams.
Your old professor
[i] W. SHAKESPEARE, Macbeth, 5, 5.
[ii] J. HIERRO, Alegría, Gráficas Uguina (Col. «Adonais», XXXIX), Madrid, 1947.
[iii] I. MONTANELLI (February 1996); in U. ECO, C.M. MARTINI, ¿En qué creen los que no creen?, Temas de Hoy, Madrid, 1997, pp. 128-130. Quote from the Spanish edition as translated by M. SZALAY & A. RICHES.
[iv] M. ZAMBRANO, Filosofía y educación, Editorial Ágora, Málaga, 2007, p. 116-118.