‘A speculative essay concerning the irrational force which inspires us to act and the faith we develop over time, to justify it.’
The vision which sustains us is never rational. If it can be expressed at all still it will never be understood, as one tries to explain, for it is only ever by the voice itself, rather than via the words spoken, that the proof of its existence is carried. Yet we refer to it constantly, this vision; through our actions primarily, but also through symbols that are centuries old and metaphors that are ever-renewed. Stories about this vision have taken place in the desert, for example, as bands of desperate individuals search—we fear in vain—for an oasis they only ever seem to glimpse out there on the periphery, but which vanishes the moment they try to look upon it directly. Thank goodness there is this precedent, as now I try to talk about it. The vision is our oasis in the desert, yes; it is also our fire in the cold and dark night, and the passionate flame in our heart which warms us when the world seems bleak.
In the past this vision has gone by many names. We’ve called it Utopia, Eden, Paradise, Bliss, and, although we have outgrown these images, still we speak of what they were meant to signify. Nowadays this psychic element may not even have a name, yet still we give voice to it every time we venture to speak with conviction, every time we strive to be understood by someone whom we are desperate to have understand. But again, in this, our conviction, our vision, we will never be understood, and even as you recall how vulnerable is the moment this exposure brings, and even as you realize that the person who will never understand why it is you do what you do is, also, yourself—say, when you look in the mirror—you should find something of a strength in the fact that you and everyone else like you has nonetheless risen to meet the dawn since the dawn of our species, and by the hand of your kin—our ancestors—entire cities have been raised from the ground like mountains, and whole nations have materialized out of thin air at a word which in fact none of us have trouble understanding.
What is the word?
Faith. Faith that we will be understood, should we try to explain; faith in this vision we cannot articulate, as these flags we plant and these structures we erect certainly stand for something, but never represent precisely what we mean to convey. Upon the final, most intimate moment of revelation, again it is only ever the sound of our voice, echoing across the fields we have sown, and through the temple we have built to protect this flame—the ideal that is this flame—which gets across the vital importance we feel life has. And for most people, I think, when they hear this echo, they feel it resonate within them, and its implication kindles within them a similar flame—or, perhaps a dying ember, which they had forgotten but which nonetheless remains within their heart. In them, in the past, the flame has been that of patriotism, and the flame has been that of family. Whatever it may be, now or at any time, we light candles by it when guests come over, and drink spirits which warm us still further as we congregate ’round the hearth, and nothing more needs be said; here, finally, let us enjoy one another’s company. T’is what we work so hard for.
A nice picture, but it too is only that—a picture, an image, a vision—and something more needs be said after all, for it is our lot in life that we are always caught in that most painful moment wherein it is demanded of us that we explain ourselves—even to our family. Before we can even settle into the possibility of it, the oasis vanishes: the family is a scene of dysfunction, and the country bristles with the threat of civil war.
This to say, there is nothing unique to our time in history, and as much as we would like to think that we have come a long way, as a civilization, I claim that in these moments our ancestors would still recognize us.
The premise thus far has been that we, as individuals and as a people, seek desperately to have the motivation behind our actions understood by others, and by ourselves, and that this misplaced yearning is what has given rise to the world as we know it. Is it any wonder, then, that the mythos of our time is one of law, surveillance, and social accountability? Only think of how many films, television shows, books, and other media revolve around these themes; could it be a point of secret pride that our every move can potentially be captured on video and made available for the world to see, and that every precedent of race, religion, creed, sex, crime, and defence has been recorded, judged, and filed away in law books which become ever more comprehensive as they become more prominent in our minds, the final result being a society more confident, because more articulate, than any other in history? If every story had already been told, and every event foreseen, we would no longer feel at a loss to explain ourselves; we would no longer feel the pain and difficulty of having to justify ourselves in front of our peers; and this, maybe, would be the perverse triumph of our species. Wouldn’t this be cause for celebration, if achieved the world over, for would not this most articulate law describe, paradoxically enough, our most comprehensive freedom?
If I know you, I no longer fear you, and if I do not fear you I can move about freely, and breathe a little easier, not a whit insecure that you might be questioning my motives. So long as we both abide by the law, we can enjoy this freedom.
Such a world thus described may sound outrageous, but it is not far-fetched. It is in fact the condition upon which any and every institution is founded, and of course our world is full of institutions. Regarding them brings us back to the matter of faith, for institutions are not natural, which means they must be created, which means they must have a reason for being created.
And we have never been able to give a satisfactory reason for why we’ve created any of the things we have.
Regardless, after a certain amount of time and effort invested—that of an individual’s life, or that of a generation or era—any denial of the product of that investment would in effect be suicide. Faith in this sense is the final, rational solution for anyone who would fain do anything and then dare to look back upon what they have done—recall that neither the impulse nor the direction can be put into rational terms, and that whatever we would have another understand, it will only ever be the tone they hear when we say that we had to act.
Moving forward in our day to day, we can only hope that the actions we take and the words that we speak will one day serve as validation for whatever it was that got us up and out of bed every morning. We should content ourselves with the fact that we’ll never be able to give a satisfactory explanation for why we do what we do. We can only hold our hands to our chests before the flags we’ve planted, and make use of these structures we’ve built and maintain them with care, and maybe sometimes wonder how, even though no one person’s vision has ever been enough to mobilize the whole world to have faith, the whole world is in motion, and the gestures are the same the world over.