08.19.19 | Beyond Self

Take these (paraphrased) words of a veteran raising the ultimate existential question:

"I do not know if I want to live any more . . . . I served in Afghanistan and am now working as a salesman . . . I despise this world I am in now -- everything is so selfish and so self-centered . . . . in Afghanistan every single decision I made had a purpose; every single thing I did was for something bigger than myself . . . every deed helped accomplish our mission . . . . here in America no one does anything except for themselves . . . . we work to earn a buck--what is the point to living like this? . . . . there is not a day that goes by that I don't wish I was back in that hellhole . . . . there what I did mattered . . . . here it is all meaningless"

Now apply that portion of Hillel's famous dictum -- "if I am only for myself, who am I?" -- to the whole cloth of humanity. Some rise above circumstances to embrace it -- it being the search for transcendence. The Mormon missionary seeks it. The Marine mechanic, among his "band of brothers," gets it (see focus piece, click here: Questing For Transcendence). Ask our club's own adopted son and lead participant, Eli Cohen, whether he felt a certain metaphysical tug to return from his fancy Wall Street cubicle back to the intensity, mission, and purpose of the Israeli Defense Force (see MM 3/12/18).

Call it the lament of the RM -- the Return Missionaries -- of whatever mission: they've answered some deep-rooted call, held themselves to insane standards of diligence, discipline, and obedience, and spent years doing a job more properly characterized as an all-encompassing way of life. How does one make a soft landing after that? The most poignant scene in the movie Hurt Locker -- about the new team leader of a U.S. Army Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) unit in the Iraq war -- was his return to the civilian world and being faced with the decision which flavor yogurt to pick among the dozens before him in the glass supermarket display case.

We might share our own respective calls to embark on what Joseph Campbell introduced as the Hero's Journey. Whence came your call -- from some cultural imperative, something innate, or maybe some simple desire to escape the ordinary -- and did you answer it? If answered, did you come back somehow changed or transformed? It also raises a question about the substance and legitimacy of the underlying mission itself. Transcendence for mere sake of transcendence may be little more than an exercise in self-indulgence, or worse. Humanity is both at its most heroic and its most horrifying when questing for transcendence. Consider the Terrorist.

Perhaps we'll treat ourselves to a movie night screening of Casablanca -- we've seen it a half-dozen times; we can recite most of the lines -- and watch it as allegory. It becomes the myth of transcendence, of meaning beyond the self. Rick's Cafe' is the state of statelessness. Rick Blaine and Victor Lazlo are splintered aspects of the same man. Rick is selfish despair, "the problems of three little people don't amount to a hill 'o beans." Rick meets and beds the widow (or thought to be) of Lazlo (Idealism). Ultimately, Rick transcends selfishness and is reborn as sacrifice. Idealism and its bride ascend into heaven on the Lisbon plane and Rick retreats into the fog of the mortal world.

Steve SmithComment