Life Comes to Us
As an encounter
For roughly three years now, my Instagram bio has read: “Watching life unfold.” I put it up at a time when I truly felt like I wasn't calling the shots of experience, merely witnessing the fascinating unveiling of the progress of my own life, and I've felt this way ever since. I don't remember what prompted it but it was likely a feeling of gratefulness for an experience I did not feel I earned through the power of my own will in any real sense, as this is the kind of thing that often reawakens the feeling.
I do believe strongly in free will (if I didn't, then you shouldn't heed a word I've ever said), and I believe I make choices that impact my life. But I suppose that seems insignificant in the face of the forces at work that are vastly greater than myself. For starters, it's not by my power that anything exists at all in the first place.
Anyway, I'm saying all of this to introduce a quote that I thought perfectly captured what I mean by saying I'm watching life unfold. It's from The Master and His Emissary by Iain McGilchrist. This is a book I first read roughly a decade ago, and I suspected the intervening years would make me appreciate it even more upon a second reading. I was very right.
The book, which explores the two different “worlds” or “takes on the world” provided to us by the two brain hemispheres, is a marvelous tour de force. All I can say is that I couldn't recommend it strongly enough.
The passage that has stood out more than any other upon this second reading, largely in light of my own growing view of the world, was this:
The feeling we have of experience happening – that even if we stop doing anything and just sit and stare, time is still passing, our bodies are changing, our senses are picking up sights and sounds, smells and tactile sensations, and so on – is an expression of the fact that life comes to us. Whatever it is out there that exists apart from us comes into contact with us as the water falls on a particular landscape. The water falls and the landscape resists. One can see a river as restlessly searching out its path across the landscape, but in fact no activity is taking place in the sense that there is no will involved. One can see the landscape as blocking the path of the water so that it has to turn another way, but again the water just falls in the way that water has to, and the landscape resists its path, in the way it has to. The result of the amorphous water and the form of the landscape is the river.
The river is not only passing across the landscape, but entering into it and changing it too, as the landscape has ‘changed’ and yet not changed the water. The landscape cannot make the river. It does not try to put a river together. It does not even say ‘yes’ to the river. It merely says ‘no’ to the water – or does not say ‘no’ to the water, wherever it is that it does so, it allows the river to come into being. The river does not exist before the encounter. Only water exists before the encounter, and the river actually comes into being in the process of encountering the landscape, with its power to say ‘no’ or not say ‘no’. Similarly there is ‘whatever it is that exists apart from ourselves’, but ‘whatever it is that exists’ only comes to be what it is as it finds out in the encounter with ourselves what it is, and we only find out and make ourselves what we are in our encounter with ‘whatever it is that exists’.
This passage was particularly poignant to me because, over the past couple of years, I've been telling myself to say “yes” to as much as possible in order to watch life unfold most fully. Or, in other words, to not say “no.” Because it really isn't what I will or what I do that seems to truly make life happen. The only power I really have is to allow it to reveal itself or not.
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