|In descent, however, we may also feel abandonment because most of what we have attached ourselves to in life is false. That part of ourselves that clings to outer form and ritual flees the potential desolation of introspection in dread, fearing the need to face a metaphysical chasm, a nothingness at the center--the abyss in which we encounter our own mortality and our own fragility in time. But in this dread, it becomes clear that the false connections we cling to in life can never sustain us, and that it is only through self-confrontation that any reformation of our own nature is possible.
Such a reformation is by necessity painful, for in descent we are going to see some ugly things about ourselves as we progress toward the center of our being: the fear; the desire for power and omnipotence; the desire and capacity to deceive; the motivations sprung from envy, false desire, pseudo-security and barbarity. Perhaps we evolved such survival strategies of deception out of the primal fear of our own demise in a competitive and hostile world. But it is the weight of our dread and our fear that perpetuates our dread and our fear. Only full consciousness of our selves can release us from this gravity of fear and insecurity by revealing that false vanity, self-importance, and selfishness are a universal--and literal--dead end. The strategies of manipulation and deception may work for a while, but only for a while, and may finally destroy the very self we were trying to defend. This path, both historically and individually, inevitably leads to an ultimate sense of hopelessness. Yet out of this very sense of hopelessness there is as well an evaporation of the illusions of permanence and the vanities of the pseudo-self which hides behind the mask of self assurance and importance. It is despair, rather, that can lead us to the final acceptance of our own mortality; of our own impermanence; or our own nothingness. If we became truly conscious of this, then nothing in the worlds we create would be the same. Out of despair there arises a freedom requiring definition by the values we respond to and the realization that in fact there is no such thing as a value-free life. Through the very act of being alive and conscious, we are automatically in favor of something--even if we think that something is nothing. Our existence does not allow us the luxury of irresponsibility. Thus to be alive is a heuristic challenge in which we must move beyond identifying our self as mere name, rank, and serial number (as well as psychological complex) to move towards what we are ontologically: an identity that is deeper, richer, and far more intelligible. This new identity transforms us into value-oriented agents in time--aware of not only our own existence, but the phenomenal existence of everything else. Our own humanity belongs to a greater humanity--and that greater humanity belongs to the greater phenomenon of life, in all its mystery, mortality, fragility, and at times wonder.
Civilization, in this sense, embraces the totality of all the selves, all the snowflakes; and this should inspire a metaphysical contemplation of the meaning of all these lives in order to discover the meaning of our own. The self of consciousness--that which seeks to know itself in time--is always a force of freedom in search of self knowledge. That search for wisdom must see through the persona of the collective false ego, expose it, understand it, and remove it so that we can expand our identification with other beings in time.
The descent into the self to achieve a higher sense of identity is a stage of consciousness yet to be explored. But if we explore this frontier, we may emerge from the descent with a new awareness. With luck we might recognize that our true self is composed of what it shares with other selves (including the living, the dead, and the as-yet unborn), and that our rights are seated in the common dignity of humanity. If I have intrinsic value as a person, so have others the same value. If my life is worth living, so are the lives of others. If I am clothed with fundamental rights, so too are others. The contradictions I find in myself are not unlike those to be found in others; and as I am tolerant of my own weaknesses, failings and limitations, so also must I be tolerant of those of others; for that is my only hope. That is my true survival strategy. And just as I am prepared to forgive myself, so also must I be prepared to forgive the imperfect, the malicious, the crude, the arrogant, the unforgiving.
If we emerge from descent bolstered by this consciousness, we arise as a value-centered agency in time. Eli Wiesel, resurrected from the dead of Auschwitz, drew from his own descent into hell the duty of making all of us aware of the barbaric inhumanity of the Holocaust as a universal threat to human existence--and thus aware of a world ever prone to submerge the personhood of others through the denial of intrinsic, universal values: values that demand our continual affirmation, protection and enhancement. That threat can come from the political right, as in the Holocaust, or from the left, as it did from Stalin and others, or from the center, as it does when greed takes precedence rather than individual freedom. It is not ideologies that can save us, but rather the defense of an ability which is our birthright: the capacity to refuse to accept values which demean the common ground of human dignity. Anything less threatens our self respect and thus our survival.
When descent culminates in heightened awareness, we have enhanced the spiritual reach of our agency across the horizons of time as well. The greater our sense of identification, the greater our reach, the greater our spiritual impact--just as in great art or philosophy, the self-awareness of the creator touches the selves of others in time. Thus the promise of descent is ascent: the possibility of transcendence and immanence.
In ascent, all life is overcoming. Overcoming means to be transcendent, to withstand the world--and, at times, to resist it. Our role then becomes to express and live values that affirm what is worthwhile, what is life-serving and life-furthering. This requires a reflective, self-critical examination of life that occurs not once, but again and again. Our ascent can result only from a sensitizing process of descent, in which our awareness is redirected constantly beyond presumed limits. Yet such an examined life leads to a richer life, to deeper satisfactions, and to work greater than self-aggrandizing projects.
Of course, the conceptions of descent, awareness, and ascent as vital stages in the development of consciousness offer only the most tenuous outline of what stages may be necessary in formulating a true philosophy of the self. They are sketchy conceptions at present because little intellectual energy and endeavor have been invested in exploring them. In the dominant schools of twentieth-century philosophy, for example, one camp championed reason as comprised only of analytic truth, but denied that the ancient questions of philosophy concerning Being and Metaphysics had any valid grounds for inquiry whatsoever. Another camp believed that the paradoxical injustice of existence demonstrated that the universe itself is meaningless, amoral, indifferent--and that meaning was achieved only through the imposition of human invention and values upon a vacuous situation. In a fashion, however, both camps managed to avoid the profounder questions of the formulation of self and identity--and both deny that the other has offered a reasonable solution. The problem is--like all problems--that the problem of who we are in time and of what we are living for does not go away.
Rather than indulging a full-scale retreat into the safety of overspecialization, philosophers in the new millenium owe humanity the honor of following the Socratic credo: The unexamined life is not worth living--even if that means playing the gadfly that insists civilization discovers the values it is living for, as well as the values it ought to be living for. We need signposts for our necessary descent, clarification of our potentialities for awareness, direction and purpose for our ascent--both as individuals and as a global civilization--for finding a deeper sense of identity and conscious purpose and meaning in our existence is the challenge that remains before us on the horizon of the next century. We need a restoration of the traditions of wisdom to guide the growth and potential of our own consciousness.
If the quest for meaning and identity is what motivates humanity, then unless we search both within and without ourselves, go deeper and broader in our inquiry, we will never come to know qualities such as valor, love, courage, depth and authentic Being. These qualities not only make our lives meaningful, but worth living. The next century may be an era in which we turn to our philosophers and demand that they begin to formulate the questions that will give us direction and purpose in this quest--not only for the preservation of our own dignity, but the insurance of our own survival. For that, after all, may be what time it is.