There are few disappointments more troubling than encountering situations that demand more of us than we can give. Whether in the execution of our professional obligations or in the pursuit of some personal aspiration, when our abilities fail us we feel dejected and inadequate. Our best efforts often reveal the paucity of our faculties and the meagerness of our agency as thinking, feeling, acting beings. They expose our finitude, and betray the extent to which our achievements are as much the product of happenstance as cultivated skill.
I have often felt this inadequacy when engaged in artistic activity. My technique does not match my creative ambition, and I am incapable of giving form to the vision that drew me into artistic contemplation. I suspect that even the best artists occasionally experience this sense of aesthetic impotence. In their greatest achievements, they detect a flaw or missed opportunity, a failure to infuse their work with the sublimity found so abundantly in nature but that resists their efforts of imitation. All art is a document of failure, a testament to our limitations and to the remoteness of the mystery enriching our lives but eluding our grasp. “Nature does not like to be observed,” said Emerson. “Direct strokes she never gave us the power to make; all our blows glance, all our hits are accidents.” Recognizing this clumsiness is painful.
I feel this ineptitude more keenly now that I’ve sustained cognitive deficits. While I probably exaggerate the degree of impairment caused by brain surgery, I’m certain that my word recall and the cadence of my speech is disrupted, especially after a cocktail or two. Alcohol used to invigorate conversation and stimulate thought; now it slackens my discourse and blunts my logic. I was once an agile debater; now I often find myself sidelined, an observer of more able minds. I feel less qualified to fulfill my professional duties. Worse, I sense my awareness of the mystery of existence – call it Freud’s “oceanic feeling” – growing dimer. Indeed, before surgery it seemed remote, forever poised on a receding horizon. Now it has withdrawn from view, and my ability to give chase is limited.
Given the severity of my medical condition and the invasiveness of the corrective procedure, I am thankful for whatever cognitive faculties remain. But while assessing the damage over the last ten months, I’ve begun exploring other means of restoring the communion that once stimulated artistic impulses and provoked metaphysical reflection. How can we maintain spiritual vitality during physical disability? I’m discovering that the question is of more fundamental relevance than I had thought. Only now in the wake of physical and emotional trauma am I considering the problem in the proper light: how can my entire life become a living embodiment of a particular outlook, a way of perceiving the world that counteracts my limitations? How can I live in authentic recognition of my imperfections, and in so doing overcome them?
I will attempt a concrete example. So awestruck was I by my divorce, now two years passed, that I struggled to identify a satisfying way of responding to it. During our separation, I argued interminably with my now ex-wife over the senselessness of divorce. She persisted on that course anyway, and my inability to convince her of the worthiness of our relationship profoundly altered me. Language, the most potent tool in my arsenal, had failed to persuade her and I was left without any other means of protest. I didn’t know whether to blame our divorce on her insensibility or my inarticulateness, but I was certain that the miserable outcome involved the efficacy of language. I chided myself for not having mounted a more formidable verbal assault. If only I had found the right words, I thought, I could have won her back. My linguistic finitude terrified me, along with the revelation that the most transformational dilemmas of life may require more of us than we are capable of delivering.
After surgery, I’m more concerned than ever that my reduced rhetorical aptitude limits me. But I’m also exploring alternative modes of achieving authentic expression. I want everything I do, not just my verbal statements and written inscriptions, to constitute a refutation of my divorce and a condemnation of the brutish inanity of modern life. This more encompassing, extra-linguistic medium is nothing other than our very selves, the series of choices that in aggregate constitute our personhood and define our character. Formally, I was so obsessed with projecting an ornate linguistic construct that I neglected the basic actions impacting people around me. Because I valued language so highly and deemed it among the most direct means of accessing a spiritual reality, I wrongly assumed that I would be judged on the merits of my linguistic output alone. The old bromide “actions speak louder than words” is of course true, and goes some distance towards making my point. But for action to truly exceed language as a mode of spiritual expression it must attest to an unwavering devotion to principles that alone can compensate for our frailties.
To my astonishment, I’ve spent precious little time formulating how my commitments constrain or compel my actions. Even if we subscribe wholesale to an established orthodoxy, we owe it to ourselves to deliberate on how those theological or philosophical propositions practically inform our lives. Any system purporting to embody a comprehensive worldview must be translated to our personal milieu, to our daily routines and circumstances. What does it look like for me to live out a given orthodoxy? What does it mean for me to live consistently? Only when we discover how our principles shape our lives and provide opportunities for authentic action can we overturn the limitations hindering our agency and frustrating our ambition. The audacity of consistency, the harmony of action and conviction, is a more powerful statement than any isolated human faculty can achieve. Exceedingly difficult, but of limitless value.