from the Theosophist October 1994

The Tragic Paradox

Hugh Shearman

A little while ago, in a radio interview, Mr. Enoch Powell, the British elder statesman , was asked what advice he would give to the British Prime Minister, John Major. replied that he would advise him to study Greek tragedy.

Having been, at one time, a professor of Greek , he went on to explain that the ancient Greeks saw tragedy as being of two kinds. One kind of tragedy as being of two kind. One kind of tragedy lies in not obtaining what we desire. The other kind lies in obtaining what we desire. Both can involve tragic situations and lead to tragic consequences. So what was the Prime Minister to do?

In the Greek class at school, the writer read one of the great tragedies which combine both these situations. It was the Medea of Euripides. Written twenty four centuries ago it is very modern in its theme. It is about a gifted woman who lost her heart to a young and handsome hero and married him. When he steeled down and became a complacent and rather boring man, no longer so young, and bestowed his attentions on another woman, his embittered wife took a terrible vengeance. There was here both the tragedy of obtaining what was desire and the tragedy of not obtaining it.

The problem then, is: Is there no final satisfaction for desire, whether if achieves its objects or not? Whether denied or fulfilled, can desire come to no happy ending ? Is there no pure state or climate where, as Yeasts wrote, "time would surely forget us and sorrow come near us no more?". Is it that, as we sometimes say, "you just can't win?"

The answer that a thoughtful ancient Greek might have been that human desire cannot have a true satisfaction and fulfillment unless it is at one with the will of the Gods. Otherwise we are frustrated either way, whether we obtain or do not obtain the object of our desire.

In the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali there is a similar paradox. Among the five barriers to a pure insight, Patanjali list (I:6) both right knowledge and wrong knowledge.

All this is baffling for the individual who perhaps thinks and feels that he wants to pursue the conventional ideals of the true, the beautiful and the good. He seems to be told that, if he does not achieve them, it will be a tragedy and that, if he does, there will be another kind of tragedy. He wants to pursue and possess what he approves of ; and he finds what Krishnamurti has repeatedly said that it is necessary to abandon both approving and disapproving.

This bafflement confronts us whenever we try to solve a conflict in its separateness from all the rest of life and, of course, also separate from the will of the Gods. We try to solve each conflict for the satisfaction of what we consider to be "ourselves"., those selves that are quite separate from all other selves. And since that is how we usually try to solve conflicts both great and small, we are repeatedly baffled.

We often read, and are often told that, in its true essence, life is One. We perhaps accept this as a theory and even applaud it as a truth; but, in all the excursions and exercises of our minds and feelings, we act upon assumptions of separateness. We cannot get round to feeling sure that life is really One. So, to play for safety, we act as if it is not One. We think dualistically, in terms of opposition, competition. It is not that choice does not have to be made; but , where choice is made, we make it from the basic assumption that we who choose are separate from all the rest of life.

No matter what the wise books and the virtuous theosophical lecturers say, there is something in us that cries our, "Yes, yes; but I am me!".

And, of course, if life is One, this could not be altogether true. It would not be possible for "I" to be "me", for consciousness within us to be a wholly separate unit, in competitive conflict or contrast with other similar units.

That is why, in the Theosophical Society, the effort to realize truth is represented as inseparable from the effort to form a nucleus of the Universal Brotherhood of Humanity.

Even if we pursue the idea only in heavily qualified forms, we tend to pay at least a certain polite deference to the axiomatic assertion that the life in all creatures is one life, even the life in us human beings . We are one piece of stiff. It has even been said that we humans are one "creative hierarchy".

The difficulty is that the words never constitute the thing itself. Study and discussion devoted to the oneness of all life are not enough to clear away the illusion of dualistic thinking and feeling which bind us to tragic experience.

At the same time, study and discussion are not necessarily wholly useless. They can slowly wear down certain resistances in our habits of thinking, in our anciently established ways of evaluating things. Somewhere along the road of life, those values, grounded on our deeply based suppositions of separateness, have to collapse; and the friction that arises in study, between what we think and what we are and do, must surely contribute something to weakening and diminishing our old and essentially tragic bondages.

These considerations have a major but often unconscious influence upon membership of the Theosophical Society. There are members who become reliable lifelong workers for the Society. There are others who join, and sometimes evince considerable enthusiasm, and then fade away or retreat into some "single-track" obsession or attachment.

To be candid, most of us probably join initially because we find in the Society something new that we want to acquire, some type of information that we want to have, a confirmation of notions we had already entertained, perhaps descriptions of psychic or other unconventional experiences that we should like to have. But in all of us there is also a small factor of dissatisfaction with all this and a half conscious yearning for a Reality that is beyond separate things. If that dissatisfaction and that almost unexpressed aspiration can grow a little stronger in us, we can "stay the course in the Theosophical Society. But, if they do not assert themselves in our lives, we shall tend to become slack in our membership, a bit bored with the Society, and perhaps leave it to follow some other acquisitive pursuit; or if we remain in it, we may perhaps mount some particular hobbyhorse and ride it exclusively for the remainder of an incarnation.

A General Secretary of a long established national society of the Theosophical Society once conducted a statistical survey of its membership records. He found that the fifth year of membership was often the crucial one. By that time the new members had had a glimpse, though perhaps only a very minor glimpse, of the Society's inner purpose and had seen or felt a few of the implications of the unity of all Being and was contributing something to the Society's work; or else he had acquired all he was able to get from the Society and so dropped out, often to follow his acquisitiveness in some other setting.

To steer our lives in the direction of a perception of the reality of Oneness is to invite a painful stripping away of past values and habits. There was once a discussion among some members of the Society about a new member who had joined, full of interest and fraternal feeling, and then suddenly dropped out. "He did not want", suggested one member, "to invite crucifixion".

Perhaps that was putting it rather strongly. The usually very limited abandonment of past separative values that most of us achieves is normally on a very small scale; but somewhere along the way, there may come one of those crises in which a virtually total commitment to a vision of unity is required of us. The more compassionately and intelligently we pass through the minor crises of life, the less painful will any subsequent major crisis be.

To move in that direction seems to be the will of the God for us.


More Hugh Shearman