On Grace

What would a “Transcendental Individualism” be like?

This is the third and closing part of a series where I discussed mercy/violence and sanctity/community in a secular context.

By Anna Gát The I.I.

Little Boy (detail) by László Fehér

On nights when I can’t sleep I think about Rilke’s poem, “And my soul is like a woman before you”, which hasn’t been translated to English in its full glory (although you may try to read it here), where the biblical Ruth, after a long day’s work in the fields, finds shelter in her mother-in-law’s tent, and just like she is able to finally rest under Naomi’s cloak (or “wings”, in German), the poet’s “soul sleeps until dawn” too — and I’m jealous.

Over the past year I’ve worked a night-job every other week, live-editing financial news until 6am, seven nights in a row. On my “off” weeks, I developed a strange sleeping habit — or perhaps it developed me — one resembling the mythical polyphasic schedule: I would pass out at 10pm, startle and lay awake for a couple of hours before sunrise, then go back to sleep again; an encore.

As someone rather given to brooding anytime-anywhere, it surprised me these intermissions could be such a killer. During my waiting-in-the-dark to fall asleep again (careful not to start anything that might bring alertness), under double duvets surgically arranged to form a vacuum, I’m visited by my heaviest thoughts; with no distraction, to look at things as if under a microscope, to poke at universal unanswerables, to examine the small victories and great failures that make up lowercase “life” —to assess my intellectual and moral qualities as a person.

At 3:51am no one is excused.

Call me a closeted Manichean but I like to look at feelings and events as interplays of darkness and light — which often, logically, end up gray. I think you need to work through your dark stuff in order to get to a plateau, a launchpad, a liveable space that is truly filled with good, with Life, where hope has foundations. I think there is no free lunch for anybody’s soul. So while these wee-hour meditations have been hard — and such a cliché if you used to write papers on TS Eliot! — they’ve also aroused my curiosity: what kind of light awaits at the end of the passage? Why does one descend, etc. (fill in the forest metaphors as per preference); into whom might one transform here, and pursued by what suspicions?

Those who read as if it was a journey have a recurring experience: they’re lost in thought about something, intensely and blindly, only to happen upon the same line that’s on rotation in their inner monologue, in someone else’s book.

So, naturally, I opened a Simone Weil — Gravity and Grace, for its title reminded me of the title of this half-written article — and it said:

Two forces rule the universe: light and gravity.

And it said:

Grace is the law of the descending movement.

And I closed the book for now.

This is what I had been lost in thought about:

A few weeks ago, during my nightly waiting hours, something in me asked me a question, as if in a casual conversation, as if it was nothing.

I asked me, in my familiar Hungarian, but for some unfamiliar reason: “... Mi lenne, ha áldás lenne rajtam?”

Áldás means “blessing” in my native tongue — from the stem (meg)áld, “[to] bless”. So what I asked myself, with language, with curiosity, was: “What would happen if I had [a] blessing on me?” What would it be like if I had been blessed?

Or as you would ask, in English: What if I lived with Grace?

Humans are concerned for value and so if it is proposed that something has Grace — Grace being rare and good — it is also proposed that that thing has value.

But probing the value of one’s self in a non-religious framework is extremely difficult for the same reason why it can and should be probed at all.

Because turning a secular framework of value on oneself feels arbitrary and self-serving — who decides; why do I need this; why me, etc.

Confusingly, we seem to have been assured that “arbitrary” and “self-serving” are the best way to describe the biological and moral entity called human. One feels one must fold under this meta-burden, and double blankets won’t help.

Georges de la Tour

Those who originate their Grace from God, or some other supernatural force, will contend they have intrinsic value as human beings thanks to their relationship to an assumed, external but internalised, being.

But do I think I have “intrinsic value”?

Do you?

(Naturally, as I too read as if it was a journey, I came across some lines in AS Byatt’s Possession, a whim, before I returned to edit this article:

“[Back in the day, people] valued themselves. Once, they knew God valued them. Then they began to think there was no God, only blind forces. So they valued themselves…”)

Staring at my black Stratford walls, for which I pay so they guard me as a valuable, I concluded I don’t think of myself in terms of intrinsic value at all.

I concluded I see my own value — in society, in terms of usefulness to others and self — as a sum of my knowledge and my experiences. My data. I don’t manage the business of myself mindful of value but of task.

I wondered whether, if this really is the case, that means I don’t perceive my own self as a whole but as some kind of agent of perception. A collector. A sentinel constantly searching for and adding value, but with no set value per se, and certainly not one set or intrinsic from birth.

Even among my many weighty dead-of-night thoughts, I found this idea a particular challenge. I do believe other people have intrinsic value — beauty and dignity, rights and responsibilities, purpose and pain— regardless of their knowledge or experiences; mostly independent of their data. I wondered how it is possible that I should have such different standards when it comes to thinking about my own value — utility, even loveability — from how I think of that of others.

I wondered whether if I think this way, thinking this way is very common.

Are we a generation— maybe: a culture — of self-perceived perceivers who feel everyone else has intrinsic value, but we, we have to work for it? Are we collecting points?

(For what? For whom?)

Most forms of secular value self-assessment, which our polite inner society today allows, fall into two categories:

  • THE ONE is the cosmic-genetic awe, which is of proportions both cellular and galactic, which views life as eerily elegant code, a gradual symphonic arrangement, and which therefore by nature can’t focus on the Individual — not without additional context or chronology
  • THE OTHER is the tense, treasured pact of individualism and equality, which holds up our democratic ideals and efforts in education, but which finds its universality and purpose in the Individual-at-Scale; again, not the module, not the lonely “I”

Let’s call these the Natural and the Social.

Despite having practiced both of these approaches (very politely) for a long time, now, lying in the cold, dark cube of air, locked into the coordinates of reality like Descartes’s fly, I found myself wondering what formula I could use to set my own value, as an independent person.

Not as an agent of perception, or subject of relation, but as an agent of change — in both the ethics and the physics senses of the word.

Could it be possible that the question of Grace had crossed the threshold of my thinking due to some intuition of wholeness, or at least an ambition of it?

Does it mean that it is possible to calculate that value?

A blessing is, literally, handed to a person — it goes from hand to head.

In a religious framework Grace is transmitted from an assumed external source.

Both a human blessing and the assumed divine Grace are then built into the receiver’s experience of self and world, for good.

It was around 4am when I tried to imagine having been extended Grace through someone else’s benevolence.

In my fantasy it worked like a good curse that is then forever psychologically logged, that stays to accompany you, to make you dissatisfied and resourceful in bad times, and to allow you to rationalise the enjoyment of good times.

Humans are probabilistic creatures striving to minimise risk, and so we’re more careful to assess our environment precisely when making a decision than we are to precisely assess ourselves.

Think about the last major decisions you’ve made and you will realise how much you overestimate your future self. Don’t we all, routinely, give our future selves tasks we cannot at present complete? Don’t we envision ourselves in two weeks’, months’, years’ time as creatures possessing irrationally great knowledge, style and problem-solving acumen?

We buy shoes assuming next summer’s temptress will be in the unlikely mood to wear them. We procrastinate on administrative duties thinking next month’s us will have the otherworldy patience to do them. We subject one another to cruelty hoping our next decade’s self will somehow be able to live with this memory.

You think you need to “work” on your self-confidence — the truth is your actions speak of greater self-trust than you know; not in your present self, maybe, but in your future self, for sure.

But what if one assumes that one has intrinsic value — that one has Grace? Would that call for greater future-self-respect?

Would we make decisions “truer to self” rather than just “precisely tracking the environment”? Would these self-focused decisions be better for us? Better for others…?

(If you walk scanning the horizon, you’ll trip on a stone. If you walk looking at your feet, you’ll lose your way. So how does Grace shift one’s eye-line?)

I suspect someone who feels they operate under benevolence may be bolder — unreasonably optimistic— defying the odds in order to change the odds. The same way as the Buddha and Newton and Niki de Saint Phalle and Richard Feynman and Maryam Mirzakhani were “bolder”.

One may behave like humans behave in other moments of secular or religious Grace — when painting or celebrating, when starting a company or a family — when humans momentarily suspend their disbelief, when they trust the ritual, and their present selves, that this time is different; that this time it will be different.

It is this optimism, we could argue, that makes some of the times, indeed, different.

And so I wondered, what if I could imagine living with Grace, living under benevolence; how would that change how I make my independent decisions?

Would that, I, make a difference?

Eight years ago, in Budapest I participated in an experiment run by behavioural scientist friends. I had to play poker with a group, and the researchers observed how we each made decisions. While I didn’t win that game, I was voted ‘Most Dangerous’ at the end. Turned out I had played a different strategy in every round. I wanted to maximise the information from my environment. My data.

While I was buzzing with this experimentation, the winner had happened upon a winning strategy and just stuck to it. At some point he had stopped maximising input. He was assessing himself. He went from predominantly “perceptor” to agent. A whole.

Now, with the London sun rising and the stressed out birds practicing for the coming traffic, I imagined living with some form of Grace, and I could suddenly imagine seeing myself as a whole. I saw a sum of choices with a shared intent, a flock of a person moving in one direction, with no part discarded.

I could imagine a self-trust that is conscious, built-in, an identity — something under benevolence, in the present.

The notion that a benevolence assumed from the outside may make us feel more whole, more composed and more courageous, surprised me (and made me feel childish).

When you ask them, most people will tell you they feel misunderstood by their community to some degree. We all, each, feel we’re somehow different from others and work on fitting in — whether this is into greater society or a small group of misfits. (Human society gains its paradoxical cohesion from each individual’s feeling it’s the others that really have it.)

A side effect of this is that people know they have secret selves and become strongly attached to those who have seen slices of their truth. Once someone has willingly shared a hidden self of theirs with you they will count you among “theirs”, and you’ll be in some way responsible for them.

So, in this logic, if we assume that you have secret parts that only you know about we would also need to assume that anyone viewing you from the outside, benevolent or not, could only see fragments of you.

But now, plucking at my pillows, I saw the mental image of the sum of my decisions and intentions, the flock. And I saw the very physical image of the greenish, early morning human in her pyjamas and socks, toes freezing.

Here lies human — living, lotioned, carbon, data, hatched from the ecosystem.

And I felt this, this is a potential whole. And I felt this because I imagined Grace and Grace felt like something neutral, something beyond me, someone else.

And the strength and composure I gained from just imagining someone would put their hand on my head to wish me well — as a child, to go, build a good life — made me wonder if “intrinsic” is really the right word for the valuation we’re looking for.

And if we’re all neglecting some important duty we have toward one another, for fear of being tied to the futures of others through our expressions of benevolence.

And so I imagined what if I had had that. What if there was good intention on me. Godspeed. If I had been sent into my secular future from some well-wishing grandparent or teacher or leader, maybe someone whose name I no longer remember.

What would that feel like? Being sure, and warm; taking Grace for granted? (Being home in it, or homing.)

If something has Grace then it has value and if it has value you cannot hurt it. What if you made decisions mindful to not willingly hurt yourself? Mindful of the future you who still won’t like pink heels, who will still hate labouring on tax returns, and who will find the same immoral acts unforgivable.

What if you didn’t optimise for struggle, just to get the information — but allowed the sum of your decisions to reach a goal? What if you didn’t get into decision-debt to later be repaid — or self-punished?

What if you didn’t give yourself — and others — bad memories on purpose?

What would decisions worthy of you be like?

“Áldás, békesség,” goes the Hungarian religious greeting. Blessing and peace. Together.

Who do you have lasting benevolence for?

Do they know?

What would they do differently if they knew?

I’ve come to believe that through developing a sense of secular Grace — self-assessing; under self-benevolence — you will also develop a greater trust in your present and future environment. One doesn’t need to go full hubris to trust one’s journey — that wherever you’ll end up you’ll find your launchpad, and if there’s none then you’ll build one.

As I slowly reversed into sleep I wondered if all those hands on all those children’s foreheads were not just placed there as some pre-penicillin spell so they may live but so they’ll live well. A gesture of life from the deadlier ages, sure, but we haven’t found a replacement yet… Nothing else to prompt a feeling of completeness outside utility or relation.

I worry we have made a graceless people that seeks equality by ranking their own worth lower than that of those around them. If you don’t see yourself as a whole, then who is it that starts your business? Who starts your family? Who paints your paintings? Who believes in the future? Who celebrates…?

I want to keep thinking about a New Grace, Grace 2.0 — not just the “#blessed” at the end of a tweet, not “DAILY GRATITUDE” on the cover of an inspirational notebook…

I want us to develop a framework of real intrinsic value, of received benevolence.

I have a suspicion that imagining isn’t enough. That we have a responsibility toward one another to hand out blessings, our goodwill, and to allow it to build into another persons’ identity and decisions.

Do you have the courage to give Grace to another human being without knowing what they’ll do with it? Freely and flexibly? Lavishly and longterm? To help us make each other whole?

I know we need this for 2020.

But now I must sleep.

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