To see beyond the self, to see the journeys others are making, without judgement, requires what Iris Murdoch, in The Sovereignty of Good, calls ‘unselfing’.
The self, the place where we live, is a place of illusion. Goodness is connected with the attempt to see the unself… to pierce the veil of selfish consciousness and join the world as it really is.
Unselfing as transcendence
What she is talking about is a change of consciousness, a deep and radical perspective shift that often comes from an encounter with nature or a thing of beauty.
I am looking out of my window in an anxious and resentful state of mind, oblivious of my surroundings, brooding perhaps on some damage done to my prestige. Then suddenly I observe a hovering kestrel. In a moment everything is altered. The brooding self with its hurt vanity has disappeared. There is nothing now but kestrel. And when I return to thinking of the other matter it seems less important. And of course this is something which we may also do deliberately: give attention to nature in order to clear our minds of selfish care.
Art, beauty, nature, powerful stories, all of these transform the self by enabling us to forget ourselves, to lose ourselves for a while. In the face of an exquisite night sky, an extraordinary painting, a newborn baby, a stunning sunset, the self and the vision dissolve into each other. As Tolstoy puts it:
… a real work of art destroys, in the consciousness of the receiver, the separation between himself and the artist.
Faced with great beauty or with new life or the enormity of the universe, we sometimes manage to transcend the self. Murdoch goes on:
This is the non-metaphysical meaning of the idea of transcendence to which philosophers have so constantly resorted in their explanations of goodness. “Good is a transcendent reality” means that virtue is the attempt to pierce the veil of selfish consciousness and join the world as it really is.
Unselfing as the dissolution of dualisms
Holding on to notions of the self that harden the divide between ‘them’ and ‘us’ is enshrined in so many dogmas, both religious and secular. But in The Songs of Trees, David George Haskell observes:
We must ask the question: can we find an ethic of full earthly belonging? […] The answer depends, at least in part, on the kind of Earth to which we think we belong.
He goes on to say that is we see the world as only a set of physical laws then ethical nihilism is not difficult to reach:
If we’re a species made merely of atoms like all other species, no more and no less, it is a puzzle why we should believe that human caused climate change … is an ethical calamity but regard the changing climate of the Eocene redwood forests as an ethically neutral phenomenon.
And he asks whether our feelings about values, rights, the preservation of ecosystems are merely ‘neural tangles’ or have real meaning. Are ethical beliefs any more than ‘self-deluding dreams’? Haskell comes down on the side of meaning, though not in any simplistic sense:
I seek something less fractured, an ethic that is fully biological yet does not walk us into [a] cold universe, empty except for self-constructed miasma.
He finds what he seeks wherever we take tentative steps to listen, to all that is life; wherever we pay attention:
… a sensory, intellectual and bodily opening the the place. […] From this engagement … comes a more mature ability to understand what is deeply beautiful in the world … the ability to perceive beauty through sustained, embodied relationship with a particular part of the community of life. […] If some form of objective moral truth about life’s ecology exists and transcends our nervous chatter, it is located within the relationships that constitute the network of life. We are awakened participants within the processes of the network …
It is, Haskell says, an ‘ethic of belonging’. It is an ethic that extends Murdoch’s transcendent sense of beauty with an embodied experience of paying deep attention
We ‘unself’ into birds, trees, parasitic worms and, sooner or later, soil; beyond species and individuals, we open to the community from which we are made. […] Someone who has listened to a prairie, a city or a forest for decades can tell when the place loses its coherence, its rhythms. … Unselfing through repeated lived experience is necessary because many biological truths reside only in relationships beyond the self.
Ethics, for Haskell, are not human-made, but intrinsic:
A mass extinction is a bad thing, in and of itself. […] No doubt what a raven, a bacterium or a ponderosa pine sense in their worlds is radically different from what I perceive … But such differences are not necessarily barriers to aesthetic and ethical judgement. Beauty is a property of networked relationships that might be heard through ears of peculiar and multifarious design.
Unselfing as a new perspective on time
Such attention to and encounters with all life, Oliver Sacks observed, also give us a different sense of time, as though we suddenly see not through the lens of the daily round of what seems urgent, but with a longer sense of time:
… it seemed as if my senses were actually enlarging, as if a new sense, a time sense, was opening within me, something which might allow me to appreciate millennia or eons as directly as I had experienced seconds or minutes.
Such detachment from ‘urgent time’ brings a sense of serenity. It comes, Murdoch notes, not from efforts of will, but from relaxing into the flow of all life:
A self-directed enjoyment of nature seems to me to be something forced. More naturally, as well as more properly, we take a self-forgetful pleasure in the sheer alien pointless independent existence of animals, birds, stones and trees.
Unselfing as continual process
Murdoch notes that while we attempt to ‘pierce the veil of selfish consciousness’, nonetheless:
It is an empirical fact about human nature that this attempt cannot be entirely successful.
We are flawed. The ego and the shadow reassert themselves. But sometimes, just sometimes, we experience these extraordinary moments of transcendence. Sometimes we forget ourselves long enough to dissolve the dualisms that keep life fragmented and erect false boundaries of ‘them’ and ‘us’, of ‘self’ and ‘other’. Sometimes we forget ourselves long enough to become part of a different scale of time, seeing life through a different lens.
We never finish the attempt, but each small transformation breaks open a new story of how humanity, of how all life, can go forward in hope. And as writers, we can tell those new stories of transcendence, the connection of all life and vast time in which every speck of life has value.
Becoming a different story
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Mark Charlton says
I have been (ghost) writing this week about US and British politics and the undercurrent of fear, the lack of empathy; the unwilligness to consider the position of others – as to do so might threaten our sense of self – and self importance! There is, I think, a parallel to what you are saying here – that to make progress we must surely look to horizons that our beyond immediate situation. (the surest way to fall off a bike is to fix your eyes only on the wheel). This is not easy – ‘undselfing’ as empathy takes courage – but to do so also demonstrates power (in the positive sense of that work) and freedom ; a realease from our fears.
Take care as always
Thank you Mark
The ghost wrirting sounds fascinating and the parallel both important and chilling — basic enpathy and that shift of persepective it gives us is increasingly vital to human survival, but it’s not easy and the contexts we live in make it less and less easy. I think what you say about empathy demonstrating power is a key insight — too often those with more negative forms of power see it as weakness and this infects how we all see such attributes — to see empathy as the sign of someone who is not motivated by fear and the small mindedness that comes with it is a vital perspective shift. Thank you!