Sometime in September 2002
I remember being around 15 (I think) when I was introduced to Les Confessions from Jean–Jacques Rousseau. Our French literature teacher had introduced Rousseau as a philosopher and writer and one of the earliest exponents of the Autobiographical genre.
Most of my readings during those years in school, were centered around plays from Molière, novels from Balzac, fables from Lafontaine and other mostly fictional works. Philosophy as a subject was taught when we entered last year of high school so I was never really introduced to non fictional prose within the realm of literary arts, let alone to an autobiography. So the Confessions from Rousseau came to me as a blunt surprise.
My initial reaction was that of a lack of understanding. I felt like there was so much truth and lessons one could learn from fictional novels, from character building, essays on values and other genres I was familiar with that it was hard to grasp why would anyone want to write about ‘oneself’, especially when that person could write about infinite beings, about perfect ideas, about love and hate, about justice and bravery, let alone about God and our human condition.
At times, I felt that only an arrogant person could end up scrutinizing his own life to the degree that Rousseau had, and the whole idea of writing about it seemed like a lack of taste and priority, no matter how much one could value the novelty of the enterprise.
With time, when our readings of the Confessions became more nuanced, I realized that, judging the validity of this genre wasn’t nearly as straightforward as it once seemed. I was still sometimes uneasy reading about the details of someone else’s life and thought, perhaps because I had mainly kept mine to myself and that the very idea of sharing my mental world was a bit like trespassing the perimeter of my physical safe space. Sharing my inner thoughts and fears was to me, like having to partially unclothe myself revealing parts of my skin I wasn’t ready to share with, so it didn’t come to me as a surprise when reading Rousseau felt like watching someone changing their outfit: which can be pretty uncomfortable for both parties, and a quite useless activity at best.
But I also have to admit, that despite the apparent unease I felt, there were also moments when I felt the need of the author to share with honesty and sincerity, significant events of his life. If not to share with others, to at-least write about them, in order to make some sense out of them. I realized that there was, behind the audacity of the work, some wisdom in being able to read with retrospect, about one’s own life, in order to experience the sweetness of nostalgia, and perhaps live again some defining moments, lost somewhere in the alleys of our memories.
Somewhere in the north coast of Quebec, in a little picturesque town bordering the Saint Lawrence river, I am now seated in a quaint café. It is raining outside, and for once, I had the opportunity to rest and read. I had time to ‘kill’ as they say, and so I killed it in style, with a reading of the Plague, by Albert Camus.
Reading Camus, or any author associated with absurdism, the description of human plight, the condition of our sufferings and the futility of most of our actions often leads the reader to question some fundamentally and universally accepted truth of our society, which in turn leads one to revisit one’s own life priorities and the impact of past life decisions, on one’s current state.
If one was to ponder just long enough on whatever is needed to happen for a person to be who he or she is, the thought process behind each choices that shapes the evolution of one’s personality, past experiences explaining one’s emotional state, most of us would agree that in many ways, our lives are nothing short of a continuous miracle of play, in which we constantly turn a given potential into reality.
Despite this seemingly straightforward realization, if you were to ask people what best defines the miracle of life and creation, most of us (I am including myself) would the word miracle when witnessing the birth of a baby, therefore associating the magic in our lives to the act of becoming, where one’s existence is defined by the physical coming to being of our flesh into this world. And even though this moment is indeed a marvelous act, a transition that requires tremendous synchrony and order at each and every step of one’s birth, this is not the real miracle of our lives. Or perhaps, to be fair to the complexity and beauty that takes place during our physical birth, this is not the only miracle of our lives, let alone the most important one.
There are many times in which moments I read about touched me more than thinking, pondering, or even witnessing the birth of a child (the narrative of Karbala would be a good example). With time, it seemed to me that I have been more marveled with what seems now as the real miracle of life, which is nothing but our constant capacity to become, evolve, defining ourselves and who we are, at every moment. In other words, the real miracle of our lives is perhaps the freedom we have to give birth to the new selves we wish to be.
Let’s think about it for a minute. Which one of the two is more marvelous and awe inspiring from the perspective of our human condition, and in the grand scheme of our existence: the fact that all human beings are born from the meeting and fusion of two cells, and the physiological cascade we often (rightly) describe as a miracle? or the fact that we are given the opportunity, in everyday of our lives, to realize an infinite potential though infinite possibilities, each one leading to a distinct path, a path whose only limit is perfection itself?
Looking at life through the miracle of our infinite potential, one can now better appreciate the lives and choices of the enlightened personalities most revered in our classical religious and spiritual scripture.
This reality is also somehow applicable to even more miraculous birth. I can see the miracle behind prophet Jesus’ (pbuh) birth in that He was born in an unusual manner. This miracle is truly humbling, especially keeping in mind the power of the Creator and the purity of our created prophet. But it seems to me (and I may be wrong), that this miracle speaks more about God’s infinite power in relation to His creation, more than the miracle bestowed to Human beings in the form of potential. And therefore, what I can relate to better from the perspective of our human experience in the odyssey through which prophet Jesus became who He was as a person: the fruit of his choices, sacrifices, meditation, prayers and devotion, and his constant devotion to God.
Another argument that perhaps comforts me in this reasoning, is the fact that according to islamic tradition, prophet Muhammad (pbuh) is the most perfect human being to have ever walked on earth, and that too, despite the fact that from a purely scientific perspective, His birth seems to be ‘less’ of a miracle as the more ‘miraculous’ birth of prophet Jesus, and yet, His life is nothing short of one.
When I read about Prophet’s Muhammad’s (pbuh) life, and I look at all the possibilities and choices that lay in front Him, I often ended up being unable to understand His greatness. With each of His thought, each action, each word, He redefined the threshold of Human perfection. Each day of His could have shaped him to be another man, a less extraordinary one (I am purposefully not tackling the question of infallibility and Ismah so as to draw more lessons from our prophet’s life) had he not relied on His creator at every moment of his life. His constant will to experience the colorless (see Rumi and the cololess), permanently disidentifying with the finite, always seeking the limitless. If anything, the fact that we all have in theory the capacity to imitate the prophet, in that we can all reach the pinacle of our own (standard of) perfection (see Risalah al Wilayah, Allameh Tabatabaei), is where the true miracle of our lives lies.
Numbers are perhaps also testifying to this point. Bringing into perspective the initial question as to what is the greatest miracle of our lives ie. the complexity of our physiological birth or the infinite nature of our potential, we learn that during the act of conception, there are close to 250 million male reproductive cells fighting to reach their goal, a journey that scientist define as unique, even by their secular non creationist standards. Out of those 250 million, one will reach first. All other can come second, or third, but it doesn’t really matter. One will reach the goal, and that reality is part of what we call the miracle. But when you think about each cell swimming towards their goal, a programmed and fairly straightforward one, choices that lay before them are pretty binary and limited: you are either the one fertilizing the egg or you are not. That’s actually a pretty narrow choice of fate!
Now on the other hand, we live for close to 27,000 days on average during our lifespan (for a person living 75 years). Each day is comprised of 24 hours, each hour of 60 minutes, and each minutes of 60 seconds. That brings us to 23 billion seconds. During each one of those moments, countless choices are offered to us. Should I reply to this offensive comment? Should I watch this movie right now? What will they say if I tell them I have better things to do? Should I apply to this university program? How will this choice define who I am in 5, 10, or even 20 years? Should I marry this person? Should I buy this house? And these are just incidental questions most of us answer no matter what school of thought we adhere to. Some specific questions about life, death, God are not even tackled here for sake of simplicity, but one can argue that they would actually add to the choices one has to make in one’s life.
Now, we have to also add that, unlike the rather binary fate of cells navigating through the path leading to the meeting their beloved cooked to perfection egg, these countless questions are not always answered by a straightforward yes or no reply and have often endless possibilities (the peculiar way in which the life of each one of us seems to have distinct reality from that or others is the best testament of this fact). When you put these facts together, we can conclude, with a fair level of confidence that a human being may be presented in life with an infinitely great number of possibilities each one leading him to become a human being different than if another path was chosen. What this means in the grand scheme of creation, is that each time we answer one of the many questions life puts forth before us, we actively and consciously take part in the actual miracle of creation, a creation defined by the constant becoming of one individual from potential to reality.
Another fact that may make this becoming a more precious aspect of our lives, despite the miracle surrounding every other aspect, especially the miracle of our coming to being, is that the analysis of the odds one plays against to reach that perfection.
We mentionned earlier that out of the 250 million egg seeking cells, only one will be crowned. And yet, despite the odds, science says that there have been close to 100 billion human beings living on earth across all generation. Despite the initial odds, thats a pretty high number.
And yet, out of the 100 billion human beings, there was only one prophet Muhammad. One prophet Jesus, One Moses, One Abraham. So if our physical birth is deemed a miracle considering the odds against it, one could argue that our the constant birth of ourselves through the fulfillment of our divine potential, is a miracle fewer of us have actually succeeded in.
But what does this have to do with reading Les confessions from Rousseau and questioning the validity of writing about one’s life?
With time, my understanding of Rousseau’s motivation behind writing his confessions have changed. I used to think as mentioned earlier that one should write about infinite beings, about the absolute, about values and beauty, and that there was so much life beyond our narrow existence that it would seem irrelevant to write about the life of a single man. But when you think about it, is our life anything but the constant defining of values, of choices, of ethical considerations, of aspirations for the absolute and of infinite possibilities?
Later in my life I was introduced to Russian authors, some of which I have the highest regard for such as Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. When you read literary critics praising these authors, you often end up noticing a similar consensus. These two authors in particular, are often set apart in a different league, because they best describe subtleties that define our Human nature, the complex balance of our vices and virtues and how they shape the absurd way in which modern societies define success and beauty. Their writing is so realistic that one cannot, for instance, read The Brothers Karamazov without identifying with flaws, vices, struggles and aspirations of at least one of its characters, if not all of them. In other words, it seems that what is actually praised in the writings of these two authors, is the sheer reality though which they were able to describe our Human experience.
So when Rousseau writes about his life, he is writing about what it means to be Human. He is writing about his choices, his weaknesses, and about all those moments in which he chose what to become. All those moments when a yes or no can lead to the birth of a new self, or the perpetual miracle through which our behavior and psyche answers our existential questions.
So if there isn’t, after all, anything greater at stake in our lives, than loosing this opportunity we have to constantly participate in the act of creation, why shouldn’t we write about it?
So should we ever have time to ‘kill’, it would seem to be of a great priority to ponder over our existence, unfolding before our eyes the story of our life, and its constant coming to being, forever learning from our mistakes and achievements, giving a new direction to it that would better suit the reality of its purpose. One should perhaps remember that the greater miracle of creation lies in the act of becoming. For we were all born on one given day, and we completely came out of our mother’s womb in a single moment.
One moment to be given life. And after that lone moment, a lifetime to give birth to our new selves. Understanding the miracle of creation from this lens is a pretty transformative realization. A realization that prompts you to value your time and be very selective in every choice that you do.
So if you ever meet someone who asks you if you have time to ‘kill’.
Run for your life!