All the Way Ourselves Again, Episode 173

In which an amazing passage by author George Saunders prompts us to consider the possibility that moral and developmental transformations in our lives do not require us to completely remake ourselves, but instead call on us to redirect the very same qualities we were born with which we have always, thus far, been served (and imprisoned) by.

This episode of Turning Towards Life is a conversation about the essential goodness of people, how it gets misdirected by our misunderstanding ourselves, and the gifts of people who see our goodness, support our stopping our usual defensive ways, and who gladly welcome our remaking… and the possibility of being that way for others… hosted as always by Lizzie Winn and Justin Wise of Thirdspace.

This is Turning Towards Life, a weekly live 30 minute conversation hosted by Thirdspace in which Justin Wise and Lizzie Winn dive deep into big questions of human living. Find us on FaceBook to watch live and join in the lively conversation on this episode. We’re also on YouTube, and as a podcast on Apple, Google and Spotify. You can find videos of every episode, and more about the project on the Turning Towards Life website.

Our source this week is a passage adapted (with a little license to support our reading it out of context) from George Saunders‘ amazing new book ‘A Swim in the Pond in the Rain‘. A little context may be needed – the author is writing here about a story by Leo Tolstoy ‘Master and Man’, which describes the last day in the life of a man named Vasili, who has deeply misunderstood his life and directed his energies in self-centred ways that greatly limit him. We have made a few small changes here to make the source make more sense out of its context in the chapter ‘And Yet They Drove On’.

All the Way Ourselves Again

Transformation, when it happens, happens not through the total remaking of a person or the replacement of our habitual energy with some pure new energy but by a redirection of our (same old) energy.

What a relief this model of transformation is. What else do we have but what we were born with and have always, thus far, been served (and imprisoned) by? Say you’re a world-class worrier. If that worry energy gets directed at extreme personal hygiene, you’re “neurotic.” If it gets directed at climate change, you’re an “intense visionary activist.”

We don’t have to become an entirely new person to do better; our view just has to be readjusted, our natural energy turned in the right direction. We don’t have to swear off our powers or repent of who we are or what we like to do or are good at doing. Those are our horses; we just have to hitch them to the right, uh, sled.

What kept Vasili so small all his life? (What is keeping us so small now?) He wasn’t small, actually… He was infinite. He had access to as much great love as any of our beloved spiritual heroes… What was it that finally jolted him out of it? Well, it was truth. He saw that his idea of himself was untrue. His idea that he was himself was untrue. All of those years, he was only part of himself. He had made that part, was always making it and defending it, with his thoughts and his pride and his desire to win, which continually separated him, Vasili, from everything else. As that entity, Vasili, faded away, what was left behind discerned the fallacy and joined (rejoined) the great non-Vasili of it all.

If we could reverse the process… what we would see would be a mind gradually reasserting a series of lies: “You are separate” and “You are central” and “You are correct” and “Go forth and prove that you are better, that you are the best.”And then he would be all the way himself again.

Adapted from ‘A Swim in the Pond in the Rain‘ by George Saunders, 2021

Photo by Justin Wise at No 1 Highgate Swimming Pond