Poet and Philosopher John O’Donohue on Selfhood, the Crucible of Identity, and What Makes Life’s Transience Bearable
By Maria Popova
“There is, in sanest hours, a consciousness, a thought that rises, independent, lifted out from all else, calm, like the stars, shining eternal,” Walt Whitman wrote as he contemplated the experience of identity and the paradox of the self. And yet we know — we even feel — that what we experience as ourselves is not eternal but transient, an ever-changing constellation of components drawn from our living lives. This transient, emergent nature of personhood becomes acutely apparent and acutely disorienting as soon as we consider what makes one and one’s childhood self the “same” person despite a lifetime of biological, psychological, and spiritual change. But this transience itself is the wellspring of our vitality, the fountain at which we slake our thirst for life.
That paradoxical notion is what the great Irish poet and philosopher John O’Donohue (January 1, 1956–January 4, 2008) explores in a portion of Four Elements: Reflections on Nature (public library) — a posthumous collection of previously unpublished papers, in which O’Donohue draws on his Celtic heritage, his poetic gift, and his lyrical approach to philosophy to explore how the corporeality and spirituality that mark our existence interact to reveal us to ourselves.
Selfhood is not an imperial possession of the human orphan. It is not exclusively human. Selfhood is more patient and ancient, a diverse intimacy of the earth with itself.
If the earth has the most ancient networks of selfhood, then the memory of the earth is the ultimate harvester and preserver of all happening and experience. In modern life, experience enjoys privileged status as the force which awakens, enables and stabilizes human growth. The significance of experience is intimately bound up with the urgency of modern individuality. This sense of individuality achieved its classical contour through the metaphysical scalpel of Descartes’ “Cogito” which cut the individual free from the cosmic webbing of scholasticism.
This concept of individuality was further intensified in German Idealism and Existentialism. Life is seen to be woven on the loom of individual experience.
And yet the fundamental nature of our experience, O’Donohue points out, is transience. In a sentiment that calls to mind Alan Lightman’s assertion that “oblivious to our human yearnings for permanence, the universe is relentlessly wearing down,” he reflects on the necessity of that recognition and how it sanctifies life:
Taking experience seriously must make it equally necessary to take the destiny or future of experience seriously. This is a particularly poignant necessity, given that the future of each experience is its disappearance. The destiny of every experience is transience.
Transience makes a ghost out of each experience. There was never a dawn that did not drop down into noon, never a noon which did not fade into evening, and never an evening that did not get buried in the graveyard of the night.
One remembers the sentence which won the contest of wisdom in ancient Greece: “This too will pass.” The pain of transience haunted Goethe’s Faust; he implored the beautiful figure who appeared to him: “Verweile doch, Du bist so schön!” Linger a while, for you are so beautiful!
O’Donohue considers the only human faculty that appeases and anneals us to the inescapable transience of all experience, including life itself:
Out of the fiber and density of each experience transience makes a ghost. The future, rich with possibility, becomes a vacant past. Every thing, no matter how painful, beautiful or sonorous, recedes into the silence of transience. Transience too is the maker of the final silence, the silence of death.
Is the silence which transience brings a vacant silence? Does everything vanish into emptiness? Like the patterns which birdflight makes in the air, is there nothing left? Where does the flame go when the candle is blown out? Is there a place where the past can gather? I believe there is. That place is memory. That which holds out against transience is memoria.
Echoing modern psychology’s discovery that memory is the crucible of the self, he adds:
Memoria is always quietly at work, gathering and interweaving experience. Memoria is the place where our vanished lives secretly gather. For nothing that happens to us is ever finally lost or forgotten. In a strange way, everything that happens to us remains somehow still alive within us.
It is crucial to understand that experience itself is not merely an empirical process of appropriating or digesting blocks of life. Experience is rather a journey of transfiguration. Both that which is lived and the one who lives it are transfigured. Experience is not about the consumption of life, rather it is about the interflow of creation into the self and of the self into creation. This brings about subtle and consistently new configurations in both. That is the activity of growth and creativity.
Viewed against this perspective, the concealed nature of memoria is easier to understand. Memoria is the harvester and harvest of transfigured experience. Deep in the silent layers of selfhood, the coagulations of memoria are at work. It is because of this subtle integration of self and life that there is the possibility of any continuity in experience.
“All great truths are obvious truths,” Aldoux Huxley wrote, “but not all obvious truths are great truths.” Perhaps it is an obvious truth, but it is also a great truth that years after his sudden and untimely death, O’Donohue lives on in our collective memoria through his transcendent writings, which continue to offer a consecrating lens on the transience we call life.
Complement Four Elements with O’Donohue on beauty and desire, the essence of true friendship, and how our restlessness fuels our creativity, then revisit Annie Dillard on what a stunt pilot knows about impermanence and the meaning of life and this uncommonly beautiful and subtle Japanese pop-up book about transience and the cycle of life.
Published January 4, 2017