Heschel: “You can affect a person only if you reach his [or her] inner life, the level where every human being is insecure and feels his [or her] incompleteness, the level of awareness that lies beyond articulation.
“The soul is discovered in response, in acts of transcending the self, in the awareness of ends that surpass one’s interest and needs.”
Insecurity has two very different meanings. For Watts and Heschel (and I assume Nietzsche would concur), it describes the fact of our existence – that our survival is not guaranteed, nor are the conditions always favorable for our personal happiness and fulfillment. That’s just the way it is. The grand adventure of life and its evolutionary course in time is inherently precarious, fraught with challenges, and dependent on environmental conditions all along the way. Some environments are hospitable to living things, and some aren’t. The fact that every living organism is to an important degree at the mercy of factors outside its control makes its existence “insecure.”
Watts, especially, uses the term “insecurity” to refer to a feeling that can overwhelm the human organism. When you feel insecure, you are anxious to the point of panic over the otherwise natural limits on your ability to control what’s going on. This anxious feeling may then motivate you to take control – keeping others at a safe distance, for instance, or imposing your will on them. You might take out a stack of insurance policies against any and all possible risks.
With Heschel, insecure describes our human condition. As creatures, we are dependent on conditions of reality over which we have little authority or control. Take, for example, our need for oxygen. We can’t make oxygen, yet we need it to survive. The metabolic process that supports life in our cells, tissues and organs makes us dependent on the supply of oxygen from outside ourselves. If it isn’t there, we will die. This may sound as if we are characterizing life as internally vulnerable and weak – and in a way that is important to admit, life is (we might say) naturally deficient. None of us is “complete,” self-sufficient, or fully adequate to sustain life entirely on our own.
At the developmental level of ego where the focus shifts from survival to identity, human existence continues to be insecure. We need belonging and recognition, but the social reality that might provide or withhold these is also outside our control. Humans that have been deliberately (or experimentally) deprived of social interaction not only end up relationally stunted as a consequence, but also fail to mature and die far earlier than normal.
Heschel refers to our “inner life” as that place where our insecurity and incompleteness are most acutely felt, which makes it sound as if the soul is something less than the transcendental center of immortality that popular religion makes it out to be. I admit, it is tempting to put the spiritual life of the soul at a level high above the temporal conditions of body and ego. While these are dependent and conditioned, soul is independent and without conditions. While they are susceptible to the complications of life in time, soul is utterly detached and immune.
Here’s the beautiful paradox: It is at the point of our deepest need, where we are absolutely dependent on what is beyond us – that is, where our insecurity is most evident and inescapable – that we are also connected to a larger reality. Our Western system of values regards dependency as weakness, as a flaw or breakdown in our intended design as self-standing and fully liberated beings. And while it does represent a limitation against our absolute freedom, need is where our presumption of self-reliance must be dropped in order to open up and receive what is needed. Dependency is where our own incompleteness may be painfully obvious, but it’s also where the larger web of life is providentially present to us.
True enough, I can simply “take” what I need and fail to respond in faith, wonder and gratitude. In all my self-preoccupation I may never become aware of my place in the grandeur of being. I need air, I need love. What’s in it for me? The rest be damned. But then, tangled up in my own insecurities and failing to respond, soul goes undiscovered.
The revolution begins tomorrow. I’ll feel better then.