The Silent Junctures
It’s very painful to see how small betrayals can gradually eat away at our soul. We see people who haven’t made any big mistakes in their lives, perhaps a recurrent stubbornness, little mistakes that they insist on making over and over again. But their lives end up a horrendous mess, just as bad as if they had committed one enormously harmful deed. Our little infidelities, our little moments of giving in to our whims or lazy habits, are cumulative and can do more harm than we think. It’s not only a moral concern; the very joy of life hinges on it. When we are sloppy with our moments, hastily diving into our actions or words without any forethought, we create a lot of wasted moments.
– Brother David Steindl-Rast
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Our life’s-path does not lie along a smooth, straight line.
There are sudden turns, hills and rugged terrains, little stones or huge boulders we have to remove, rivers to cross, mountains to climb, canyons to descend. Sometimes we need to retrace our steps after hitting a dead end. At other times we have to stop altogether, or decide which course to take upon encountering a fork in the road, or take a leap into the unknown. While most of our life may be stable and unsurprising, it is clear that the events and decisions of our life are not of equal importance. There are focal points at which critical things happen and crucial decisions are made that determine the course of our life.
We may call these nodal points “junctures.” When these junctures are big, they make their presence and importance visible. We then have to deal with them consciously and head-on, as the following poem by Cavafy, “Che fece…il gran rifiuto,” nicely describes:
For some people the day comes
when they have to declare the great Yes
or the great No. It’s clear at once who has the Yes
ready within him; and saying it,
he goes forward in honor and self-assurance.
He who refuses does not repent. Asked again,
he would still say no. Yet that no – the right no –
undermines him all his life.
These monumental focal points are not frequent in our life, and when they occur, we are aware of their significance and are often prepared. Most believe that it is these big junctures that are worthy of our full attention, for it is they that determine the course of our life. However, there is another more frequent type of junctures. These junctures, when added together, usually end up being more important than the big, “noisy” ones. These more numerous instances usually go unnoticed, because they are judged to be of minor significance at the time, or because they are imperceptible. We may call them the silent junctures of our life.
At these silent junctures, we do not pause and think; we do not correctly evaluate the seriousness of the situation, the repercussions of our choice. We often hasten and mindlessly make a decision that takes us in one direction rather than another. In another poem by Cavafy, “The Ides of March,” which explores such a silent yet extreme juncture (even though the poem’s focus is unrelated to the juncture itself), we see that a rush decision may even lead to one’s death – in this case, the murder of Julius Caesar:
Fear grandeurs, O my soul.
And if you cannot triumph over your
ambitions, pursue them with hesitation
and precaution. And the more you go forward,
the more searching, attentive you must be.
And when you reach your peak, Caesar at last;
when you take on the form of a famous man,
then above all take heed as you go out on the street,
a man of authority conspicuous with your followers,
if by chance out of the mob some Artemidoros
should approach you, who brings you a letter,
and hastily says, “Read this at once,
it contains grave matters of concern to you,”
do not fail to stop; do not fail to put off
all talk or work; do not fail to turn away
the various people who salute you and kneel before you
(you can see them later); let even the Senate
itself wait, and immediately get to know
the grave writings of Artemidoros.
Whether historical or from our own life, such extreme silent junctures, although rare, make us aware of the reality of their existence. By meditating upon them, we gradually come to understand their significance.
Yet the silent junctures are not only related to outside events, as in the instance with Julius Caesar. There is another type of silent junctures, probably the most important, that are even more frequent and even more silent (it is as though there is an inversely proportional relationship between the frequency of the junctures and their muteness): These are the nodal points that relate to our regular modes of behavior – to the way we make decisions and to the strength of our willpower. When gone unnoticed, they end up being the most destructive of all. As the opening quote from Brother David eloquently explains, these are the junctures at which we “give in to our whims or lazy habits”; where we “are sloppy with our moments and dive into our actions or words without any forethought.” We gradually build upon the first such thoughtless act we made at the silent juncture, then upon the second, and so on, until one day our life becomes one huge mess and we wonder what we did wrong. If, say, we have come to a fork in our life with two very limited and bad options, this limitation can be traced back to all the previous decisions we had made at the numerous silent junctures. The reason we cannot point to anything specific or monumental that seems to have led us to our present situation is that we were not truly aware of the important choices we were making along the way. Some of us “wake up” one day to discover that our life is in a foreign field of endeavor with unknown coordinates. Yet, if we carefully trace back all the decisions that brought us to where we are today, we will discover that we were making many small wrong choices all along – not with a bang but a whimper.
Still worse, such series of wrong choices often become repetitive, and we find ourselves retracing the same ground. These “little mistakes that we insist on making over and over again” that lead our life “into a horrendous mess, just as bad as if we had committed one enormously harmful deed” relate to our inability to grow and evolve. It is Cavafy, yet again, who has managed to poetically express the same phenomenon described by Brother David. His poem “He Swears” is a gloomy exposé of “our little infidelities, our little moments of giving in to our whims or lazy habits”:
He swears every now and then to begin a better life.
But when night comes with its own counsel,
its own compromises and prospects –
when night comes with its own power
of a body that needs and demands,
he goes back, lost, to the same fatal pleasure.
Although the poet was probably referring to his own lustful desires that kept returning every night, his poem has a more universal character that applies to all of us and to any resolutions we make with ourselves for a new beginning.
When we carefully study all the silent junctures that keep us trapped in closed loops of repetitive and often destructive behaviors, we will discover some common features that form the “geography” of the phenomenon:
The first such feature is not stopping. Being on the treadmill of constant activity, unconsciously immersed in the contemporary vice of busyness, we do not have a minute to stop and realize that we have come to a juncture.
But even if we do occasionally stop, we may not pay attention. This is the second feature. Without being attentive, we fail to see the fork ahead, or the river that has to be crossed, or the nearby precipice. We basically fail to relate at a deeper level with our environment and with the motives of our actions.
If we do stop and pay attention, we fall prey to a third element: rushed action. This is equivalent to being “sloppy with our moments and diving into our actions or words without any forethought.” Such rushed action lacks wisdom and often becomes ineffective.
If we do not move into action, there’s a fourth course we may follow, probably the most common and disastrous of them all, which is at the other end of the spectrum: procrastination. What exactly is procrastination? Most think of it as being synonymous with deferred action, i.e., inaction. But this is incorrect. Procrastination involves three distinct actions: The first action is the decision to procrastinate. The second is the doing of something else rather than the deferred work. The third action involves taking up or not taking up the job again at some later stage. If the third action is not resuming the job, then this third action becomes the first action of a renewed procrastination. In a sense, every time we procrastinate, we become involved in action-in-inaction, which slowly becomes a series of actions. Paradoxically, doing the job itself is a singular act, yet procrastinating is multiple acts threaded together! Procrastination as action-in-inaction solidifies and becomes a done-event in itself. Thus, our non-action ends up becoming our real-life action.
Many such “solidified betrayals” become cumulative, as Brother David says, and like the calcium that is deposited on the joints, they create “the arthritis of our life.” The most hidden of all such solidifications are the repeated patterns of behavior that have become so ingrained in our character and the way we function that we see nothing wrong in their repetition. Not keeping the oath to ourselves (as in Cavafy’s last poem cited above) becomes something normal, because the not-keeping-it has solidified into a new pattern of behavior to which we blindly succumb.
But what are we to do to deal with our “little infidelities,” our “giving in to our whims and lazy habits”?
Clearly, the first and most important step is to become aware of the very existence of the silent junctures and then be on our guard to recognize them as such the moment they appear. Another important step is to understand that every time we return to the same position we were in before, it is a new event – our past behavior does not predetermine the same choice again. Such awareness and understanding are vital.
But still, how can we escape from the painful loops?
The answer is quite simple. Saying “we have to pay attention” or “we have to stop” or “not procrastinate” does not actually do the job. To do the job, one must actually do it, not simply proclaim it. Aspiration for change may be the prerequisite, but it is the human will that does the job. At the end of the day, we cannot relinquish the absolute responsibility we must take for our life, which in itself is synonymous with accepting the overarching superiority and power of our will. As Robert Frost’s famous maxim proclaims, “The best way out is always through.” And what takes us through is our willpower that must do the necessary work. A barren aspiration that keeps us moving in the same recurrent loop is an indication of the absence of willpower. Addressing a disciple’s question, Sri Aurobindo had this to say about the active nature of the will: “There is no such thing as an inert passive will. Will is dynamic in its nature. Even if it does not struggle or endeavor, its very presence is dynamic and acts dynamically on the resistance. What you are speaking of is a passive wish – ‘I would like it to be like that, I want it to be like that.’ That is not will.”
We are conditioned by our past to the degree that we decide to be so conditioned. Our human will transcends our past conditioning and always equips us with the power to make a new beginning.
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List of Quotations
Steindl-Rast, David, and Sharon Lebell. The Music of Silence, p. 51. San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1995.
Cavafy. Che Fece…il Gran Rifiuto. Translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1975.
Cavafy. The Ides of March. Translated by Rae Dalven. London: Hogarth Press, 1961.
Cavafy. He Swears. Translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1992.
Robert Frost. A Servant to Servants, line 56.
Sri Aurobindo. Excerpt from a conversation with disciples. Letters on Yoga IV. Pondicherry, India: Sri Aurobindo Ashram Press, 2014.