The Incompleteness of Man

Look at an animal – a cat, a cockroach, a fish in the ocean. All have everything they need. All are already everything they need to be. Animals are born complete.

There is nothing to be added to a fish or a cockroach from the moment it is born until it passes away – only size and mass. The day the cockroach dies it is the same cockroach it was when it was born – only bigger and fatter and more disgustingly brown.

But man, the human animal, belongs to a category of his own. He is born with a body not yet fully formed and he is helpless and completely dependent on others for years. But his physical incompleteness is just the beginning. Even after he grows up  – two decades of acculturation and education later – he still feels incomplete. And he struggles for completeness – be it finding meaning, harmony, or fulfillment – for the rest of his life. That’s part of the definition of a human life: it is always incomplete. 

An animal, being born complete and remaining so throughout its life, is always ready to die. Thus, there is nothing cruel in this Nature of the devouring and the devoured. Everything killed and consumed is already complete and thus, in the truest sense, ready to die. A human, on the other hand, being always incomplete, is never ready to die. It is this underlying feeling of incompleteness, still present even in the final moments of dying, that lies at the very heart of the constant fear of dying. Not even a person in extreme old age lying on his deathbed feels ready to leave this world: the about-to-die feels deprived of the opportunity to complete his being before departing. This is also one of the main reasons that we created systems of philosophy and religion: to explain, or even explain away, death. The eternal life of Christians, the jannah of Muslims, the belief in reincarnation of Hindus and Buddhists, are all (in part) attempts to come to terms with the fact that death may strike at any moment before we experience the fullness of life. Religions, at least in their outer forms, transform the incompleteness of man at the point of death into a promise for completeness in the afterlife.

We arrive into this world incomplete, go about our lives searching half-blindly for ways to complete ourselves, and in the end, after failing in our struggle, we depart almost as incomplete as we appeared. What is the purpose then of this lifelong “struggle for completeness” when our failure is preordained?

The answer to this is to be found in the word struggle – not in completeness itself which is unattainable. Our struggle for completeness moves and governs our growth, so that we flower into something different from what we originally were. Unlike the cockroach, the old man on his deathbed is not the same person who entered into the world. He is another being. Our sense of incompleteness drives our movement towards learning, growth, wisdom. The life cycle of the butterfly symbolizing the stages of life in so many cultures is pertinent: We are all born as caterpillars, crawling and searching blindly for food. Then one day, after we become “big and fat” (with knowledge and experience), we start eating our own bodies and turn into a chrysalis – as we grow, we unwittingly become transformed. Finally we acquire wings, leave the cocoon and fly – departing from this world, not as caterpillars, but as butterflies.

Our incompleteness is both our curse and our blessing. We are cursed to ceaselessly struggle for completeness. But we are also blessed with the potentiality, and most often with the final actuality, of gaining wings to fly. Unlike the rest of the animal kingdom, we have the ability to become a different organism, a different being from the one we were at birth – even if we still remain incomplete.

We are the seekers, the warriors of the unattainable!

Our struggle for completeness never ends. But it is through this struggle and because of it that we are, or rather become, humans. For our species is not born, it is made. Or rather it is constantly in the process of being made. Man is changed and transformed throughout his life. Therefore, he can never be defined – he is ceaselessly re-defined through living itself. Our incompleteness becomes our only unalterable feature. We are the permanently incomplete species.

Restless.

Always moving. And searching. And struggling to fly.

© 2020 Nicos Hadjicostis