Like all poets…I am full with the question of how the human being will be put to right…. The question is how to fix ourselves. Give birth to ourselves.
– James Baldwin
The famed American writer and activist spoke these words in an interview he gave in Istanbul in 1969, as I recently learned reading Eddie S. Glaude, Jr.’s timely and edifying book, Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own.
Glaude writes, “For me, reading Baldwin throughout his career feels like this: a manic pursuit of a radically different way of being in the world….” It’s not that Baldwin was unconcerned with politics or protest, as anyone familiar with the life and work of James Baldwin knows. As Glaude puts it, “Sure, policy mattered. Power mattered. But in the end, for Jimmy, what kind of human beings we aspired to be mattered more.”
Glaude adds, “And I am convinced he was absolutely right….”
So am I.
“What kind of human beings we aspire to be” and “how to fix ourselves” have always been penetrating questions for humanity. And as we face both existential peril and boundless potential in these turbulent times, these questions call to us more urgently than ever.
I am particularly struck by Baldwin’s phrase, give birth to ourselves, which can only mean manifesting the deeper, greater self within us, the better angels of our true nature. This is what the ancient seers, sages, and saints have always implored us to do (the recent and contemporary ones as well): recognize, honor, and bring forth the intrinsic virtue and dignity that lies at the core of each and every human being.
As infants we radiate this goodness and joy from the depths of our being, and this fierce curiosity, unbounded trust, and unconditional love propel us into childhood. But as we grow older and increasingly experience affliction and hardship, we begin to question our trust in life’s innate goodness, quite possibly even our own, and our inborn sense of virtue and optimism can progressively fade.
Sadly, the great majority of us did not receive sufficient guidance when we were children in the most valuable competence a human being can gain: how to meet life’s inevitable pains and setbacks and transform them into grist for the mill to help us create strong, vibrant lives and healthy, compassionate relationships. It ain’t easy.
Nevertheless, our native core of goodness – awareness, strength, love – however deeply buried it may be beneath a lifetime of suffering and protective scars, is still there, pulsing at the heart of our existence. In fact, I speculate that this core of goodness is the source of our existence
And here’s the key: We can rediscover our conscious core and strengthen our connection to it. We can explore and familiarize ourselves with the ground of our being. We can expand our ability to inhabit and act from our vital center. Perhaps most problematic is recognizing and acknowledging when we are not grounded and centered, and then remembering the existence of our composed and attentive core and begin reconnecting to it. Tricky, yes, but we can get better at doing that, too.
The more frequently and closely we draw ourselves toward our own source within, the more readily we can recognize, honor and relate to the corresponding deeper nature in others, and with all of life. In a self-reinforcing dynamic, this works in reverse as well: as we connect more deeply with other people and with the natural world, we build a more robust relationship with our own fundamental nature.
Doing this essential work is how we can “be put right,” how we can “fix ourselves.”
The simple, profound yet largely unheralded truth is that at any given moment in our predominantly outward-facing, pleasure-seeking, pain-avoiding, ego-defending, reactive orientation to life, we can choose to step back and move the point of our attention closer to its wellspring.
Gaining the skill to perform this feat of attentional alchemy is the essence of how we “give birth to ourselves” in present time. And as we continue to investigate, practice, and enhance our ability to reconnect our attention to its source, even in stressful moments – especially in stressful moments – we become more whole.
Acquiring and honing this capability is not an easy accomplishment. It is a lifelong challenge that requires recurrent vision, courage, and commitment. We will forget and falter countless times along the way, and we need to forgive ourselves when we do. We are human. But if we make the choice to pursue this goal, to “give birth to ourselves,” we will realize rewards both tangible and subtle at virtually every step along the way.