An Essay Featured in The Fate of Beauty by O.G. Rose
On Want and Awe
Awe is a state in which the self is forgotten yet the will is heightened.
Everyone has a self, and hence all acts are self-ish and no act is totally self-less. According to moralists, we aren’t to act selfishly, but it is not truly possible for anyone to act without any consideration of, or connection with, his or her self. It is difficult to imagine even what it means to act without one’s self, for even if one were to abandon his or her self, such an act would be done through the self. Therefore, it is not helpful to talk of a need to avoid ‘selfishness’; rather, as will be argued, it is more valuable to speak of a need to live in a state of ‘awe’ and ‘thanksgiving’. Furthermore, is a ‘hallow man’ who acts selflessly good? The selfless acts of such a person seem destined to be vapid and empty. Ultimately, I believe the focus today on ‘selflessness versus selfishness’ can have its uses, but it’s more often than not a source of confusion.
Commonly, it is difficult to tell the difference between moral and immoral wants: language constantly conflates the two. However, if one maintains a state of gratefulness and keeps his or her self from slipping into a sense of entitlement, from comparing his or her self with others, from fear and boredom, etc., one will have wants that more likely reflect a loving spirit. The wants of a loving will are good, so how does one transform the will so that he or she can love freely without fear of wanting wrongly? When the self is pure, the self-ish life is good, and it is the spirit of thanksgiving that purifies the self.
Character begets wants that benefit others. Ideally, one is neither selfish nor selfless; rather, a person wants to help others. Then, the selfish act is a selfless one.
The wills and wants of a good person profit others. Goodness manifests as many things, but one of these is gratefulness. Gratefulness is deeper than just saying ‘thank you’; rather, it personifies a love of life, whatever form it may take. Goodness, when faced with the vilest of evils, in loving life, demands justice and a righting of that evil (though how that manifests depends). The one who combats injustice loves life, but the one who only combats his or her idea of injustice loves only an idea of life. Goodness, therefore, in order to love life, requires discernment and wisdom. How this is acquired is particular to each person.
In a world where all individuals have character and live in a state of thanksgiving, want is always good. There, wants are always ‘thankful-wants’, but in our imperfect world, there are often ‘thankless-wants’. Thankful-wants enable a person to make the most of the present moment, while thankless-wants abstract an individual (usually with emotional ramifications) into a state that disregards the present in preference for a non-existent state (future, past, imaginary, etc.).
It is not so much wants that are good or bad as it is the disposition through which wants manifest. If one wants to be married because he is grateful for the opportunity to serve his wife, his want is good. However, the most pious of wants, when out of a disposition of entitlement or even obsession, can be bad and poisonous.
The problem with thankless-wants is that they abstract a person into his or her mind from out of the present and actual world. In living in a state of abstraction and yet being in the world (hence creating a divide between the two), the individual sets his or her self up for neurosis, double-mindedness, and contradiction. Abstraction endangers. This isn’t to say one cannot ascribe to what, relative to us, is abstract, only that one must not ascribe to that which totally abstracts his or her self from life.
Ironically, thankless-wants tend to keep away that which is desired. This is because the one who thanklessly-wants comes to embody an attitude and disposition which repels. Thankless-wants are rooted in a kind of fear that what is wanted will not be achieved (or will not be achieved soon enough), and what one fears tends to be what comes unto a person (due to how their nature, actions, and attitudes consequently change). If you thanklessly-want to get married, you will easily take on an attitude that will repel your beloved; if you thankfully-want marriage, you will attract your beloved closer (along with the date of the wedding).
In being thankful, the one who wants, in having character, wants that which is good. In wanting good, the want results in good. The person with character who wants doesn’t become demanding, impatient, forceful, etc.; in fact, since the wants of such a person are ‘thankful’, the individual’s character and attitude are made better by them, benefiting neighbors and others.
A world without wants is a world that would be neither good nor bad. It would be, in a sense, possibly worse than an evil world, for an evil world could still have a sense of good against which to know itself. If one could not will, one could not will the good. Therefore, the deletion of will and wants into pure selflessness wouldn’t be a solution; a truly selfless world wouldn’t be a world without any good.
If by ‘selfless’ one means ‘thankful-wanting’, the term is valid, but it is important that the society is careful to keep people from thinking that having a self, and so any kind of want, is bad. Thankful-wants are the only way there can be any good and that anything meaningful can be done. If a society rejects thankful-wants in rejecting all wants, a society ultimately rejects everything that makes it good.
Thanksgiving purifies wants; furthermore, the individual will be thankful for the process by which wants are realized. For the one who wants to be married, for example, this will increase attractiveness, and even if such a person ultimately doesn’t get married, such a person will still get what he or she wants. This is because the grateful person is one who fundamentally wants ‘whatever is best’ or ‘come what may’, and though that person may think ‘what’s best’ entails marriage, if ultimately that turns out not to be the case, the grateful person will still be grateful.
Along the journey of life, gratefulness changes the will of a person in a manner that keeps that person from ever wanting what that person cannot have. That said, the grateful person’s will doesn’t so much change as it is clarified. Fundamentally, his or her will remains constant, though the person may think that yesterday his or her will was for marriage when actually it was for ‘whatever is best’. Appearances change, but not fundamentals. It simply wasn’t until later that the person had the clarity — gained thanks to experience and discernment through choosing thankfulness — to recognize that ‘whatever is best’ is what he or she actually wanted all along.
It is difficult to actively step into a spirit of thanksgiving, for this step must often be taken at a time when a person has been denied what he or she wants. Gratitude is meaningfully reached through disappointment. This is because until a person is denied what he or she wants, ‘thankfulness’ is indefinable from ‘happiness’. What constitutes ‘thankfulness’ can only be clearly determined when there seems to be nothing for which to be thankful or when there is nothing to stimulate one into thinking that disposition is what others expect. ‘Thankfulness’, when definable, is a choice (despite the circumstance), while saying (meaningfully) ‘thank you’ after someone does something that makes you happy is a reaction which is indefinable from the emotion of happiness.
Since thankfulness, when most meaningful, is chosen during times when thankfulness seems least warranted, being thankful entails having and developing character. When one chooses to step into a spirit of thanksgiving during a time of disappointment, suddenly appearances change and his or her will is clarified. The person then finds that he or she wasn’t denied anything, for the person finds that he or she no longer wants what he or she doesn’t have: the person wills what is present. This isn’t to say that it is inherently wrong to desire that a late relative were still alive or that a tragedy wouldn’t have occurred, only that such desires mustn’t abstract one from the present or ruin an individual’s spirit of thanksgiving. It is actually during these challenging times when gratitude for life can be most meaningful, being most challenging to cultivate. A thankful person, though he or she may lose things, isn’t crippled by loss.
‘Awe’ is speechless thankfulness. It is a state in which the self is forgotten yet the will is heightened. To be in awe of something is to want it, yet not out of a desire to possess it, and it is not so much the thing as it is the experience of that thing that is wanted. To be in awe is to want the moment in which the ‘awe-full’ thing is beheld to last forever.
To thankfully-want a thing is to be in awe of it. Furthermore, to thankfully-want the future is to desire for the future to remain the future and for the present to remain the present: it is to desire for the moment in which the future is thought of to be eternalized. If one wants to be married from a state of awe and thankfulness, the experience of wanting this will be enjoyed in and of itself, rather than cause impatience and negative attitudes and emotions. On the other hand, if one is paralyzed by the thought of not getting married, as a sort of ‘reverse awe’, the future will suspend the person, and rather than awe-full, this is awful.
To be in awe of something that is yet to be is to want for it to remain ‘yet to be’. Of course, such a freezing is impossible, for time will flow regardless. Consequently, in wanting the awe-full future to remain itself (as do all with a spirit of thanksgiving and love of life), the future will still suddenly come unto the individual. And so the impossible will seem to occur and the person will come to possess what he or she did not want to posses: a self-ish end will be achieved without selfish desire; the person will be self-ish, yet selfless. In awe, the border between altruism and autonomy breaks down.
To thankfully-want is to live ‘toward’ phenomena as if they are all worthy of awe. Whether they are awe-full or not doesn’t change the experience. In this sense, to live thankfully-wanting is to live in a state of humility: it is to live as if what one experiences is always greater than one’s self and so above his or her judgments, negativity, etc.
Awe, inherently thankful and willful, is what makes the world wonderful, not selflessness. The term ‘selflessness’ is too imprecise, as ‘altruism’, in implying that autonomy is immoral, too readily confuses those who want to be famous for designing a water-purifying system that benefits millions. Live thankfully toward the present, awe-fully toward the future. Live in awe toward what you don’t have, for to live without thanksgiving is to spoil what you want (which is what you don’t want). To want something can be the very thing that ruins what you’re after. Want what doesn’t abstract you (into double-mindedness or ‘split-personhood’). Want only for what you are grateful.