Paradox of path

The paradox of a path is that we are on a path whether we choose to be or not. Perhaps we come to a fork representative of a choice of two or more separate paths. The path becomes more conscious to us in moments of crisis or decision or disillusionment. The path is best disclosed to us in silence and solitude.

The paradox is that we give the path a name as if it were our path. We cannot insist on this name, for by naming it we may create a new, different, even unexpected path diverting away from the one we chose. Or, perhaps, finding ourselves on a path we thought familiar and comfortable, the path changes, it grows dark and full of thickets and bogs. We cannot look back and see the fork nor hope for another change to take us on a different path. Change can represent a change of path or a change in perspective. The same path can be seen differently, or a different path can end up being the same because of our lack of conscious change. In any case, we must remember that we are always on a path.

How, then, do we deal with this paradoxical image or metaphor, which seems to create more problems than it solves?

The image of a path or way is such a universal metaphor that it is difficult to not build a sense of momentum or progress into the image. That is, we see the stars follow a path, we see animals following a path, we marvel at how birds can migrate across entire continents with minimal consciousness of a path. But when we scrutinize these linear paths of nature, we discover that however great in time and space, these paths double over themselves many times. Paths of nature are more like circles than lines, more circumscribed than progressive. We lose the image of clarity and purpose when we give up the image of a path as a more-or-less straight line.

The unfolding of the universe and of all living beings is neither linear nor circular but like an outward spiral, building on a foundation but progressing outwardly. (Hence the attraction of the labyrinth.) The universe expands but is directional. The rings of the tree are circular, but the tree grows outward and directionally. Such is the pattern of seed into flower, of cocoon into butterfly, of egg into animal and human being. So, too, our life’s path is neither a straight line full of progress and demarcations nor is it a concentric circle of fruitless experiences or inversions. (Although the latter is common when we look at individual lives.) Our life’s path must be a spiral, revisiting each stage, taking something vital each time, leaving something behind, but slowly and cumulatively ascending a path.

“Solitude” by Marc Chagall

Solitude by Marc Chagall
The painting by Marc Chagall entitled “Solitude” is an example of a cultural treatment of alienation and not solitude as usually understood with reference to a person. The intention of Chagall is to represent Jewish culture at the momentous turn of 1933 Europe. The sacrificial ox, the image of God’s messenger, the Torah or scriptural scroll, the traditional headdress, the image of an historical rabbi or elder personifiying Judaism, make this clear.

The painting’s title of “Solitude” may raise the question of why eremitism hardly exists in Jewish traditions. The biblical image of Ezechiel as hermit never served as a model for Jewish eremitism. The medieval Carmelities presented it as an historical precedent for their presence in Palestine, but this analogy was only theoretical.

In part, the post-diaspora experience of Judaism did not permit a cohesively independent cultural identity with any particular geography. The absence of intermarriage with a larger culture or other social relations intensified alienation. The mythic proportions of “chosenness” and of a “holy land,” and the complex theological (and other) relations with Christianity and Islam has only exacerbated the absence of an eremitic tradition. As with Islam and other indigenous nomadic peoples, the cultural model is the social group, and this identity with cultural authority has persisted as a survival mechanism in Judaism and other groups considered anthropologically.

The immediacy of Chagall’s Europe in 1933 is expressed by the forlorn image seen in “Solitude.” But “solitude” at both the personal and cultural level haunts the viewer of Chagall’s work. For the conscious or intentional solitary, it emphasizes the tragedy of culture and society.

Just look

We have a tendency to analyze when we look at things in daily life. We think, “She looks old today,” or “The light is too strong for me,” or “That flower is starting to fade,” and the like. We tell ourselves that we are just trying to understand what goes on around us, that we want to be attentive. We may even imagine that, after all, don’t artists and creative people spend hours analyzing things? That even resumes are praised for traits like “detail-oriented.”

But while we are busy extracting detail we are also engaging a faculty that assumes a certain standard, a certain norm to which the object of our scrutiny does not conform. Thus we see the fading flower in contrast to the fresh one. We can trap ourselves into assuming that only the flower at a certin point is truly a flower, not realizing that what is fading is still a flower, too.

When we recognize that what is before us is as real as what we consider its norm, that the flower is always fading — or, better, that the flower always was what it was — then we will be able to appreciate everything so much more at whatever “stage” it represents to us. We will be able to just look.

Three questions

The story of the emperor and the hermit is familiar to most Asian traditions. It is certainly universal. Here is one version:

An emperor had three questions but no advisor, priest, or philosopher in the kingdom could answer them clearly. Then he heard of a wise hermit and summoned him to the court to ask him the answer to these three questions:

  1. When is the most important time?
  2. Who is the most important person?
  3. What is the most important thing to do?

Now the advisors had all failed because they feared that the emperor already had his answers and was merely testing them. The best time, they reasoned, was the moment of battle against the empire’s enemies, but when was that opportune moment? Or, surely the most important man in the kingdom was the shrewdest general or the most flattering minister but who dared to name him? Unless the emperor himself would be angered and declare that, after all, he was the most important person being the emperor! And the most important thing to do was clearly to conquer all foes and to enrich the emperor’s coffers.

The hermit answered the questions with only a few words.

“The most important time is now.” All depends on the present moment, on what dominates the mind and heart here and now. All else, past and future, is meaningless.

“The most important person is the one you are with.” If you are with a child, a friend, a beloved, a colleague, that person is the most important. If you are with an enemy, a fool, a thief, that person is the most important person right now. And if you are alone, you are the most important person.

“The most important thing to do is to care.” To care about this moment, to care about this person in your midst, to care about everything around you. And in so doing, you will have no questions, no preferences of time or persons, and no thing more important than anything else.


The other night I dreamed that I was returning enthusiastically to a great forest I had once known. As I rounded a bend or came uphill I saw in place of that grand forest only a vast and horrible plain. It was a straw yellow, though I do not dream in color. Everything had been clear-cut. I awoke from the dream, startled.

I have had forests in mind lately, historical forests and especially lore about hermits who have dwelt in them. That hermits have enjoyed forests in virtually every culture and tradition is convincing enough to persuade the solitary to appreciate the landscape of solitude. Forests are one example.

But I have been thinking about contemporary forests, wild places, and public lands, too, and how quickly they are disappearing around the world. We know the consequences to animal and plant habitat, the relationship to global warming, to agriculture, cattle-grazing, commerce, consumption, and to the fate of indigenous peoples. But society is powerless to act, paralyzed by its own greed and inertia.

Ultimately, the destruction of forests represents the destruction of solitude. Humanity at large has failed to understand its place in the world and in the universe, and the role of solitude. Regardless of one’s tradition, the forest is a both a resource and a treasure, but like Chronos devouring his children, humanity consumes itself and whatever it does not understand. Despite the many cultural (and religious) explorations of forests, all collective attempts to redress the pace of self-destruction fail, leaving only anecdotal voices through time, and nondescript scientists and environmental advocates, among others, today.

For the worldly, the demise of forests and wild places is an abstraction, something distant, irrelevant. But for the solitary, who has the mental tools in reach for understanding the place of forests and wild places for solitude and the well-being of the human psyche — let alone the well-being of all creation — this fateful demise is full of sadness. We must pity the ignorant and the violent. But there is no clearer contrast between wisdom and folly.