I was reminded last night that our lives are not in fact for us. We have been given the entirely unearned gift of existence itself — nothing could be more precious. Yet how can we possibly fully embody gratitude for something such as this? I think through no other path than complete self-annihilation — what we call in Sufism fanāʾ, or the Christic example of absolute kenōsis, or also the nirvana (lit. “blowing out,” “becoming extinguished”) of which the Buddhists speak — can this proper gratitude be achieved.
There are a handful of crucial relationships we have in this existence: relationship with oneself, relationship with others, relationship with cosmos as whole, and relationship with the transcendent or the Divine. Perhaps the most fundamental sin common to human existence is the tendency to become trapped in an autotelic mode — directing one’s life only towards one’s own goals, self-enclosing in an artificially constructed center of thought, will, and action.
The lure of God is that we may dissolve this prison — a prison which ultimately neither serves ourselves nor these other crucial relations. To self-annihilate in this way is not to become sheer nothing or non-existent — some kind of pathological self-minimization or heavy handed ascetic self-denial — but when done properly, paradoxically becomes the very precondition for the deepest fullness in life.
In place of neurotic autotelic existence, here our center comes to expand to to encompass ever greater horizons. We are ourselves not merely in ourselves, but through others. My very self-constitution is my relationships to other beings, the cosmos, and the Divine. Coming to embody this realization existentially is the ancient and venerable path of compassion and service — truly it is very simple.
The gift of my life is ultimately not a gift for me, even though I have certainly received it. Rather, the essential reality of this gift is a burden of sorts — a responsibility of bottomless depth. To live directed only to the highest… What could that truly look like? The subsistence on the other side of annihilation, so far as I can tell, is nothing more than an outpouring of embodied gratitude for this gift — an aspirational to fulfill this responsibility through absolute care.
May we come to hold this gift with proper seriousness and joy.