Traces N.10, November 2019

An irreducible reality

There is a word that pops up more and more often now in the news and discussions on TV. One that, if it does not make it into conversations among friends or into chats over lunch, it is only because people have not realized how concisely it describes something we all live, with no exceptions. The word is “nihilism,” the closest word to “nothingness,” the word that best describes what it is to live “nothingness.”
It does not have the same meaning it once did relating to violent rebellion, a desire to destroy a world we do not like (though there is plenty of anger to go around, voiced in social media and from town squares around the world...), or at least that is not its sole meaning. Rather, it refers to something more subtle that, in the end, is also at the root of violence.
It is the fading of our attraction to reality, a loss of meaning and therefore of enthusiasm, two things that cannot be separated in life. It is the lack of a purpose capable of drawing us in, of setting all our affective energy in motion, of completely winning us over. “There is no ideal for which we can sacrifice ourselves, because all we know are lies, we who do not know what the truth is,” Malraux wrote almost a century ago. His words are a perfect summary of today’s world.

Despite everything, there is a bright side to the widespread malaise: at least now it is crystal clear that no idea, as Malraux said, is capable of rescuing us. No theory can do it–only an experience, something that happens to us (as we saw in the last issue). It is there alone we can find a way out, and if we look at experience, we begin to recognize two things. The first is that even the most tepid heart–even the most ardent nihilist–still holds within it an irreducible reality: the desire for happiness. This is unavoidable and almost against our will; we have a need–or better, we are a need–for fulfillment, even when everything seems to say otherwise. This irreducibility manifests itself in many ways–it can emerge through the most unimaginable openings, offering a fresh start.
Our experience, if we are true to it, also offers us a second recognition to start from: the heart does not give up and is ready to be reignited the moment it meets something capable of awakening it–not an idea, but a presence, a fact, a living face that offers a proposal that lives up to our need. One that therefore becomes an authority (as the lesson from the CL Beginning Day, published weeks ago on the CL website, observes)–a word that implies someone who helps us grow, who helps our humanity thrive again, and who gives us redemption from emptiness.

In the following pages, you will find experiences that illustrate this dynamic. They are contained in stories of people who have been set back into motion by an authoritative encounter, an unexpected proposal of meaning–and of enthusiasm; in other words, by the fact of an unforeseen paternity, another imposing word. Or better, a decisive word, so decisive that we will return to it in our next issue...