By Gisela Wielki
Ourselves From Outside
Our passage into the twenty-first century enables us to view the twentieth century in its entirety. We can already sense that it will enter history as an outstanding epoch. The entire century bears witness not only to the crossing of new frontiers and the “breaking of seals,” but also to our loss of orientation. We have entered worlds that had been inaccessible for lack of knowledge or technological tools.
When the painter Kandinsky learned about the splitting of the atom in 1906, he became deeply agitated, and wrote, “The collapse of the atom model was equivalent, in my soul, to the collapse of the whole world. Suddenly the thickest walls fell. I would not have been amazed if stone appeared before my eye in the air, melted, and became invisible.”
Humanity has since come to live with the prospect of nuclear annihilation. Early in the century, psychoanalysis pushed open the door to the human unconscious, and spiritual science pointed the way from sensible into supersensible realms. Then, as early as 1948, the British astronomer Fred Hoyle took note of yet another frontier that humanity was about to cross, when he wrote, “Once a photograph of the earth, taken from outside, is available … a new idea as powerful as any in history will be let loose.” Indeed, this took place in 1969, when for the first time we saw a picture of the whole earth seen from the moon: a beautiful and all-too-fragile-looking earth, floating like an iridescent blue pearl in the vast darkness of space. It was an image that had an immediate and profound effect on the human soul. Edgar Mitchell, one of the astronauts aboard, observed: “It was a beautiful, harmonious, peaceful-looking planet, blue with white clouds, and one that gave a deep sense … of home, of being, of identity. It was what I prefer to call instant global consciousness.” Humanity had taken the step from individual self-consciousness to global consciousness.
In 1970, we celebrated the first Earth Day, and a movement that had been formed by concerned and caring individuals who took the protection and stewardship of the earth to heart was born. Soon after, Lewis Thomas published his book The Lives of a Cell, which described the earth as a single cell, a living being. At the same time, the new age movement emerged. New words and concepts found their way into the vocabulary of the common person, suggesting the introduction of a spiritual dimension into our everyday lives—a spirituality rooted not in knowledge of, or faith in, a transcendent God, but in the human self.
Between Me and Myself
Had going into space given us a new perspective, a new possibility for looking at ourselves—and our selves? With apparent suddenness, others, in addition to philosophers and those involved with religion, began to differentiate between a lower, transient, encapsulated, local self and a higher, eternal, immortal, global self. Poets had already raised the issue a few decades earlier in challenging questions and statements, such as “Which I is I? – Am I the I that is to overthrow the other I? – I am the I that remains upright when I die.” In Present Past, Past Present, Ionesco continues, “Life is between me and myself, I bear it along between me and myself, I do not recognize it as mine, and yet it is to this life that I ask to be revealed. How can you be revealed by what hides you?”
By the beginning of the twentieth century, Rudolf Steiner had already drawn our attention to the significance of the human being as the bearer of a higher and a lower self: a true self and a reflected self. The newly discovered space between—the consciousness-threshold between me and myself—suggests much more than mere transcendence. It offers the possibility of an interaction between the lower and the higher self that enables each to work upon the other and give birth to a self that can be at once the observer and the observed. In his Journal, Ionesco writes: “I have a sort of impression that events are taking place within me, that things and passions are conflicting within me; that I am watching myself…. and that the real self is the “I” who watches “myself”….”
The human self was now beginning to observe itself, as if through another self. By the end of the twentieth century, stores filled their shelves with popular books promising tools to change our selves. Everywhere the idea flourished that I can change myself: I am both the one who is shaped and the one who is shaping; the self can be an object as well as subject. Günther Grass’s novel My Century, published in 1999, opens with the words: “I, trading places with myself…” Did our stepping away from the earth help us to gain this new perspective, and perception, and the possibility of relating to our own selves, just as earlier explorers’ discovery of the earth’s roundness had once aided our sense of being a self-contained I?
Our Self In Between
Perhaps it is more than a coincidence that, at the same time that the first extraordinary image of the earth was taken from the moon, the Twin Towers were constructed from 1969 to 1973 in the city that, as no other place, has embodied the spirit of the twentieth century. Had our sense of self grown strong enough over the course of the past centuries that we could now take the next step, and recognize ourselves as two who, though divided, can learn to stand as one? In that case, the Twin Towers, better known as the World Trade Center, may well have been more than a symbol for the twin canine teeth of the beast of greed; more than two towers casting their shadows of power across the globe. Their violent and instant demise, together with its catastrophic loss of life, was a tragedy that belongs not to a single nation, but to the world. The challenge to decipher meaning from this tragedy was placed by world destiny before every human being, so that good might arise out of their fall. The World Trade Center held within its walls a microcosm of humanity that was fated violently to cross the threshold together— individuals of different nations, beliefs and races, as well as social stations. It was human action, not nature that caused the disaster. Surely, humanity had looked into the abyss of evil before, but this unprecedented attack not only sent shockwaves around the world, but also brought forth unprecedented expressions of solidarity.
Soon after the collapse, voices demanded the immediate rebuilding of the towers. But could a physical reconstruction be anything other than an attempt to deny the tragedy, and thus also to deny the loss of human life and that ferocious deed’s wakeup call for all humanity? It is through the Twin Towers’ continued presence, albeit invisible, that they can serve as pillars of light to illuminate the twenty-first century. For this to happen, humanity must learn to become attentive to the space between.
Piet Mondrian devoted the last twenty-five years of his artistic life in New York City to pursuing the physical and spiritual aspect of the horizontal and vertical line. But it was by eventually introducing the double line in his paintings that he gave expression to the invisible space between two horizontals or two verticals. Mysterious is the threshold, that space or void that exists between I and you, or me and myself, between the numbers 1 and 1 in the number 11, or in the equals-sign. Mysterious is the invisible presence that weaves and lives in the in-between. In a letter, it can hide between the lines. In search of understanding, of comprehension and enlightenment, we narrow our concentration to the point between our two eyes. But how often is the in-between-time in our lives unrecognized and wasted, because of its invisible, or for that matter inaudible, and therefore unclaimed, potential? In the short biographies of the World Trade Center victims, published daily in the New York Times for an entire year, it was striking to read about how many of the victims’ wives were pregnant at the time. What may have taken place in the meeting between the dead and the unborn? There are so many in-between-spaces in life and in the soul that we have yet to become conscious of.
A Body of Many Selves
Architecture is bodybuilding. Buildings are physical bodies that are not only to be inhabited, but also ensouled. There were many who did not consider the Twin Towers beautiful, and perhaps they were not. Their physical bodies stood straight and tall, unadorned, two simple right-angle towers, parallel lines meeting in the infinite. In building two towers, the architect displaced the whole symbolic meaning of the skyscraper onto the space between them, which grew as large as the sky when they came down. The architect gave us this picture: Where two are standing apart together, light and heaven can appear between them. He gave us that mysterious something, or someone, invisibly embodied in the in-between.
A reporter wrote about a firefighter who survived the tragedy and sent a memo to his supervisor a few days later. The reporter explained that “In essence it was a letter from Mr. McMahon to himself, trying to figure out what happened to him that day,” and who it was that stood between life and death. The survivor’s words are simple and unadorned: “While I was facing this wall, I turned my head slightly to the left, because I saw two lights that were too big to be flashlights. Although I thought I was losing my battle to breathe, I was comforted by the lights, which gave me a sense of peace. We joined hands, walking towards the lights. The more we walked, the lighter it became, until finally I saw images of cars and people.” But as he emerged from the cloud of ash, he looked around and realized that he was not holding anyone’s hand. He was alone. He has no idea what happened to the other people, if there were other people. He has no idea what the lights were, and no idea as to how he found his way out of the debris. “I don’t know what that was that day. I don’t know how to explain it. Somebody got me out.” Someone appeared in the narrow space between life and death.
We were given a picture of the Twins when the architect built two identical towers. Anthropomorphism is irresistible when contemplating such pairs. We find the twins in our own physical body, in the ways our hands and feet, for example, reflect each other. Castor and Pollux is the constellation of the Twins in the sky. One sacrificed himself for the other, so both were immortalized among heaven’s constellations. In fairy tales we find the image of the twin, the heavenly or golden brother who stays behind, later to rescue his earthly brother.
“The World Trade Center, it has become a noble monument of the past. When the biggest thing in a city that prizes bigness becomes the most fragile thing, and the void has more weight than the solid, the rules of city-building change.” [Paul Goldberger, The New York Times, 9/24/01] Looking into the void is what people in the city had to do over and over again. Where was the body of the loved one? Where was the solid, physical structure? How could it be brought back from its now invisible existence, from the void into solidity?
Humanity’s biblical journey is our passage from the Garden to the City. The city humanity is ultimately destined to inhabit is to be built not from the ground up, but downward, from above, and it is humanity that is to build the New Jerusalem. For this we will need, courageously and continually, to look into the void, until we begin to see the invisible, hear the inaudible.
To feel and endure the weight of the void, left by the loss of the solid, and not to turn away, until we begin to see and to hear—is that what humanity needs to learn in the twenty-first century? In the void, not in the world of dead matter, is where we begin to build the City of Peace, first from above and then from below. It will be built not with the tools of technology, but with the substance of life, emanating from wounds healed by time. In the foundations of this city will be inscribed the names of the twelve tribes, now reflected in the sky by the twelve signs of the zodiac—the circle of life—representing all humanity, its individuals of different nations, beliefs, races, and social backgrounds.
A year later, on September 11th, 2002, cleared of the last debris, Ground Zero lay open to the sky for a day of remembrance. A windswept day turned the void into a dustbowl: Ash to ash and dust to dust. Each of the two-thousand-eight-hundred-and-one names was read aloud, torn from the mouth of the speaker, carried off by the wind, together forming a pollen cloud, blown away to propagate elsewhere, in the City of Peace, perhaps.
Gisela Wielki is the Director of the Christian Community Seminary in Spring Valley, NY. She lives in Manhattan and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks to Michael Ronall for good suggestions and superb editing.