It should come as no surprise that by nature I am more inclined toward the life of intellectual study and activity, the vita contemplativa, rather than the vita activa, the life of action. I’d like to think that if I wasn’t so feared and reviled for being gay while a teenager I’d have a more active life, a more social existence that would have grown as time went on, but I know that isn’t the truth. I am one who believes in fate as much as free will, believing that the drama of our lives, all our acts and how we will exit stage left or right, is already ingrained in us at birth. For all my wishing that it could be otherwise, the life of the intellect and the scholar, the poet and the philosopher, that I have lived for over twenty years now is who I am; I know no other identity and have no real desire to forge another. I need not stand before a group of students of any age and teach them what I believe is the truth. I have been given the mind to think, the heart to feel, and the creative and scholarly writing talent to convey my thoughts and emotions to others. For far too long God, or whatever you wish to name it, has been trying to get me to see that I do not have to educate others within the confines of four walls. I can educate a greater number of people through my poetry and essays, through using my talent as a writer. As much as I may like to say I have chosen this path, this path is my fate. And writing is my path of action, branching off from my life of contemplation.
Aristotle believed that the life of contemplation was the highest moral activity, and that achieving happiness is the goal of each individual life. In religious terms the life of contemplation in its way becomes the life of devotion, and often extends out into the life of action. Priests and nuns, for example, engage in an intimate personal relationship with God through prayer and reflection that equates with the life of contemplation in the form of loving devotion to and worship of God. And what is more, part of their calling usually consists of going out to the less fortunate, helping those who have nothing, who need the support and comfort they cannot find elsewhere. The Buddha taught the way of compassion, while Krishna professed detachment from the fruits of one’s actions, and both called for a deeper understanding of the nature of desire and the impact that being seduced by the transient character of all things, including the flesh and desire, has on our thoughts, emotions, and actions. Jesus literalized the self-sacrifice he called on each human being to enact in less drastic and dramatic terms. Muhammad strove for the unity of the community of people who flocked to him for guidance as grounded in his belief in the unity and oneness of God.
For the ancient Greeks the philosophical life was the pinnacle of human endeavor, believing that through a greater knowledge of all things each individual and polis could achieve a state of happiness and harmony, of progress toward the greatest good, through practical application of that knowledge to the world in which they lived. Krishna and the Buddha, Jesus and Muhammad, believed that in order for peace to ripple out across the globe one must begin within, with the constant internal struggle, or jihad, toward a fragile balance of one’s state of being and then going out into the wilderness of the world and instructing others in the path to peace and harmony, compassion and cooperation, forgiveness and acceptance, that they all in one form or another preached and practiced.
In the simplest terms, the life of action they taught and exemplified has its foundation in the life of contemplation and self-surrender. It is rooted in recognizing the bear trap into which the ego and futile, impermanent desires lead, and that in order to inaugurate a lasting brotherhood or kingdom of heaven on earth one must do so by first building it within, by waging war with the ego, illusion that it is, and all the craving and striving for material wealth and power that is merely temporary and leads to suffering for oneself and others in the end. By caring not about the material or ego-boosting fruits of an action, by grasping the unity and oneness at the heart of the human race’s myriad physical and cultural differences, and performing deeds of compassion and cooperation that reduce and eliminate the self one is blazing a path of action in which one’s devotion to God is expressed and consecrated in the act of doing for others, of putting others before oneself.
The life of contemplation has its value and is certainly necessary, but there is only so much that can be learned in an ivory tower, and knowledge and an understanding of the true nature of the self is ultimately worthless if one does not share it and live it. It is sacrifice, not suffering, that leads to wisdom. And it is action done for the sake of others, not for oneself, that leads to a better world, one of peace and harmony long dreamed of by many and still fighting to materialize.