retread| Clarity 7 September 2007Posted by EDITOR in ABD, Philosophy, Psychology, Spirituality.
Retreads are quality posts from yesterweeks that are given a second run on Saturdays. This piece was originally posted by ABD on 2 Nov 2006, and has been revised.
Clarity doesn’t precede decisions, it proceeds from them. Someone heard or read this somewhere, and thought it insightful enough to pass on. I am reminded of it now as I stand at an impasse of my own.
Philosophy begins in wonder, Socrates said. The Greek term for this is aporia—a difficulty, perplexity or impossibility. The inability to move forward, to progress smoothly, compels one to investigate the matter at hand. I wonder, though, as I try to put my finger on the insight that began this post: how does the impasse bring clarity? Wasn’t the reason we stopped in the first place the inability to go on? Had we understood how to go or where to go, why would we have stopped?
To quote Socrates again: “Let us make a new beginning.” The argument has hit a dead end, we can go no further, and so we begin again onto a different track. Perhaps the impasse, the arrest, the stopping and wondering, brings clarity in some other way. The crisis is productive. It forces us to pay attention because we cannot continue as we were. The mule lurches to a stop at a fork or the edge of a cliff. We cannot go on because the way has changed.
Fair enough. But having stopped, how are we to continue? What will prod the mule in the haunches to resume its gait? Standing at the fork, how do we choose a path? Do we wait for the light to flood the night so that we can see the way before us? Or must we suffer the crossing in darkness, only then to apprehend the way that we ended up taking? To say, so that’s what I was doing!
On a seemingly unrelated note, I have heard two explanations of the salat al-istikharah, or prayer of guidance. The Prophet (on him be peace) is recorded to have said:
If any of you considers doing something, let him perform two units of prayer other than the obligatory prayer, and (then) say:
“O Allah! I ask guidance from Your knowledge, and Power from Your Might and I ask for Your great blessings. You are capable and I am not. You know and I do not and You know the unseen. O Allah! If You know that this thing is good for my religion and my subsistence and the end of my affairs, then ordain it for me and make it easy for me, and bless me in it. And if You know that this thing is harmful to me in my religion and subsistence and in the end of my affairs, then remove it from me and remove me from it. And ordain for me (instead) whatever is good for me, wherever it may be, and make me satisfied with it.”‘
On one understanding, the point of the prayer is to seek guidance before the act of decision. Faced with a difficult decision, we seek an answer from God. Unable to decide, we ask God to decide for us. But then the difficulty is: how do we know what God decided? What form does the answer take? Is it a response? An intuition? A feeling?
On a different understanding, the point of the prayer is to seek divine assistance after the act of decision. We simply pick a path (after the confidantes have been confided in and the hand wringing has been wrought) on our own and only then make this prayer in order to submit the wisdom of our choice to God’s judgment. Bring the matter to pass, Lord (if it is indeed in my interest), or abort it (if it is not). The divine is at hand, but in our moment of decision we remain alone.
Which takes us back to the beginning and returns us to the original question: does clarity precede a decision or proceed from it?