The mature person realizes that life affirms itself most, not in acquiring things, but in giving time, efforts, strength, intelligence, and love to others. Here a different kind of dialectic of life and death begins to appear. The living drive, the vital satisfaction, by “ending” its trend to self-satisfaction and redirecting itself to and for others, transcends itself. It “dies” insofar as the ego is concerned, for the self is deprived of the immediate satisfactions which it could claim without being contested. Now it renounces these things, in order to give to others. Hence, life “dies” to itself in order to give itself away and thus affirms itself more maturely, more fruitfully, and more completely. We live in order to die to ourselves and give everything to others. …This “dying” to self in order to give to others is nothing more or less than a higher and more special affirmation of life. Such dying is the fruit of life, the evidence of mature and productive living. It is, in fact, the end or the goal of life.
— Thomas Merton – Love and Living (p. 102.)
(image source: http://www.newcastle.anglican.org)
There is in us an instinct for newness, for renewal, for a liberation of creative power. We seek to awaken in ourselves a force which really changes our lives from within. And yet the same instinct tells us that this change is a recovery of that which is deepest, most original, most personal in ourselves. To be born again is not to become somebody else, but to become ourselves.
— Thomas Merton – Love and Living (Christian Humanism)
We live in a society whose whole policy is to excite every nerve in the human body and keep it at the highest pitch of artificial tension, to strain every human desire to the limit and to create as many new desires and synthetic passions as possible, in order to cater to them with the products of our factories and printing presses and movie studios and all the rest.
And yet it is still just as naïve to suppose that members of the same human species, without having changed anything but their minds, should suddenly turn around and produce a perfect society, when they have never been able, in the past, to produce anything but imperfection and, at best, the barest shadow of justice.
I had at last become a true child of the modern world, completely tangled up in petty and useless concerns with myself, and almost incapable of even considering or understand anything that was really important to my own true interests.
What a strange thing! In filling myself, I had emptied myself. In grasping things, I had lost everything. In devouring pleasures and joys, I had found distress and anguish and fear.
— Thomas Merton – Several Quotes from “The Seven Storey Mountain
Only when we see ourselves in our true human context, as members of a race which is intended to be one organism and “one body,” will we begin to understand the positive importance not only of the successes but of the failures and accidents in our lives. My successes are not my own. The way to them was prepared by others. The fruit of my labours is not my own: for I am preparing the way for the achievements of another. Nor are my failures my own. They may spring from failure of another, but they are also compensated for by another’s achievement. Therefore the meaning of my life is not to be looked for merely in the sum total of my own achievements. It is seen only in the complete integration of my achievements and failures with the achievements and failures of my own generation, and society, and time.
— Thomas Merton – No Man is an Island
The heresy of individualism: thinking oneself a completely self-sufficient unit and asserting this imaginary ‘unity’ against all others. The affirmation of the self as simply ‘not the other.’ But when you seek to affirm your unity by denying that you have anything to do with anyone else, by negating everyone else in the universe until you come down to you: what is there left to affirm? Even if there were something to affirm, you would have no breath left with which to affirm it.
The true way is just the opposite: the more I am able to affirm others, to say ‘yes’ to them in myself, by discovering them in myself and myself in them, the more real I am. I am fully real if my own heart says yes to everyone.
— Thomas Merton – Essential Writings
Compassion teaches me that my brother an I are one. That if I love my brother, then my love benefits my own life as well, and if I hate my brother and seek to destroy him, I seek to destroy myself also. The desire to kill is like the desire to attack another with an ingot of red hot iron: I have to pick up the incandescent metal and burn my own hand while burning the other. Hate itself is the seed of death in my own heart, while it seeks the death of the other. Love is the seed of life in my own heart when it seeks the good of the other…
Violence rests on the assumption that the enemy and I are entirely different: the enemy is evil and I am good. The enemy must be destroyed but I must be saved. But love sees things differently. It sees that even the enemy suffers from the same sorrows and limitations that I do. That we both have the same hopes, the same needs, the same aspiration for a peaceful and harmless human life. And that death is the same for both of us. Then love may perhaps show me that my brother is not really my enemy and that war is both his enemy and mine. War is our enemy. Then peace becomes possible.
— Thomas Merton – “Honorable Reader”: Reflections on My Work (p. 123)
Let’s see how I can put it in a few words… An attempt to make people realize that life can have an interior dimension of depth and awareness which is systematically blocked by our habitual way of life, all concentrated on externals. The poverty of a life fragmented and dispersed in “things” and built on a superficial idea of the self and its relation to what is outside and around it. Importance of freedom from the routines and illusions which keep us subject to things, dependent on what is outside us. The need to open up an inner freedom and vision, which is found in relatedness to something in us which we don’t really know. This is not just the psychological unconscious. It is much more than that. Tillich called it the ground of our being. Traditionally it is called “God”, but images and ideas of the deity do not comprehend it. What is it?…
The real inner life and freedom of man begin when this inner dimension opens up and man lives in communion with the unknown within him. On the basis of this he can also be in communion with the same unknown in others… Possibly our society will be wrecked because it is completely taken up with externals and has no grasp on this inner dimension of life.
— Thomas Merton – Letter to John Hunt, December 18, 1966, (from Witness to Freedom 329-30)