Going Beyond Ourselves

Transcendence, Courage and Honor in the Face of Life’s Challenges


We know transcendence. Love’s chemicals send us soaring. Under their spell, we wing above the humdrum and find enchantment in a world no different than it was before.

Put our lives in danger and we know transcendence, too, thanks to the autonomic nervous system going into overdrive. More chemicals. Pumped, we rise above our usual habits and meet the demand.

We also go beyond our immediate selves when a pivotal interview demands that we rise to the occasion. Or when team spirit, or a paycheck, or the promise of our name in lights force discipline. Or when we’ve had it up-to-here, but keep our anger in check.

Of course, transcendence is a simple matter when the chemicals that buoy or protect us flow. Nature has done its work. It’s accessible, too, when the reward of discipline or the punishment for its lack is obvious. Those who can’t get over inertia don’t catch the early bird opportunity and those who can’t find their moral compass make bad role models. However, each of us has been cleaned up, civilized, disciplined by culture doing its work. At least to some extent, we can get over ourselves, get over the way we are right now.

At first, heartbreak and defeat seem to separate us from our transcendent power. Surely, this precipitous drop in adrenalin and energy has its evolutionary value. The wounded animal’s instinct to wither or slink away from the light may have been its best resource in the natural world. But we’re not limited to nature’s ruthless solution of death or a slip into darkness, though the Scoreboard is harsh enough and the shock that accompanies defeat can be so immobilizing that we seem to be at the end of the road.

So, we can find ourselves defeated because life has dealt us chronic illness or unacceptable obsessions, or no fair share of what makes people attractive to one another, or unconscionable abuse, to name only a few of the miseries with which the human spirit is over-burdened, the human body brought to its knees.

Foul play, or the unforeseen implosion or deal breaker that always seems to go down in the unforgiving lights of the Scoreboard can also defeat us. We didn’t see it coming and then there it was — a wrecking ball to reputation, material comfort, stability and hope.

It goes without saying that there may be wounds to nurse and serious amends to make after a fall, but the fight is far, far from over. There is life after blows to the ego, after humiliation, after divorce, after losing a job, after economic conditions reduce our net worth to a fraction of what it was.

What distinguishes us from other animals is our subjective capacity to transcend, rise above or get over this unexamined visceral immediacy in favor of practices that we might recognize as rational, decent, noble, meaningful or civilized.

At first, these transcendent practices were not prompted by substance or intellectual conviction, but forced on us, trained by parents and teachers to overcome common natural traits that aren’t socially acceptable. (Though sometimes not trained enough.) Fear of punishment or the promise that we’ll be given good stuff is usually what drives our early learning, and in fact we may still be at the effect of this stimulus/response version of authority. But we all wish we had more self-control and self-determination in certain situations. When we let inertia or habits or anxiety keep us from being who we want to be, we may feel as if we are our own worst enemy.

But when we are in trouble, transcendence is the first step out of the mess we find ourselves in. It gets our head on straight, so to speak, or renews our subjective bearings, so we can summon the energy to begin anew.

The transcendence that I speak of is here and now and not an otherworldly transcendence nor an escape from the peopled world. By exceeding the programmed limitations of immediacy, transcendence creates new in-the-world possibilities. For reflection. For decision. For hope and for choice. This new range of possibility inspires the development of the strength, backbone and heart that give dimension and heft to authenticity and personal authority.

Certainly we enjoy a much more personally rewarding life when we’ve taken responsibility for and can transcend the brute fact of immediacy. And certainly, the manner in which we articulate, frame and address our problems has a good deal to do with whether or not we solve them.

It has a great deal to do with intelligently determining the authority by which we live, and then living by it, despite the relentless provocations of our own temperament, media hype and a world often cruel, unjust and disappointing. This requires enormous dedication, initiative, and the ability to self-inspire. It enables us to live with ourselves and to get on with the life we choose.

But if we don’t make it our business to bring transcendence into play and acquire the powerful substance that gives heft to the means and tactics, our intention to live a decent life that matters, will never have the impact or reward we want it to have.

Said another way, to generate and to bring the force of the transcendent will to our immediately realized presence is the highest order of our authority, our autonomy, our humanity. This commitment to performative excellence, that is, activism in service of how life ought to be, is our moral personage.

And isn’t the demand for transcendence always present? We need it as a resource when we are caught in poignant struggles with the highs and lows of love, with passion and with chemistry gone flat. And we need it when we are caught in appalling struggles that have left us absolutely winded and undone. In the effort to overcome, to transcend the hopelessness, the exhausted spirit is kindled, brightened, renewed.

Still, transcendence can sound more poetic and lofty than the bedrock of character and mental strength that it actually is. But, in fact, transcendence is the self-commanding action that we take when we overcome our own anger, outrage or resistance or that initial disturbance stimulated by the external antagonism and pettiness we encounter.

The beginnings of transcendence are humble, grounded, simple, the very first steps in humankind’s efforts to emerge from its brute and barbarian roots into the paradigm and sensitivities it sets for itself. You remember the drill. Commanded to shape up, behave, stop this or don’t do that, we follow the instruction because we’ll be reprimanded if we don’t or maybe praised if we do.

But then, such possibility, such transcendence, begins to make sense. Yes, sure, life can be very tough, it’s never fair and no matter what, we’ll win some and lose plenty. Yet, what else can we do than live it right up until the end, with the most muscle, the most grace and the most resource we can summon.

I’ve been teaching classes on autonomy and life for over 30 years. These classes offer a unique and powerful governing philosophy for practical living. They stand firmly on America’s promise of freedom, justice and equality and the opportunity to a life of our own design. More information is available on my website: autonomyandlife.com.

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