The nightwatchman is on the lookout for the intruder. He is instructed to be vigilant. He has learned by rote the common routes, and he has devised certain stratagems for staying awake, for being alert.
But the danger always comes by surprise whenever and wherever he was not looking. He was looking but not for this. Was on the lookout but for something else. Luckily, this time it turned out to be nothing. He is advised in future, lest he lose his post, to be more vigilant. He braces himself to do so, slapping cold water on his face.
We are all told to be nightwatchmen of our lives and thus set ourselves up to be duped. After the gate is breached unbeknownst to us, we instruct ourselves to be more vigilant, less incautious. Yet could it be that we will never be vigilant enough, the surprise always coming out beyond or beneath the lookout, and would we not be wiser if we learned to take notice of this, got good at responding timely, nimbly, and gracefully to whatever has slipped past our initial notice? I am turning the whole thing around. The key is not foresight or resilience, not overfamiliarization, but perceptive, clear-thinking responsiveness.
Let us begin with Henri Nouwen’s careful reflections on the mutual dependency of discipline and discipleship. Discipleship, he writes,
calls for discipline. Indeed, discipleship and discipline share the same linguistic root (from discere, which means “to learn from”), and the two should never be separated. Whereas discipline without discipleship leads to rigid formalism, discipleship without discipline ends in sentimental romanticism. (Spiritual Formation: Following the Movements of the Spirit 18)
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Compare a couple of the playwright David Mamet’s reflections on drama (the full text is available here) with my own thoughts about the genre of philosophical inquiry. (To read an excerpt from my book, The Art of Inquiry, go here):
Mamet: We know any drama ends when we find the answer to the question which gave rise to it. When we discover the answer simultaneously with the hero, the dramatist has done a very good job indeed.
Me: [Philosophical] Inquiry does not leave us forever in a state of ignorance; it also allows us to arrive at greater mutual understanding. This clarity could be likened to finally saying what is on the tip of our tongues, with the caveat that this something be novel. There is something we want to say but do not know yet; there is somewhere we want to head but this somewhere remains elusive; there is something missing we want to find but the discovery has, as of yet, remain hidden. The conclusion to an inquiry, accordingly, is like poetic naming: a new destination, a novel discovery, a long-sought-after homeland. ‘This,’ we say, ‘is it.’
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