By Paul Burkhart
In 1943, the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre wrote his remarkable book Being and Nothingness. Even though he was not a Christian (or religious at all), he had a profound clarity on the ways human beings experience life in this world. According to Sartre, humans miss out on who they are in their very essence because they so often confuse their lived-out identities with who they are: parent, spouse, CEO, student, victim, even Christian. These roles we play and live actually alienate us further and further from our deepest, truest selves that exist above and before all the identities we pile on. In other words, there is a space, a chasm, of nothingness that stands between our existence and our identities. As Sartre says, we spend so much energy trying to be what we actually are not.
So where does life, wholeness, or (as Sartre calls it) “fulfillment” come from? For Sartre, us, Isaiah, and Advent, the answer is the same: the nothingness, the darkness.
You see, although the Nothingness and Darkness are indeed painful and something to lament, it is also what makes us human. It is fundamentally what separates us from every other creature out there. For all other animals, there is no separation between who they are and what they do. They just are. But for humans, this space between our deepest existence and our everyday life is the little bit of space that allows us to truly see ourselves.
Sartre calls this “the look.” You can’t observe yourself when you’re consumed in your roles, the busyness of life, and all the masks you wear. You can’t see God’s light cresting on the horizon of your soul unless you sit in the Darkness, the Nothingness that exists between who you truly are and who you try to be. Further, as Sartre tells it, we also receive “the look” from others. When we see another human possess us in their gaze, it births a new consciousness in us that we exist in a unique and profound way. This is what community does, yes, but it happens all the more when the gaze comes from our Creator.
Sartre’s book ends with a profound sense of loss and sadness. He concludes that our lives are spent trying to possess our truest selves, but it’s not possible. There will always be some level of alienation and anxiety in our lives. The only encouragement he can offer is that this Nothingness, this separation, allows us to be free from all social and personal responsibilities; a sense of freedom without obligation to others is the best we can hope for in this alienated life.
But the Gospel and Advent tell a different story. We can never fully take hold of our truest selves, but we can take hold of and be taken hold of by the God who knows our deepest soul. When we find ourselves in this heart and love of our God-Among-Us, personal freedom is no longer and end we seek, but a means by which we love others and know God.
God brings Light alongside the Darkness, and in it we become ourselves in the deepest and truest way. Light and Dark exist in the same world, and in the same souls. All we can do is find ourselves in the Nothingness, in the Gaze of our Beloved God.
This Advent, we meditate on a God who descended to the Darkness, the Nothingness, so that dawn might break in our lives and the world, and he could shine his glory upon us and invite us to arise into the light of his love. So embrace the tension of the luminous darkness in the world and our souls, confident that the light of Christ will draw us all the more deeply into himself, our truest selves, and into the world itself.
This Advent Reflection is part of the Advent & Christmas Prayerbook which you can download here.