“The action of the creative individual may be described as a twofold motion of withdrawal-and-return: withdrawal for the purpose of his personal enlightenment, return for the task of enlightening his fellow men” (Arnold J. Toynbee).
ENLIGHTENMENT, AS TOYNBEE SUGGESTED, MAY BE THOUGHT OF IN TWO DIRECTIONS: RECEIVING AND GIVING. It’s a delightful experience when we receive enlightenment, but this rarely happens without the help of someone else. So it shouldn’t surprise us when the process goes in reverse and others report that we have enlightened them. Enlightenment is a two-way street.
But what exactly is enlightenment? The concept is important in Eastern philosophy, of course, but that lies outside the scope of our discussion here. For our purpose, let’s just say that enlightenment is growth in our understanding. Light is a universal metaphor for knowledge. If someone said, “I finally saw the light,” or “It suddenly dawned on me,” everybody would know what he meant. To “see the light” on some subject is to recognize the truth about it. And I would suggest that true enlightenment involves not just knowledge but also wisdom. It’s not enough to know the right answer to a question — we also need the wisdom to know what to do with it.
But returning to enlightenment as a two-way street, we are at our best when we pursue knowledge and wisdom for the purpose of serving those around us. Even when we’re seeking our own enlightenment, that shouldn’t be a selfish pursuit. We should want greater understanding because it will help us to better serve the needs of others.
As we all know, enlightenment carries with it the danger of pride. When we see a subject even a little more clearly than someone else, it is easy to begin thinking in condescending ways. But pride is the most hellish thing in the world, and if it is not destroyed, it will kill us.
Honorably pursued and carefully governed, however, enlightenment is a prize. All of the worst things in our lives are the result of either ignorance or untruth. Three thousand years ago, King Solomon was not wasting words when he said, “Wisdom is supreme; therefore get wisdom. Though it cost all you have, get understanding.”
“So irresistible is the transformative power of enlightenment that your life seems to be shifted into a new dimension, opened to new and unsuspected possibilities” (Eugen Herrigel).