The Missing Piece

The Missing Piece

I've been reading Todd McGowan's Emancipation After Hegel for the last couple months, as part of a course Peter Rollins put together. By reading I mean struggling through understanding, but I do feel like I'm finally beginning to wrap my brain around the ideas in it, and in Hegel's philosophy project. This idea that contradiction or lack is at the core of being.

The basic idea is that we feel like we're missing something, we're not whole. If only some things changed, we'd find that wholeness. We think that lack is caused by something, like if we had more money, or a partner, or if we looked different, or if our political causes were realized, or if we sinned less, or if we prayed more, and on and on it goes. If we could just “get there,” then we'd reach our dreams. Now, that's a pretty common trope that's been undone countless times, but what usually replaces it is either some kind of Absolute (like God) is the only thing that can fill that lack, or you're already whole, you just can't see it yet. And the work is to either connect with that Absolute (or look forward to it after you die), or to work at piercing the veil that blurs our vision of our current wholeness.

What the work of these thinkers, Hegel, McGowan, Rollins, etc., aims to show is that the lack, that missing piece, is a core part of being itself. The proofs behind it hold water, but I'm not really interested in making the case for it, I'm more interested in exploring what happens next. The work becomes reconciling ourselves to that lack, to that contradiction. Understanding that who I am also includes who I am not. I will never be whole, because as soon as I am, I cease to be myself.

That's one thing, but the more important work is understanding that no one is whole. It's one thing to accept that I'm lacking, but still fantasize some big Other that is undivided, whether it's God, guru, government, or good idea. The real work is realizing that there is no unlacking big Other. Christianity actually captures this idea pretty well, with the idea of a God that empties itself out into the lowliest human form and dies. The Absolute encounters the lack. You can explore this in many, many interesting ways (and maybe I will in future posts), but the point is that at the bottom of the rabbit hole is a contradiction. Every time.

Realizing this is at first extremely unsettling, then freeing, then sobering. Unsettling because you feel very alone, adrift without an anchor. Then freeing because it's a wide-open ocean, and there's no Absolute, undivided authority bearing over you. But ultimately it's sobering, because now responsibility is on us. I don't have an undivided authority to appeal to, and I can't place blame on others for not lining up with [my] Absolute. The work is up to us.

Which brings me to The Missing Piece by Shel Silverstein. This captures the journey beautifully. It starts with the main character missing a piece, and unhappy about it. It thinks that once it finds its piece, it will be whole and happy. Then it finally finds what its looking for, but as soon as it becomes “whole” it ceases to be itself. So it lets go of the piece and ends up exactly where it started, but now it has become reconciled to its lack. The lack is what allowed it to speak to worms, smell flowers, have adventures, and hold butterflies. It doesn't escape from the lack into happiness, it finds happiness in the lack itself.

Such is our work, too.

Peace and tenacity,


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