Feb 22, 2008
Antoine de Saint Exupéry: “No single event can awaken within us a stranger whose existence we had never suspected.”
“No single event can awaken within us a stranger whose existence we had never suspected. To live is to be slowly born.”
– Antoine de Saint Exupéry (1900-1944).
Antoine de Saint Exupéry was a famous French aviator and writer who most notably wrote the children’s fable, The Little Prince and who died when his plane crashed in the Mediterranean while on an Allied surveillance mission over France. His writings are deeply philosophical, poetic, and charming.
Interestingly, this quotation from his memoir, Pilote de Guerre (“Flight to Arras”), more often appears in English-language websites (and even in several books of quotations) in a mangled form: “A single event can awaken within us a stranger whose existence we had never suspected”* rather than “No single event can awaken within us a stranger whose existence we had never suspected.”
The misquotation thus reverses the meaning of Saint Exupéry’s original statement, but still manages on the face of it to be true. (At my more cynical moments I wonder whether perhaps the secret of being deeply poetic and philosophical is to make statements that, when reversed, are still meaningful).
Let’s look at that reversal: “A single event can awaken within us a stranger whose existence we had never suspected.”
The experience that’s known as “conversion” or “awakening” or “spiritual rebirth” or “realization” or “the arising of insight” can certainly be imagined as a single event, and in such events we find that a new being has manifested within us. We have changed, suddenly, and sometimes irrevocably. We see a new aspect of ourselves. Our being has become reoriented around a new insight, a new meaning. The purpose of our life has changed. We have new values, new priorities. We have changed so radically that there has awoken within us a stranger whose existence was previously unsuspected. Hence the mangled statement appears to be true.
But Saint Exupéry’s point in saying “no single event can awaken within us a stranger whose existence we had never suspected” was not that sudden changes do not occur. In the passage following in his memoir he acknowledges in fact that this does happen: “Sometimes a sudden illumination seems indeed to propel a destiny in a new direction,” for example (Une illumination soudaine semble parfois faire bifurquer une destinée).
His point rather was that these “sudden illuminations” are not random events. They may appear to come from nowhere, but in fact they have their causes. They may appear to be single events but rather they are the culmination of an inextricably linked chain of events and causes. And what are those causes?
The answer lies in “To live is to be slowly born” (Vivre, c’est naître lentement). Living is the cause of awakening, or more precisely it is a certain kind of living that leads to awakening, or “sudden illumination.” It is living with mindfulness that leads to the creation of sudden illuminations and the revelation of new destinies.
When we live mindfully we do two things: we are more conscious in the moment of choice, and we open the channels of communication to a deeper level of wisdom of which we are not normally conscious while caught up in the fray of day-to-day living.
In living mindfully we are more conscious in the moment of choice. First we become more aware that there are actually choices to be made. Mindfulness creates, or perhaps better reveals, a gap between stimulus and response. In every moment we perceive sensations, thoughts, feelings, and emotions, and we habitually respond to these.
Perceiving in another person a neutral face or a frown when we expected a smile leads to a proliferation of thoughts and feelings. We start to wonder what we’ve done wrong, what kind of trouble we’re in. We perhaps start, depending on temperament, to plan how to get our retaliation in first or how best to placate the other person.
With mindfulness, however, we simply perceive the other person not smiling as expected, and we experience a feeling that’s not entirely pleasant. We notice that feeling and then we pause. Mindfulness creates a gap, and in that gap we realize there is a choice. We are aware of the habitual impulses described above, but we are also aware that we don’t have to act those habits out. We realize that we can call on other perspectives within which we can view the situation: we can wonder, perhaps, whether the other person is feeling all right. Lovingkindness has arisen. We can decide to ask them how they’re doing. Compassion has manifested.
In stepping out of the cycle of stimulus followed by mindless response, we have created a gap, and not only have we created a space in which we can choose how to respond, but we have created a gap through which the light of wisdom and compassion can shine, from within.
Sometimes, just sometimes, what shines forth through the gap is a complete surprise to us. We realize truths that we’d never before suspected. We see things in a new way. We discover that we are not who we thought we were. There is a stranger living within us, unsuspected, and little by little we are being united with him or her. The “Buddha within” is, moment by moment, choice by choice, action by action, becoming us. And in some of those moments there appears through the gap a great surge of wisdom and compassion, and we have become the stranger, or at least we have become a great deal more like the stranger, who lives within.
This is illumination. This is the arising of Insight. This is spiritual rebirth, or conversion. And “illumination “is but the sudden sighting, by the soul, of a path long under preparation” (Mais l’illumination n’est que la vision soudaine, par l’Esprit, d’une route longuement préparée). That path consists of moments of mindfulness, a myriad of single events, of tiny awakenings that lead to the birth of a new us.
[* Author's note: Actually, the translation into English, lifted direct from Lewis Galantiere's translation of Pilote de Guerre, is usually "No [or a] single event can awaken within us a stranger totally unknown to us” but I found this neither elegant nor entirely faithful to the original French, and so I retranslated the phrase as “No single event can awaken within us a stranger whose existence we had never suspected” (Aucune circonstance ne réveille en nous un étranger dont nous n’aurions rien soupçonné).]
Bodhipaksa is the founder of Wildmind. He muses, rants, and shares random aspects of his life on his blog at bodhipaksa.com