Antoine de Saint Exupéry: “No single event can awaken within us a stranger whose existence we had never suspected.”


Antoine de Saint Exupéry

A common misquotation of a saying by a famous French writer gives Bodhipaksa pause for thought: are both the misquotation and the original saying true, even if they’re saying opposite things?

“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 during World War II. 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).]
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5 Comments. Leave new

  • Lesley Fildes
    June 2, 2008 11:56 am

    Sometimes when you have been practicing say, The Metta Bhavana for years and wondering if you are changing, somethings happen and a new instinctive reaction occurs to show you it happens even though you have not been aware of it. A pollceman came to tell me my stolen car had been found and mentioned that two boys had taken and crashed it. He looked astounded at me when I reacted by saying immediately “were they hurt?” in shocked tones quite without thought – that demonstrated to me that ‘things’ were changing and my inner Buddha was emerging. Similar events happened after this gave me this wonderful feeling of growth.
    Regards, Lesley

  • Lovely to hear from you, Leslie!

    That’s a great story — all those repetitions of “May all beings be well” adding up over time and changing our attitudes.

  • Dear Sir/Madam,
    If you are telling a small background story about Antoine de Saint Exupery, you’re not doing a very good job.(no offense) You chose to mention his death, and rightly so because people are very interested in the birth and/or death of someone famous. What you wrote gives the impression that his plane “crashed” in the Mediterranean while on an allied surveillance mission and case closed. I’m a WWII historian and I know that many believe his P-38 was shot down by a german luftwaffe pilot in a ME-109 by the name of Horst Rippert.
    If you didn’t know or have the facts, you should’ve left it alone or listed him as disappeared, missing or unknown as a cause of death. I hope this doesn’t anger you, because that’s not my intention. It’s constructive criticism meant to educate. If you want more information, don’t hesitate.

    • Hi, Jeannie.

      May I reply in kind: If you’re intending to comment on my article, you’re not doing a very good job. No offense. For one thing you address your comment to “dear Sir/Madam,” suggesting that you couldn’t be bothered reading the author bio at the foot of the article, which indicates my name and sex.

      For another thing, I did not “give the impression” that Antoine de Saint Exupéry’s plane crashed in the Mediterranean. I stated that his plane crashed into the Mediterranean. Given that the remains of the plane were found in the sea off the coast of Marseille, it’s obvious his plane crashed. So I think my summary of his death is entirely accurate. What the cause of the crash was is of course unknown. In any case, whether many believe he was shot down by Rippert, or whether he was actually shot down by Rippert or some other enemy aircraft, or whether his plan suffered mechanical failure or pilot error is rather immaterial to the point of this article.

      I’m not sure what the “facts” are that you think I’m unaware of. I’m sure there are many since I’m no historian, but the only “fact” you mention is that “many believe” that Saint Exupéry was shot down by Rippert. Many also believe he was not. There are no facts there, only opinions.

      I hope this doesn’t anger you, because that’s not my intention. It’s constructive criticism meant to educate.

      All the best,

  • The difference between “no” and “a” is huge – “no” doesn’t make sense on a deeper level, where “a” cuts all the way through. Saying it with “no” sounds incredibly naive when held to philosophical constructs.


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