Being receptive

Josef Pieper’s Leisure: The Basis of Culture is a book of essays on our culture’s love of labor for labor’s sake:

The concept of intellectual work may be traced back and explored in terms of various historical sources. It implies, in the first place, a very definite view of the mode and manner of man’s intellectual knowledge. What happens when we look at a rose? What do we do as we become aware of color and form? Our soul is passive and receptive. We are, to be sure, awake and active, but our attention is not strained; we simply “look”—in so far, that is, as we “contemplate” it and are not already “observing” it (for “observing” implies that we are beginning to count, to measure and to weigh up).

Observation is a tense activity; which is what Ernst Jünger meant when he called seeing an “act of aggression”. To contemplate, on the other hand, to “look” in this sense, means to open one’s eyes receptively to whatever offers itself to one’s vision, and the things seen enter into us, so to speak, without calling for any effort or strain on our part to possess them. There can hardly be any doubt that that, or something like it, is the way we become sensorially aware of a thing.

In approaching Ernst Jünger’s seeing as “act of aggression,” we can understand why the child and childhood is so wonderful, because it’s the time when burdens recede, or before they impose, to allow the mind to work without laboring. To be human, to wonder. This is true both for the child and for the adults who love her.

We want to become aware of a thing without feeling the need to possess it. This idea cuts to the core of the Christian notion of temptation, and Alan Watts’s addresses this “appreciation v. possession” dynamic in The Wisdom of Insecurity, that unhappiness draws its power from our futile attempts to possess that which is fleeting.

Being receptive seems to be about appreciating the things that are unfolding in front of you, and appreciating those things as they are—without running ahead intellectually to ask what use you can put them, or how to turn them to your advantage or purposes.