The Opposite of Autonomy

This morning, a topic of Sunday brunch conversation concerned determining the opposite of such words as “autonomy” and “abandonment.” My friend and I wanted equally precise and forceful words that denote the antidotes to these terms without these being too vague or all-encompassing.

In considering this, I came upon not a word, but a paragraph that I do consider to quite aptly describe the opposite of autonomy. And since it took an entire piece for Marina Keegan to beautifully explore “the opposite of loneliness“, we can certainly afford to take a look at this paragraph from Paul Quenon’s book, In Praise of the Useless Life: A Monk’s Memoir.

This is a book I read a few years ago that I find myself recommending to more and more friends often these days.

It is in the epilogue, where the author is describing what he has found monastery life to be, that I consider somewhat of an exposition of the opposite of autonomy:

There is nothing here to possess and claim because you wanted it. I am here only as somebody was wanted, subtly and ineffably loved without my knowing how. This love dwells in and through my daily round of words and readings, rites, work, comings and goings, small courtesies, and petty complaints. In the midst of it, there is something bigger. People are crucial–with no exceptions–each person someone contains the totality, but the totality is no one particular person. Nor is that the whole assembly of persons–monks old and new, departed and living, visitors, strangers, friends, workers, helpers. This complex hive with its steady, quiet buzz is not the totality, yet each one is more than just a particle of it. Each apparent particle is what it is, somehow, as a virtual immanence of the totality.

I have been brought into something larger than myself, larger than anything I could have wanted with my desires, likes, and dislikes, my ideals, dreams–with my choices, renunciations, world denials, asceticism, and restraints–all are insufficient to contain and corner it. This hundredfold, this windfall, demands a heart larger than my own, and my own heart is enhanced by it and grows larger, fitted for what is more. I might live to be one hundred and none of this will be finished.

Autonomy means (trying) to be a law unto oneself. The opposite of autonomy is to be under the law of love.

Photo: With a Coptic Orthodox monk at St. Anthony’s Desert Monastery in Egypt in January 2020

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