Love, Impermanence, Uncertainty, Fear: Which Wins?


I read this on another blog—an advice column blog called “Dear Sugar.”

This is the question that was asked:

Dear Sugar,

I’m 29 and dating a man that I adore; we’re planning to move in together soon. I have a stable job that I hate, but I hope that I’ll one day find something I enjoy. I have family and friends and hobbies and interests and love. So much love. And I’m desperately afraid that I’m going to have cancer.

I’m terrified that sooner or later, I’ll be diagnosed. My mother had breast cancer when I was in college. She survived hers, but in some ways, she didn’t. It broke her, Sugar. My father died of liver cancer when I was in high school—he was never lucky enough to be counted “a survivor.” My grandmother had a brain tumor when I was a newborn; she didn’t live to see my first birthday. As much as I take care of my health, as much as I try to be careful, I have this niggling doubt that my genes are setting me up for failure.

I know you can’t tell me whether or not I will have cancer, and I know you can’t tell me when. But what I’m struggling with—what I need help figuring out—is how to make the decisions in my life while keeping this possibility in mind. You know the decisions I mean: The Big Ones.

How do I decide whether or not to get married? How do I look in to the face of this man I adore and explain to him what he might have to go through if I am diagnosed? And worse, if I don’t make it? I’ve already decided not to have children. How can I saddle a child with something that I don’t even think I can face myself? How do I plan for the future when there may be no future to plan for? They say “live your life to the fullest because there may be no tomorrow,” but what about the consequences of “no tomorrow” on the people that you love? How do I prepare them for what I might have to go through? How do I prepare myself?

Scared of the Future

.
And this is the answer I would have given:
.

Dear Scared of the Future,

Those questions you asked are REALLY good questions—or can be—if—ifyou don’t let them make you totally neurotic. Meaning, if you can achieve and maintain some precious *balance*—accept the wisdom and perspective and appreciation for life that these questions bring, but refuse the neuroticness and craziness and shrinking from life that they also tempt us with.

And it’s very a tough balance to find and maintain.

Most people don’t think too much about death, and so they tend to make decisions without much perspective, clarity, and or wisdom: they live and love as if life goes on forever—or if it’s at least supposed to go on for a very very long time into the future.

And living in this way invites people to live rather badly and superficially—to skim the surface, to take themselves and others for granted, to consume and shop and buy and spend, to live for themselves, to become greedy, to lust for power, prestige, status, et cetera. In short, to live in denial, and in a way where they are forced to limit and guard their awareness and what they will permit themselves to think about.  Only the safest and superficial things are permitted to be thought about and talked over.

And then if they’re lucky, they get some sort of wake-up call at midlife or soon thereafter—some sort of brush with death and their own mortality. And if that wake-up call actually wakes them up, then they live better, make changes, rethink their life, have a metanoia, live with more grace and appreciation and kindness and perspective. Death does that. Or at least it can.

But this is not your lot, SotF. Living in denial is not your predicament. You’ve been touched by death—by the death and near-death of those nearest and dearest to you. Losing your father in high school? Unbelievably tragic. Your mother’s battle with breast cancer while in college? That was strike three. The verdict: Life can’t be trusted; life is tenuous, fleeting at best; we are fragile, I must be next.

You are wrestling with some pretty profound questions and realizations, SotF. Questions that wise people have wrestled with and become wise for having had the courage to wrestle with—while not letting themselves lose their passion and wonder for life.

The Buddha said: “Life is suffering.” Sickness, old age, death: these things cannot be avoided. But most people try—try desperately, try to avoid these, try to avoid thinking about these dark shouters, these inevitables. It’s called self-preservation: and it’s hard-wired into our DNA; we’re riddled with it. Yet because of this—because of how avoidant most people are in terms of facing their own and other’s mortality—most people wind up impoverishing themselves, leading lives of quiet and not so quiet desperation. Leading lives where they try to distract and anesthetize themselves in a myriad of ways—addictions, relationships, sex, shopping, impulsivity and fanaticism of every kind, mindless reading, elaborate new age metaphysics and soft-minded mumbo-jumbo. And they live and love poorly, badly, superficially, because of it. Because they lack courage. Because they are afraid—and too afraid to face (and really *feel*) how afraid (and lost) they are. There are numerous ways in which we human beings check out from the full intensity of living and loving. There are numerous ways we humans have devised in order to try and avoid suffering and feel like we have some control over our fate and over death.

“There is a great deal of pain in life, and perhaps the only pain that can be avoided is the pain that comes from trying to avoid pain.” – R. D. Laing

“The more you try to avoid suffering, the more you suffer, because smaller and more insignificant things begin to torture you, in proportion to your fear of being hurt. The one who does most to avoid suffering is, in the end, the one who suffers most.” – Thomas Merton, “The Seven Storey Mountain”

But, again, this is not your lot, SotF. Your situation is different: How do you find (and maintain) balance between the lessons that having death over your left shoulder is teaching you (“carpe . . . carpe diem . . . seize the day, make your life extraordinary . . . !”), and not letting death and the uncertainty you feel in terms of your own remaining life-span make you totally skittish? How do you live and love well and fully amid all of this uncertainty and fear? For you, the question is not: How would I live if I knew I only had one year (or 5 years) to live? It is: Now that I know not to take anything and anyone for granted in life, what do I most want to experience, and who (if anyone) do I most want to experience that with? Who do I want to go through time with—whatever time I have left and he has left? How do I most want to spend myself and my time?

Death is certain; the time of death is not. This is true for us all. Maybe (perhaps even likely, I don’t know) because of the history of cancer in your family, the odds are a bit increased that your time may be up a bit sooner rather than later. But death wins and life loses if you go too far and swing to the opposite side of the equation—if in ways you don’t even realize you are shrinking from living and loving and refusing the gift.
.

How do I decide whether or not to get married?

If you love this man deeply, if knowing him has changed your life in ways you could not imagine and still cannot fully fathom for the better and vice versa, if knowing each other is bringing you both more alive, then you look him in the eyes and promise to love him with all that you are for as long as you can and then you go out and do this. Every day. That is the essence of carpe diem.

Read Schweitzer’s essay “Overcoming Death” in “Reverence for Life” (pp. 67-76), read chapter 14 (“Sex, Love, and Death”) in Schnarch’s book “Passionate Marriage,” read C. S. Lewis’s words in the chapter on “Charity” in “The Four Loves.” And watch “Shadowlands,” watch “The Notebook,” and if this is how you feel about your beloved, if this is who you are and who you aspire to be at your core, then marry him, give yourself fully to him, and LOVE him with all that you are and aspire to be.
.

How do I look in to the face of this man I adore and explain to him what he might have to go through if I am diagnosed? And worse, if I don’t make it?

If he loves you, if he truly loves you, he will consent to all of this; he will sign on for it. Love is not about sparing someone else inevitable pain or trying to shield them from the brute inevitable facts of life. Love is about facing reality bravely, courageously, with grit, resolve, kindness, compassion, depth, understanding, openness.

“There is no safe investment. To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket—safe, dark, motionless, airless—it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The only alternative to tragedy, or at least the risk of tragedy, is damnation. The only place outside of heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell.” ― C.S. Lewis, “The Four Loves”

.

I’ve already decided not to have children. How can I saddle a child with something that I don’t even think I can face myself?

Then death may have already won and claimed you. Consider that. Consider with what you are saying here whether death may not have already won. Consider that.
.

How do I plan for the future when there may be no future to plan for? They say “live your life to the fullest because there may be no tomorrow,” but what about the consequences of “no tomorrow” on the people that you love? How do I prepare them for what I might have to go through?

It’s not your job to prepare your spouse or to protect him from your death. Every person has to prepare themselves for their own death and for the death/loss of those they love. Every person has to do this for themselves. No one can do this work for anyone else in life. And having to do this work and prepare for one’s own death and for the deaths of those we love is a horrific thing to have to do; but the alternative—trying to avoid this and spare ourselves and others this—is even more horrific. It leads us to live superficially at best and badly at worst.
.

How do I prepare myself?

Be gentle with yourself, treat yourself kindly, and read (Pema Chödrön’s books would be a great place to start), think, write/journal, contemplate, talk, listen, love, live, walk, observe, participate, develop a spiritual practice, meditate, appreciate, be grateful, cry, weep, be open, smile, laugh, breath. Most of all breath. Be good to yourself, be kind to yourself, let yourself love and be loved—yes, this most of all—let yourself really love and be deeply loved.

Nothing is guaranteed. This is so difficult to accept, and like everyone else you are having difficulty accepting this, but you are approaching this from a much different starting point than most. But the crux is still the same: to accept that life does not offer guarantees, and thus to learn how to live and love on life’s terms, and not your own. Acceptance means surrendering some of the control you are so desperately craving; it means relinquishing this, easing up your grip on the proverbial wheel; it means learning to live and let live—it means to let yourself live and truly live.
.

.

***
.

And this is the answer that Sugar gave:
.

Dear Scared of the Future,

There’s a crazy lady living in your head. I hope you’ll be comforted to hear that you’re not alone. Most of us have an invisible inner terrible someone who says all sorts of nutty stuff that has no basis in truth.

Sometimes when I’m all pretzeled up inside and my own crazy lady is nattering on, I’ll stop and wonder where she got her information. I’ll ask her to reveal her source. I’ll demand some proof. Did her notions come from actual facts based in ration and reason or did she/I dredge them up from the hell pit that burns like a perpetual fire at the bottom of my needy, selfish, famished little soul?

Is there credible evidence that my friends secretly don’t like me very much or were they all simply deep in conversation when I walked into the room and it took them a beat to say hello? Was the acquaintance who said, with class sizes that big, I’d never send my son to public school, actually saying that I was a second-rate mother, recklessly destroying my children because there are thirty kids in their classes, or was she simply sharing her own complex parenting decisions with me? When I receive letters from people who disagree passionately with a particular piece of advice I’ve given in this column is it true that it would be absolutely impossible for every reader to agree with me on every point or that I’m a stupid piece of know-nothing shit who should never write again?

If you asked me to draw a picture of myself I’d draw two. One would be a portrait of a happy, self-confident, regular-looking woman and the other would be a close-up of a giant gaping mouth that’s ravenous for love. Many days I have to silently say to myself: It’s okay. You are loved. You are loved even if some people don’t love you. Even if some people hate you. You are okay even if sometimes you feel slighted by your friends or you sent your kids to school someplace that someone else would not send her kid or you wrote something that riled up a bunch of people.

I have to cut the crazy lady to the quick rather often. Over the years, my emotional well-being has depended on it. If I let her get the upper hand my life would be smaller, stupider, squatter, sadder.

So will yours if you let it, sweet pea.

You have my deepest sympathy and my most sincere understanding, but you’re not thinking clearly on this. You’re granting the crazy lady way too much power. Your sorrow and fear has clouded your ability to be reasonable about your mortality. And if you continue in this vein it’s going to rob you of the life you deserve—the one in which your invisible inner terrible someone finally shuts her trap.

You do not need to look into your lover’s eyes and “explain to him what he might have to go through” should you be diagnosed with cancer. Tell him about your family’s experiences with cancer and about how you made it through those difficult times. Share your fears with him, and your grief. But don’t make the illogical line from your relatives’ real illnesses to your nonexistent one. Only the crazy lady is pretty convinced you’ll get cancer and die young. All the rest of us are entirely in the dark. Yes, you need to be aware of your risks and monitor your health, but do so while remembering that in most cases a genetic history of any given disease is only one predictor of your own likelihood of getting it.

Any of us could die any day of any number of causes. Would you expect your partner to explain what you might have to go through should he die in a car accident, of heart failure, or by drowning? Those are things that could happen too. You are a mortal being like every human and June bug, like every black bear and salmon. We’re all going to die, but only some of us are going to die tomorrow or next year or in the next half century. And, by and large, we don’t know which of us it will be when and of what.

That mystery is not the curse of our existence; it’s the wonder. It’s what people are talking about when they talk about the circle of life that we’re all part of whether we sign up to be or not—the living, the dead, those being born right this moment, and the others who are fading out. Attempting to position yourself outside the circle isn’t going to save you from anything. It isn’t going to keep you from your grief or protect those you love from theirs when you’re gone. It isn’t going to extend your life or shorten it. Whatever the crazy lady whispered in your ear was wrong.

You’re here. So be here, dear one. You’re okay with us for now.

Yours,

Sugar

http://therumpus.net/2011/12/dear-sugar-the-rumpus-advice-column-92-your-invisible-inner-terrible-someone/

Advertisements

Practicing the Art of Losing: Are You a Good Sport in Life or Just Another Troubled Guest Darkening the Earth?


Death is not the greatest loss in life. The greatest loss is what dies inside us while we live.” – Norman Cousins

Have the courage to live. Anyone can die.” – Robert Cody

Yes: Have the courage to truly live and love; anyone can die and live a life that looks like a living death. 

Life is about loss. Loss—at least some losses in life—are inevitable. And most of us naturally try to live our lives in ways that minimize our losses and our potential for losing the things and people that are important to us. And in doing this, we try to create a sense of permanency, or, put another way, a sense of being in control. If we’re going to have to lose things, we’d much rather lose them on our terms than on life’s terms. We’d much rather have some sense of power, some say in when and how we lose something, rather than experience the complete and utter helplessness and vulnerability of having life simply take what we love away from us, and do so forcibly, and realizing how utterly powerless and helpless and small we are in the scheme of things. We don’t want to be stripped or violated by anyone or anything, including life itself. Yet this is just what life will surely do to each of us so long as we insist on trying to live and love on our own terms instead of life’s.

And so our natural reaction is to fight this, to try to hold on, cling to our desire to be in control, to hold on fiercely to some sense of power and say. And in doing so we run the risk of losing some of our humanity and, what’s worse, becoming inhumane and callous to others.

Loss in life is inevitable. But we’re not humble enough and honest enough to admit this and face this; we’re too afraid to put ourselves through getting acclimated viscerally to this truth. We don’t want to be wounded and scarred like this. Yet think about it: Live long enough and you’ll lose both your parents and all your grandparents, you’ll lose friends, family members, acquaintances. People die. You’ll also lose jobs and loves and friendships, perhaps through your own fault, or perhaps through no fault of your own. But because these losses happen sporadically—”into every life a little rain must fall“—because these losses happen infrequently enough, in between typically much longer stretches of not losing anyone or anything, that allows us plenty of wiggle room in playing our games of denial with ourselves and life. Life—by not defeating us more and more frequently and soundly, by not kicking our butts more and more often and severely—is making it too easy for us to indulge our neurosis (our avoidant tendencies) and play our little games of denial and self-deception and turning away with reality.

Hear the cry of the woman at the hour of giving birth, see the struggle of the dying in their last minutes and days, and then tell me whether that which begins and that which ends like this has been designed for pleasure.” – Kierkegaard

.

One Art” – Elizabeth Bishop

The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster,

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

I lost my mother’s watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three beloved houses went.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.

—Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) a disaster.

.

The Man Watching” – Rainer Maria Rilke (translated by Robert Bly)

I can tell by the way the trees beat, after
so many dull days, on my windowpanes
that a storm is coming,
and I hear the far-off fields say things
I can’t bear without a friend,
I can’t love without a sister

The storm, the shifter of shapes, drives on
across the woods and across time,
and the world looks as if it had no age;
the landscape, like a line in the psalm book,
is seriousness and weight and eternity.

What we choose to fight is so tiny!
What fights with us is so great!
If only we would let ourselves be dominated
as things do by some immense storm,
we too would become strong, and not need names.

When we win it’s with small things,
and the triumph itself makes us small.
What is extraordinary and eternal
does not want to be bent by us.
I mean the Angel who appeared
to the wrestlers of the Old Testament:
when the wrestler’s sinews
grew long like metal strings,
he felt them under his fingers
like chords of deep music.

Whoever was beaten by this Angel
(who often simply declined the fight)
went away proud and strengthened
and great from that harsh hand
that kneaded him as if to change his shape.
Winning does not tempt that man.
This is how he grows: by being defeated, decisively,
by constantly greater beings.

Life is about loss. About being defeated more and more decisively. This is the source of our humility–it’s what keeps our ego in check.  If we are not being defeated regularly by life–by wrestling with what is extraordinary and eternal in life–we run the risk of becoming soft, spoiled, tepid, weak.  Those little victories of little things make us small, we get too comfortable expecting that life will (almost) always take place on our terms, and we get out of shape in terms of the bigger questions and concerns and taking losses in life. 

But losses in life are inevitable.  And so as such, much of life is really about learning to lose either well or badly. This is the fundamental position we have to decide on in life: to learn how to lose well—with dignity, with some semblance of grace and perspective; or to lose badly—to lose like a child having its favorite toy taken away, to hide away, wall up, feel sorry for ourselves, pitch a fit, spin out, insulate and isolate ourselves, become “control freaks,” and begin shutting down inside and dying while alive—to begin reducing life to survival and staying safe and comfortable (the path of least resistance) rather than growing and enlarging ourselves and learning to live and love on life’s terms.

Everything and everyone will be taken from us. Nothing lasts, nothing will endure; all is vanity. On a long enough timeline the survival rate for everything and everyone drops to zero. In a hundred years, we’ll all be dead. We’re impermanent, brief, fleeting, and fragile—so very fragile. We learn to live and survive alongside what can kill us. This is just the basic lay of the land in life; it’s what we’re each innately up against.

And most of us are not very good sports when it comes to dealing with this. Most of us are not very good sports when it comes to losing. We lose badly. Throw tantrums. Act out. Even become vicious and hurtful—”hurt people hurt people,” they torment others because they are unable and or unwilling to metabolize on their own all of the torment they feel, so they spread it around, literally forcing everyone to feel and mitigate their pain. What it comes down to is this: we’re bad sports because we’re afraid, because we’re not humble, because we have things backwards in life—we expect certainty and security and ease where there is actually little to none. Losing terrifies us, and in doing so, usually brings out what’s worst in us. It reminds us of the truth of our situation—that fundamentally life is about loss, that there’s nothing and no one we can cling to; that life is a perpetual groundlessness: we don’t know why we’re here, or for how long, where we came from, or where we’re going. All we have to use to lessen our fear and terror and sense of helplessness are the stories we’ve been told—some passed down through generations; and the stories we invent and tell ourselves.

Our everyday mind has it all wrong, has it backwards. We think that life is supposed to be much more safe and secure and certain than it is—much more. And that’s what makes us asleep, blind, living in denial—that we have things backwards, that we insist on trying to have things our way when it comes to the big questions—”what is extraordinary and eternal.” We each know at some level what the truth is, but because it terrifies us and because we don’t want to fully feel and face all of that and go through getting acclimated to it, we deceive ourselves and typically hurt others in the process of making our fast getaways from reality. We think that loss should be the exception, not the rule—which may well in fact be the case in the beginning, when we’re young; but as we grow older, we begin experiencing more and more losses, seeing those around us die—grandparents, aunts, uncles, parents. And at some level we begin suspecting that we’ve been duped—that life doesn’t go on forever, there’s a ticking clock—a ticking clock for each and everyone of us—and there’s only so much time on it. And this terrifies us. This terrifies the hell out of us. But this new information, this new reality, comes smack up against what we first learned about life, and so it tends to be very difficult for us to wrap our minds around it and integrate it, because deep down we think—and desperately hope—that life is still supposed to be pleasant and safe and secure and cozy. And we desperately clinging to this hope. Because the alternative is too terrifying. We can’t handle the truth. The truth is too dizzying, too overwhelming, too unsettling. We much rather live badly and live as if permanence and security and happiness are things that are owed to us. We’d much rather believe in a God wants us to be happy, that wants us to have a good time here on earth and not have to suffer. . . .

Does God want us to suffer?
What if the answer to that question is yes?
See, I’m not sure that God particularly wants us to be happy.
I think He wants us to be able to love and be loved.
He wants us to grow up.
We think our childish toys
bring us all the happiness there is
and our nursery is the whole wide world.
But something—something—must drive us out of the nursery
to the world of others
and that something is suffering.
– From the motion picture “Shadowlands”

Wrapping our minds around the inevitability of death and loss is no easy task; it’s like learning a new language—a second language, and at that a very foreign and difficult to master second language. Our first language is one of permanence, security, safety, gratification, being taken care of; it’s what we speak naturally and it speaks to what we seek naturally. This new language, this second language—the linguistics of loss, grief, impermanence, uncertainty, death—conflicts directly and deeply with much of what we first learned of life and with what we most desire from life: happiness, permanence, comfort, pleasantness, goodness. But learning to speak this new language well is essential if we are to grow up and learn how to truly love. Not only that, if one is to truly master this second language—and so to grow and learn how to truly love—it will not be enough just to learn to speak it fluently, we must learn to actually think in it—our very thinking must drip with the language of loss, impermanence, death, suffering. All of this must happen if we are to successfully grow up—i.e., put away the things of childhood, that is, overwrite and replace what we first learned of life—our first impressions of life—that life was supposed to be pleasant and happy and safe, that we weren’t supposed to get broken and deeply wounded here, that we weren’t going to have to change our thinking deeply and radically and fundamentally.

Christianity calls this paradigmatic shift, this complete and irrevocable figure-ground reversal in our way of looking at life—as life being something fleeting, impermanent, transitory, uncertain, mysterious, terrifying, immense, overwhelming, instead of something permanent, cozy, happy, safe—a “metanoia.” A metanoia means a radical change of heart and mind, a dramatic shift of one’s life direction and orientation away from the self and narcissistic gratifications (vanity) and permanence, to impermanence, uncertainty, mystery, transcending the self and our conditioning, and living and loving on life’s terms, not the ego’s terms. It is a complete conversion and epiphany rolled into one.

It is clear that when we are still operating according to the idea that life is supposed to be more safe and secure than it is, that we’re not supposed to be broken and deeply wounded here, that not everyone dies, everyone leaves, everything burns, everything is vanity, then we live badly. We are, in essence, refusing the term’s of life’s loan to us. And when we live like this—in refusal—our power in life lies in distancing—in putting up walls and pushing away unpleasant and difficult and immense realities—and people—and keeping these people and things at arm’s (or more, much more) length. It’s how we feebly try to keep our sanity, our equilibrium—an equilibrium that, truth be told, is not worth keeping, because it comes at the expense of us crippling and warping ourselves; it’s the equilibrium of childhood; it’s one based in weakness and denial, of approaching life in a way that is intellectually dishonest, instead of honest. What we most fear will happen to us will indeed one day happen to us, it will get the upper hand on us, so why wait? Why waste life in the meantime, trying to run from life and reality?

The only real foundation for happiness that we can have in life comes from facing life as it is—in all its majesty as well as hideousness and terrifyingness—and facing ourselves as we are, our weaknesses and strengths, and being honest with ourselves—and others—about these, and then heroically trying to overcome them. The only real happiness in life comes from learning thoroughly that what threatens us or most frightens us yet does not kill us or reduce us to a vegetative state and the fetal position is what makes us stronger and wiser and better human beings. There’s no strength to be gained in avoiding and denying what is inevitable and what will one day have the upper hand on us. In fact, denying what is inevitable its rightful place in our lives is the surest way to cripple ourselves emotionally, intellectually, psychologically, and spiritually. We must be brave—we really have no choice in this. To only be partially brave means to unwittingly consent to allowing ourselves to be crippled. To only partially face the truth means to still lie to ourselves and others. To grow up means to choose suffering, it means to say YES to life—to the full intensity and mystery of life, the full catastrophe of life, and not live as a frightened pygmy. But to choose safety repeatedly means to say no to life, to say no to growing up, to instead choose a slow form of psychological suicide, a living death, the ego and its fear-based ways over living and loving on life’s terms.

Why love if losing hurts so much?
I have no answers anymore, only the life I have lived.
Twice in that life
I’ve been given the choice:
As a boy . . .
and as a man.
The boy chose safety. The man chooses suffering.
The pain now is part of the happiness then.
That’s the deal.

– From the motion picture “Shadowlands”

.

There is only one way in which one can endure man’s inhumanity to man and that is to try, in one’s own life, to exemplify man’s humanity to man.” – Alan Paton, “The Challenge of Fear,” in Saturday Review, September 9, 1967, pg. 46

Dungeon” – Rabindranath Tagore

He whom I enclose with my name is weeping in this dungeon.
I am ever busy building this wall all around; and as this wall goes up into
the sky day by day I lose sight of my true being in its dark shadow.

I take pride in this great wall, and I plaster it with dust and sand
lest a least hole should be left in this name;
and for all the care I take I lose sight of my true being.

What is hell? I maintain that it is the suffering of being unable to love.” – Dostoevsky

.

Hell is self-chosen. Hell has only volunteer residents. The reality is that the gates of hell are locked from the inside, as Lewis wrote. Hell is the suffering of being unable—or unwilling—to extend oneself and to love, to paraphrase Dostoevsky. Hell is being trapped from the inside because of oneself inside one’s neurosis or illness and being too afraid to truly love and be loved. It is to be a prisoner, locked within the dungeon of oneself, one’s ego, where the only purpose left in life is to fiercely defend one’s freedom to stay locked inside one’s prison cell. Hell is to be too afraid to risk being vulnerable, open, intimate, to afraid to risk living and loving on life’s terms instead of the ego’s manipulative and self-serving terms. Hell is to prefer the suffering of being unwilling to love to the sufferings involved in loving anything or anyone (after all, they may die or leave you or reject or betray you). Hell is to prefer the sufferings inherent in running away from the full intensity of life and backing down from the full catastrophe of living to the sufferings inherent in living and loving on life’s terms. Hell is to prefer the sufferings and crippling one brings upon oneself rather than the sufferings inherent in waking up and truly living.

Growth, Change, & Death


What will it take for you to change and grow?—for you to become what God or the gods intended?  What will it take for you to manifest what is godly or divine-like in you and to live from that place?  For example, immature people, as well as bad people, do not know how to take good care of the things in their life.  They don’t know how to be “responsible”; they do not know how to love and care for what life gives them (or brings into their life) that is good and decent.  They are too invested in their pathology or immaturity and laziness to change.  They are too use to always taking the path of least resistance and or having things handed to them (again and again). 

So how does a person like that “change their stripes”? 

God’s Grace?  Luck?  A teacher or guru?  A book? . . .

Most of us are born this way—in a fallen or “less than” state—as cute and cuddly and smiling as we are, we’re also born with the tendency to be irresponsible, selfish, lazy, to take without asking, to whine and complain and blame and lie, to be exploitive; many (most?) of us seem to come into this life without a work ethic, acting like the world owes us, as if the world was made just for us and revolves us and our wants and impulses—no discipline, no giving back, no real charitable impulses.  Paraphrasing the movie “Shadowlands”—Most of us “think our childish toys will bring us all the happiness there is and that our nursery is the whole wide world.”  This tendency or possibility is what seems to be within all of us.  In fact, the tendency to be either good or bad, to awaken or to sleepwalk through life, to manifest virtue and compassion and psychological health and great mindfulness or to manifest disorder, selfishness, impulsiveness, greed, thoughtlessness seems to be possible within each of us, and it’s up to our environment, especially our parents, to determine what we will become.  This is what immature and emotionally/psychologically stunted people manifest—immaturity, selfishness, chaos, confusion, greed, grubbiness, pettiness—this is how they act; and it’s also what bad people do.  Immature people and bad people set fire to the world around them—they exploit, manipulate, lie, confuse, use—they exploit the world and use those around them—they treat those around them as props, not as real fellow human beings just like themselves and deserving the same consideration and care as themselves, but as props—props in their own personal sick dysfunctional psychodramas and unconscious patterns.  No personal responsibility.  No real care or concern.  Just the self-centeredness of looking out for number one.  Just “me first, everyone else a distant second—unless I want/need something from you and you might serve my pet ego projects or suffice as a pleasant distraction for a while.”  But no real love.  No real affection.  No real giving.  Just a long trail/pattern of exploitation, using, lying, deceiving. 

And Gurdjieff knew this.  He knew it well.

Which is why he had “Only he who can take care of what belongs to others may have his own” inscribed high up on the walls of his study house—his dojo—the place where his students would travel to from all corners of the world in order to try to awaken.  Waking up—real change and growth—was not possible for those who were irresponsible, exploitative, self-centered, lazy, without a work ethic—those who were bent on drugging themselves (anesthetizing and numbing and distracting and dissipating themselves) on silly books, TV, frivolous soulless relationships (Gurdjieff knew that the interpersonal was the ground and the path, and that there could be no separation).

Gurdjieff had looked into the heart of man.  He knew that most people we exploitative and irresponsible and had been raised by people who were the same, and who themselves had been raised by some version of the same, et cetera.  He knew what we was up against—how difficult it is to teach irresponsible and exploitative and poorly-parented people to actually have a work ethic, to wake up from their sleep of unawareness and running on the botched and chaotic programming of their upbringing and their innate selfish and impulsive and reactive and avoidant tendencies.  Gurdjieff knew how extraordinarily difficult it is to re-parent people and help them overcome both their nature and nurture.  Gurdjieff knew very well how “effed for life” most people were.

And he knew how difficult it would be for them to wake up and for him to help them in that—for all of his learning and sagely advice not just to be water down their lovely little dysfunctional drains.  He knew that deep down the vast majority of people were not going to be loyal to him or his teaching or “The Dharma” or whatever you wish to call it, but rather were going to be most loyal to what is most familiar to them—that that would be “home” to them—no matter how dysfunctional or toxic or twisted that original home was.  It would still be home to them.  And getting them to leave home—i.e. grow up and leave those dysfunctional parts of themselves—would be a severely arduous and uphill battle. 

Gurdjieff knew the deep meaning of these words of Jesus—“If anyone comes to me without hating his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters—and even his own life—he cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26).  That without this level of deep dissatisfaction with oneself and one’s life and what one grew up in, there could be no real openness for something new and healthy—that whatever Jesus had to say, whatever Gurdjieff had to say, whatever any great spiritual sage or teacher would have to say, would just be water down the drain and be drowned out by all of their listener’s pathology, faulty and warped programming and upbringing, closed and frightened heart and mind.  Gurdjieff, like Jesus—and like Fromm— knew that most people never really leave home and break what Fromm described as the incestuous psychological and limbic ties to family and what is familiar and what they grew up with.

Moreover, Gurdjieff knew, like M. Scott Peck (see “People of the Lie: The Hope for Healing Human Evil” pp. 138-149—“The Case of Spider Phobia” [The case of Billie]) that most people were destined/doomed to become modern day Maguas (“The Last of the Mohicans”)—an imitation of what had twisted them—that they would, even in spite of themselves and their best intentions (if they had these), twist themselves even more fully into the shape of what had first twisted them and becoming living monuments to those who first and most deeply wounded them.

Gurdjieff knew that waking up from all of this dysfunction and conditioning and pathology as well as innate narcissism and immaturity would be for most a fate worse than death, because for most people it would be a death—the death of so many parts of themselves, the death of their ego, the death of their personality, their first self—which most people are attached to neurotically, pathologically, “egosyntonically”—meaning even if that self is pathological, sick, wounded. 

Human beings are attached to everything in this life; attached to their imagination, attached to their stupidity, attached to their fears, attached even to their own suffering—and possibly to their own suffering more than anything else.  A person must first free himself from attachment.  Attachment to things, identification with things, keeps alive a thousand false I’s in a person.  These I’s must die in order that the big I may be born.  But how can they be made to die?  They do not want to die.” (Gurdjieff, quoted in P. D. Ouspensky’s “In Search of the Miraculous,” pg. 218)

Changing oneself is the last thing people will willing do.  It’s a case where cure that is worse than the disease.   Most need the threat of execution, the threat of imminent and painful death, before they will get serious about “changing their ways.”  Most people would sooner live in the squalor of their own disease and amputate themselves from everything and everyone around them, even family, even children, than face and deal with themselves and make some real changes inside the self and to their patterns of thinking and perceiving and reacting.  Most are hoarders when it comes to the immature and dysfunctional parts of their psyche—and they are not going to give up these parts without a fight—without kicking and screaming and firing off all of their many defenses frequently and grandly and throwing others under the bus, et cetera.  Most people would simply rather hack away idiotically and self-centeredly at the branches all around them and prune this and that and try to make their pathology livable (“Each human being must keep alight within him the sacred flame of madness. And must behave like a normal person.” – Paulo Coelho) or even gussy it up a bit and make their dysfunctional patterns and tendencies look like some sort of Bonsai tree than get busy hacking away at the roots and really start growing up and become who and what they were intended to be, and to do so passionately and joyfully. (As Gurdjieff wrote, “The energy spent on active inner work is then and there transformed into a fresh supply, but that spent passive work and distraction is lost forever.”  And M. Scott Peck speaks in his books how therapy becomes a joy and even sometimes playful when the patient [disciple] allows him or herself to become open and trusting and vulnerable [pregnable] to the therapist; it’s then that the real work of healing and growing begins in earnest and the preliminary work of getting [seducing] the patient to this point is over. [See “People of the Lie” pp. 158-9 and “The Road Less Traveled” pg. 55.])

Which is why Gurdjieff eventually become quick to cut to the chase and put things in no uncertain terms

The sole means now for the saving of the beings of the planet Earth would be to implant into their presences a new organ of such properties that every one of these unfortunates during the process of existence should constantly sense and be cognizant of the inevitability of his own death as well as the death of everyone upon whom his eyes or attention rests. Only such a sensation and such a cognizance can destroy the egoism that is now completely crystallized in them.” – G. I. Gurdjieff

He didn’t say one way, he said the sole way, the only way.  This is his ax for the frozen sea within us, strictest attention-getting, whack us with a sledgehammer, in your face, cut to the chase, no bs equivalent of Luke 14:26.  If you really want to change, you have to know, not think, but know, feel viscerally, emotionally, in a white-hot terrifying searing way, that you—and all the people you love, and all your pet ego- and immortality-projects, and all of the pet rats you keep (a reference to an episode of “Hoarders”— http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AsITgqGQgj4)—are going to die, and that there’s no getting around this, that death is certain, that loss is certain, and you and your little groveling pathetic inner control freak cannot do thing one to change it—not will all of your bs, escapist reading, self-numbing, et cetera.  There’s no place for you to run or hide.  You will die; someday you and all those you love will play out that scene, and so what are you doing right here and now to prepare for that—for that greatest of partings?  “Only he who has freed himself of the disease of ‘tomorrow’ has a chance to attain what he came here for” (Gurdjieff), and “the best means for arousing the wish to work on yourself is to realize that you may die at any moment.  But first you must learn how to keep it in mind” (also Gurdjieff).

There’s no real change, no real growth, possible for us without facing our own mortality and really feeling now what it will feel like some day when we’re told we only have a week or months to live, or that, God forbid, one our children or a parent has died.

Otherwise we’re just wasting time.

As Augustine put it, “It is only in the face of death that man’s (true) self is born.”

Short of this level of honest and open relationship with our own mortality, we’re living the false life of a false self.

“Why Love if Losing Hurts So Much?”


Why love if losing hurts so much?
I have no answers anymore, only the life I have lived.
And twice in that life I have been given the choice:
As a boy…
…and as a man.
The boy chose safety.
The man chose suffering.
The pain now is part of the happiness then.
That’s the deal.

( – from the motion picture “Shadowlands“)

.

God breaks the heart again and again and again until it stays open.” – Hazrat Inayat Khan

.

We shall only draw nearer to God not by trying to avoid the sufferings inherent in love, but by accepting them and offering them to Him; by throwing away all defensive armor.

If our hearts need to be broken—and if He chooses this as the way in which they should break—then so be it. Hiding away our hearts for fear of their being broken, is like hiding away a talent in a napkin and burying out back, and for much the same reason—because “I knew that thee wert a hard man.”

There is no safe investment. To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; become a relationship nomad, run away and emotionally cut others out of your life at the first sign of trouble; and lock your heart up safe in the casket or coffin of your own selfishness. But in that casket—safe, dark, motionless, airless—it will change. It will not be broken; rather, it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The only alternative to tragedy, or at least the risk of tragedy, is damnation. The only place outside of heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell.

( – C. S. Lewis, from “The Four Loves,” pp 120-122)

.

One way or another, you will be forced to face the truth: everything you acquire is eventually lost. Every body you hold eventually dies. You have been waiting to give your deepest gifts, waiting to love and invest safely without the possibility of loss or rejection. You have been holding back while your life—everyone’s life—passes. You have traded in your true destiny for one of false comforts and muted agony.

If you are afraid, if you are waiting for more comfort or security, if you are holding back your gifts or closing down your love, then feel your act of closure fully—feel the tension in your muscles, the clenching in your jaw, the hardening of your heart—in short, the wasting of your life.

(David Deida, “Blue Truth,” pp. 8-9)

.

Affirmation” – Donald Hall

To grow old is to lose everything.
Aging, everybody knows it.
Even when we are young,
we glimpse it sometimes, and nod our heads
when a grandfather dies.
Then we row for years on the midsummer
pond, ignorant and content. But a marriage,
that began without harm, scatters
into debris on the shore,
and a friend from school drops
cold on a rocky strand.
If a new love carries us
past middle age, our wife will die
at her strongest and most beautiful.
New women come and go. All go.
The pretty lover who announces
that she is temporary
is temporary. The bold woman,
middle-aged against our old age,
sinks under an anxiety she cannot withstand.
Another friend of decades estranges himself
in words that pollute thirty years.
Let us stifle under mud at the pond’s edge
and affirm that it is fitting
and delicious to lose everything.

.

The sooner (and more completely) I can wrap my little head around this and live in accordance with this, the better.

And it’s not that I have a death wish and want to court relationships where the instability is inherently and wantonly high because the other person has set their life in diametric opposition to this fact of life and therefore is prone to flinch, spin out, shut down, run, self-preserve by throwing others under the bus or into the fire or just plain throwing them away period whenever the going gets tough.

No, I don’t want that.

But if that’s what life presents me with, then it is my duty as a man and not a boy to live that reality and that relationship at the highest level that I can and that I am able to muster. There can be no shrinking permitted from myself.

Or else all of these fine words and excerpts are just words, and I’m just kidding myself with them by citing them and quoting them. I have to live and behave myself into what I aspire to be; I have to be willing to fight myself—my smaller frightened avoidant self—tooth and nail, even when I’m scared. Especially most of all when I’m scared and feel my heart about to get wrung and broken again.

If this is the way that God or the Universe chooses to break my heart fully open, then so be it. The Universe or God or Life is always in the right. And the Universe and or God will keep breaking my heart again and again and again until I get it, until I realize that there is no safe investment, that everything will be taken from me—us—eventually, that everything is temporary.

So how do I want to live my life in the meantime, until the eventual end comes? As a coward? (Cue up the movie “Fearless” with Jeff Bridges and that wonderful scene on top of the skyscraper downtown where he declares in fear and trembling that he won’t live his life as a coward.) Or do I want to live my life as a man, with as much courage and openness and integrity as I can muster?

Both the long and the short lesson in life is loss. It’s not a particularly cheery lesson, especially not at first, and perhaps not ever, but picking and choosing our life lessons—the lessons in life we decide to learn—on the basis of their cheeriness or how well they appeal to our congenital preferences and temperament and emotional limitations and current level of differentiation doesn’t seem to me to be a particularly healthy or ennobling or even an honest way to live.

To set ourselves, heart and mind and soul, in opposition to the fact that loss is inevitable, that everyone dies, that no one gets out of here alive, that life and health and security are all fleeting and tenuous and temporary at best, seems to be a foolish way to live. And the more we set ourselves against this set of unavoidable “brute” facts of life, then either the more dishonestly or the more discursively and superficially we will have to live (“taking ruins to ruins” as Emerson put it, which is the same as the gist of Cavafy’s poem “The City”). There’s really no depth or personal growth possible except by wrestling with accepting this fact. —In fact, isn’t that what all real true personal growth is?—learning to better and more courageously and heroically accept life for what it is instead of what we escapistly wish it would be?—learning to better live and love on life’s terms and not on our own? (to lessen our inner control freak?) “He must increase, I must decrease” – John 3:30 (God I love that Gospel!). Yes, Truth and Light and Love and our level of courage and clear-headedness and honesty and clear-thinking must increase, and our own personal flighty discursive self-deceptive avoidant escapist control-freak tendencies must decrease. That’s the gist of genuine personal growth—coming to live more honestly and courageous, becoming more and more dedicated to truth and reality. And we each have a unique path we must take, one full of hardships and difficulties to be met and faced if we are to truly grow as a person. Or else in a very significant sense we end up wasting our lives, wasting the time we have been given—whatever modicum of time we may be given, living and dying as emotional children and cowards, living as “just another troubled guest darkening the earth” (Goethe, “The Holy Longing”). Which is not how I am at all interested in living or loving—as just another avoidant troubled guest darkening the earth. . . .

.

The Holy Longing” – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Tell a wise person or else keep silent
For the massman will mock it right away.
I praise what is truly alive
And what longs to be burned to death.

In the calm waters of the nights of love
Where you were begotten, where you have begotten,
A strange feeling comes over you
When you see the quiet candle burning.

Now you are no longer caught
In this obsession with darkness
And a desire for higher love-making sweeps you up.
Distance does not make you falter.

And now, arriving in wonder, flying,
And, finally, insane for the light,
You are the butterfly,
And you are gone.

And so long as you haven’t
Experienced this—to die
And so to grow—you are only
A troubled guest darkening the earth.

.

The City” – C. P. Cavafy

You said, “I will go to another land,
I will go to another sea.
Another city will be found,
One better than this.
My heart, like a corpse, is buried.
How long must I remain
In this (self-made) wasteland?
Wherever I turn here, wherever I look
I see the scorched and blackened ruins of my life
Where I have spent so much time
Wandering and wasting away
.”

You will find no new lands,
You will find no other seas.
The city you are
and constantly trying to flee from
Will follow you everywhere.
You will roam the same streets elsewhere
Age in the same neighborhoods
Grow gray in the same houses.
Always you will arrive again and again
At this same doorstep
In this same city.
Do not hope for any other.
For there is no ship for you,
There is no road.
As you have destroyed your life here
in this little corner,
you have ruined it in the entire world.