- Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
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When I am lost, I return again and again to the Meditations. I am no less lost, but now have some company.
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Is there anything punier than our pride and hubris, our conceit and machinations? Is there anything as useless as our self-importance? I struggle to imagine what it could be. The devotion with which we build our empires of dirt must seem to distant gods as we view the busy-ness of ants: furious activity reduced to chaos with the scuff of a shoe.
And yet, like ants, this is the life we are living. These are the causes we must attend to: food, shelter, the hand-off to the next generation and unlike ants, the mystery of our consciousness, the rhythm of our days.
Because our time is short, and we believe it to be long - a by product of our incessant busy work - we are buffeted by circumstance, trapped in cycles of ascension and decline until, at last the lights go out and the memory of our trials fades in a few seasons, to be replaced by the self-importance of the trials among the, as yet, still living.
We come and go, like the women speaking of Michaelangelo.
Allow me these heresies:
Money is not life.
Politics is not life.
Self-indulgence is not life.
Accepting the dogma that money, power and the right to self-medicate is the purpose of our time is to whistle past the graveyard, is to order time in such a way so as to pretend we have all the time in the world. Acquisition, control, the trope of the magnificent "I" are all ways we hide the clock from ourselves and count our lives well-lived by how much money and power we fail to take with us to the grave.
It is also the way we are ruined by circumstance. There is always a bigger bully who is willing to go further than you in the race to acquire these things. Without a ground floor of experience that sees further than the immediate cause, that can recognize itself in the larger, slower cycles of acceptance and communion and finally annihilation into those slower rhythms, we are fucked because all that we have is the immediate and immediate changes every moment.
We are here briefly. A preoccupation with the immediate reduces one's life to the trivial. Yes, we must attend to our daily lives, but no, the daily life is not our only life. We are part of a larger life, what Aurelius would have called the logos, the rhythm of all life, the crests and troughs still echoing from the moment when nothing became something. Failing to recognize the unfathomable nature of our unlikely existence makes us conceited, filled with unearned pride and we spend our days destroying anything that is not to our liking.
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In his essay, The Stranger, Georg Simmel wrote about the plight of European Jewry from the Middle ages onward. Essential to their communities, yet prevented from owning land or being "landed" Simmel wrote they were both near and far at the same time. I have always understood that idea as not only a comment of European Jews, but for every last one of us on this whore of an island in God's sea.
We live. We need to eat and drink and sleep in tight, regular rhythms, and yet if this is all we do we miss what makes life worth living: the encounter with the mystery of our days. If you are fucked and stuck and trapped and lost you are foregoing part of Simmel's construct. You are near only and are blind to the far. For Simmel this meant isolation and the convenience of being scape-goated by the gentry. For me it means we lose sight of the longer rhythms that each life is part of, that each life, willing or not, helps extend.
When you are jarred by circumstance and the immediate, the near appears unbearable step back and return yourself to the rhythm that existed before your arrival, and will exist after you leave. Doing so allows you to be kind, generous, forgiving of all those ants trying to build their puny empires.
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The unfucked life is both near and far at the same time, with no distinction between the two.