Sunday, March 11, 2012

The Obvious Lesson

The obvious lesson. . . is that the first step to the knowledge of the highest divine symbol of the wonder and mystery of life is in the recognition of the monstrous nature of life and its glory in that character: the realization that this is just how it is and that it cannot and will not be changed. Those who think––and their name is legion––that they know how the universe could have been better than it is, how it would have been had they created it, without pain, without sorrow, without time, without life, are unfit for illumination. Or those who think––as many do––"Let me first correct society, then get around to myself" are barred from even the outer gate of the mansion of God's peace. All societies are evil, sorrowful, inequitable; and so they will always be. So if you really want to help this world, what you have to teach is how to live in it. And that no one can do who has not himself learned how to live in it, in the the joyful sorrow and sorrowful joy of the knowledge of life as it is.

- Joseph Campbell, Myths to Live By

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I've been thinking (always a dangerous thing), and it strikes me that at the root of a fucked life is a disconnect, a blindness, a missing sequence that if only it was present, if only we could see, or bind ourselves to the groundfloor of experience we'd encounter our lives in a wildly different way. We'd be stitched into it instead of viewing it from the side of the road. What is this disconnect? this blindness? this gap in our consciousness' genome?

Here's my answer: fairness.

We want life to play fair, to be honest, equitable, just. But each of those are human values. Life, with a big fucking capital "L" does not share those values. No, Life is in the business of transformation. We resist it because of what time's transformation will do to us, to our best beloveds. Our desire to hold our lives still because we don't want to lose who and what we love perverts that love.

When my father was dying I bargained with his cancer to take me on instead. When my infant son couldn't draw enough breath to keep from turning blue, I dared whatever malevolence had taken up in his lungs to find me and leave my boy alone. I offered prayers, built totems, imbued objects with magical powers to stay the hand of Life. My father died. My son lived.

What were the words I tried to cast a spell
To understand? Stay, stay. His eyes seized mine,
He summoned all his strength to move his gaze
To look out at the night, a final time.
Mysterious rudiments of our farewell
The night of January twenty-third.
Never again the moon in heaven above.

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Life is monstrous not because it sweeps us away, but because we cannot change it. All that remains is to change ourselves. Each of us must wrestle with this fact. Some will withdraw in terror, others will believe they can bend nature to their will. Most of us will stumble along keeping change at arm's length except when it crashes through our paper-thin defenses and demands our attention: illness, accident, war, death: tragedies large and small.

If only life were fair. If only the wicked were struck down. If only she'd stayed. If only he hadn't gotten sick. If only, if only, if only this then that. We occupy our minds with useless imaginings and it takes us away from the one thing we have to do: live right now.

Look, there are libraries filled with answers about how to live. It is the one thing that has occupied mankind since we showed up. Cave art tells us our distant relations were held in awe by life and death and the mystery that held them together. For all of our gadgetry it is still the same for us, only now we have more to distract ourselves from the work at hand: being awake and alive in this moment. We distract ourselves to not look in the face of Life, of God, of the Great Electron. It is terrible to us because it demands something other than what we have shown so far.

I didn't want to see my dad go. I loved him. I didn't want to see my son so sick. I love him. I didn't want any of the grief or hardship or betrayal that has pocked my life. No one does. Love of another, of someone other than ourselves makes us want to protect and defend them, to bind up their wounds and keep all harm at bay. That is what is best in us and it is futile.

I have always found the assertion that we are "to participate joyfully in the sorrows of the world" to be beyond my ken. It was yet anther cruel dictum that I couldn't live up to. But I've been thinking (always a dangerous thing) and it strikes me that the sorrows of the world are not that we'll die, that our best beloveds will die, or that our love is a frail response to those changes, but that we live so poorly on our way to our deaths. That the time our love is strongest is now, not later. The good it can do can only be felt now. The joy we can extract from our brief transit is now and "every failure to cope with a life situation must be laid, in the end, to a restriction of consciousness. Wars and temper tantrums are the makeshifts of ignorance; regrets are illuminations come too late."

To live joyfully in the sorrow, sorrowfully in the joy means to undo the restrictions we placed on the terms and conditions of our lives. The great sorrow is that even if you have found the way to this point, by whatever path, and you are able to teach others, to tell them what you know, they'll be too afraid to listen. They want to focus on what is manipulable, concrete, immediate and keep all talk of the monstrous beauties, and joyful sorrow locked away.

But it is just fear that blinds them, that blinds us.
Smile and teach them anyway; teach by example and not any other way.

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