Sorry not Sorry, Millennials

A conditional apology from a boomer-ish.

During my father’s recent memorial, I got a taste for the intergenerational conflict currently exemplified by the cry of “OK boomer.”

The boomers and Gen-Xers in my family were slightly outnumbered by the millennials, and in terms of political leanings, there were 4 ultra-conservatives, 3 ultra-progressives, 3 apolitical, and me, self-described as non-partisan, a-moral, un-ideal, non-religious, and pledging allegiance to little else than the Earth and all living beings. An explosive and interesting mix, indeed.

The timing was perfect: the impeachment trial, the Iowa caucus, Australia devastated by fire…

Ensconced for an entire week in my father’s house amid freezing temperatures and dismal weather, tempers flared at every turn. But since there was nowhere to run, things had to be hashed out.

What struck me, deeply and painfully, was the angst among the young adults in our clan. Citing crippling student debt, stagnant wages, unaffordable housing and health insurance, a nearing collapse of social safety nets, and a planet on the brink, every single one expressed extreme reluctance to bring children into the world.

The mood was borderline nihilistic.

Having no house of my own, currently on Medicaid, deep in debt, and struggling to pay off my daughter’s college loans, it was easy to relate, even at 58.

What a shame, I thought, that we — the outgoing bunch — were handing them such a dismal world outlook. So I decided to offer millennials a heartfelt, generational apology, which, understandably, was met by the outcry and stern rebuke of some of the boomers around the dinner table. How dare I apologize!

I just couldn’t help but contrast their pessimism with the excitement and sense of hope I felt when my firstborn arrived into the world in 1993. As she emerged from her mother’s womb and scanned the delivery room with her wide open, curious and impossibly-blue eyes, I felt my timeline suddenly extend a whole century and the word “legacy” entered my consciousness for the first time. That legacy was now on trial.

But wait a second… I thought, after everyone flew back to their respective homes. Are previous generations not due proper credit, respect, and admiration for, say, nearly ending world hunger and having drastically reduced infant mortality rates and deaths from infectious diseases? Is the fact that 90% of the world’s population can now read and write not earn us any accolades when just a century ago 7 out of 10 were illiterate? What about world poverty? At the start of the boomer generation more than 70% of the world’s population was extremely poor. By 2015, that number had dropped to less than 10%. And life expectancy? While I will likely die before my 80th birthday, thanks to advances in medical science, millennials will probably enjoy an extra decade in pretty good health provided they stop worrying so goddamn much.

To be fair, I also worried a lot before deciding to have children. That’s why I took so long to have them. Being an inveterate catastrophizer, I considered everything that could go wrong and likely make me fail as a father. By a ton, or more, I underestimated the amount of shit that would soon hit my fan.

By the time my second daughter showed up, I was bankrupt, living in self-imposed exile in one of the most expensive places on Earth, with no college degree, no network, and four mouths to feed. Prior that, I had lived for 34 years in a third-world country under mostly military rule and ravaged by 30+ years of civil war that cost the lives of 200,000 thousand people. Throughout, I witnessed car bombs, executions by firing squads, political assassinations, and coups d’état. I made and lost fortunes running several businesses under systemic corruption and bouts of extreme inflation and a collapsing currency. My family received several death and kidnapping threats which eventually made us flee our home country.

Yet, I’m still here. Scarred and wounded, of course, but doing just fine. My daughters are thriving. In fact, if it hadn’t been for the priceless gift of their presence in my life, I would’ve ended it long ago. It was their light and their future which kept me going.

Perhaps the prevailing millennial malaise can be partly explained by the fact that we old people are terrible storytellers. We don’t share our victories, accomplishments, and survival stories with the younger generations as much as our parents and grandparents did. We no longer sit at the table or by an open fire to mesmerize and inspire our children with our tales of adventure. Instead, we let the peddlers of media doom and gloom drive the narrative. No wonder they’re afraid. If a young zebra spent its time watching National Geographic documentaries, it, too, would never dare venture out into the savannah.

So, ok, Millennials… granted, we forgot the warming of the planet. We bad. Don’t forget, though, that global warming didn’t show up on our radar until the U.S. drought of 1988, and it wasn’t until 1997 that the Kyoto Protocol on climate change was adopted, which, mind you, was drafted by Boomers and Gen-Xers, as was the recent Paris Accord. So we’ve had less than thirty years to tackle this problem. In the meantime, though, we’ve been busy putting out other fires across the world, like patching-up the ozone layer, increasing the world’s production of renewable energy 6-fold, and putting you through college.

Besides, I am sure you wouldn’t want to inherit a world where every problem has been solved for you. That would rob you of the opportunity to test your mettle and prove your worth.

So get to work, and while you’re at it, have as many children as you can so when they grow up and dare berate you for your generation’s ‘dismal’ legacy, you, too, will have something to brag about while inspiring them with your tales of derring-do.


Related stories:

Failure to Launch! A challenge to young men.

Fire and Stories

 

The Gift of Melancholy

Working through the pain in life.

A feeling of sadness and longing,

That is not akin to pain,

And resembles sorrow only

As the mist resembles rain. — ‘A Day is Done’ by Henry W. Longfellow

Depression and anxiety are big business in America.

Antidepressant use has soared by 65% in the past 15 years. The country produces and consumes 90% of the world’s Ritalin to treat attention deficit. Every year, doctors write nearly 50 million prescriptions for Xanax or Alprazolam to ease anxiety.

And yet, these maladies are at an all-time high, particularly among the young.

For this, I blame Thomas Jefferson. Better said, I blame his dangerous assertion that a supreme being gifted Americans with an inalienable right to pursue happiness; something Howard Mumford Jones described as the ghastly privilege of pursuing a phantom and embracing a delusion.

What’s so wrong about sadness anyway? Or melancholy? Why does everything have to be rainbow colored all the time?

I sometimes drive an hour to the ocean, hoping I will find it thoroughly obscured by fog. I am not a bore, but want a break from all the rainbow violence in the world. — Meghan Flaherty

My younger daughter and I are profoundly melancholy. The type who prefer foggy days, shadowy places underneath bridges, mournful adagios, dark alleys, dusty attics crammed with old books, creaky chairs, rooms with low lighting…

In her teens, she was diagnosed with clinical depression and prescribed Zoloft which she dutifully took for a long time. Last year, she quit cold turkey. “I’m fed up with numbness!” she said. “I no longer know what it is to be happy because I no longer feel sad.”

The characteristic American expectation of positive emotions and life experiences makes feelings of sadness and despair more pathological than elsewhere.

In her paper ‘From Good Cheer to Drive-By Smiling,’ Christina Kotchemdova says that since cheerfulness and depression are bound by opposition, the more one is classified as normal, the more negative the other will appear. And when a culture labels normal sadness or depression as “abnormal,” those who experience these emotions become ashamed and alienated from themselves, thinking that the problem must be them.

While it’s great business for pharmaceutical companies, it is an invisible obstacle to empathy. “Melancholy,” proposes Alain de Botton, “is a key mental state and a valuable one. Melancholy is generous: you feel pity for the human condition.”

Had Abraham Lincoln been president today, he would’ve been prescribed Zoloft in a heartbeat.

“No element of Lincoln’s character,” declared his colleague Henry Whitney, “was so marked, obvious and ingrained as his mysterious and profound melancholy.”

“With Lincoln we have a man whose depression spurred him, painfully, to examine the core of his soul,” wrote Joshua Wolf Shenk for The Atlantic. “A man whose hard work to stay alive helped him develop crucial skills and capacities, even as his depression lingered hauntingly; and whose inimitable character took great strength from the piercing insights of depression, the creative responses to it, and a spirit of humble determination forged over decades of deep suffering and earnest longing.”

“But Lincoln’s melancholy,” Shenk adds, “is part of a whole life story; exploring it can help us see [his] life more clearly and discern its lessons. In a sense, what needs “treatment” is our own narrow ideas — of depression as an exclusively medical ailment that must be squashed; of therapy as a thing dispensed only by professionals and measured only by a reduction of pain.”

The first time I felt empathy was when fate toppled me from the pinnacle of power and wealth forcing me to take-on what I first considered the most humiliating jobs. It’s when I met Darren, who had the letters “L” and “R” tattooed on his left and right wrist as a reminder of the brutal beatings he suffered as a young boy for not being able to distinguish which was which. The time I met Steve, with whom I first went dumpster-diving. And Lorraine, who worked three jobs to put her son through college while caring for her ailing parents. “Losers!” is how I once considered these wretched souls. Ever since, I have never again used that word.

Had I taken everyone’s advice and taken antidepressants to numb my pain during that tumultuous time in my life, I would’ve missed the gift of empathy. Ever since, I have taken all my suffering and transmuted it to light — the light of compassion and wisdom.

“Whatever greatness Lincoln achieved,” says Shenk, “cannot be explained as a triumph over personal suffering. Rather, it must be accounted an outgrowth of the same system that produced that suffering. This is a story not of transformation but of integration. Lincoln didn’t do great work because he solved the problem of his melancholy; the problem of his melancholy was all the more fuel for the fire of his great work.

In psychotherapy, the integration to which Shenk alludes is called “shadow work.” It means bringing to light all the wounds we’ve suffered and repressed in life; the unavowed emotions that, when not brought to surface and given fresh air, have the nasty habit of rearing their ugly heads in other areas of our lives — alcoholism, drug addiction, illicit affairs, violence, etc.

When we stop resisting something, we stop giving it power. Absorbing instead of fighting against. The pain that signals a toothache is the pain that saves your life. Sometimes the only way out is through. — Sarah Lewis

How does the mind absorb suffering? By realizing that resistance and escape are false moves; that pain and the effort to be separate from it are the same thing. Wanting to get out of pain is the pain, said Alan Watts in ‘The Wisdom of Insecurity.’

Swallowing a pill, in my mind, works only as a temporary repressor of difficult emotions. It doesn’t make them go away. In my book, they’re called “the stuff of life,” and when courageously tussled with, not only awaken empathy, but can fuel the fire of great work.

Melancholy might paint a landscape gray, but it is only in shadow where light is perceived.


Read further: ‘A Counterbalance to Unpleasant Memories

Why Are We Here?

What’s our purpose?

In some regions in Mexico, the hummingbird is known as ‘Porquesí,’ meaning “just because” — a wonderful and poetic name for what seems but a caprice of nature… a jeweled whim!

In Oaxaca, they call it ‘Biulú’, or ‘what remains in the eyes,’ for once seen, no one can forget this ecstatic little bird plumed with divinely superfluous beauty.

God, the great Ecstatic, speaks and struggles to speak in every way he can, with seas and fires, with colors, with wings, with horns, with claws, with constellations and butterflies, that he may establish his ecstasy. — Nikos Kazantzakis

Asked by theologians what one could conclude as to the nature of the Creator from a study of his creation, British biologist, J.B.S. Haldane answered: “An inordinate fondness for beetles.”

350,000 known species!

Just because.

beetles

The Western, scientific mind, however, appears incapable of apprehending this superfluous beauty without demanding a functional answer for its purpose.

At what cost, I wonder?

Does knowing that the hummingbird flaps its wings 12–90 times per second, or that it’s the only bird that can fly backwards, or that it makes a single migratory journey of 2000 miles in Winter make it more beautiful or memorable? Or does it have the opposite effect? Isn’t the magic spoiled once we discover the magician’s secrets? While we might still be impressed by the magician’s sleight-of-hand, would we not be thereon barred from becoming enraptured? a word that, at origin, means “carried off bodily.”

Piglet: “How do you spell love?”

Pooh: “You don’t spell it, you feel it.”

If we, for instance, knew every biological change occurring in the male and female bodies during sex, would we ever again move “out of our minds” to be lost in sensation? Might knowing everything about the function actually provoke disfunction? Might knowing, say, that 87% of adults in Greece report having sex at least once a week not cause anxiety among U.S. adults where only 53% do?

Tell me… how often do you have sex? Are you performing like a Greek? Should you? Can you?

What’s the purpose of sex among humans anyway? Reproduction?

Not only, says Mexican poet Octavio Paz. It is so much more… “it’s an erotic ceremony in which sex is transformed into metaphor. In this sense, it is similar to language. The agent that moves both poetry and eroticism is our imagination. Poetry erotizes language as imagination transforms sex into a passionate erotic ritual.” Passion, says David L. Norton, is but an arabesque upon animal sexuality. Focus on the mechanics and you’ll kill Eros, or ardent desire.

Wanting to know is part of our cultural DNA. Our curiosity has helped advance the human adventure. But I can’t stop wondering if our insistence on dissecting, measuring, inspecting, prodding, analyzing, labelling, and trying to discover the purpose of everything precludes an embodied participation with the rest of creation.

Do not “all charms fly at the mere touch of cold philosophy?” asked Edgar Allan Poe.

What Do You Do?

After losing all my wealth, I dreaded accompanying my wife to parties. We lived at the time in one of the most expensive places in the U.S. and I had had little success finding a job. I dreaded parties because of the unease I felt when asked the trite question: “What do you do?” — a question actually used to measure us against an arbitrary standard of value and success.

Infuriated by this insistence on wanting to pigeonhole my humanity, I soon came up with this answer: “As little as possible to enjoy life as much as possible.” As you can imagine, I wasn’t invited much thereafter.

Had they instead asked me, “What’s your story?” I would’ve kept them spellbound for hours.

But having a story doesn’t neatly answer society’s demand for a purpose-driven narrative so perhaps it’s time we change the term ‘human being,’ to ‘human doing.’

In Paulo Coelho’s ‘Manuscript Found in Accra’ he says that if we were to ask a river if it feels useless because all it does is flow in the same direction, it will answer, ‘I’m not trying to be useful; I’m trying to be river.’ Ask a wildflower if she feels useless for just making copies of herself and she’ll answer: ‘I’m beautiful. Beauty is the sole purpose of my existence.’

Ask a poor person in my native country about his purpose in life and he’ll likely answer, “to survive,” before punching you in the nose.

An [American] reporter from a local newspaper came to our house to interview my wife about the Japanese tea ceremony. This reporter continually asked, “What is the meaning? What for? Why do you do that? What is the purpose for that?” This kind of question was directed at everything in the making of tea — at every gesture, every implement. Without thinking or deliberating, my wife finally replied, “No meaning… meaningless meaning. It is purposeless purpose.” — Buddhist Gyomay Kubose Sensei

In Taoism, a Chinese philosophical tradition dating back 3000 years, there is a principle called Wu-Wei, or purposeless action. The Western mind, as I said, has a hard time with this. I say this because I still do.

Without a concrete purpose, what would motivate action? Without the need for nectar, what would propel the hummingbird toward the flower? Without goals, what would get us out of bed? Where would I, say, find the motivation to write my book if not for my express purpose of wanting to help boys become good men.

Like in sex, I think the crux lies in spontaneity. By not trying too hard. By focusing on the process (erotic ritual) not the target (orgasm).

“The right art,” cried the Master, “is purposeless, aimless! The more obstinately you try to learn how to shoot the arrow for the sake of hitting the goal, the less you will succeed in the one and the further the other will recede. What stands in your way is that you have a much too willful will. You think that what you do not do yourself does not happen.” — Eugen Herrigel, ‘Zen in the Art of Archery’

In ‘The Way of Chuang Tzu,’ Thomas Merton says, “the true character of wu-wei is not mere inactivity but perfect action. In other words, action not carried in conflict with the dynamism of the whole — or Tao (The Way) — but in perfect harmony with the whole. It is not mere passivity, but action that seems effortless and spontaneous because performed rightly — in perfect accordance with our nature and with our place in the scheme of things. It is not conditioned or limited by our own individual needs and desires. It is complete free because there is in it no force and no violence.”

Forgive me for bringing sex back into the picture, but I cannot avoid imagining how rapturous the sexual experience would be under wu-wei.

Chuang Tzu vividly conveys the wisdom and efficacy of spontaneous action — or going with the flow — in this story:

At the Gorge of Lu, the great waterfall plunges for thousands of feet, its spray visible for miles. In the churning waters below, no living creature can be seen.

One day, K’ung Fu-tse [Confucius] was standing at a distance from the pool’s edge when he saw an old man being tossed about in the turbulent water. He called to his disciples and together they ran to rescue the victim. But by the time they reached the water, the old man had climbed out onto the bank and was walking along, singing to himself.

K’ung Fu-tse hurried up to him. “You would have to be a ghost to survive that,” he said, “but you seem to be a man, instead. What secret power do you have?”

“Nothing special,” the old man replied. “I began to learn while very young and grew up practicing it. Now I am certain of success. I go down with the water and come up with the water. I follow it and forget myself. I survive because I don’t struggle against the water’s superior power. That is all.”

To allow oneself to surrender and go with the flow can be frightening because it challenges some of our most basic assumptions about life, about who we are as humans, and about our role in the world. From a Taoist point of view, our most cherished beliefs are precisely those which lead us to a state of disharmony and imbalance — that we exist as separate beings, that we can exercise willful control over all situations and that our role is to conquer our environment and progress.

Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell. — Edward Abbey

“Humans cling to progress,” says John Gray in ‘Straw Dogs,’ “not so much from genuine belief, as from fear of what may come if they give it up.” Gray calls humanism, not science, but religion — a doctrine of salvation.

If progress is an illusion, how are we to live?

Gray says the question assumes that humans can live well only if they believe they have the power to remake the world. The aim of life, he said, is not to change the world, it is to see it rightly.

The hummingbird does not struggle to change or remake the flower. Nature shapes its bill according to the flowers in its proximate environment. Therefore, its actions, as Merton said about wu-wei, seem effortless and spontaneous because performed in perfect accordance with its nature and its place in the scheme of things.

What happens when humans live in discord and dissonance?

I’ll let author Sam Keen respond:

“Stress is not simply a dis-ease; it is a symptom that you are living somebody else’s life.

Depression is more than low self-esteem; it is a distant early warning that you are on the wrong path and that something in you is being pressed down, beat on, imprisoned, dishonored.

Burnout is nature’s way of telling you you’ve been going through the motions but your soul has departed.”

One way I have found to place myself in harmonious accord is to ask myself “why” I do what I do, instead of “what for”.

“What for?” implies a specific target: The publication of my book, the notoriety, the acclaim, and the potential material rewards.

Asking “why” shifts my attention to subjective, but ultimately more lasting rewards. I am writing my book to help boys grow into good men. To restore balance and harmony to the world. Because while writing it, I enter a state of flow and never feel like I’m working. Because by nature, I have a talent for writing and have found a need in the world that can be served by it.

While still purposeful, this focus engages and activates my heart, body, mind and soul — Psyche and Eros.

One day, I hope to transcend even further, and answer the question of “why am I here?” like the hummingbird: “Just Because,” thus becoming unforgettable for having discovered that a spiritual life is not a search for meaning or purpose, but a release from both.


Flipping God the Bird

A lesson on defiance.

It was one of those mornings. The kind where as soon as you wake up, the world greets you with a shitstorm… an eviction notice, a threatening email from a bill collector, your lover’s suitcases by the front door… take your pick.

For me, it was the 17th rejection to my latest book. For fuck’s sake!

No matter how noble my intentions or how hard I work, the world appears determined to thwart my best laid plans and lay waste to my illusions.

Yes, I’ve trained myself on the life force of clear-eyed optimism. I have accepted the universal law of resistance and have more grit than Sisyphus. But still. There are times when it’d be nice to see a silver lining in my otherwise gunmetal clouds. Just a pinpoint of light at the end of the tunnel, for fuck’s sake!

As I pounded my laptop lodging the 17th rejection to my growing list, dawn broke through the window arrayed in radiant blue.

 

It seemed insane for me to remain indoors banging my head against the same wall while nature beckoned me with her splendor. So I suited up, wanting to ease my distress by surrendering to her soothing embrace.

Silence is so hard to come by anymore that upon entering the wild, I try my best not to fracture its hallowed stillness, especially not with my first-world laments. As it is, our frenzied, noisy existence has made it impossible for us to figure out what to do in quietude and has rendered us insensible to nature’s austere beauty. No wonder we’re always bored and desperate to find the meaning of life. Like discarded violins in the dusty attic of our past — strings slack, tuning pegs broken, and cracked bouts — we no longer resonate, vibrate, thrum, or harmonize with nature so can’t play our once rightful part in the concert hall of Earth. Not surprised we seem bent on destroying her.

My boots sank deep in snow as I trudged around the entrance gate leading to the trail. I advanced slowly, like a camel, still ruminating. Gusts swept through the tall trees making them groan, creak, and knock against each other producing hollow sounds, toppling large clumps of snow from their branches, and churning the white powder underfoot in diaphanous swirls that pricked my face.

The wind died down. Faint ticks and rustlings, the only sounds… sacred whispers… like a symphony about to begin.

I decided to silence the fretful voices in my head, shed my human integument, and commune with the wild in spirit.

That didn’t last too long…

 

“Salvation is a sham!

Disrupting my incipient serenity, the defiant voice of Greek writer Kazantzakis boomed in my head.

Man’s worth lies in that he live and die bravely, without condescending to accept any recompense; with the certainty that no recompense exists, and that that certainty, far from making our blood run cold, must fill us with joy, pride, and manly courage.

No salvation, no hope, no expectation of recompense… how liberating must it be to live that way!

“I hope for nothing. I fear nothing. I am free!” is the epitaph on Kazantzakis’ tombstone.

Hope, for the Greeks, is not a gift. It is a calamity, a negative striving, for to hope is to remain always in a state of want, to want what we do not have, and, consequently, to remain in some sense unsatisfied and unhappy. — ‘The Wisdom of the Myths’ by Luc Ferry

As I reached the river and turned right, I recalled these words from Rudyard Kipling: “You’ll be a man,” he said, “if you can dream, and not make dreams your master; if you can meet with Triumph and Disaster and treat those two impostors just the same. If you can make one heap of all your winnings and risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss, and lose, and start again at your beginnings, and never breathe a word about your loss.”

Will I ever become such a man?

Joining the chorus of these audacious, carefree men, Nietzsche’s ‘Zarathustra’ accompanied my ascent to the highest peak of the vast wilderness I was in:

“Man is a rope stretched between the animal and the Superman — a rope over an abyss.”

“I love the great despisers,” spoke Zarathustra, “because they are the great adorers and the arrows of longing for the other shore. I love him whose soul is lavish, who wants no thanks… always bestowing and desiring not to keep for himself. I love him whose soul is deep even in the wounding. I love him who is of a free spirit and a free heart. I love him who chastens his God…”

My God is not All-holy,” echoed Kazantzakis. “He is full of cruelty and savage justice, and he chooses the best mercilessly. He is without compassion, nor does he care for virtues and ideas. He loves all these things for a moment, then smashes them eternally and passes on.”

My God is not Almighty. He struggles, for he is in peril every moment. He is full of wounds; his eyes are filled with fear and stubbornness. But he does not surrender, he ascends.”

My God is not All-knowing. His brain is a tangled skein of light and darkness which he strives to unravel in the labyrinth of the flesh.”

My God struggles on without certainty. Will he conquer? Will he be conquered? Nothing in the Universe is certain. It is our duty, on hearing his cry, to run under his flag, to fight by his side, to be lost or to be saved with him. He cannot be saved unless we save him with our own struggles; nor can we be saved unless he is saved.”

“We set out from an almighty chaos, from a thick abyss of light and darkness tangled. And we struggle — in this momentary passage of individual life — to order the chaos within us, to cleanse the abyss, to work upon as much darkness as we can within our bodies and to transmute it into light. It is not God who will save us — it is we who will save God, by battling, by creating, and by transmuting matter into spirit.”

“My prayer is not the whimpering of a beggar. My prayer is a report of a soldier to a general: ‘This is what I did today, this is how I fought to save the entire battle in my own sector, these are the obstacles I found, this is how I plan to fight tomorrow.’”

I have given my book everything I’ve got. Where will I find the strength and spirit to fight another day?

 

I reached the summit and sat down under a tree to catch my breath.

Kazantzakis’ God — not almighty, not all-knowing, not all-just and benevolent — contrasted starkly with the one I was raised to trust and believe in. The compassionate one, who answers all our prayers.

But I have since realized that the meek shall not inherit the earth. Blessed are not the poor in spirit. That justice is not always meted out on the unjust. Sinners are not always punished. Life is not game of musical chairs where everyone gets a chair. And that regardless of my best efforts, my book might never see the light of day.

I must come to terms will all this.

“Only that life is worth living, Kazantzakis said, “which develops the strength and integrity to withstand the unavoidable sufferings and misfortunes of existence without flying into an imaginary world.”

When fortune lays waste to our illusions, what can we cling to if not hope?

Sitting deep in snow and lost in thought, I felt a light tap on my head.

As if by a celestial tablecloth bluely shaken on high, a faint breeze stirred the snow-laden branches above me and let fall a glittering drizzle of miniature diamonds which kissed my face with icy pinpricks.

 

Which made me recall another defiant call, this from author John Cowper Powys: “Do thy worst, O world! Still, still, and in spite of all, will I enjoy thy beauty!”

God changes his appearance every second. Blessed is the man who can recognize him in all his disguises. At one moment he is a glass of fresh water, the next, your child bouncing on your knees, or an enchanting woman, or perhaps merely a morning walk. — Nikos Kazantzakis ‘Zorba de Greek’

I rose and began my long walk to the house in a state of agitated defiance uttering these phrases under breath:

Bring on the shitstorm, I will still enjoy the view!

I will not kneel in prayer to ask an almighty, benevolent God for good fortune. Hereon, I will make my own.

If my book flounders and dies without seeing the light of day, I will start another and then another and never breathe a word about my loss.

I will accept hardship as a man, sharpening my sword against every obstacle on my way, walking the tightrope on the edge of uncertainty viewing the abyss with a defiant stare.

If God insists on testing my resolve without cutting me some slack, I will prove my worth without hope for recompense or salvation. The ascent alone will be my reward.

Waiting for me as I walked into the house was the 18th rejection to my book. For fuck’s sake!

Fuming, I stepped out on the front porch, and with a lit cigarette insolently dangling from my lips, I flipped God the bird.

No lightning struck me.

Regaining composure, I realized my contempt was misplaced. Deserving my rebuke wasn’t God or fortune. It was myself! My ego. The slobbering beast and slavish pursuer of esteem and recompense. Surrender the beast, and you’re free!

With that, I rushed to the bathroom, stared at my insolent reflection in the mirror and flipped myself the bird.

The Call of the Wild

And the wish never to return.

It happens every time. Once in the wild, I don’t want to return to civilization.

Civilization brings out the worst in me. Frustration, anger, stress, prejudice, the need to wear a mask, to jostle and compete. My zany, playful edges rubbed dull by work and toil. My wildness tamed.

Dullness is but another name for tameness, said Henry David Thoreau.

Nature’s allure shouldn’t surprise anyone. After all, she cradled and shaped us for 99% of our time on this planet. Nature was once our home and governess; her lessons simple: harmony, quietude, zero-waste, moderation, and balanced competition. No need for therapy, Prozac, Ritalin or Xanax.

Environmental psychologists Stephen and Rachel Kaplan say it’s the visual elements in natural environments — sunsets, streams, butterflies — which reduce stress and mental fatigue. Fascinating but not too demanding, such stimuli promote a gentle, soft focus that allows our brains to wander, rest, and recover from the nervous irritation of city life. Soft fascination permits a more reflective mode and the benefit seems to carry over when we head back indoors.

Regardless, once out, I just can’t bear the thought of heading back indoors.

In the street and in society I am almost invariably cheap and dissipated, my life is unspeakably mean. No amount of gold or respectability would in the least redeem it. But alone in distant woods, I come to myself. I once more feel myself grandly related. I suppose that this value is equivalent to what others get by churchgoing and prayer. — Thoreau

City life makes me envious. Nature humbles me. City life numbs my senses. The wild awakens them.

Our sensitivities and vast compendium of knowledge gained as hunter-gatherers have been lost. We’ve retained all the fears of the savannah but none of the skills. Instead of stars, we can’t find our way now without a GPS. The world’s shrill commotion makes it impossible to listen to silence. The rugosity of tree-bark, the moss’ padding, the lichen’s scuff or the silk of a leaf have become unfamiliar. Constant exposure to the corrosive wear of artificiality has blunted our sense of smell and taste. We no longer know what to eat without consulting labels. Bleared by the glaring and flickering light of screens, our sight misses nature’s secret clues and diminishes her rich depth… diminishes us. And our entire being, jarred by a storm of histrionic images and voices that incite us 24–7 to extremes of lust, greed, envy, outrage, and fear — with increasing doses to keep us hooked — have made it impossible for us to know what exactly to do in stillness. No wonder we’re always bored, anxious, angry, or depressed. No wonder the meaning of life eludes us.

Chocon Machacas
Chocón Machacas River in Guatemala

My fascination with the wild began at an early age. Born and raised in one of the most magical spots on earth, I had ample opportunity to commune with nature.

One of my fondest childhood memories are of my solitary trips in a tiny wooden canoe through the lowland flood forest and mangrove thickets lining the narrow brown-water tributaries that fed into ‘El Golfete’ in northeast Guatemala. They ignited, I believe, my yearning for quietude and a life of vagabondage. It was a place where my senses were spellbound. Sighting turtles, spider-monkeys, toucans, macaws, parakeets; gliding on my canoe as if inside a green concert hall filled with their animated early morning chatter; dipping my hand into the tepid chocolate-colored water and feeling the growing heat of the sun rousing the dense smell of swamp, my whole body was pervious and receptive to the atavistic arousal of all those primeval and sublime sensations. Being just a boy, I wasn’t conscious of their profound effect, and that’s the crucial point. I was feeling, not thinking. It is our much-vaunted rationality that blocks our path to intimate connection.

As we grow up, we gradually lose our embodied awareness. We become brittle and live at right angles to the land. We alienate ourselves from our primal sensuousness and begin to divide the world into spirit and matter. We commodify our aliveness. No longer in seamless unity with a numinous dimension, Earth (from Latin mater or mother) becomes but a target for plunder, exploitation, and a dumpsite for human waste.

Our heedless violence against the planet might be explained by our profound and unavowed sadness for living in exile from the wild and our sensuality.

No European who has tasted savage life, can afterwards bear to live in our societies. — Benjamin Franklin

“In pre-and post-revolutionary America, Puritans loathed the natives’ simplicity, serenity, and sensuality,” suggests Barry Spector in ‘Madness at the Gates of the City,’ “for they were aspects of themselves they had banished. Because of the grief for what they had lost, or found too difficult to recover, they demonized these virtues and proceeded to remove them from view.”

When I came of age, I cut the umbilical cord tethering me to Mother Earth and sacrificed my natural sensitivities at the altar of ego, consumerism, and societal approbation. I had to lose everything twenty years later to find my way back to enchantment. Stripped of everything, I learned to succumb to nature’s wild embrace.

“The essence of the western male mind, says author and political activist Barbara Ehrenreich, “has been its ability to resist the contagious rhythm of the drums, to wall itself up in a fortress of ego and rationality against the seductive wildness of the world.”

If there’s ever a chance to save the wild, we must surrender to its seductive power and relearn nature’s wisdom. We must recover our lost scent.

I come to my solitary woodland walk as the homesick go home. — Thoreau

I answer the call of the wild and enter its hallowed space to remember where I came from and to where I must constantly return.

The Meaning of Life

Is simpler than I thought.

The riddle has vexed humans for ages.

It’s made some walk across scorching sands for weeks, goaded others to ruminate for days in caves, and made others squat under trees in lotus pose to cook up recipes for enlightenment and bliss.

Hunger Artists’ is how poet Stephen Dunn names these restless seekers.

Like chefs in a mystical season of ‘Chopped,’ they tried to turn baskets of the ingredients of life into plain but nutritious meals for humankind, all because the available food they tried tasted wrong and they knew that the world was sad.

These sages of antiquity gifted their answers to the world hoping to alleviate suffering and injustice only to see their simple dishes repeatedly ignored, perverted, rejected or disdained.

Thus, the world remains hungry, sad, bewildered, and afraid.

“He who has ears, let him hear.” — Matthew 13:9

Like those who have lost their taste buds, we cannot appreciate a plain meal. We need spicier fare to awaken our numbed sensibilities. What stirs us most is fear. The fear of death is what sends us rushing back to the kitchen.

Spooked by our mortality, we have kept writing elaborate myths, rigid doctrines and incomprehensible philosophies to try to make sense of the universal law of entropy: “from dust thou art and unto dust shalt thou return.”

We conjure kingdoms in the sky where, for eternity, we will continue bedeviling the universe with questions of meaning accompanied by harp music or in sultry embrace with seventy-two virgins.

Imagination cannot grasp simple nothingness and must therefore fill the world with fantasies. — Alan Watts

Like troublesome, high-brow English professors, we appear incapable of savoring the poem of life in all its ‘nonsensical,’ majestic simplicity, so insist on pounding meaning out of it with the rubber hose of our arrogant incomprehension. In the vast cosmic scheme, human impermanence and insignificance drives us mad.

Meanwhile, the rest of life looks with mute dread at this aberration of nature, sensing its fate now irrevocably in the self-destructive hands of an unhinged primate with anger management issues.

Imprisoned in the torturous chambers of our minds, we continue burning the midnight oil writing scrolls and scrolls of answers to the meaning of life while the gifts of life pass us unaware. Shuttered inside our egocentric caves, we remain deaf and blind to the divine spectacle happening all around us every second of every day.

God changes his appearance every second. Blessed is the man who can recognize him in all his disguises. At one moment he is a glass of fresh water, the next, your child bouncing on your knees, or an enchanting woman, or perhaps merely a morning walk. — Nikos Kazantzakis ‘Zorba de Greek’

A simple recipe, like “love is the religion and the universe is the book” baked by the poet Rumi, sounds too straightforward. It cannot be that simple, can it? No! We must write more complicated rules, morals, and injunctions to govern our abnormal appetites. We need to create heavenly overlords after our own image who can keep us from harming ourselves and others. Certainly, we cannot govern ourselves without the looming threat of eternal damnation braised in fire and brimstone.

This madness is exclusive to our species: Homo Absurdus.

For all my walks in nature, I have yet to come across stone tablets, codices or surahs written by weasels or worms — not even by the wisest owls — to regulate their lives. They seem miraculously able to do so on their own. Perhaps this is why I have also not seen temples, mosques, churches, synagogues, sex shops, opium dens, torture chambers, prisons, rehab clinics, mindfulness retreats or therapy couches out in the wild.

You’re behaving like an animal! has always smacked me as praise rather than opprobrium.


ME imperturbe!” scoffed poet Walt Whitman. “Standing at ease in Nature, aplomb in the midst of irrational things. Finding my occupation, poverty, notoriety, foibles, and crimes less important than I thought.

“Me, wherever my life is lived, O to be self-balanced for contingencies! To confront night, storms, hunger, ridicule, accidents, rebuffs, as trees and animals do.”

Afoot and lighthearted, Whitman traveled the Open Road unencumbered by the doctrines without which humans seem unable to joyfully navigate their brief time on earth.

“Now I re-examine philosophies and religions,” Whitman declared. “They may prove well in lecture-rooms, yet not prove at all under the spacious clouds and along the landscape and flowing currents.

“The earth, that is sufficient!

I do not want the constellations any nearer,

I know they are very well where they are,

I know they suffice for those who belong to them.

Whitman lived his eternity in the here-and-now. He hoped for nothing, feared nothing, and was therefore free. “Healthy, free!” he exulted. “The long brown path before me leading wherever I choose. Henceforth I ask not good-fortune, I myself am good-fortune. Henceforth I whimper no more, postpone no more, need nothing!

The prophet who wandered for forty days in the scorching sands of the Judean Desert returned with an equally simple message: Wake up! Yours is the kingdom as soon as you recover the delight of childhood and live with presence.

An uncarved block of wood was Daoism’s response to our insistence of making our lives unnecessarily complex.

To the question of the meaning of life, the Buddha responded by holding up a white flower.

The briefest sermon never ends.

A wake-up call, a chunk of wood, and a stinking flower… is that it? Surely there’s more to the meaning of life than that! We need more rigid dogmas and heady philosophies, more ritual, more prayer, longer liturgies and a horde of cowled middlemen or supercilious interpreters to make sense of it all. We need miracle, mystery, and authority as said Dostoevsky in ‘The Grand Inquisitor.’

Having arrested and imprisoned Jesus after he returned to walk among his fellow men once more, the Grand Inquisitor reprimanded the Christ:

Thou didst desire man’s free love, that he should follow Thee freely. [That] in place of the rigid ancient law, man must hereafter, with free heart, decide for himself what is good and what is evil, having only Thy image before him as his guide. [Didn’t you] know that he would reject Thy image and Thy truth if he [were] weighed down with the fearful burden of free choice? Thou didst ask far too much from him. [Man] is weak and vile.

The “free choice” mocked by Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor is the divine instinct German writer Georg Groddeck called “Gott Natur” or God nature — our kinship with the rest of life and our capacity to tell right from wrong and good vs evil without needing to hit the stacks or run to a confessional to confirm our intuition.

If those who lead you say, ‘See, the kingdom is in the sky,’ then the birds of the sky will precede you. If they say to you, ‘It is in the sea,’ then the fish will precede you. Rather, the kingdom is inside of you, and it is outside of you. — Gospel of Thomas

In ‘The Gospel of Jesus,’ Stephen Mitchell says “the portrait of Jesus that emerges from the Gospels is of a man who has emptied himself of desires, doctrines, rules — all the mental claptrap and spiritual baggage that separate us from true life. When Jesus talked about the Kingdom of God, he was not prophesying about some easy, danger-free perfection that will someday appear. He was talking about a state of being… a way of living at ease among the joys and sorrows of our world.”

Other hunger artists were pretty much saying the same thing.

Kazantzakis said life is only worth living if we develop the strength and the integrity to withstand the unavoidable sufferings and misfortunes of existence without flying to an imaginary world.

Philosopher Alan Watts suggested the world is an ever-elusive and ever-disappointing mirage only from the standpoint of someone standing aside from it, and then trying to grasp it.

For Greek poet Homer, life was a succession of contingencies. He believed our lives are ruled by fate and chance. Shit happens and life’s not that hard or complicated. Socrates, however, could not accept this, so he invented morality, says John Gray in ‘Straw Dogs.’

Instead of wasting precious time searching for “eternal truths” or formulating redundant morals, Gray points to the simple lives of other animals as the source of ethics. “The beginnings of justice, prudence, moderation, bravery — in short, of all we designate as the Socratic virtues — are animal.”

 

As I write this, the first snowstorm is blanketing the meadow beyond my window. Unperturbed by questions of meaning and purpose, a pair of thick-furred deer nibble hungrily at the last tufts of grass. The forest is serene and placid except for a prudent squirrel hurrying to store the few remaining acorns. The black bear must already be snugly burrowed, dreaming of sunshine, golden honey, and the exultant spectacle of spring wildflowers.

It brings to mind the comfort author E.B. White said he found “with the pleasing thought that to live in New England in winter is a full-time job; you don’t have to do anything. The idle pursuit of making a living is pushed to one side, where it belongs, in favor of living itself; a task of such immediacy and beauty that one is powerless to resist its wild embrace.”

And it makes me wonder…

Do we, by nature, already carry the blueprint for bliss?

Might the meaning of life be truly found once we recover our divine instinct and live with childlike presence?

Is the purpose of life, simply, to be?


Read my Winter Solstice meditation in celebration of the birth of Jesus.

Happy Birthday J!

A Winter Solstice Meditation

I write this on the Winter Solstice as the sun reaches its lowest point and darkness prevails over light. On this day, I perform a simple ritual: I sit in quietude, light a candle, and read the words of Jesus.

Does that make me a Christian or Catholic?

No more than reading Buddha’s teachings makes me a Buddhist.

Does it matter?

It seems to me that walking away from a banquet just because we don’t like the way the table is set or disagree with the prescribed table manners makes us lose out on a wonderful meal — we throw out the baby with the bathwater and go hungry.

That baby is Jesus’ message, now drowned in the bustle of Black Fridays and Cyber Mondays on the one hand, or co-opted and distorted on the other by religious dogma into petrified historicity and rarefied into canonical balderdash making his words as insubstantial and malnourishing as a communion wafer. Under these conditions, it is not surprising that his message goes mostly unheeded and that the world remains hungry, sad, bewildered, and afraid.

My ritual is my way of finding a space to my own at the table, in a quiet corner far away from both the commercial din and religious sorcery. Once there, I eat with my hands, sink my teeth into Jesus’ flesh, and suck the marrow of his wisdom. I require no intermediaries to partake in the banquet, no miracles or High-Priest authority and no translation necessary. Like a plain loaf of bread, his words are simple, yet all-nourishing.

A ritual is the enactment of a myth, a symbolic image or narrative of the possibilities of human experience. By participating in the myth, I am put in accord with that wisdom.

The Winter Solstice marks the day when the sun ends its southernmost decline. Tomorrow, it will turn back north and begin its ascending cycle making light prevail over darkness once again. That is why, on December 25, ancient Romans celebrated the festival of Dies Natalis Solis Invicti — The Birthday of the Unconquered Sun.

It never ceases to baffle me how, right around this time, the tiresome debate about the exact date of Jesus’ birth is stirred once again, further drowning his message under inane calendrical calculations or through attempts to debunk the Nativity narrative by pointing at the presence of sheep at the manger claiming they would have been corralled and not left out on such a cold night in Bethlehem.

Again, does it matter?

By focusing on the factual, the symbolic meaning is lost, and we deny ourselves its gifts.

I like to think of December 25 as the birth of what is possible in human experience; of the greater light we can kindle in ourselves to shine upon the world. Among Jesus’ teachings, I am always drawn more strongly by this one:

“Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

This is great news! That the highest peaks of human transformation are within our reach and not in some remote place at some distant point in the future once we’ve perfected our harp-playing skills.

When some Pharisees asked Jesus when God’s kingdom would come, he answered: “God’s kingdom isn’t something you can see. There is no use saying, ‘Look! Here it is,’ or ‘Look! There it is.’ God’s kingdom is here, with you.”

In the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas, Jesus elaborates: “If those who lead you say — ‘See, the kingdom is in heaven,’ then the birds of the heaven will go before you; if they say to you: ‘It is in the sea,’ then the fish will go before you. The kingdom is within you.”

It’s the same idea contained in the Sanskrit phrase ‘Tat Tvam Asi’ of the sacred Chandogya Upanishad (c. 600 BCE) — ‘Thou Art That,’ meaning that the Self, in its primordial state, is identifiable with the Ultimate Reality and ground of all phenomena. You’re it! basically. Or as Carl Sagan famously said, “we’re all stardust feeding off starlight.”

The Hindu sage Ramana Maharshi said that an ordinary Christian won’t be satisfied unless he is told that God is somewhere far off in the heavens, not to be reached by us unaided. If he is told the simple truth, that “the kingdom of heaven is within you,” he is not satisfied, and will read complex and far-fetched meanings into it. Only mature minds can grasp the simple truth in all its nakedness.

After Jesus delivers his simple truth, he offers the key to this inner realm:

“Change and become like little children.”

I take his words as an invitation to return to my primordial state. Back to the way I was before the blank slate of my innocence was scarred with the ‘thou shalls’ and ‘thou shalt nots of the world.

Back to the time I could take a boy by the hand and not find it unseemly. When neither race nor station dictated who I could play with. When I was quick to anger but quicker to forgive. Full of passion and compassion. When I could cry without shame. When days were eternal because my gaze apprehended only the present. When everything appeared new and I lived in a constant state of awe and delight. When I did not understand money so simple things gave me joy. The time when I didn’t pretend to have all the answers and was thus humble and insatiably curious. When I was trustful, accepting, authentic, vulnerable, unselfconscious, and had not lost my capacity for wonder. That sublime stage in life when we still believe in invisible friends and dare build castles in the sky with magic bricks made of phrases like, ‘I wonder…, What if…, and If only…’

The lens through which most of us apprehend the world is what blocks our way back into that holy realm by being blurred by the blight and shadow of an endless Winter’s Solstice — the blight of cynicism, apathy, egoism, pretense, prejudice, intolerance, fears, false pride, vanities and our unbridled greed.

The Unconquered Sun will never ascend if we do not clear its path from all that junk.

“If an honest-minded man is really concerned about evil and injustice in the world,” proposed writer Fernando Pessoa, “he will naturally begin his campaign by eliminating them at their nearest source: himself.”

That’s the reason I light a candle during my ritual — to illume my way back to the source. And that is why, on December 25, I will celebrate Jesus’ birthday.

And you, wherever you are, I wish you a Merry Christmas and invite you to sit at the banquet and feast.


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