As humanity throbs with muted agony and chokes breathless in the grip of fear, a way forward breaks through the muck, lit by the timeless wisdom of those who came before us and prevailed against the dark.
Twin dragons guard the gateway to deliverance: Our Fear of Death and our Fear of Want. Vanquish those, and you’re free.
Before the great flaming battle, though, you must first rid yourself from the deluded chain-armor of immutability — the foolish insistence that things return to how they were before Covid-19.
“To resist change, to try to cling to life and non-existent certainties, is like holding your breath,” wrote philosopher Alan Watts in ‘The Age of Anxiety.’ “It must be obvious from the start that there is a contradiction in wanting to be perfectly secure in a Universe whose very nature is momentariness and fluidity. If you want to be secure — that is, protected from the flux of life — it means you are also wanting to be separate from life. A society based on the quest for security and permanence is nothing but a breath-retention contest in which everyone is taut as drum and as purple as a beet.”
Show me a static system in nature and you will have shown me a dead one. Best steer clear from stagnant waters for they breed nothing but pestilence.
Granted, the pain the pandemic has brought to the world is bitter. But equally distasteful were the dishes served to humankind by past plagues, wars, famines, great depressions… Life, my friend, is not a buffet where we get to choose what to eat. It’s a sit down dinner where we must eat what we’re served. If you refuse this universal truth, there is no point in reading further.
But assuming you accept this fundamental principle, let us charge ahead and lock horns with the twin dragons of death and want.
Many people walk through life dismissing death as nothing but an unfounded rumor. They imagine themselves as granite pillars, meant to last forever and so squander precious time in meaninglessness. Waste time, kill time, dither and delay. ‘Just wait a little, wait a while’… they stall their hoped for dreams and repressed longings. But while and while have no end and time waits for no man.
“Some people forget to live as if a great arsenic lobster could fall on their heads at any moment.” — Federico García Lorca
If we are to learn anything from this pandemic, let it be the shocking awareness of our mortality, not ‘someday’, but at any given moment. On every doorstep, rich and poor alike, Covid-19 has placed a Memento Mori: a stirring reminder that our precious life can end in a blink.
“Let that determine what we do and say and think,” counseled Roman emperor and Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius, for there is no time for anything but meaningful acts if we live with death as our eternal companion, added Carlos Castaneda, centuries later. These profound truths should suffice to make us purge the flashy items in our bucket list and replace them with what truly matters.
Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life? — Mary Oliver
It helps if one sees life as a book, says American poet Stephen Crane. “Just as a book is bounded by its covers — by beginning and end — so our lives are bounded by birth and death. You can only know the moments in between. It makes no sense to fear what is outside those covers and you needn’t worry how long the book is or whether it’s a comic strip or an epic. The only thing that matters is that you make it a good story.”
As with death, so we must vanquish our fear of want.
When I was 36, my world was upended when I lost everything in a financial crash and found myself adrift in exile in a foreign country with less than a penny to my name, no safety net, and solely responsible for the well-being of my wife and two young daughters. That was twenty years ago. I figured it out, so can you.
I learned that fortune is a capricious, deceptive, unsentimental bitch. One day she bestows upon us all the gifts from the horn of plenty, and the next, jolts the tiller of our lives and throws us off course. Although it took me a while, I finally adopted the worldview Stoic philosopher Seneca did centuries ago. “Never have I trusted Fortune,” he declared, “even when she seemed to offer peace. All those blessings she bestowed on me — money, public office, influence — I relegated to a place whence she could claim them back without bothering me. I kept a wide gap between them and me, with the result that she has taken them away, not torn them away.”
“It is not the man who has too little, but the man who craves more, that is poor,” Seneca added. “Do you ask what is the proper limit to wealth? First, to have what is necessary, and, second, to know what is enough.”
A poor man is someone who fears poverty. — Nikos Kazantzakis
I no longer fear for want, having learned the hard way what poet Mary Ellen Edmunds wisely noted: “that you can never get enough of what you didn’t need in the first place.”
Now that Covid-19 has upended my life one more time, it finds me calm and serene, lit with that inner peace Greek philosopher Epictetus said “begins when we stop saying of things, ‘I have lost it,’ and instead say, ‘It has been returned to where it came from.’”
I’m like an old anvil, if you will, laughing at the many broken hammers which keep trying (and failing) to break me. I remain unperturbed, like the carefree poet Walt Whitman who waxed defiant in his ‘Song of the Open Road’:
“ME imperturbe!” he scoffed “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.”
Whitman wisely detached himself from his problems. “That’s the idea! said writer Henry Miller. “Why try to solve a problem? Dissolve it! Bathe it in a saline solution of neglect, contempt, and indifference.”
This rugged soul also 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!”
On his spirited journey, Whitman put the sword to the dragons blocking the gateway to blissful aliveness: the twin fears of death and want.
No difficulty can discourage, no obstacle dismay, no trouble dishearten the man who has acquired the art of being alive. Difficulties are but dares of fate, obstacles but hurdles to try his skill, troubles but bitter tonics to give him strength; and he rises higher and looms greater after each encounter with adversity. — Ella Wheeler Wilcox
There’s no point, I’m afraid, in pining for life to return to normal after the pandemic ends. No time to bury our heads in the sand, there to entertain false hopes and illusions. “Only that life is worth living which develops the strength and integrity to withstand the unavoidable sufferings and misfortunes of existence without flying into an imaginary world,” said Greek writer Nikos Kazantzakis.
But while we can’t go back and change the beginning, we can start where we are and change the ending. Seeing we’re all teetering on the edge of uncertainty, why not consider the edge as a point of transition? as Sam Keen suggests in ‘Learning to Fly.’
“We are filled with seeds,” he says. “With potentialities, promises, talents that lie dormant for half a lifetime waiting for the right time to germinate. As a place to live, the edge combines risk and promise, fear and desire. It is a place of openness to what is new; of a willingness to expand our sense of the possible; a place where the ego is constantly dying and being reborn; where constriction gives way to inspiration.”
Rather than with paralyzing dread, why not confront this moment of suffering with a swelling sense of promise and adventure and seize the opportunity to write a new chapter in our lives?
What grants life its beauty and magic is not the absence of terror and tumult, but the grace and elegance with which we navigate the gauntlet. — Maria Popova
In the muck of our present tumult, let’s steel ourselves by gracefully accepting the invitation extended by Puerto Rican poet José de Diego:
“If sorrow beats you down,
if weariness numbs your limbs,
do like the dead tree: grow green again,
or like the buried germ: throb!
Reemerge, cheer, shout, march, fight,
vibrate, sway, growl, sparkle.
Do like the river when it rains: swell!
or like the sea against the rock: break!
At the irascible push of the storm,
you are not to bleat like a feeble lamb,
instead you are to roar like a wild beast.
Rise, resist, provoke!
Do like the corralled bull: bellow!
or like the bull that can’t bellow: charge!”
As our lives and world tumble, heave and toss in the storm, there seems little else we can do but rise, roar and charge, slay the twin dragons, and sail bravely through the gateway onto seas of adventure.
Jeffrey Erkelens is the creator of ‘The Hero in You,’ a book and warrior’s manual for boys meant to initiate them into an evolved expression of manhood and train them on the character strengths needed to live spirited lives of noble purpose. Follow the book’s heroic journey to publication.