Life is like getting on a boat that is about to sink.
“The idea of death, the fear of it, haunts the human animal like nothing else; it is a mainspring of human activity–designed largely to avoid the fatality of death, to overcome it by denying in some way that it is the final destiny of man.”
We are mirror mortals, the first known species with the capacity to imagine the full arc of life and to know in definitive detail that we die. We get on the boat; we row with great enthusiasm knowing that no matter our destiny, our real destiny is the inky deep. We invest in our journey, conscious that we must eventually divest.
And it isn’t just the one death. Getting on a boat that is about to sink is a fractal experience played out in the arc of minutes, hours, years, eras, epochs and millennia. Every day something dies. You lose your glasses, your friend snubs you, you realize that the thing that thrilled you yesterday isn’t great after all. Over the months, too, the people and joys come and go. Then each of us dies. Our families die. Our civilizations fall. Our species. The universe itself is terminal. Everything we embrace as exciting and new comes with its time-release aging, decay, and breakdown. When you buy a pet dog you buy a pet dog’s death.
None of this would matter if we never got on the boat. But here we are. We care. When we fall in love, investing, it’s like a taste of heaven—joy eternal. When we break up, divesting of each other, it’s a little taste of hell—dissolution eternal. The deeper you go in the more it hurts to come out. Whether we choose to divest or divestment is thrust upon us, there it is, the inevitable, looming no matter where we go.
This view of life fits with disconcerting snugness. Because we throw our lot in with the garden, we grieve when we’re cast out of it. Because we accelerate into what enthuses us, our brakes squeal and our wheels shudder when we are forced to stop. Union is sweet, disunion is sour. Yes, no one gets out alive, but also no one gets out without great grief and loss, and here we are, knowing we’ll be evicted eventually. And what can we do about it?
I’ve had a hard time with the word “Spiritual.” Powerful but ill-defined words make me wary. Since I can’t find much consensus about what it means, I feel at liberty to offer my own definition. Spirituality is one’s overall strategy for coping with the challenge of investing, knowing that one must eventually divest. Spirituality is a kind of preparation, a pre-grieving. Defined this way, I see three main spiritual paths, each with myriad variations, but still ultimately just three:
Make One Eternal Investment: Build a pillar of belief to hold onto, one thing from which one never divests for all eternity, something that can’t be credibly challenged or tested and proved wanting, something that explains why people leave and people die and why there has to be so much pain and disappointment and letting go, a belief perhaps that explains how it will all make sense by and by or will be made equitable in the world beyond, a belief that makes the world beyond—the eternal realm–one’s primary focus, aiming us toward its purpose ever after and toward the happily ever after that we expect to come from serving its purpose ever after.
2. Let Go Into Thin slices: Since letting go is the hard part, make a practice of divesting. Practice divesting by being present in every instant. Excise memory (of what’s lost) or projection (to what’s in store). Be here now, quieting the hungry ghosts of intellect and conception. Become one with nature which doesn’t think, theorize, speculate or foresee, but just is. Return to animal simplicity. In pain, simply say “ouch.” In pleasure simply say “ah.” Don’t generalize or theorize about implications. Know the arc but live in the moment, the cross sections, one slice of life at a time.
3. Make a study of the arc: Put one’s grief in context of the patterns structures and trends of human and natural affairs. Study that larger context with heart and head full open, feeling waves of sorrow and joy and thinking about and analyzing the waves, using your intellect and capacity for conception, giving voice to hungry ghosts, the desire to understand, and to manage, to minimize grief but also to face it squarely. Study it through the many disciplines, culture’s long arguments, quests, debates and accounts, the peculiarly stubborn attempts to see clearly that constitute intellectual culture. Cut a path through big time, the “long and wide now” by absorbing evolutionary biology, intellectual history, philosophy, anthropology, and above all, literature. Become worldly so that you can say of whatever life deals you, “Yes, this too life has in its vast and intricate creative capacities.”
Every once in a while people ask me if I’m spiritual or have a spiritual practice. By their definition I think they’re asking about the first two kinds, in which case my answer is an obvious no. But I balk a little because though the third kind is in some ways an anathema to the first two, it feels like my spiritual path, so I haven’t known exactly what to say.
My deepest spiritual experience came by reading a novel about a normal couple divorcing. It was during my first mid-life crisis (I’ve had two and am expecting one more). My wife was in love with someone very spiritual. My marriage and my career were both falling apart. My eldest son was showing signs of severe chemical imbalance. My expectations of success as a man felt snuffed. I was terribly uncomfortable in my skin, crying every day, an embarrassment to my wife and children, an endless font of anxiety imposed on my friends.
I had to get away and decided to spend a month in rural Guatemala where I had worked in my early 20’s. En route I stopped off to see my brother, an English Professor living in Chicago. He asked me what I brought to read on my journey. I showed him my books, all Buddhist tracts. “These are all so aspirational,” he said. “Why not read some fiction?” He gave me a book of short stories by John Updike spanning the arc of an ordinary marriage. It captured people just as we are. It laid us wide open in precise non-judgmental detail, including all our shocking neediness and coldness and yet free from authorial scorn. It was people just seen.
On a bus from Guatemala City to Livingston, a long drive that flew by I was thoroughly absorbed, feeling as one with us, but not in some platitudinously abstract “we are all one” kind of way. Rather, intimate with the details, and generalizing intellectually with my heart wide open experiencing the full catastrophe of being one of us, fearful in our embraces, haunted by the pairing of investment and divestment. It was grace, forgiveness from the universe, but grace in the fine details set in the context of the real predicament, not in God’s sweeping and peculiar forgiveness for His making us wrong on purpose.
On my spiritual path, Updike is a master, as are so many practitioners of fiction. Though I now work among theorists and scientists, philosophers and psychologists, I contend that no theoretical or scientific or spiritual work is anywhere near as capable of representing what this is, this life of ours, than good fiction. Literature is a yoga, a soulnerd’s intellectual-spiritual practice of contour-fitting what we know to what is so.