February 1, 2019
Because I am insatiably curious, I have been reading a good deal about spirituality and religion lately. This hasn’t necessarily helped guide me through my ongoing work transition and life transformation, but it has allowed me to make a bit more sense of the world in which I have found myself.
From renowned Christian thinker C. S. Lewis, I learned about the importance of “Repentance,” which Lewis describes as “unlearning all the self-conceit and self-will that we have been training ourselves into for thousands of years. It means killing part of yourself, undergoing a kind of death.” Repentance was necessary for me to reinvent my relationship to the many vices that were plaguing my life. Essentially, to become a better version of myself, a part of me had to die.
That part of me is not one I will miss or mourn, but the memory of it will always stay with me as a reminder. And with its passing, I also found a greater capacity for “Prudence” or “practical common sense, taking the trouble to think out what you are doing and what is likely to come of it.” This had not been one of my strong suits for a very long time. But my life is important to me, and so are the relationships that make it worth living. This new tendency towards forethought found its way into most aspects of my life, most importantly, my career and romantic relationships.
And as I move forward with a my new, more-examined life, “Temperance,” which Lewis would say “referred not specially to drink, but to all pleasures; and it meant not abstaining, but going the right length and no further,” has become of high importance. Something I have accepted about myself is that I am far better at abstinence than I am moderation, however, I am continuously striving to change that.
Yes, abstinence from alcohol and drugs was the right choice for me, and will continue to be until I decide otherwise. And staunch discipline is great, and has taken me a long way, but rational self-control is better and more conventional. The goal is to find a place where I am in complete control, and do not need to abstain from anything. I thoroughly do not enjoy dealing in absolutes of any kind, which also makes the beliefs and boundaries of most Christian religions difficult for me to embrace.
Let us for a minute relieve ourselves of the burden of the binary beliefs of religion. Let us forget about the common conceptions of that system we have been inclined to believe, and embrace the possibility of an unsourced interconnectedness between all things. As philosopher and outdoorsman Alan Watts reminds us: “For this is the sensation which, however garbled and perverted, is the impulse underlying the great religious traditions of the world—the sensation of basic inseparability from the total Universe.”
What would be the harm in believing that everything and everyone is harmoniously connected, while everything that happens to us is inherently random? What if existence was made up of an infinite number of random connections that manifest themselves into what we consider to be our lives?
Unfortunately for us, that would mean we do not deserve any of the good things that happen to us, and we, essentially, have no explanation for the bad. “It’s the same as when we play cards,” Watts wrote. “At the beginning of the game we shuffle them all into a mess, which is like the bad things in the world, but the point of the game is to put the mess into good order, and the one who does it best is the winner. Then we shuffle the cards once more and play again, and so it goes with the world.”
When searching for answers in regards to who or what is responsible for the joys and sorrows of my life, I look in. Because the elements we are made up of are also found in the very fabric of the Universe and everything contained within it. Or as iconic astrophysicist Carl Sagan wrote in Cosmos, “The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars. We are made of starstuff.”
Looking upward to the stars, full of wonder and curiosity, is the same as looking into the depths of our own minds. “The exploration of the Cosmos is a voyage of self-discovery,” Sagan mused. We have infinite power, yet, at the same time, we are infinitely powerless. We are the most magnificent creatures to ever walk the the face of our planet but also one of the most fragile.
In The Meaning of Happiness, Watts wrote that “In lifting his finger [man] uses the same power that hurls the stars through space and causes their fire, that bellows in thunder and whispers in wind, that produces a giant tree from the microscopic germ of a seed, and wears away mountains to thin clouds of dust. In whatever he feels, thinks, or does he cannot cut himself off from that power.”
The power to see the miracle of what we actually are, outside of the restrictions of religious doctrine or social norms, is ours to wield. We can reject the notions of what we should do to fit in, and in quiet reflection decide to open ourselves up to what we know we ought to do. We are in a constant existential dialogue with nature and our fellow man, but, unfortunately, we have outrun our evolutionary headlights by so much that we may be the first intelligent species to architect our own demise.
Life is going to happen to you just the way it does and no other. To fear the unknown is to go to bed each night with a fear of waking the next morning. I have made as many poor decisions in my life as I have responsible ones; and wonderful and terrible things have happened to me and around me at seemingly random intervals because of this.
Most of the surreal and beautiful moments in my life happened not because I attempted to engineer them but because I was open and unafraid. At times, this fearlessness and openness has caused myself and others unnecessary problems and pain, but other times it has blessed me with experiences so profound that my descriptions hardly do them justice.
In the end, I am not sure if openness can exist without tragedy—or vice versa. So, for now, I will stay curious.
*Reading the post prior to this one, “Wheels Up,” will help make sense of some of the incoherence of this one. Probably.