A fundamental tenant of Buddhism is the insistence that the basic condition of life is suffering. Whatever joys there are in life are transient; we always fall back into our suffering condition sooner rather than later. Why then wouldn’t we pursue pleasure as often as we do, at seemingly great risk at times? Why do any of us decide to skydive or climb Everest when the risk includes death? Why does any spouse pursue an affair when the cost is the (relatively) stability of a relationship? Do we enjoy pain? Does uncertainty turn us on? Civilization says we want to avoid pain. Civilization says we should seek stability. But what we really want is to end our suffering and avoiding pain isn’t necessarily related to that. What we want is to feel alive. We want to burn.
Perhaps for many of us, life is not so bad. It could certainly be worse. But when we are caught in between a life that for all intents and purposes is neither here nor there, our lives are mundane, where what’s mundane is, in actuality, low level suffering. The crime is, many of us are aware of this fact. When we realize our lives are in fact mundane, trapped, we ask ourselves, “Is this all there is?” We want there to be more even if we don’t know what that ‘more’ is supposed to include.
When I was a child, I was not someone who gave much thought to the future beyond supposing I’d be married and own a home by the time I was 24. Although such an idea was overly optimistic in hindsight, at least I did not imagine I would ever be someone of any importance. I was never, in my own estimation, destined for great things. Don’t get me wrong, I wanted to be. I just never really saw it. My most ambitious goal was to get through life and at the end, be considered a good man by myself, my family and friends. If I hoped for anything in pursuit of that goal, it would have been for life to be more enjoyable than not along the way.
I remember playing in a rock band when I was in the army. We weren’t very good, which is a polite way of saying that we were awful. Despite our individual talents – Ford was a very capable drummer at only 19 years old, D.B. could play guitar and bass, Lee, the spirited girl-next-door led vocals, while I wasn’t too bad at arranging songs which allowed more talented people forgive my slushy six-string renditions of “Sweet Child O’ Mine” – we never gelled enough as a singular unit to warrant popularity outside the confines of our remote outpost in Germany. Still, we were considered by the rest of the troop to be something akin to rock stars, people other people wanted to be around, presumably because those people had nothing better to do even though they lived in Europe. To my amazement, this led to several ‘concerts’ in which we performed in front of a live audience. Our second ‘show’ is particularly memorable to me, as it was the first time we played on an actual stage. The idea of playing a gig always intimidated me as it could take a while before I settled down to play well before even a few people. On this occasion the heat of the stage lights quickly began to distract me as I’d never experienced such lighting before. By the third song into our set list, the stage lights were too hot for me, so before the next song I whipped my long sleeve shirt off to the mock cat-calls of first platoon. This annoyed me for just a moment until I heard Ford’s drum sticks click 1, 2, 3, 4. Then we launched into a cover of The Kinks “You Really Got Me” which seemed to whip first platoon into a frenzy. (First platoon was legendary for their drinking skills and subsequent madness.) They approached the stage en masse and began pounding their fists on the stage and snapping their heads to the beat of the music. Their thunder rocked the stage and reverberated through my bones. Their energy electrified me. They fed me and I fed them back. That’s when time slowed down. For a few seconds, long seconds, time slowed down as I looked across the hall we were playing in and noticed that the people in the back were also enjoying the show. I don’t recall finishing the song but I do remember that I was literally exhilarated on that stage. That memory is one of the few times I can remember in which I felt absolutely, truly, inexorably alive.
That memory is also fleeting. I remember it is there, that is was, but of what use is it to me now? A memory is intangible and re-lived speciously at best. Having slipped into that fateful pattern civilizations lay out for us, such moments of aliveness become fewer and further in between. Eventually, many of us float through life, comfortable in the knowledge of what we’re supposed to do, which I will grant keeps us safe. It has kept me safe. But the cost has become who I am, where what I am has only been revealed when I have felt alive. But the world is set up in such a way that I have spend much of my time not feeling alive. Halfway through my life, I have begun to see how dearly this has cost me, how much of my true nature has been buried so deep it feels like it cannot be dug up again. I have forgotten that my identity is not fixed by my perceptions or the perceptions of others. I have realized that the person I am that is happy is defined by the actions that make me feel alive. But it seems as though I have forgotten what those actions are. I am no longer alive because I do not practice the things that make me happy; I am no longer alive having foregone almost all risk. Or perhaps this is all a mental affliction that comes naturally with age, the search for an explanation to the loss of the vitality and promise of one’s youth. Perhaps it is the case that I cannot accept who or what I am – ordinary – not destined for great things, or worse, unable to do them. It is one thing to have foreseen this. It is quite another to actually live it.
What remedy is there? It has not proven fortuitous to wait for one’s luck to change. I have to do things. The older generations frown heavily upon millennials of whom they write such scathing headlines, Millennials spend more on experiences than home ownership. Of course the aged will curse the youth for doing what they should have all those years ago. But the lesson to be learned here is that I – you, me, we – have to do things. The world, as it swirls around me, is not enough. It is I who have to swirl around the world. We can’t both be vortexes. Or maybe we can. Of course, it would be an utter storm; risky. And maybe that riskiness would make me feel alive again. I – you, me, we – just have to pull the trigger. The gun might be loaded, but risking the worst is the only way to feel alive.
“Nothing in the world is worth having or worth doing unless it means effort, pain, difficulty… I have never in my life envied a human being who led an easy life. I have envied a great many people who led difficult lives and led them well.” – Theodore Roosevelt
All Rights Reserved © July 2018 John J Vinacci