“It is only possible to succeed at second-rate pursuits - like becoming a millionaire or a prime minister, winning a war, seducing a beautiful woman, flying through the stratosphere or landing on the moon. First-rate pursuits - involving, as they must, trying to understand what life is about and trying to convey that understanding - inevitably result in a sense of failure. A Napoleon, a Churchill, a Roosevelt can feel themselves to be successful, but never a Socrates, a Pascal, a Blake. Understanding is ever unattainable. Therein lies the inevitability of failure in embarking upon its quest, which is none the less the only one worthy of serious attention.”
With that I return. Not with a trumpet and throaty throng but quietly, as though by moonlight, avoiding the squeaky step.
“Is that you? (groggily) What time is it?”
“Go back to sleep honey.”
I’ve sprung the trap and survived, and escaped, and so here I am. Home again. The trap is obvious, and in plain sight, but I am forgetful. Each time I look at it I see the glint on the teeth but not the teeth themselves. The glint is bright and shiny and I am a dim, dumb animal. Probability, or Nature, or Destiny, or whatever you’ve labeled the comically inadequate mason jar in which you hold this concept- things take their course.
What can I say?
You turn your head sometimes, as if hearing a coo or whisper, and looking toward the window, expecting to see some winged thing perched on your windowsill, you see instead your own reflection. You see your life and it startles you more than any winged thing would. It is not what you expected to see, but worse it’s not even what you’d expect a life to look like. Its proportions are all wrong, its color off, its shape odd; In truth it looks like nothing you’ve ever seen before. It looks foreign, and in as much, frightening. But it is your life still, and it’s as if in this unexpected moment you were glimpsing it for the first time.
Of course this is all Balderdash, or Poppycock, or Bullshit, or whatever you’ve labeled your most treasured mason jar- you’ve seen this ugly thing before.
I’m forgetful, as I’ve already mentioned. When I momentarily see past the well-tooled facade, past the fortification of amusements and distractions, over and beyond the ramparts of routine, I get spooked.
More often than not I react to this reoccurring revelation in a predictable way. I cycle through my mason jars, popping their lids in quick succession- Confusion, Annoyance, Anger, Regret, Longing, Sadness. Their smells waft through my rooms, swirling, blending into complex and potent combinations. What began as merely disturbing, through my panic, becomes overwhelming. Like the dim, dumb animal I am I seek a dark place, hidden from predatory eyes, where I can gather myself and think.
Q: “Ever wondered what turns straight-forward drama into melodrama?”
A: “It’s the attempt at spreading a small portion of honest pain over every banal nook and cranny of the proceedings, creating a thin smear, rather than letting it lay, as a thick dollop, just where it naturally landed. That and the bad metaphors of course!”
So where was I?
Oh yes, In my forgetfulness I’d sprung the trap.
There is an incorrect assumption I repeatedly make, which is that through sheer force of will, given enough time and space, I can understand, dismantle, and rebuild existence into something which more resembles the existence of my imagination. Because of this I abandon things in an attempt to carve out that space and create that time. I stop, turn off, take a step back, begin analyzing and over-analyzing. Like a cat with a ball of yarn I smack at my existence with my thumb-less paws and claws and unravel it, only to find finally that my ball is gone, I’m tangled in the yarn, and there is nothing at the center. This is folly but it’s not the trap I speak of, not really.
At the center of life is a terror, a mystery, a question, a void. It is huge, and it has a gravitational pull of sorts, and were you to face it and stare into it every day you would not be able to function. We build a barricade against it with whatever materials we can scrounge because were we faced with it continuously we would not be able to attain even the most paltry scrap of contentment. That’s what Happiness, or Peace, or whatever you label your half-full mason jar really is- moments of distraction strung successfully together. If you can string those moments together for an entire lifetime you are a genius, a giant, a lucky son of a bitch.
So the trap is simply this: forgetting the void. When you do that you are apt to start misinterpreting your own defenses against it as something holding you in rather than something keeping it out. Happiness is being successfully distracted from the void, by projects, jobs, entertainments, passions, dreams… the trap is forgetting the void exists.
I’ve spent many an hour in my life scrutinizing my defenses, becoming dissatisfied with their materials, and tearing them down, only to see the void rather than greener grass, and be reminded why I’d built them in the first place. I’ve spent many an hour rebuilding my defenses from the wreckage of older ones. A real time waster let me tell you.
So the lesson, which my forgetfulness forces me to re-learn continually, is this: defenses need only be judged by a single criteria- their effectiveness. No matter what they look like, no matter from what materials they are cobbled, no matter whether they are the shape and proportions you imagined them to be when you were a mere emotional zygote, they need only work. If they do, leave them alone and keep on keepin’ on.
With that I return. As a cobbler returns to his shop on a grey monday morning.
(The bell on the door jingles. In you step.)
“Hi there. What can I do for you?”