Saturday, July 17, 2010

Dancing on your own grave

Dancing on your own grave
“Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

Dylan Thomas- Do not go gentle

When I was in my early 20’s, I used to enjoy the idea of global warming. Sometimes I used to dream about an asteroid hitting the earth. None of these thoughts were in a suicidal kind of way, but I used to think how nice it would be if something would happen that got us all got back onto equal footing. Credit scores, friends who graduated from college way too fast, endless comparisons with my neighbors and classmates? None of this would matter anymore, as we concentrated on survival in the rapidly approaching nuclear winter. This thought filled me with a feeling of great warmth.

On the other hand the poem at the beginning of this essay was a steady companion in those days, and I vowed to “rage against the dying of the light,” whenever I got the chance. I was however always curious about what he meant by the “wild men” who “learned too late they grieved it on its way.” I spent half my life trying to figure out exactly what that meant. What did they learn? What were they grieving? Now all these years later I think I have come to understand what this line means, or at least what it means to me.

I think what he was trying to say is that even when we are in the prime of our lives, when we seemingly have everything a person may need to live a passionate and rapturous life, we still find a million things to complain about. Later we wax nostalgic about the good old days, not remembering how much we complained about these very same days when we were actually living them. Rarely do we acknowledge the prime of our life when we are actually living it.

Studying the work of Joseph Campbell helped me understand that maybe, just maybe, this is the kingdom of heaven. Right here, right now, every breath we get to take in is a chance to experience the amazing gift of awareness. What if all of the ways we poison this life were just traps of the mind, and there was a way of freeing ourselves from these traps? I am certainly not the first one to suggest this idea, and it is one that has been proffered by people from the Buddha thousands of years ago to Eckhart Tolle more recently.

It’s very difficult to feel anything akin to being in the kingdom of heaven when bill collectors are ringing our phones and doctors are telling us our bodies are falling apart, and I am as guilty as anyone of finding ways to poke holes in my own happiness narrative. But truth be told, for all of its loss and heartbreak and disappointment, truthfully this is the best life I can imagine. Everything is possible, and if I am disappointed in something, it is, as long as I am drawing breath, possible to choose another way to live. In the words of George Bernard Shaw, “This is the true joy in life: Being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one, being a force of nature instead of a feverish, selfish little clod of ailments and grievances, complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy. I am of the opinion that my life belongs to the whole community and as long as I live, it is my privilege to do for it what I can. It is a sort of splendid torch which I have got hold of for the moment and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to future generations.”

Which brings me to one of my favorite scenes from a TV show called Northern Exposure, which was a wonderful character study of people sharing their lives in the Alaskan wilderness. There was one friendship in the show I particularly enjoyed between Ed, the twenty-something filmmaker, and Ruth Ann the woman in her 70’s who ran the local store and who had lived a wonderful life of adventure.

In this particular episode, Ruth Ann turns 75, and Ed begins to treat her like her death is imminent. Ruth Ann, who has truly learned to savor every moment in her old age, dislikes being treated like an old woman, and throughout the episode they discuss the subject of death, and how it is not something to be feared, but instead something to be reflected on to enhance the meaning and value of our time here.

The last scene is what really stuck with me, as Ed purchases her a grave on the top of a mountain, and the final scene shows them both dancing joyfully on top of it. It took rewatching this as an older man, but finally I think I got it. There was no grieving the sun on its way down here, they were actively celebrating a pure moment of mindful living, and in that moment they were blessed with that fleeting gift of appreciation for the miraculous set of circumstances that brought them there.

I think about these things when I wax nostalgic about my own “prime” and how much better life was at some other point in my own existence. This is a lie, a trick of memory that allows us to forget the bad and remember the good. One day we will likely even look at this period of our life with a kind of fond reminiscence, forgetting the thousand ways we rationalized how life could be better. For better or for worse, this is where we are, right here, right now, and it’s the only piece of our destiny we have any power to change. Give it a shot. Dance on your own proverbial grave and see how it feels. This is the power of emotional choice. We can be, as Shaw suggests, “selfish little clods of ailments and grievances,” or we can chose to laugh and be here now with total acceptance that where we have landed is exactly the place we’re supposed to be. All of our previous choices have led us to the now, and taking responsibility for how we are going to proceed from here is what we have. All we have.