Ah, get born, keep warm
Short pants, romance, learn to dance
Get dressed, get blessed
Try to be a success
Please her, please him, buy gifts
Don’t steal, don’t lift
Twenty years of schoolin’
And they put you on the day shift.
Bob Dylan, “Subterranean Homesick Blues”
Vladimir Nabokov begins his memoir Speak Memory with an arresting sentence: “The cradle rocks above the abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness.” He adds, “Although the two are identical twins, man, as a rule, views the prenatal abyss with more calm than the one he is heading for (at some forty-five hundred heartbeats an hour).
To me, it’s not surprising that we don’t fret over our pre-natal non-sentience, and it certainly makes sense that relatively happy people typically dread their post-mortem non-existence. The problem lies in that we perceive life as linear, a journey — tick tock, tick tock — a pilgrimage — tick tock, tick tock. But there’s a real problem in perceiving our existence in this manner, because the payoff of a journey or pilgrimage is reaching the final destination – Emerald City or Canterbury Cathedral – and, of course, when we reach the end of our life’s journey/pilgrimage, we’re no longer we but something to be disposed of, to be burned or buried.
And then you wake up one day, about 40 years old and you say “My God! I’ve arrived.” ”I’m there.” And you don’t feel very different from what you always felt. And there is a slight letdown because you feel is a hoax And there was a hoax. A dreadful hoax They made you miss everything. We thought of life by analogy with a journey, with a pilgrimage, which had a serious purpose at the end and the thing was to get to that end. Success or whatever it is, maybe heaven, after you’re dead. But we missed the point the whole way along. It was a musical thing and you were supposed to sing, or to dance, while the music was being played.
Ulysses to Achilles in Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida:
Time hath, my lord, a wallet at his back,
Wherein he puts alms for oblivion.
Yet, we keep wishing away the present, for the workday to end, for the workweek to end, for football season to begin or the holidays to arrive or for retirement.
But who are they – the they Watts accuses of making us “miss everything?”
Well, as Porfiry Petrovich said famously to Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment when the latter asked him who had killed the old pawnbroker and her sister:
“What do you mean, who killed?” [Porfiry Petrovivh] asked as if he couldn’t believe his own ears. “Why, Rodion Romanovich, you killed! You committed the murders, yes.”
The they are we. We possess free will, BF Skinner be damned. How many sages have walked upon the earth extolling us to consider the lilies of the fields or that it is better to travel well than arrive?
Those sages say we must murder that conception-of-self psychologists call the ego, abandon the self-delusion that a homunculus somewhere inside our brain is the sum total of who we are, to realize that we and the lilies of the fields and the clouds in the sky and the birdcall are one.
Easier said than done. Droughts can decimate fields, and although form is emptiness, the swirling subatomic particles of an axe can do real damage. Food and shelter demand, unless you’re a Trump or Kennedy, labor, and most of us labor under the supervision of someone more powerful, whether it be a foreman or the always-right customer. And, in truth, a very few people own and control almost everything, but we do ostensibly have autonomy over our thinking, how we behave.
Last night my wife Caroline said she thought that happiness ultimately lies in work, and I agree. It’s crucial to find employment that we love and to train our minds to concentrate on the bits and pieces of that employment, whether it be whisking an egg, laying a brick, or constructing a math test, in other words, to enjoy the music of the moment rather than racing forward in our minds to the final cymbal crash of the coda.
It’s hard to do, especially with all of the distractions, the mechanical slicing of time into periods, shifts, breaks, etc. – but we certainly don’t want to end up like John Marcher in Henry James’s “The Beast in the Jungle”:
He had justified his fear and achieved his fate; he had failed, with the last exactitude, of all he was to fail of; and a moan now rose to his lips as he remembered she had prayed he mightn’t know. This horror of waking–THIS was knowledge, knowledge under the breath of which the very tears in his eyes seemed to freeze. Through them, none the less, he tried to fix it and hold it; he kept it there before him so that he might feel the pain. That at least, belated and bitter, had something of the taste of life. But the bitterness suddenly sickened him, and it was as if, horribly, he saw, in the truth, in the cruelty of his image, what had been appointed and done. He saw the Jungle of his life and saw the lurking Beast; then, while he looked, perceived it, as by a stir of the air, rise, huge and hideous, for the leap that was to settle him. His eyes darkened–it was close; and, instinctively turning, in his hallucination, to avoid it, he flung himself, face down, on the tomb.
So, ladies and gents, let’s don our dancing shoes before it’s too late.