Suffering, Simplicity and Apathy
I always want to turn back
Every time... Every. Single. Time... Every time I go to the desert, or to the mountains, or to the sea, I doubt the journey and desire to turn back. It always happens at some point along the way during the trip out. My mind rationalizes and conspires a compelling scheme of return. Something I have forgotten to do; or an important responsibility I should attend to; or some potential malfunction; or I am not feeling so well or fully up to it. Every single time... I have been fighting this sense for decades. Ever since I began journeying into the wild. But the doubt only ever comes if I go alone. It never happens if I am with another. There is something about going alone into wildness that incites revolt.
When I was younger, I would often give in, and accept my doubt, and turn back, and go home... I was always disappointed then. My return home a lackluster conciliation to fear. The returns were so common during the decade of my forties–when I was exploring in Japan–that my wife and daughter laid even odds of my early homecoming each and every time I'd set out. But why did I give up? And why does my mind still try to convince me always to give up? Especially given the great rewards which always come of such journeys. Rewards which ALWAYS come. Why would I turn these down?
Through the furnace lands
By the armful
It is because of my fear of the consequences of the unknown. I am afraid of getting myself into a situation from which I cannot easily get out...and then what? Like not being able to find a good or safe place to sleep during an overnight journey. Or of my car or motorcycle breaking down hundreds of miles from home. Or of getting hurt far and away. Or of any of a hundred other such misadventures I can easily dream up to fret over during my long solitary drive or ride into the wild.
Adding some familiar routine has really helped. For example, my current practice of establishing a base-camp at the desert ghost town of Siberia, and the use of a Route 66 flash flood bridge as a writing shelter, have made it much easier to resist the urge to turn back during my bi-weekly, two-hundred-mile journey out to the desert. Still, the voice of protest persists. And I cannot dispel it even with the facts of wonder. The fact that each and every time I go alone into the wild, I return with such wonders, such treasures, such overflowing wealth that I could never hope to otherwise possess. These truths do not matter to the fear. That part of me is only afraid. And does not want any treasure. It does not want to see, know, or even be reminded of the Indifference.
The Stoic life
Equanimity is the only reward worth pursuing—though we can never gain this treasure by pursuit, less still may we hold such balance through the gross accumulation of resources or security. We must daily, hourly, and even by the minute "walk abreast our days" and treasure only the preservation and execution of our own keen reason, our own sound justice, and an honest assessment and acceptance of what is - and what is not - within the scope of our own control. Never settle for externals - though do not disregard these as altogether unimportant. Dress, behave and live in accordance with a willful expression of the principles we strive to develop, maintain, and execute. For our living will go better if we both behave and appear as a reflection and instantiation of what we hold is true.
Never for a moment sacrifice The Good Life for any less worthy living; though it may dress you in rags, and draw your name through the mud, and leave you alone and dead and utterly forgotten. Carry always rather the enactment of your sound objectives and principles through each moment of life - never sacrificing these for less better gains than the mere sustenance of virtue.
Choose always to die today at peace—without peace being the thing you seek.
Imagine every day the place of your contrived death. And then picture each step on an inexorable path to that end. Note how the steps slow and become measured. That's a way to walk and live—knowing always where we are indeed headed. With a little luck we'll never arrive at that imagined place. Though we will always one day at last arrive.
Does anyone walk quickly to the gallows? Perhaps some will move fast, wishing the deed over and the suffering of knowing done. But we are all walking to the gallows always, only we do not often know how near the end. And so, we forget the journey's inexorable end, and we walk with some ease of abandon. We walk as though we are free, and not chained to a ox-cart moving senselessly beyond our will. And we even run sometimes - like a child at the seashore dashing forward to chase the retreating waves. And then we are caught all at once in the swirling, cold waters of the returning maddened sea, wondering what happened as our last breath fails and the lights flicker out. That is one way to live and then die; to charge headlong through life towards interest, neglecting the fact of the coming end, until the fact is here. Would such a death be a willing death? Could we go willfully to such an end? Or would we die grasping back at the sands and our people upon the shore while drowning down into the deep?
Another way is to deny the end. To accept or even make up some tale of forever after life is done; an imagined sequel to enjoy and share with loved ones and the select few who know better than to doubt. And so, we bow and pray and console one-another to pass the days, and grieve the loss of those who go before, who we hope to see again someplace better than here. And thus, we live our lives telling stories of tomorrow, and tales of forever–dying at last in blissful terror and remembrance of what we hope might not be true.
And then there is the Stoic way. To walk a knowing journey of the gallows end. To neither delay nor hasten our movement along a winding path with a determined end. To rest well and soon at nightfall, and then rise early next day to start again. To neither smother truth with intemperance, nor ignore with groundless dreams of forever. To issue recognition of our own mortality through measured control of our speech; neither talking in excess nor through superfluous words or much volume or show of knowledge or foresight, but just enough to address well whatever issue is at hand or counsel has been sought. And to share company with others in such a way as to be present and engaged and pleasant without either excess attendance or attention being given or drawn at any time - but to be like a balanced scale resting at ease in equanimity in a crowded marketplace; engaged at times towards useful ends while otherwise simply being. And so, the days will pass, living at once and always in a day. Never expecting tomorrow, while yet preparing for another day. And then the gallows are here... And our footsteps hardly falter... There is a slight push upon our arm as we breathe again, and then step upon the scaffold.
I sometimes–often, in fact–indulge a little too much. The temptation is so innocent a thing...just another slice of pizza, just another size up of my sweet blended drink, a large when a medium–or better still a small–would do... It is such as small sin, is it not? Such a tiny thing... But then I sit there afterwards, slightly bloated, or zipped up on too much sugar. Or, I will feel the consequence in a few days when my waistline resists my belt and I need to tighten out another notch. It is a battle I can never quite win–this press to resist and consume less, to take a smaller share of whatever portion is offered to me, or whatever portion I decide I want or even need. Though I know there is some prize in saying no, especially after the deed is not done. Though I usually decline that more worthy challenge and reward in favor of some delicious, invigorating, stimulating moments now of munching and sipping and, of course, the sweet distraction that these distractions bring. But maybe there is some virtue yet to be made of this excess? Perhaps there is something good to be done of too much?
It is actually not hard to turn the spoiled stuff of our weakness into the wholesome substance of virtue. For this transformation is accomplished whenever we recognize what we have done, and accept the consequence we suffer now, or the suffering to come, and then decide that, though we previously failed to restrain our hand, or mouth, or wallet, or libido, or whatever, in our former decision to consume too much, we can now play a secondary option of bearing well the consequence we have brought upon ourselves by virtue of our intemperate want. Goodness is ours now, as we groan through our tummy ache. Virtue is at hand, as we examine our drained bank account. Peace is close within sight, as we fess up our indiscreet folly. And though it may not feel very good in the moment of our rising; the fact of our choice now to rise–and the willful exercise of such strength–in standing from our fall...to totter upon our own two feet in the bare and open wind, is sufficient reward itself to not erase our past excess, but at least to make the living of such indulgence something worth living after all.
The distraction was seemingly good. Though the bearing well of recognizing the consequence of our unworthy distraction is something much better.
Both joy and suffering can yield the same sweet harvest if we know how to winnow the chaff from the grain. For there is good grain in misfortune. A very sweet grain, quite wholesome to consume or to just acquire or possess, or to even see even, or to simply know that it might exist–that alone is sufficient sometimes to take in the harvest, the knowledge that misfortune may bear us good fruit. Oh, but what then could not be a blessing if all is an opportunity to gain sustenance in life? This is the paradox of the Stoic mind; that all roads may lead to good. But maybe paradox is not the right word–though it seems a paradox from the more conventional perspective of good and bad fortune. How can both be one? It is quite easy, in fact. As perceived misfortune becomes good fortune when we learn to bear it well. We are blessed to be ill when we can maintain our balance by sitting down when dizzy. We make fever into something good when we close our eyes to wait in peace while our body rages in heat towards either death or recovery, and we wait quietly to accept either end. And pain even becomes like a teacher when our outward appearance and attitude displays sameness through pulsing ache and relief.
Each downward arc of life brings us into an arena more challenging and worthy than every upward blessing combined. For what opportunity is there is good fortune, but to enjoy and become more easily content? We recline still further into our warm pillows, resting in peace behind locked doors, buttressed and safe with full bank accounts, enjoying the lively chatter of those we love who now share our goodness and make of life as though this living were forever. There is not even the howling to contemplate from such secure and wondrous living. What a place! What a blessing!
The Stoics claim that goodness may be made of any circumstance when we have the will to bear well whatever is outside out control, and to exercise well what is within our control.
I am in no way suggesting we should seek suffering over peace and security. I would never wish or want that for anyone. I am only suggesting that all is not lost when things do eventually go wrong, as we might call it. For there is resolve in rising from the pillows, and there is attendance when the door lock is removed, and the chance for determination and hard work when the bank account is emptied, and introspection and reflection on what is true and important when the lively chatter has ceased, and we must face what may be real of both life and death. And understanding when the howling draws near and we've nothing to buttress a defense and must walk or stand alone out there in the wild. Now, it is time for a blessing of another sort. Now, it is time to stop counting our vain blessings of good and to instead see the blessing of goodness.
When we fall and then rise, we tell a story of up and down. It is a good tale. A worthy account. And fine instruction for the young, setting out and making ready for their own stumbling journey. But what of the account of our time on the ground? Isn't that something worth sharing as well?
The well-defeated know how to linger well in their defeat; as they've nearly given up; or they have given up–and are ready now to wait out their suffering until either life is done or the universe adjusts its orbit to somehow make things better. They are done...or nearly so. And such defeated simply rest in their fate like stones tumbled to the valley floor. Maybe there will be more to the journey if a flood comes to carry them further down the valley? Or perhaps soon the earth will simply cover them up with dirt for the long end underground... Either way–onward or downward–the well-defeated are ready.
Curiously, such giving in to the onslaught of life reveals some quality of Stoic virtue–though the defeated may hardly feel like philosophers while lying bruised and battered and possibly in pain upon the ground. Though there is some virtue in facing the fact of our having been–or still being–pummeled; and that only death or change await, and that it might be time to simply wait out our suffering in some silence and resolve - resolve to go either on or accept our end, and to be alright with either path - though we'd prefer to go on, though we'd prefer not to suffer more, though we know it may be time to simply still the mind and the body and the tongue while the seconds tick on loudly in our ears. Maybe someone will offer us an aspirin to ease the pain? Or maybe a blanket to keep back the chill? Or maybe a hand up off the ground? But if not, then I will lay here for a piece and consider my ample good fortune in keeping quiet and still. I will exercise virtue in the midst of my fall through silent anticipation of either recovery or the end.
The virtue of temperance
For what reason is temperance a virtue? Why do the sages live in austerity, and the desert fathers forsake the world, and the poet love their solitude, and the saints give up their lives? Is it because consumption is recognized as a distraction? That when we do eat of the world we make it less, and our vision and senses become blurred with the feast of life and gluttony makes us filthy, sleepy, and sick. But we do it anyway, we join the feast, because we neither care about the world as it really is - wishing only to get through this life to the other side - or we prefer the feast of living as a simple end in itself, like the pleasure of warm company in a snug home where the door and shutters and drawn and lashed against the storm smothering the world outside. Let us then make more noise and become yet more merry - more wine and food! - until the sound of wind, thunder, and rain without cannot be heard. In such a way - with such distraction - may life be passed.
I will keep my hand at my side,
While my want, wishes me to partake.
I will hold my tongue,
Which desires to speak.
And my mind will be kept silent,
Though someone within,
Does ceaselessly speak.
For myself, I will not be so detained. I will not join the feast, though I know there is no better use of time than simply passing time. Strange thing that - that the thing I do not want is as good as the thing I instead choose to pursue. But this very understanding is the actual end I am after; which is affirmed not in the company of friends; but out there in the dark, and in the night; out there where there are none to comfort or hold my hand; out there where strange things prowl in the wet and the cold, and hunger demands reality, and fear sweeps back the feign curtain of pretend forevers and a one day eternal peaceful sleep. I will not remain inside while the darkness goes on so without. I will lower my hand now from the table, I will hold still my wagging tongue, and I will refuse the inner voice which does not fail; and I will step away and go out the door to discover the storm and the night and the cold and the wind and whatever else might truly be real.
And so, I will deny myself some morsels of life distraction; not because these things are bad; but because these things are not, to me, more true.
Suffering is sometimes our want of meaning, and in particular, our sense that our lives are not worthwhile, and are instead a hindrance to the common good we all seem so interested in developing, maintaining, and improving. We suffer when we are lost; when we are without an outside community where we tell ourselves, we belong. This is the reason we feel good when we are with others, and when our relationships are sound, and when we feel usefully employed or engaged in well-sanctioned living. We suffer when we are without these things; when we are disconnected, rudderless, and disengaged. We suffer being alone and when our sense is that others do not want or need us. We are in pain when we are without, and outside, and forgotten or despised, or left behind. This is part of our nature. For we are fullest when we are together, and when we smile and nod approvingly at one another. In this way we make of life our purpose and our meaning. And the pain then is lessened. And the suffering something we can better bear.
The quickest way then to relieve suffering is to create meaning. We need some purpose in life to find peace. And the purpose should best be social, something less for ourselves as for others. A reason to get up and set to work. An ambition which is bigger than ourselves or our time. A reason to live for the ages. Not for our own remembrance or immortality, but for the sake of goodness to echo down the eons of time after we are done. Our fingerprint of memory must be far beside the point. Our want of utility–our own utility of life–is the single attribute most in demand, and best capable of seeing the mission through. So, seek sufferings relief not through amusement or mere distraction–though these will suffice for a time–but instead in the honest assessment of your own capability and work toward the common good. Seek to give…and there will be some relief. Though the best giving seeks no end besides the giving of the gift of our life and our time and our patience and our sincere and loving gaze and our expectation of nothing in return. When we embark on the road to purpose, our discovery of peace is nearly in hand.