More and more, I’m thinking not. I’m thinking that what society values is not what I value. I’m thinking that what our culture considers a successful life doesn’t apply to my own trajectory, which I still believe–or want to believe–has been a valuable one.
Consider a child raised to feel unwanted. A child who began forming memories in a household rife with discord and sexual misconduct. A child who was hospitalized for weeks at age three, lost his father to divorce at age four, and watched his mother spiral into ever-worsening depression for the next two years. When his mother’s mental illness finally took her life, as the boy was grappling with his first year of formal schooling, he was then shipped back to his father, and to a stepmother who treated him viciously. A few years later his older sister succumbed to a psychotic illness, and it became the child’s job to protect her from self-harm. Throughout all this there were frequent relocations, including annual trips across country to spend half of each summer with relatives (four weeks here, two weeks there) and the other half at camp.
The child became an adolescent who, like his parents and sister before him, turned to chemicals for relief. He was arrested four times while still in high school. And yet, miraculously, a change came over him. Falling in love revived him. He fell in love twice: once with Nature, and then again with his high school sweetheart. Soon he was living what felt like a dream. He moved away from his family of origin in Los Angeles to live with the girl and her father in Berkeley. He began studying Life Science at the University. He earned good grades and lots of praise. Life seemed filled with promise.
But he couldn’t sustain the dream. Rage burned inside and threatened to destroy his relationship. Alcoholism worked against career aspirations. In due time he moved into a studio apartment, in part to protect his lover from his demons. Then he grew depressed.
Said depression never fully lifted, but he found a therapist who supported him through it. This clinician encouraged the youth to apply to medical school, which he did. He entered medical training saddled with marijuana addiction and alcoholism, but he managed to brush up his act, so by internship he was clean and sober. He pursued residency in a surgical subspecialty and eventually landed a good position in Marin County, one of the loveliest and most affluent regions of California. He felt proud and enthusiastic.
As before, however, he could not sustain the dream. After a few years neck disease–born of chronic tension, poor workplace ergonomics, and an old injury–made operating a torment. After only six years of surgical practice, the man–now middle-aged–was forced to abandon his career. Depression worsened, crushing him like a brick home shattered by an earthquake. Suicidal thoughts hounded him into a mental ward. After discharge, surges of ecstasy dazzled him until he saw–or thought he saw–the face of God.
When the mania finally settled, a year or so later, he found his life in shambles. His reputation had been ruined; his health had grown poor. He was fortunate to have a wife willing to nurse him through a decade of major mental illness, until he found his way.
Nowadays, fifteen years since leaving his surgical profession, he is not very productive in ordinary terms. He lectures about biology at a yoga institute, but only occasionally. He writes a blog or two, but only sporadically. If he were brought before judges schooled in our culture’s standards, he would be dismissed as having failed at the Game of Life.
But has he?
Nowadays, he enjoys long hours of ease. He savors the simple act of breathing. Often in pain and unable to sleep, he frequently meditates through the night, appreciating Life as it pulses within. He is more affectionate and tender toward his spouse than in earlier years. He laughs more, and cries more, too. He no longer strives to impress people. Yet he is easily impressed by those around him. Not just the obvious winners, but also the so-called losers. The ones who struggle, whether with grace or in resistance. The ones who grapple with emotional and/or physical pain. The ones who live day by day, uncertainly but inevitably. He is impressed by every person that lives or has ever lived, even those distorted into what seem like monstrosities. Thus, he finds tenderness in his heart for his departed stepmother, and for all those driven to cruelty by the howl of an unfulfilled soul.
He is grateful to be drifting, at last, through quieter days. He hears and sees more clearly than he ever imagined possible. And with that clarity he negotiates a trackless continent of freedom. He no longer looks for paths that lead to nirvana. He no longer looks for comfort in this herd or that, huddled together for comfort while migrating over an infinite land. Life itself has become his companion and guide.
How could he let others tell him what’s important, now that he feels so free? Wouldn’t that be giving up the very freedom for which he has always groped and has–at last–stumbled into?
His values are not society’s values. He would feel lonely, and would question his sanity, were it not for the sages he meets, or reads about, who have found similar liberation. Sages both living and dead who have rejected conventional mores for values higher, or deeper, or perhaps just simpler. Sages who have embraced the ethic of living as Life invites, of responding to this moment only, of not judging self or companions, of doing one’s best to help others and avoid harm.
To feel rooted in this pure ground of Life seems near to success for this man, coming as he did from the house of ruin.
Here is a poem written two-and-a-half years ago, when my eyes were just beginning to open to the possibilities. It seems even more true now than it did back then:
It does not start raining
Until the sky clears
The fire doesn’t ignite
Before the match is blown out
We think we know the way
But there is none
Just a limitless plain
Shining in all directions
Note: For post photo attribution, click on image.