This profound sense of connection is what continues to draw me to and into books again and again. It is what makes me fall in love with a particular text and a particular author. It is the clear connection that occurs when we recognize the seemingly miraculous tit for tat mutuality of an identical yearning between ourselves and the person poured out upon page. When we see “not just the intensity of the longing” reflected back at us “but the specificity” as well.
It is “as if [the writer] looked deep inside [us] and knew [us] in the way [we] wanted the world to know [us].” They teach us to show our belly to the world, to invoke a quiet but powerful trust; a trust in the wideness of a community that can stretch across even the greatest of chasms like a net to catch us.
When it happens we come to the shocking realization that we are not alone, and that what we thought made us peculiar or obscure actually demonstrates that we belong to a tribe. Nestled somewhere in between the pages of a book is a nation of people we never knew existed, waiting to welcome us home.
I’ve never felt at home in the world, and most days I still don’t. “The sense of being an outsider,” as Radhule Weininger explains in her book, Heart Medicine, “has become part of my ongoing experience” of being stranded amongst the strangeness of this terrestrial sphere. Some days I swear I can feel the hurtling of the earth as it turns round the sun, and I am motion sick from it’s spin.
Lost, lonely, and pulled down by the uncertain gravity of a planet whose atmosphere is plagued by the death of a thousand tiny paper-cuts; everything aches and bristles. Perhaps the inbuilt anxiousness of ambiguity and unknowing is simply part of what it means to be here, to be alive, to be human. Weininger writes that “None of us knows for sure how the universe unfolds, nor how we as humans are situated in time and space.” James Victore seconds Weininger’s sentiments when he says that “The secret of the universe is that no one knows shit.”
We may not know who we are, why we’re here, for how long, or much of anything else for that matter, but the one thing we do know amongst all the things we don’t, is that, no matter how separate or isolated we may feel, we are here together; bonded to one another by the mutual crisis of our human short-sightedness.
Heidegger said that Being means Being-in-the-World, and Being-in-the-World is always Being-in-the-World-with-Others. We are beings in relation; an interwoven ecology of aliveness; a conspicuous community of interbeing. We are the whole world made miniature. We are each comprised of the entire cosmos intricately and meticulously condensed to person sized scale.
This means that belonging is not tied to a geographic location. Nor is it an explicit quality of a place or situation. Instead it is an intrinsic condition and characteristic of our abiding actuality. And it comes with the realization and the understanding that there is always, and at all times, a reciprocal exchange taking place between ourselves and the world in which we comprise together.
There is no real you/me, inside/outside, distinction to be made between ourselves and the world. In her Forward to Heart Medicine, Joanna Macy says that “My freedom is your freedom. My freedom is our freedom. The freer I am, the freer you are, the freer we all are”. When one of us wakes up, we all wake up. When one of us comes alive everything comes to life. Macy goes on to say that it is “not my freedom first then yours. Not inner work first, then outer work later. Not self-care first, then care for the world afterwards. Rather, our freedom. Only together, only and always together.”
To open ourselves is to open ourselves to one another in total. It is to open and expand the breathing fecundity of all that we are coterminous with. It is to break the illusory bounds and borders between us. To know that as we each become bigger, the whole world becomes bigger too.
We rise and fall, crest and collapse, we run aground and we get back up, never alone, but together, ever and always as one.
All books entail meeting people, and I think in nearly all cases when we are meeting people in books we are meeting the personified parts of ourselves reflected back at us. Sometimes they are the hidden and secret parts. The parts that we didn’t know were there. The parts that we didn’t know had a name. The parts that show us how mysterious we are, even to ourselves.
Sometimes it’s the parts that we know so deeply, so well, and so personally that we are most baffled to see exhibited and portrayed outside of ourselves. We are taken aback, awestruck and joyously dumbfounded because in that moment of meeting we come to know that we are not alone.
Every book is a journey, as Rebecca Solnit suggests, “and at the end you are not the same person you were at the beginning”, but somehow the transformation of the journey has made us more ourselves than we have ever been before.
I was late to arrive at such a realization. I wish I had learned to build big brick buildings from books as a child. Perhaps, I would have found surety and confidence sooner. Perhaps, I would have felt safer earlier. Perhaps, I wouldn’t have been so behind in understanding what it means to belong. Perhaps, I wouldn’t feel so great a need to make up for lost time as I do now. I was an adult before I truly understood the sheltered soundness available within “the sanctuary of reading”.
It took a long time for me to know how to be rescued by books, and longer still before I learned that I could build a refuge with them and from them. I wish I had known then what I know now, but I’m grateful that I found out when I did, otherwise there might not even be a “now”.
It’s strange to think that so great a gift could come from someone we have never met. But, that’s what a book is; “a gift a writer made for strangers”, as Solnit suggests. It is a peculiar yet obvious truth, but as Susan Orlean says “ You don’t need to take a book off the shelf to know that there is a voice inside that is waiting to speak to you…someone who truly believed that if he or she spoke, someone would listen.” Perhaps even more miraculous and mystifying is the fact that these same voices not only invite us to listen, but they also invite to participate. They each call us to contribute to the grand and sweeping conversation that stretches beyond the particularities of time and place, and yet rests at the very heart of our millennia of being human.
In being given books, I have been and continue to be the recipient of the great gifts of being seen, being understood, and being less alone. Everything I’ve ever done since has been an attempt to return the favor.
We all worship something, and often it’s the things that we worship that become the albatross around our necks. David Foster Wallace says that if you “Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out”. This has certainly been the case for me. Perhaps, it’s also an indication of what Green calls an “omnidirectional anxiety”.
I’ve learned to allow this anxious dread over my own fraudulence to become a feature rather than a bug. The pervasive sense of my idiocy has transformed into what Eric Wilson describes as a “sign of intellectual grace” and cognitive humility. Instead of wishing to be seen as the smartest person in the room, I enter into every interaction with the assumption that I’m not. In the midst of any discussion I speak with the understanding that, regardless of how well formalized my ideas are, I am very likely wrong. And, I have learned to love being wrong.
Francis Crick says that “the dangerous man is the one who has only one idea, because then he’ll fight and die for it.” Over the years my zealotry has collapsed into curiosity, as I’ve garnered the ability to hold even my most sacred of beliefs with an open hand. I poke and prod all my views in the light of other vantages; knowing that my own perspective is but one color in a kaleidoscope of possible thoughts, and who knows what new fractals of insight might appear if I can bend my line of sight into varying angles. When we can manipulate our militancy into something far more malleable none of our efforts are exhausted on trying to be right, and instead we can focus all of our attention on learning something that we didn’t know before; whether it be about a topic, a person, or, perhaps, more importantly, ourselves.
Most days I still feel stupid and I still feel like a fraud. Old gods die hard, and the ones we worship die even harder I suppose. Somedays, as John Green writes “My thoughts are a river overflowing it’s banks, churning and muddy and ceaseless”, but some days I manage to share a thought with someone and conversation sparks an idea I could have never anticipated. In that moment, we get to see a listless part of who we are to come to life, and that’s a pretty good day, not because I feel smart but because I’m in good company, and that’s better.
Some days everything feels like too much. We see too much. We hear too much. We think too much. We feel too much. Like a thousand tiny razor blades filling the air, every movement lacerates with varying degrees of deepness and severity. Lost and lonely on a planet whose atmosphere is plagued by the death of a thousand tiny paper-cuts; everything aches and bristles. But, this is also where hope happens.
We know what it’s like to be, or at least to feel, so small; to be so frail in the face of all the vastness outside ourselves. But, when we are lonely and minute at the foot of a mountain’s menace and magnitude, we must not only believe that a mustard seed matters, we must also learn to let it be the mother to our faith.
That’s what hope is. That’s what hope does. That’s what hope is for.
Hope begins its life as a seed planted in the dark; an infinitesimal grain of unrealized potential cradled in the black and brooding ground of our being.
Having hope is hard. Sometimes it even hurts. Especially, when you haven’t had it or held it for so long. When feeling hopeless is what you’re used to, when it solidifies into a semblance of normalcy, feeling hopeful is terrifying. Not only because it feels so foreign, but also because behind the comfort is the terror of how much harder it would be to go back to living without hope after you’ve had a taste of it.
When we are never filled to our fullest, when we are always pivoting between half-empty and utterly abandoned, many of us have simply given up on ever finding hope entirely. Instead, we shift our focus to finding only consolation. With the grand prize so impossibly out of reach, we begrudgingly accept what’s behind door number two. We take our parting gift and go. Life becomes a string of coping mechanisms to help alleviate the absence of hope. We make strides in the service of surviving. We find methods to make it to the end of the day, in what Matt Haig calls “the bare bones of getting through”.
Some of us can only scrounge up enough strength to hope for hope. And yet, maybe that small sliver is the start everything.
But, to do this, we must cast our hopes far and wide; farther and wider than we are comfortable with or prepared for.
Some will fall by the wayside. Some will be devoured by the scavengers that would seek to pick us clean. Some will fall in stony places, hardened and tempered by the vacancy of disquiet and disuse. Some will scorch and wither; exposed without shield or shade from the elements of our dismay. Some will be choked among thorns closing in with sharp and constricting density. But, some will manage to creep into the crevices of our disarray and find their way to good ground.
Hope may seem like such a small and unfinished thing, but a seed is never incomplete. At it’s core it contains the entirety of all it will turn into. It is simply a part of the dynamic process of growth and maturation; unfolding into fullness and increasing in the complexity of its completeness.
But before anything else, hope is what happens in the dark. Hope is what happens when something begins to grow in the absence of light, because hope is what carries us towards it.
Nietzsche said that “Once you know that there are no purposes, you also know that there is no accident; for it is only beside a world of purposes that the word ‘accident’ has meaning.” Perhaps in a grand sweeping gesture of radical acceptance and revolutionarily subversive compassion Nietzsche saw things as arising out of “necessity”. He so desperately sought to relish and embrace this necessity:
“I want to learn more and more to see as beautiful what is necessary in things; then I shall be one of those who makes things beautiful. Amor fati: let that be my love henceforth! I do not want to wage war against what is ugly. I do not want to accuse; I do not even want to accuse those who accuse. Looking away shall be my only negation. And all in all and on the whole: some day I wish to be only a Yes-sayer.”
Most days I’m able to echo Nietzsche’s sentiments with near equal level of vehemence and veracity. Most days when our minds are sound and we are stably grounded, we can learn a lot by looking back on the events that we cannot change or alter. We recognize that wisdom is something that arrives at the end of the day.
But, sometimes when the low murmuring of depression’s dark sayings descend, regret crashes in to and I feel as though there is nothing that I wouldn’t do differently.
Sometimes our footing is less sure, our minds are more scattered, and we forget to close the door behind wisdom when it arrives; leaving just enough room for regret to come. And, the thing about regret is, when that mother fucker gets in, he tries to take everything.
Regret can seep into the even the smallest of crevices and when it does it can twist all it touches into the shape of something lonely.
Sometimes the thumping pulse of regret is the tell-tale heart of our dark forbearance crawling beneath the floor boards.
In constantly returning to that which we regret we are stuck reliving it again and again; a repetition without reprieve, a reenactment without realization, a repentance without redemption.
But it can be undone.
Acceptance is the undoing of regret. Acceptances ruins the infinitely repeating loop of dejection and disappointment, and instead says “yes” to it all. Acceptance chooses to love it all, sees it all as necessary, sees it all as beautiful, says it was all worth and would would do it all again.
Most of us know what its like to fuck up. We know all too well how hard, fast and ferociously things can get fucked up. I know I do. In fact, I think I’m beginning to acquire a taste for it; it is bitter and astringent at the front, but strangely sweet and fragrant at the finish. But, more importantly, I’m beginning to see what it looks like on the other side of it. It is the place where compunction becomes compassion, where contrition turns to kindness, and where we become something new. Maybe there is no accident…
If Dogen is right then that means that the very atmosphere of our world is atomically awash in the molecular happenstance of the miraculous. It means not only that miracles happen, but that miracles are always actively happening…
It means that every arising breath is found writhing upon the wings of something wondrous.
And yet, Dogen writes that “Even if you do not know that miracles happen three thousand times in the morning and eight hundred times in the evening, miracles are actualized”.
We can look for the exceptional in the trembling of the earth as paradigms shift but, we’ll miss it. We can look for the extraordinary in the flicker and flame of grand ideas igniting but, we won’t see it. We can try to find the incredible in being blown away by the formidable winds of epic change but, it won’t be there. Instead, if we have ears to hear, we’ll find it in the softness of an ordinary whisper; an ordinary whisper that breathes a miracle in the quiet spaces between utterances, a miracle telling us that we are loved, we are home, we are welcome, we are here, we are alive, we are still breathing, we are ok, and that we will be alright.
It may not feel like a miracle, I know. But, perhaps one of the most miraculous things about miracles is that they don’t stop being miracles just because they don’t feel miraculous.
I don’t know if everything really does get better, but I know that it can. I know that the presence of potentiality is always redolent and teeming. On good days I’ve managed to catch a glimpse of how gloriously good it can be. I don’t know how far the road is between “here” and “better”, I’m not even sure if there is a road between the two. Perhaps it is only the distance of this breath. Matt Haig says that “maybe there are no easy paths. There are just paths”. Maybe all there is, is just the road. Maybe there is nothing but the path. Maybe all we have is just “here”. After all, we can be no where else. To avoid being ‘now-here’ leaves us ‘no-where’.
Being ‘here’ doesn’t always feel particularly hopeful. Often all of our most angst-ridden questions revolve around the recognition and realization that we are ‘here’: “Why am I here?” “How did I get here?” “Where do I go from here?” These questions and so many swirling more are counted amongst the mass of things I don’t know. But what I do know is that no matter how hard it is to be, we are, in fact, unavoidably here, and we are still breathing.
I know that sometimes the sheer fact of our breathing here-ness is difficult. I know that sometimes its hard to think about existing beyond the next breath. I know that sometimes the thought of having to bear the anxious weight of another breath piled high upon all the other heaving breaths that came before it seems like an impossible task.
But, this one breath that is here, is the only one that matters. This one breath that you can hold on to, is the one that can hold you upright. This one breath that you can catch, is the one that can keep you steady. Perhaps there is only this one breath. Perhaps there has only ever been this one breath.
In Hebrew the word for ‘breath’ is ‘Ruah’, and in the creation myth of Genesis it is the ‘Ruah Elohim’, the ‘breath of God’, that hovers over the waters of the primordial deep to begin the work of beginning the world.
You are hollow and hurting, and this is a time that requires conservation in the face of what feels insufficient. You will blossom and bloom into something both new and renewed, but you will need all that you have, you will need all that you are, you will need to breathe. This breath is better than any other. It is better than any that came before, and it is better than any that will come next, because it is the one that you have. It is safe. It is certain. It is enough, and it is all that you need…
If you are feeling a void, or an emptiness within you; a vacancy of want and craving, ask yourself if that seemingly vacuous space is actually an indication of something that you lack, or if it is something that you have yet to learn to give to the world.
If you are scared , ask yourself if you have truly learned how to give someone courage.
If you are lonely, ask yourself if you have ever really understood how to welcome home the stranger.
If you are lost, ask yourself if you’ve ever shown someone how it feels to be found.
If you feel an immense absence of love, ask yourself if you have ever fully learned to to give your heart away.
Maybe everything that we are missing is something that we must commit to relinquishing to the hands of someone else…
Sometimes I wonder whether or not its actually accurate to say that we are killing the planet. Clearly our species has become the predominating force in influencing the Earth’s environment, to such an extent, in fact, that scientists now refer to our current geological epoch as the Anthropocene. There can be no doubt that human hubris is, indeed, catastrophically impacting the planet and its various ecosystems and species, but I’m not sure we’re killing the Earth so much as killing its ability to sustain and support “us”. Perhaps, what we’re really killing is its ability to sustain faith in us.
The planet has survived and persisted through cataclysms far greater than the human species, and won’t skip a beat in pushing forward after we’re gone. It lived long before we did and will continue to live long after all traces of humanity’s torturous existence have vanished into the repressed memories of the Planet’s post-traumatic road to recovery.
In some ways that’s almost hopeful. The incredible insistence of Being. The inbuilt indomitability of life, itself; bolstered by its own tenacious capacity to persevere because it can, because it will, because it must. The Planet doesn’t need saving, but we do, and perhaps that is as good a reason as any to work along side the planet’s inherent ability to go-on. Perhaps that doesn’t seem altruistic, but maybe it is.
On the worst days, amidst all the most horrendous atrocities of the Anthropocene, people suck, but also, in a miraculous display of paradoxical and oxymoronic simultaneity, we don’t. On the best days, we are a poem; we feed the great lake of art, authors and thinkers, bursting and brimming with quotations and conversations. Somedays we are “Earth planting Earth into Earth.” As Jacob Nordby says that “We are not one thing…We are many and all at the same time. Life is not simple or straightforward for those of us who must fight to express the many truths of who we are”. We are shaped by the shards; formed in and by the fissures. Closed off parts of ourselves are broken open by traumas, and more often than not, the world is made better for the breakage, because in that wondrous and terrible opening we are exposed to the fragile sanctity of our shared humanity.
In one of the early chapters of the Anthropocene Reviewed John Green writes that when the light that was humanity finally “goes out, it will be Earth’s greatest tragedy”. Two years ago, I’m not sure I would have agreed. But today, as you and I chide our laughability with aching sides, as we revel in our shared reverence of books and reading, we are galvanized together and incited by ideas of human ingenuity and inquisitiveness. Daily we reach into the cavernous depths of ourselves, emerging with the words and language to most potently express the ferocity of our longings, and desires. We inhabit the fierceness of our yearning, our zeal, our lust, our excitement, and, especially our love, and I’m beginning to think differently. Love is after all that most awe-inspiring feat of all human endeavors. Isn’t that, in and of itself, worth preserving? These things and more are so alive between you and I, and I realize “how wondrous humans are…how strange and [how] lovely”. “We are, in spite of it all”, Green writes “a charismatic species”.
Once upon a time, in some out of the way corner of that universe which is dispersed into numberless twinkling solar systems, there was a star upon which clever beasts invented knowing. That was the most arrogant and mendacious minute of “world history,” but nevertheless, it was only a minute. After nature had drawn a few breaths, the star cooled and congealed, and the clever beasts had to die. One might invent such a fable, and yet he still would not have adequately illustrated how miserable, how shadowy and transient, how aimless and arbitrary the human intellect looks within nature. There were eternities during which it did not exist. And when it is all over with the human intellect, nothing will have happened.
Nietzsche is right of course. When the brief smallness of our temporal range stands in stark contrast to the looming largeness of a near eternal universe, humanity is ultimately of little to no consequence. As John Green writes “The future will erase everything – there’s no level of fame or genius that allows you to transcend oblivion. The infinite future makes that kind of mattering impossible.”
And yet, I can’t help but think that some deep down part of the cosmos will, from time to time, remember that for one gloriously ephemeral minute, the Earth was making meaning from Earth, and I’d like to believe that if there is any part of the universe left that still knows itself as itself, it will smile.
The planet will continue on once we have been caught by our own culling. It may never grieve our passing. It will probably never mourn our loss. But neither will it ever be the same. As we flicker out and fade away, so will the music, so will the laughter, and the art, and the poetry, and so will all the love. We may be the piece of the universe that wants to self-destruct, but perhaps we are also that piece that can summon the will to save itself, to sustain faith, to sustain faith in itself, to sustain faith in us. Somedays I’m hopeful, and some I’m not convinced, but maybe that’s why its called faith, the faith of hands still willing to get a little dirt on them…