I was born, which happens to every animal. But I was born human. And what separates us humans from other animals is that we watch the winter bearing down upon us, and then stop to make a note of it. Some well-provisioned Paleolithic clan, finding themselves with full stomachs and spare time, accepted the imperative to make a note of their precarious life. They left us the fourteen thousand-year-old paintings in the caves of Lascaux, France. We’ve been climbing and falling from precipices, and painting and writing about the pain and joy of it, ever since that pre-historic time.
We humans have a unique capacity to feel shockingly lucky to have materialized when we have, inside a human mother’s womb. What a lucky time and place. How beautiful we all are. How God-full are our sunrises. Yet nearby to each of us are the suffering souls of uncountable humans and other animals, having materialized when they did, inside less lucky wombs. How God-awful are all those sunsets. And how grateful the rest of us should feel. Somehow, though, we find ways to squander our luck. We fail to accept that our lives are not nearly as complicated as our excuses for not living.
Until recently, I did not appreciate fully my favorite lines from T. S. Elliot’s poem, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock: “I should have been a pair of ragged claws / Scuttling across the floors of silent seas”. I’ve always understood the old man’s maudlin complaint as an insincerely constructed lament—a whine-fest with only himself on the guest list. Now, I have a better idea of what this old man’s blameful situation might mean to us as we age and begin to worry about our misconceptions of life and death. The issue is not as simple as a mid-life crisis that might be resolved by a new mate and a fast motorcycle. You might not hear “mermaids singing each to each”. You might not know what this is, or who is responsible, or where to go next. But if you sit still and cover yourself in ashes and moan loudly, you’ll incur nobody’s pity but your own. Then the distain of all who were born in much less lucky wombs will be justified. Self-pity is like heroin. It will lull you to sleep while the roads of other lives are laid across your soul.
A man who thinks he knows his thoughts is standing next to a man who knows his own thoughts better. And neither man may know his own thoughts well enough. Writing is re-writing. Re-writing is thinking. Vision and revision mean coming to grips with what we understand, and what we have misunderstood. To write, and to re-write, is the opportunity to recover after stumbling. You learn a little as you fall; you learn much more as you pull yourself back up. Just as importantly: you may loose your pride on the way down, but you gain your dignity on the way up.
Oct. 16, 2010