Tuesday, May 04, 2004

Pressing On

A friend recently sent me a quote from Karen Armstrong, who is best known for her books A History of God and The Battle for God. This quote was drawn from The Spiral Staircase;

The great myths show that when you follow somebody else's path you go astray. The hero has to set off by himself, leaving the old world and the old ways behind. He must venture into the darkness of the unknown, where there is no map and no clear route. He must fight his own monsters, not somebody else's, explore his own labyrinth, and endure his own ordeal before he can find what is missing in his life. Thus transfigured, he (or she) can bring something of value to the world that has been left behind. But if the knight finds himself riding along an already established track, he is simply following in somebody else's footsteps and will not have an adventure. In the words of the Old French text of The Quest of the Holy Grail, if he wants to succeed, he must enter the forest "at a point that he, himself, had chosen, where it was darkest and there was no path." The wasteland in the Grail legend is a place where people live inauthentic lives, blindly following the norms of their society and doing only what other people expect.
What my friend could not have known, as it has been a few months since we have spoken, is that I recently started reading The Spiral Staircase, which I picked up after hearing an interview Armstrong gave on NPR. Quite the coincidence, if you believe in such things.

Entering into the darkness of the unknown; Dante's dark wood. The quote resonates strongly, although I don't feel particularly heroic. Just the opposite, actually. Some days it feels as if I'm swimming through molasses, a syrupy concoction of my own making. I know how to climb out of this thick, sweet pool. I'm too busy trying to stay afloat, and too preoccupied by the bubbles struggling to surface all around me.

Bubbles don't struggle of their own accord. They naturally float upward. In my thrashing through this ocean of brown ooze, I'm holding them down. I don't want them to surface. I'm afraid. I'm afraid that these tiny bubbles might just hold within them things I don't want to hear; things that just might make my own struggle end. I don't want to slowly sink down into those dark depths. But I am getting tired. In some ways, it would be a relief. Yes, it would. Not just yet, though. No, not quite yet.

Leaving the old world and the old ways behind; a few years ago, I packed up whatever I could fit into my car, and drove 3,000 miles to a new life, a new world. It is a good world. I'm not sorry I did it. What haunts me is the memory of severing the mooring lines. No question that they had to be cut. What sometimes causes me to gasp out loud is the unexpected recalling of some of the methods I used to break those ties. Some give good reason to despise myself. Others bring a sense of wonder at the ability to endure the ordeal without being destroyed.

These bubbles from the past, which appear without warning, rise from a song from the car radio, a vaguely familiar scent, or snippets of overheard conversation on the boardwalk. They don't signal another weekly conclusion of Lawrence Welk (yes, I am that old, folks! Anda one, anda two...), but instead announce the beginning of a fresh game of "What if..." If only I had done, or not done; said or not said...

It is a silly game. A game driven by fear; the fear of failing, the fear of being doomed to repeating the same mistakes over and over again, the fear of letting go of too much, the fear of losing myself.

Which brings me to the real foolishness in all of this. Am I the sum total of my memories? More specifically, am I my thoughts; or more clearly, is my identity completely consumed by the one who thinks such thoughts? If I were only a mind sitting on top of a long tube that sucks and blows, I suppose that would be a fair description.

I suspect that it is the thinker who is the source of all this molasses, and most likely the bubbles as well. And that thinker is somewhat imaginary. Every thought is a projection of a past event. Even a thought I perceive as instantaneous is still slightly removed from the present moment. Projections on a screen; projections trapped in the illusionary divisions of time.

Maybe I'll just float on my back for awhile, and let those bubbles rise to the surface, and smile as they pop; finally exposed as the illusionary fears they always were.


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