Still here, even now
A story my children loved when they were young was about a mouse, an owl, a grandfather clock, a taxicab, and many, many others, including – and especially – a marzipan pig. In the story, a confectionary pig made of marzipan becomes lost behind a sofa, and wonders if it will be found in time for its sweetness to be savored. A mouse happens upon it, and nibbles a bit at first before devouring it. “Sweetness,” it says and, entranced, dances out into the night, only to be found and eaten in turn by an owl.
The owl finds itself somehow changed by the sweetness, and falls in love with a taxi cab. A bee drinks the nectar of a pink flower growing where the mouse had been eaten, and falls in love with a fading hibiscus. Others become transformed by the sweetness that grows as it is shared; eventually we learn that the story is not really about marzipan pigs, and mice, and owls, but about the sweetness itself that never dies. What seems a story of haphazard and terminally tragic events is in fact a story of the stream of life.
There are many who talk knowingly about the spiritual abundance of life, as though there were infinite warehouses of eternal gifts still waiting for people who had long since given up wishing for them. This idea reduces the appetite for life to an ambition for owning objects and experiences – and furthermore blames the poor for the supposed moral weakness that keeps them poor. I do not want abundance; I believe instead in sufficiency, and contentment with the continual stream of life itself. Losses and gains are events that follow one another; and with them we learn to let go of what is gone and make use of what we receive as long as we are here, and to be satisfied as we savor this flow.
We may doubt, and we may believe, yet we must never give up hope – if we do, then we give up on ourselves. Hope expects nothing, and does not desire to arrive at a destination but rather dwells instead upon the direction to be taken through an as yet unexplored landscape. Belief and doubt, the ebb and flow of our opinions, can act as guides during our progress if they do not struggle with one another as we travel along; but hope already knows the direction we want to pursue. The reality of this continual pursuit is what counts, far more than some sentimental idea of a particularly ultimate arrival.
This unexplored landscape is not populated by personal goals and destinations, but by unknown possibilities. The optimistic heart travels that land more easily, sufficiently ready to recognize the possibilities, while the cynic will struggle there, doubting ease and believing in disappointment. In fact, a new study just published in the latest edition of Neurology (the journal of the American Academy of Neurology) has found that cynical people have a statistically significant higher likelihood of developing dementia – characterized by the obsession of a narrowing cognition, and the compulsion of a defensive attitude.
Doubt and skepticism are of course useful tools for critical thinking; they help rule out the impossibly sentimental cul-de-sacs of the mind. But, as with belief, when the opinion of doubt becomes a decision, there can be trouble. The mind narrows upon an individual event to fix it like an insect on a pin – and as it tightens its stance, the coherent healing sense of flow is gone. Epictetus, the Roman slave who became a famous Stoic philosopher, wrote in his Art of Living that we cannot step into the same river twice, it continually flows; and in that continual flow there is always a satisfying, sweet comfort.
And all your melancholy observations of
the rounds of brevity within this life do not
deny the solace of the constant return –
perhaps not my own return, but one I know,
and knowing it well, make it my own.
(We really do not know that we will not return,
for we have not yet gone, although
that’s not what matters.)
What matters is we are still here, even now,
remaining to remind one another of
that constant return.
What returns has always been here, vital,
and so never redundant;
for the stream’s current – even now, and here –
always remembers the vigor of its fountain
in the mountainside watershed,
as it flows from its spring,
falling forward toward the inevitability of
its constant sea.