I was at JFK airport last night. On the way, I passed many vehicles abandoned in snow banks and on the side of the road. In the international departure terminal, the crowds were huge and a bit heart-wrenching–so many tired-looking people from so many parts of the world standing inlong, long lines with luggage. I couldn’t help but think about the hero’s quest and the human journey, especially since I spent much of the past week (some of it snow-bound and without internet!) helping my daughter Alex prepare for her own big journey. I was at JFK dropping her off for her flight to England. She will be studying medieval history and literature at Oxford University, also travelling around, visiting friends here and there, having a grand adventure! The Lord of the Rings and Tolkein turned out to be a mentor to Alex in the classic sense. The great man introduced her to a vast special world and to her own deeper human possibilities. He showed her that there is something greater to serve in this world, and that valor and adventure and even greatness is possible.
My own path was, well, different. I didn’t fall in love with LOTR like Alex did, and I didn’t go to Oxford to read Chaucer–or anywhere– junior year. I moved to New York after college with no prospects, no skills, no connections, no friends, no money, no clue, just guided by the blind sense that I should draw closer to the fire of life. I guess the most important book guide I had was Siddhartha by Herman Hesse, or Carlos Castenda, with a dash of the Count of Monte Cristo. I had the sense that I had to find my true place or calling in life playing different roles in outer life, first as a kind of hippie, a self-styled dharma bum, and then in New York as a worker bee in various underpaid jobs the great buzzing hives of publishing and film. I kind of blundered along in the dark, seeking a direct experience of the truth. I had the sense of being an undercover agent assigned to a mission I didn’t yet know, a sleeper agent who would wake up one day and have a complete feeling and understanding of what it means to be alive.
Weeks and weeks ago, I wrote about questioning Miss B., my biology teacher, who locked up some of the parts in the male anatomy torso because “she wasn’t paid to teach pornography.” Didn’t truth demand all our human parts? I learned that even asking that question could get you kicked out of class. Around that time I realized that school wasn’t necessarily about penetrating to the truth–at least not the truth that could pierce you and make you realize your place in the whole of life. It was about learning mere facts, and worse: it was about learning the rules of the game–the biology game, the history game…I remember wondering who wrote the history books, who judged the deeds of nations and great men.
Quoting from The Shaking of the Foundations by Paul Tillich:
Chapter 19: You Are Accepted
“Grace strikes us when we are in great pain and restlessness. It strikes us when we walk through the dark valley of a meaningless and empty life. It strikes us when we feel that our separation is deeper than usual, because we have violated another life, a life which we loved, or from which we were estranged. It strikes us when our disgust for our own being, our indifference, our weakness, our hostility, and our lack of direction and composure have become intolerable to us. It strikes us when, year after year, the longed-for perfection of life does not appear, when the old compulsions reign within us as they have for decades, when despair destroys all joy and courage. Sometimes at that moment a wave of light breaks into our darkness, and it is as though a voice were saying: “You are accepted. You are accepted, accepted by that which is greater than you, and the name of which you do not know. Do not ask for the name now; perhaps you will find it later. Do not try to do anything now; perhaps later you will do much. Do not seek for anything; do not perform anything; do not intend anything. Simply accept the fact that you are accepted!” If that happens to us, we experience grace After such an experience we may not be better than before, and we may not believe more than before. But everything is transformed. In that moment, grace conquers sin, and reconciliation bridges the gulf of estrangement. And nothing is demanded of this experience, no religious or moral or intellectual presupposition, nothing but acceptance.”
It struck me reading this that I barely know how to begin to value this life. After all these years, I am still a sleeper agent! Even when I’ve had a piercing insight or moment of grace I go right back to sleep. I still mostly measure my life in terms of my needs and desires. How often do I remember to say “thank you!” for the pain and restlessness, the dark valleys and stretches of meaninglessness that gave way to light? This is natural, I suppose–we have many parts, Miss B! But what if instead of the usual list of resolutions I spent some time reflecting on what came unbidden, just when everything seemed to be going wrong? What if I accept the whole of my life, just as I am accepted by a force or intelligence greater than myself. What we call awakening or enlightenment is not separate from the movement or state of acceptance. To understand is to accept, and to accept is to truly love. Happy New Year.