If you’re lucky enough to find a way of life you love, you have to find the courage to live it. — John Irving
Yes, I’m trying to sneak in a last post before the year pulls its tail through the doorway and pads off to time’s Florida. Usually this turning point is one of my favorites, since I live for resolutions and fresh starts. But I’m not experiencing that hushed sense of promise this year because I feel so frustrated in my battle for health.
It seems like the past four months have been a series of failed experiments in treatment, the only apparent result being that my liver is getting cranky in reaction to the drugs it’s been bombarded with. It’s not the only organ to feel that way; my brain keeps wanting to threaten, “I can’t take this much longer,” with much left conveniently vague. But I’m wary of issuing an ultimatum, even a vague one. Life tends to respond to ultimatums badly, if at all. And understandably so — ultimatums are a nasty business.
It’s for these reasons that John Irving’s statement caught my heart. There’s no doubt that I’ve found/made a way of life I love, despite its tenuousness according to our usual standards of “security” and success. The former is surely one of our most cherished delusions. Someone said, “Most of us would trade anything we have for a good, false sense of control.” And any good sense of control is bound to be false. So it hasn’t cost me much to give up something I don’t believe in.
Not that I disdain cars younger than twenty, or houses in which one can sleep through the night — these are very nice things. They just haven’t exerted sufficient gravitational pull for me to give up the work I believe in for something better remunerated.
When I first began practicing at Tassajara Zen Mountain Center, I had just returned to the U.S. after five years of living in Japan, and I was in shock, cultural and otherwise. During that summer of fumbling through zen forms, an older student said to me, “This practice was made for people like you.” I reversed her words in my mind: I was made for this practice. I sensed that much, and a decade later I have no real regrets.
What is this way of life I feel made for? Radical simplicity and straightforwardness, for a start. I don’t want to waste time on the intricate fictions our society abounds in, as perhaps all societies do, since part of what defines a society is shared fictions. Radical in the sense of values lived down to the roots — not betraying what one believes in with what one does. And empathy, and concern for the consequences of one’s actions in the world.
Working toward these ideals the long way is the life I love. As for courage, what’s most difficult sometimes is keeping the faith that what I’m doing matters. I loved cleaning the cabins at Tassajara, a job widely despised, even in that zen environment. I’d walk into a room in some stage of dishevelment and restore an idea of order. Finally, I’d stand at the door imagining how the room would look to the next person who entered. I always felt a sense of accomplishment, of having tangibly helped.
Growing up I dreamed of becoming a doctor. I borrowed surgeons’ biographies from the library, imagined working in a hospital, saving people’s lives. I started off pre-med in college before realizing bodies didn’t interest me very much; I was more intrigued by what went on in people’s heart-minds.
So I wound up working with the world of the intangible, the felt and imagined, feared and longed for. And this work naturally entails an ongoing struggle of faith that the inner world matters as much as the outer, the one we can see and therefore don’t need to believe in, the one where people get sick and sometimes don’t get better. Without great doubt, great faith wouldn’t exist. It’s possible that incurable skeptics make the best idealists in the end.
And on that note, how about some resolutions?