When I first started studying zen, a teacher asked a group, “What would you tell someone who was old and felt they’d wasted their life?” She was preparing for a trip to New York, where she felt she might be asked this question by her audience. I was thirty at the time and appalled by the idea of someone feeling this way when it was basically too late to do anything about it. It reminded me of a line from the film Out of Africa: a character declines a marriage proposal by saying, “I don’t want to find out one day that I’m at the end of someone else’s life.”
Somehow it’s hard for me to imagine a worse fate, although I know there are plenty available and experienced daily all over this planet. This is a privileged person’s dilemma, certainly, but a dilemma nonetheless: awaking suddenly from decades of cozy somnambulation to the nightmarish realization that somehow one has wound up in the entirely wrong life.
How does this happen? Societal brainwashing? Fear? Practical exigencies? Habitual dishonesty? Or a gradual turning of attention away from one’s inner voice and life; like any voice responding to years of neglect, this inner witness finally gives up and stops talking.
“To know what you prefer instead of humbly saying Amen to what the world tells you that you ought to prefer, is to have kept your soul alive,” promises Robert Louis Stevenson. What he doesn’t explain is how to do this exactly: how to discern what you, in the deepest reaches of your complicated self, actually want, and how to muster the courage to refuse the myriad alternatives urged on you in the name of various modern-day gods: reason, security, success, popularity. In short, how to save your own life — not because yours is better than any other, but simply because it’s yours, and it fits.
I’ve often thought it would be enough if I can just make my own mistakes, fiascos unfolding naturally from my own character and experiences, rather than my misguided attempts to be someone else.