I remember reading something in a book by Doris Lessing—I think it was one of her “space fiction” series, maybe Shikasta. Human beings, her character said, were really meant to live much longer lives than our typical life-expectancy, perhaps even the hundreds of years attributed to biblical characters. The problem is that our civilizations have forgotten how to live in alignment with the forces of well-being, and our bodies can’t withstand the strain, so they quit early. This accounts for the feelings we have in middle-age, even in old age, that we’re only just getting the hang of living. It’s true, Lessing’s book explained: in our fifties and sixties, we really are adolescents, but our truncated life-spans don’t allow us to live out the full natural cycle.
To paraphrase Sandro Portelli, all deeply felt stories are true, even if they are not accurate. This one feels so true to me, it takes my breath away. Every day, I feel myself compressed between the tectonic plates of inner and outer time. Inside, I’m just beginning to understand, while outside, the clock ticks me well into the third age.
In the last few weeks, I have understood something about my own life that seems urgent and central and has eluded me entirely until this moment. It is as if the limitations of normal sight have given way to a kind of X-ray vision. I have seen a recurring pattern rolling like tumbleweed through my life-story, accelerating as it goes: in one moment, the doors to my heart and mind are wide-open, ready to understand deeply and to receive the love that life puts in my path; and in the next, the brokenness of human beings falls in shards around my head, pain fills my universe, and the doors slam shut.
My friend says it probably started at birth. I’m deeply skeptical about notions such as past lives, as choosing to be born into a certain body and moment. But even viewed as metaphor, I can see the truth of it, that coming into the world of my profoundly, operatically dysfunctional family, I received a shock that has reverberated ever since: “Oh, no! Look at this mess! What is wrong with these people? I’m stuck here and it’s not going to be easy getting out!” So far as I could see, there wasn’t much help available in my immediate surroundings. I started on the path that shaped most of my life: thinking “I have to rescue myself. I have to get strong and smart and do it alone, because there is no one here to help me.”
Going to school was like that for me too. I thought it would be a refuge, a place where I could learn and grow, but instead, I learned that my big brain and foreign otherness would single me out for another type of isolation. I nursed my disappointment, learned to dream, to be an artist, to convert my alienation into an engine of self-propulsion beyond the little world that oppressed me.
I married at 17 to escape my family, and woke up understanding that my young husband was a helpless alcoholic, and I was on my own again. I loved the sixties because of the permission that period gave to my self-invention and all the possibilities it nourished to imagine a world transformed, a welcoming place for social invention, where justice could pour down like waters and righteousness like a rushing stream. But when I saw how many people espoused caring values without practicing them with each other, that path lost its glamor and I renewed my vow to find my own way.
Much later, right on time in my late forties, I had a remarkable spiritual experience that completely reshuffled the deck of my understanding. In an instant, I was moved from a sadness conditioned on understanding life as a struggle filled with arbitrary punishments to a view of existence as an opening to freedom, in which each experience represents a movement toward growth, toward becoming more fully oneself. Because this lightning bolt of insight came to me in the form of a Jewish book, and because I am a Jew, I quickly poured this experience into the container of Jewish study and practice. That was a time—a multi-year stretch—of tremendous joy and expansion. I studied eagerly, I took on increasing levels of responsibility in Jewish communal organizations, I experienced every day the sense of being held by and connected to a Life Force far larger and more powerful than anything my mind could comprehend.
And then a deeply broken person appeared in the costume of a spiritual leader. He fixed his attention on me, imagining that I was somehow the source of his suffering, launching an attack remarkable in its venom and energy. That primal experience was repeated: “Oh, no! Here it is again!” Shards of human brokenness rained down on me, my wounds reopened, the doors to my heart and mind shut down. Since that time, I have not been able to experience for more than a few moments that sense of being held and connected, and I have missed it very much.
I’ll spare you the whole saga, the further turns of the tumbleweed. Suffice it to say that throughout my life, each moment of ultimate openness has been followed—and in some sense cancelled—by an encounter with human beings in the grip of their own wounds, lashing out. I now see that my mind has repeatedly treated the shock of being surrounded by brokenness as a refutation of any sort of faith, even the faith that there will be anything to hold me beyond my own will and effort. I have tried for so long to console myself with the thought that I will always be okay because I have developed a prodigious strength and problem-solving capability, that somehow I’ll be able to make things go my way. I see that unconsciously, I have been seeking experiences that reproduce this pattern, as a way to understand and loosen its grip on my life.
Now I am trying to uncouple these beliefs. In truth, I have no idea if I will be okay or not. Some of the things I am now facing (for instance, the intersection of the credit crisis and the hope of selling my house) are far beyond my control. In psycho-spiritual terms, the task seems plain: to allow myself to experience absolute not-knowing without retreating to old patterns of false comfort, to go there in the knowledge that something like the sense of being held and connected I once experienced is likely to be waiting for me.
The trouble is, the habits of a lifetime are hard to break. The fear that nothing will be there is very strong in me now. The fear that there is no one but me to rely on is very strong in me now. I see that this fear is my obstacle, that in a sort of cosmic irony, allowing it to control me ratifies it, preventing me from seeing what else may be there.
I have sought counsel from trusted advisors. One advised me to try to go back through the portal of shock and terror that initialized my belief-system, and I have been working on that. Another told me that along with terror, I will also find love in my life-story that I was not able to receive because it couldn’t flow through the suit of psychic armor I was forced to don.
I wrote this on an airplane (right now, I’m posting it during an unexpected 3-hour delay—weather, they say). On my last flight, I spent some time in the timeless and placeless space of air travel trying to connect to that love, to notice the people life put in my path, the people who helped prepare me to become myself. Suddenly, I had a thought (you will possibly be shocked to hear that it was an entirely new thought for me): “I bet my father loved me.” I can’t ask him, as he has been dead these 51 years, but the feeling was intense. A wise friend advised me to find something that connects me to him and keep it close. I have exactly one object that belonged to him, the ring he used to marry my mother. It’s on a chain now around my neck. I find myself touching it many times each day. I hope it will help me to stay open, to avoid shutting down again when an attack reminds me of the chaos into which I was born.
The adolescent feeling of only just beginning to see, only just beginning to know how to live, is with me every day. And so is the sense that time is running out. Several times in the last few weeks, I’ve met someone who told me he or she didn’t want to live to a ripe old age. These are people who suffer with health problems I have been fortunate to avoid; I think what they mostly mean is that they wouldn’t want to prolong the pain and debilitation they associate with aging. But if I could have my faculties intact—the capacity to perceive the world and engage in the Great Conversation with other souls whose will to live is strong—I’d love to know that I had time to work it out, to live fully after breaking this pattern.
Blessings of long life to all who wish it, a long life illuminated by the capacity to receive love through open doors of heart and mind.