September 29th, 2015
As we age, as our responsibilities mount, as we build families and grow our circles of interdependence, we will notice, accompanying the sea-levels of our stress beginning to rise, the falling away of our self-time. Solitary projects and self-directed pursuits once paramount to us slough away; concerns and to-dos that we felt defined us (accurately or no) begin to recede.
Some of this is temporary, some of this is permanent. Some of this may be upsetting to us, and some of this may be like a permission we finally grant ourselves to stop weighing ourselves down with the freight of imperative. Most importantly, some of this molting of our daily “musts” seems to me deeply necessary, and healthy, and not just because our aging selves now need to fulfill the biological impetus of the species and tend to offspring. It’s necessary and healthy in another way: in the way that moving out of our apartment or house helps us refine our belongings, purge the ballast as we clean out closets, re-discover cherished friends and memories as we stumble upon long-hidden mementos and photos from decades ago. It clears away mental clutter and (re-?)introduces us to our cores.
This shifting of our priorities happens for many reasons, but the shearing & melting away of mental unnecessaries I’m most interested in is that which is powered by a constant low-level state of anxiety, anxiety that is the inevitable condition of raising children, aging, and growing intimate with our mortality (let alone doing all this in a transitional epoch, such as ours, fully in the throes of technological upheaval). This stress and anxiety acts over time to erode our defenses, shake away excrescences, chisel at the crust — reveal our true purposes to ourselves. Month after month, year after year, living in this state forces us to discover what’s absolutely necessary to our mental and spiritual survival. The steady creek of this anxiety wears channels in our soil, sluices our loam until only the precious, precious stones of us remain. And what are those stones? They are our callings, our final sine quae nons, our missions & duties. For me — and I partially credit talks with my dear friend J. with discovering this — those stones are two. Survival and servitude.
What is survival in this context? It’s not escaping injury or imminent death, which is what the noun suggests to most of us. It’s nothing so dramatic. What I mean by “survival” is just doing the day-to-day work of simply showing up. The most baseline toil there is, that of the rhizome, of the ant, the dung beetle pushing its cargo: little incremental living. Motion. Getting up and going. Shower, shave, out the door. Getting sun, breeze and rain all over you in the meantime. Living in a consistent, healthy enough way to keep the machine going, keep that incredible complex and still dimly-understood meat & bone machine clicking and whirring for as long as possible: for you and your kin. It’s being among other humans — some a joy, some a trial, most in-between — as you make your way to work. It’s waiting in lines, climbing stairs, barely making it to meetings. Mucking through the day’s little crises & rushes, meeting the day’s deadlines. Washing dishes, brushing teeth, bed. And doing it all over again the next day. And again. And again. Simple survival, keeping the blood flowing. This humblest of daily works is the precondition for anything more complex, noble and beautiful we aspire to in life, it is the under-acknowledged foundation. There are no sweet grapes to pluck without much weeding and watering.
With survival established, we turn to serving. What does it mean to serve? For many people, servitude connotes thrall, being yoked to some task against one’s will. This is not the sense in which I use the term. For me, in this context, to serve is to voluntarily sacrifice one’s desires and place some other human’s (or animal’s, or plant’s) comfort and wishes above your own. It means acting in selflessness and sacrifice. Deciding not to watch some half hour youtube show and instead calling up that friend who’s having a hard time and could use a listening ear and supporting voice. Putting off a nap so you can help that neighbor you only kind of know move out of his apartment because you know he doesn’t have anyone else. Putting your novel away for an hour so you can make that card for your grandma that’s been on your mind, the one you know she’ll love if you glue that one photo in it of you and your family. Even holding your tongue when you wish to snipe back at someone’s ungraciousness. It’s the discomfort of one’s own pleasures held in abeyance, mixed with the pleasure and fulfillment of knowing you are the direct cause of another human’s relief. That you’re adding one more drop of precious relief into the general global bucket of suffering. This is what I mean by serving.
To survive, to serve. These are my stones, and knowing them and, much more importantly, acting upon them, gives me a new kind of strength. What are yours? I don’t need to read about them in a comments section, more importantly, I ask you to meditate on them, meditate on the ways in which life is beginning to or has already revealed to your core imperatives. And how you can now honor that revelation through works.
All writing © copyright C. Way / Snailcrow.com 2015