Friday, October 31, 2008
I've been prompted this morning to wake up early and have my breakfast at a local bakery (Panera Bread). It's already the end of the week and I'm seized by that terrible feeling I could have gotten more accomplished. So I launch my morning in a final attempt to squeeze the juice to the last drop. At 9:30 a.m.--when I'm usually sitting at my computer and checking email in my boxer shorts--I'm at the library ready to work.
Last night I watched a clip on YouTube with my girlfriend. I'd seen this clip the night before but because it made me think I wanted to see it again. In this short video, Alan Watts, a British philosopher and student of comparative religion, asks the question, "Is it serious?"
By "it" he means the drama of human existence. And this is a question that has lurked in the back of my mind for some years now. I've wondered about the illusory nature of reality; I studied Buddhism for awhile. I've questioned my deepest struggles and asked whether they were basic or essential, or simply an involuntary creation of my emotions and my ego.
Ask my girlfriend, I am not an especially serious person, and I can even be downright nonsensical at times. I am however very goal-oriented and I take great pleasure in getting things accomplished. In addition, I'm a writer and it seems that writers have to prove themselves before anyone takes them "seriously". Which means, by extension, I have to take myself seriously.
Mr. Watts points out the distinction between work and play. Work tends to follow a linear path; we are working toward a certain end point, even if that end point is the beginning of more, perhaps different, work. In contrast, when we play we have no destination in mind, and the object of play is play itself.
Where does my rigid mentality toward life come from? Was I taught this attitude of seriousness? At times even my play feels effortful and self-conscious. In the last chapter, Autumn Unfolds, I talked about how nature unfolds rather than works to become the different seasons. The leaves fall without effort, not a moment too early, not a moment too late.
I've lost touch with my internal clock. It may be in sync with the seasons but I'm not in sync with it. The clock that I bow down to is the external one on my dashboard. I need to keep an eye on the hour so that everything gets done in a day.
Should there be a point to everything? Should there be a destination?
I've forgotten about the journey. The journey has completely slipped my mind.
Let me tell you a story. In my junior year of college, I dropped out of school. I was on drugs and my parents wanted to send me to rehab so I went to a fancy rehab center in Tuscon, Arizona. After twenty eight days in rehab, they said I wasn't done yet so I went to live in a half-way house in California.
While I was supposed to be getting clean, I was fantasizing about a journey. I wanted to run away from the halfway house and travel around the South West. It depressed me that I was stuck in a house full of ex-junkies and that my day was strictly regimented, drug classes in the morning, work in the afternoon, AA meetings at night. It angered me that I had to sweep the floor, cut the lawn, pull the weeds, and clean the toilets. There seemed to be no end to these menial jobs. My life had become all work and no play.
One afternoon I bought a bottle of whiskey and drank it in the parking lot behind the liquor store. They tested us for alcohol every week, and so I got caught. They asked me to leave the halfway house. Finally, I had the perfect excuse to go on my journey. Like Don Quixote, I set off to an unknown land. Instead of a skinny horse I took a battered Greyhound bus; instead of chasing windmills I went to Las Vegas.
During this erratic wandering, I didn't have a goal in mind. Without a destination or even a purpose for leading an existence other than to have adventures, I immersed myself in a sort of dreamworld. The people I met would enter into my Novel of Life and become instant characters.
I traveled from Las Vegas back to Tuscon and then I hitchhiked through Arizona, where I was picked up by strangers on the highway, and on some nights I slept in the desert. Looking back it seems there was more "play" during this time of my life than any other. My undisciplined mind exulted in breaking the rules of a serious life and "playing" with the limits of reality. Doctors and psychologists had a hard time talking to me because I turned everything into a performance. I also suffered from delusions of grandeur.
Today, almost ten years later, I find myself confronted with the opposite extreme. Too much work and not enough play. I am living the regime of the halfway house without the halfway house itself. My adolescent self understood something that not even my adult self can grasp. If somebody had played the Alan Watt's clip for me, I would have recognized the philosophy as my own. Back then, it was my job to undermine seriousness. I mocked authority figures who seemed to represent a culture of goal-oriented freaks.
While it's true I've become one of those goal-oriented freaks, I do understand that play is not simply a wild rampage. Play is more nuanced than I once thought in my adolescence. The drama of existence may not be serious, but on the other hand, it is also no joke. Therein lies the paradox.