As I Lay Living, Part Two: You Are Going to Die
If the civilized life is akin to a long walk through nature — and that includes human nature — then its definitive character is not destinations, not “highlights,” but continuity. The key to continuity, in all matters of will, is the avoidance of distractions. Destinations, too, when regarded as definitive, become mere distractions. A destination is not only an end point, but also a starting point. Hence a life built on concrete goals is like a walk that restarts indefinitely; one takes many steps, but gets nowhere. And do not fall for the error of imagining life as a sequence of progressive goals, which is to say progressive starting points. A thousand short, distinct lines will never comprise a complete circle, and circularity is the archetype of continuity. Thus, to say that life is a long walk is to say that its form is circularity, and its corresponding privation is every break in continuity.
Continuity requires supreme concentration; not the teeth-grinding determination of the single-minded goal-seeker or “man of achievement,” but the undistracted, indefatigable patience of the heavenly spheres, which Aristotle found so amenable to his theory of the unmoved movers, the eternal, immaterial objects of desire that attract and sustain the spheres in their everlasting circular motions.
In practical human terms, this cosmic continuity entails limitless patience and enthusiasm for the walk itself, and a refusal to be diverted by the many flashing signs that say, “Stop here! This is what you’ve been looking for.” Those signs are the soul’s siren song, promising completion where it is not to be found, and then, when we inevitably fail, leaving us despondent about “the human condition” — as though life itself, rather than our own foolish disregard for life (the long walk), were the culprit.
Two everyday anecdotes may help to concretize the preceding observations.
Once, during a class discussion about dreams and the future, a very quiet, earnest, humorless girl answered my question “Should people have big dreams?” by saying no they shouldn’t, because she had already lost her dream, and therefore small dreams are safer. She was twenty-one, and her dream was to be an English teacher, but she believed that given the way school streaming works in Korea, she had basically fallen out of the running. Her dream was dead at twenty-one — and having gotten to know this girl better since then, I know this belief was sincere and paralyzing in her life.
I explained to her and the class that if she looks at that failure as the end of her hopes, then it will be. On the other hand, I explained, in my best “older and wiser” demeanor, life, if you look at it a certain way, is mostly made up of failures — things that didn’t go as you had hoped or intended, results that fell short of expectations, rejections and missed opportunities of all sorts. But every time you miss a so-called goal, you inevitably land somewhere. Now you have a new, unintended opportunity, though perhaps painful, to look around and find something you had never expected or considered, and that might not have been available to you at all had your first “big dream” come true. And you have no idea whether that new alternative path might end up being the one best suited to you after all. In short, you are going to fail or be disappointed a thousand times in your life, but every failure opens three new doors, if you can overcome your disappointment quickly enough to notice them.
A moment’s reflection on your own life will undoubtedly support this. How many of the things you cherish most, and even regard as essential and necessary to your identity, were found, not merely by accident, but as a direct or indirect result of a supposed failure or disappointment? The lifelong companion you would never have met had you not failed to enter your preferred school. The life-changing work opportunity that would never even have occurred to you had you been successful in your more orthodox career path years before. We both flatter and belittle ourselves when we imagine that the things that have gone well for us can all be traced in a simple straight line from intention to fruition. I am not talking about luck. I am talking about the human instinct for adaptation that allows us to find our way by means of failure, unless we inhibit the soul’s natural resilience and gracefulness under pressure with the self-imposed heavy gait of despondency.
The second anecdote is one that recurs every so often during class, at least once each semester I would guess. Someone will ask me the standard self-reflection question, “What would you do if you found out you were dying?”
I always answer the same way, with contextual variations:
“But I am dying. I’ll tell you a little secret: I have a fatal disease — and so do you, and so does everyone in this room. It’s called life. And the worst part of this disease is that it’s not neat and tidy; you have no idea when it’s going to kill you. It could be in twenty years, or it could be before I finish this sentence.
“So what would I do if I found out I were dying? In fact, I did find out, and I’m doing it right now. I would do as I am doing: I would get up early, spend time thinking, walking, and writing, share interesting and serious conversation with a few people who have become important to me or who need my help, and if I had any classes scheduled, I would teach them and try to enjoy the time with my students.
“Think about it: If you answer the question about what you would do if you were dying with activities completely different from what you are doing now, that means you don’t really care about your current life, because if you did, why would you give it up when you were running out of time to live it. I do care about my current life, by which, in the end, I mean this: I didn’t choose to live this way without considering what I would do if my time were running out. I chose this life because my time is running out. So why would I do anything different?
“And if your answer would be to do things that are completely different from your current life, then you should ask yourself why.
“And more importantly: Why are you living a life you don’t want?”