When I was nine years old, going on ten, I experienced a true metaphysical crisis. Maybe this seems young for such a thing, but I was always a precocious child. It all happened over the summer between fourth and fifth grade. I was going to be turning ten years old in July, and there was something about the transition from nine to ten--from single digit to double digits--that shocked me into a genuine existential panic, usually reserved for people turning fifty. I remember thinking that life was passing me by so fast. It seemed like only yesterday I was in kindergarten, and here I was, about to turn ten. Soon I would be a teenager, then middle-aged, then elderly, then dead. And everyone else was aging in hyperspeed, too. Everybody was going to be dead soon. My parents would die. My friends would die. My cat would die. My older sister was almost in high school already; I could remember her going off to first grade only moments ago, it seemed, in her little knee socks, and now she was in high school? Obviously it wouldn't be long before she was dead. What was the point of all this?
The strangest thing about this crisis was that nothing in particular had spurred it. No friend or relative had died, giving me my first taste of mortality, nor had I read or seen anything particular about death; I hadn't even read Charlotte's Web yet. This panic I was feeling at age ten was nothing less than a spontaneous and full-out realization of mortality's inevitable march, and I had no spiritual vocabulary with which to help myself manage it. We were Protestants, and not even devout ones, at that. We said grace only before Christmas and Thanksgiving dinner and went to church sporadically. My dad chose to stay home on Sunday mornings, finding his devotional practice in farming. I sang in the choir because I liked singing; my pretty sister was the angel in the Christmas pageant. My mother used the church as a headquarters from which to organize good works of volunteer service for the community. But even in that church, I don't remember
there being a lot of talking about God. This was New England, after all, and the word God
tends to make Yankees nervous.
My sense of helplessness was overwhelming. What I wanted to do was pull some
massive emergency brake on the universe, like the brakes I'd seen on the subways during our school trip to New York City. I wanted to call a time out, to demand that everybody just STOP until I could understand everything. I suppose this urge to force the entire universe to stop in its tracks until I could get a grip on myself might have been the beginning of what my dear friend Richard from Texas calls my "control issues." Of course, my efforts and worry were futile. The closer I watched time, the faster it spun, and that summer went by so quickly that it made my head hurt, and at the end of every day I remember thinking, "Another one gone," and bursting into tears.
I have a friend from high school who now works with the mentally handicapped, and he says his autistic patients have a particularly heartbreaking awareness of time's passage, as if they never got the mental filter that allows the rest of us to forget about mortality every once in a while and just live. One of Rob's patients always asks him the date at the beginning of every day, and at the end of the day will ask, "Rob--when will it be February fourth again?" And before Rob can answer, the guy shakes his head in sorrow and says, "I know, I know, never mind . . . not until next year, right?"
I know this feeling all too intimately. I know the sad longing to delay the end of another February 4. This sadness is one of the great trials of the human experiment. As far as we know, we are the only species on the planet who have been given the gift--or curse, perhaps--of awareness about our own mortality. Everything here eventually dies; we're just the lucky ones who get to think about this fact every day. How are you going to cope with this information? When I was nine, I couldn't do a thing with it except cry. Later, over the years, my hypersensitive awareness of time's speed led me to push myself to experience life at a maximum pace. If I were going to have such a short visit on earth, I had to do everything possible to experience it now. Hence all the traveling, all the romances, all the ambition, all the pasta. My sister had a friend who used to think that Catherine had two or three younger sisters, because she was always hearing stories about the sister who was in Africa, the sister who was working on a ranch in Wyoming, the sister who was the bartender in New York, the sister who was writing a book, the sister who was getting married--surely this could not all be the same person? Indeed, if I could have split myself into many Liz Gilberts, I would willingly have done so, in order to not miss a moment of life. What am I saying? I did split myself into many Liz Gilberts, all of whom simultaneously collapsed in exhaustion on a bathroom floor in the suburbs one night, somewhere around the age of thirty.
I should say here that I'm aware not everyone goes through this kind of metaphysical crisis. Some of us are hardwired for anxiety about mortality, while some of us just seem more comfortable with the whole deal. You meet lots of apathetic people in this world, of course, but you also meet some people who seem to be able to gracefully accept the terms upon which the universe operates and who genuinely don't seem troubled by its paradoxes and injustices. I have a friend whose grandmother used to tell her, "There's no trouble in this world so serious that it can't be cured with a hot bath, a glass of whiskey and the Book of Common Prayer." For some people, that's truly enough. For others, more drastic measures are required.
And now I will mention my friend the dairy farmer from Ireland--on the surface, a most unlikely character to meet in an Indian Ashram. But Sean is one of those people like me who were born with the itch, the mad and relentless urge to understand the workings of existence. His little parish in County Cork didn't seem to have any of these answers, so he left the farm in the 1980s to go traveling through India, looking for inner peace through Yoga. A few years later, he returned home to the dairy farm in Ireland. He was sitting in the kitchen of the old stone house with his father--a lifelong farmer and a man of few words--and Sean was telling him all about his spiritual discoveries in the exotic East. Sean's father listened with mild interest, watching the fire in the hearth, smoking his pipe. He didn't speak at all until Sean said, "Da--this meditation stuff, it's crucial for teaching serenity. It can really save your life. It teaches you how to quiet your mind."
His father turned to him and said kindly, "I have a quiet mind already, son," then resumed his gaze on the fire.
But I don't. Nor does Sean. Many of us don't. Many of us look into the fire and see only inferno. I need to actively learn how to do what Sean's father, it seems, was born knowing--how to, as Walt Whitman once wrote, stand "apart from the pulling and
hauling . . . amused, complacent, compassionating, idle, unitary . . . both in and out of the game and watching and wondering at it all." Instead of being amused, though, I'm only anxious. Instead of watching, I'm always probing and interfering. The other day in prayer I said to God, "Look--I understand that an unexamined life is not worth living, but do you think I could someday have an unexamined lunch?"
Buddhist lore has a story about the moments that followed the Buddha's transcendence into enlightenment. When--after thirty-nine days of meditation--the veil of illusion finally fell away and the true workings of the universe were revealed to the great master, he was reported to have opened his eyes and said immediately, "This cannot be taught." But then he changed his mind, decided that he would go out into the world, after all, and attempt to teach the practice of meditation to a small handful of students. He knew there would be only a meager percentage of people who would be served by (or interested in) his teachings. Most of humanity, he said, have eyes that are so caked shut with the dust of deception they will never see the truth, no matter who tries to help them. A few others (like Sean's Da, perhaps) are so naturally clear-eyed and calm already that they need no instruction or assistance whatsoever. But then there are those whose eyes are just slightly caked with dust, and who might, with the help of the right master, be taught to see more clearly someday. The Buddha decided he would become a teacher for the benefit of that minority--"for those of little dust."
I dearly hope that I am one of these mid-level dust-caked people, but I don't know. I only know that I have been driven to find inner peace with methods that might seem a bit drastic for the general populace. (For instance, when I told one friend back in New York City that I was going to India to live in an Ashram and search for divinity, he sighed and said, "Oh, there's a part of me that so wishes I wanted to do that . . . but I really have no desire for it whatsoever.") I don't know that I have much of a choice, though. I have searched frantically for contentment for so many years in so many ways, and all these acquisitions and accomplishments--they run you down in the end. Life, if you keep chasing it so hard, will drive you to death. Time--when pursued like a bandit--will behave like one; always remaining one county or one room ahead of you, changing its name and hair color to elude you, slipping out the back door of the motel just as you're banging through the lobby with your newest search warrant, leaving only a burning cigarette in the ashtray to taunt you. At some point you have to stop because it won't. You have to admit that you can't catch it. That you're not supposed to catch it. At some point, as Richard keeps telling me, you gotta let go and sit still and allow contentment to come to you.
Letting go, of course, is a scary enterprise for those of us who believe that the world revolves only because it has a handle on the top of it which we personally turn, and that if we were to drop this handle for even a moment, well--that would be the end of the universe. But try dropping it, Groceries. This is the message I'm getting. Sit quietly for now and cease your relentless articipation. Watch what happens. The birds do not crash dead out of the sky in mid-flight, after all. The trees do not wither and die, the rivers do not run red with blood. Life continues to go on. Even the Italian post office will keep limping along, doing its own thing without you--why are you so sure that your micromanagement of every moment in this whole world is so essential? Why don't you let it be?
I hear this argument and it appeals to me. I believe in it, intellectually. I really do. But then I wonder--with all my restless yearning, with all my hyped-up fervor and with this stupidly hungry nature of mine--what should I do with my energy, instead?
That answer arrives, too:
Look for God, suggests my Guru. Look for God like a man with his head on fire looks for water.