Wednesday, May 31, 2006

 

The Art of Living

Things started out so well. I was born pure, perfect, new. Endless possibility unrolled before me. While so much was unknown, my energy was just short of limitless – childhood’s “winged energy of delight,” in the words of the poet Rilke. But that was so long ago. Now, looking back on a lifetime of choices, mistakes and triumphs, I wonder, “What happened?”

In the last of eight stages of human development outlined by psychologist Erik Erikson, our bodies slow, careers wind down, and parenting duties are essentially complete. We have time to reflect. The “psycho-social crisis” Erikson describes – that is, the developmental task before us – is in achieving ego integrity without falling into despair. Have we achieved wholeness, the integration of inner values with their consistent, outward expression, or have we been fractured by hiding our true beliefs out of fear, self-protection or personal gain?

Modern consumer culture has trained us for dis-integration. Advertisers get rich leveraging our fragmentation: they imply one aspect of our humanity – smelly armpits, asymmetrical breasts, wrinkles, fat – renders the entirety of us unlovable. “Reality TV” rewards the scheming of contestants who view deceit as the necessary means to an end: a modeling contract, a six-figure salary courtesy of Donald Trump, another week on the island. It’s all justified within the benign framework of entertainment – “just doing what it takes to win the game.” And much of corporate life forces us to slap on a grin as we toe the company line, promoting values that are often at odds with those that guide the rest of our lives. Taught that to be “professional” is to keep the personal in check, we sell our values short for the price of a mortgage payment or college tuition. With our identities so divided, how can we live with ourselves?

Or better put, how can we die with ourselves? Because while ego integrity is about coming to terms with life, it’s also about coming to grips with death. If we’ve lived in tune with the self, others and nature, that is, if we’ve connected with something larger than ourselves – a new generation, an understanding of virtues that will outlive us – death becomes meaningless. “Only such integrity can balance the despair of the knowledge that a limited life is coming to a conscious conclusion,” wrote Erikson. “Only such wholeness can transcend the petty disgust of feeling finished and passed by, and the despair of facing the period of relative helplessness which marks the end as it marked the beginning.” But if our deepest relationships have been online instead of in person, if expense-account lunches outnumber family dinners, if the tears we’ve shared have been with CNN’s tragic victims rather than neighbors down the block, death may come with some trepidation: time is running out, and just now we realize we’ve been chasing the wrong carrot.

A Buddhist parable likens the human soul to a mountain spring: it bubbles from the earth pure and clear, but as it trickles down the hillside, it gathers pebbles and dirt. We get muddied by life. But our essence, whether obscured by debris or still sparkling and clean, is still there, only to be filtered. The question, then, becomes: is it already too late?

Paul Schmelzer

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