The Four Habits of the Highly Unconsolable, or, Life Lessons from an Unlearned Life

by Tom Jacobs

I do not know if it has ever been noted before that one of the main characteristics of life is discreteness. Unless a film of flesh envelops us, we die. Man exists only insofar as he is separated from his surroundings. The cranium is a space-traveler's helmet. Stay inside or you perish. Death is divestment, death is communion. It may be wonderful to mix with the landscape, but to do so is the end of the tender ego. —Vladimir Nabokov, Pnin.

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood
And sorry that I could not travel both… —Robert Frost

No, I'm kidding. At least about the second one. One has to choose epigraphs carefully. Even if Bobby Frost was onto something there, it's too hackneyed and clichéd and infinitely deployed at every commencement speech to ever be retrieved from the abyss of misuse. It's not his fault. It's a good poem though, and although he could never have foreseen it, the sentiment strikes waaaay too many of the notes that are appropriable by those who might misuse it, who might tend to want to give advice. Even me. Even if he's spot on. So no Bobby Frost. At least not right away. Maybe later.

Our heads are space-traveler's helmets. ­How strange it is to think that, although we all lug about with us long and complicated social histories, histories that are totally invisible but very heavy—to think that all of this is contained in a rather thin and delicate envelope that reveal nothing about who we really are.

These are a few things and life lessons that I think I might have learned.

Luke-detailI think of Luke Skywalker. I think of old Luke Skywalker. The fella from Tatooine. The father we never found.

I recall going to see the 20th anniversary re-release of Star Wars and loving it and then walking out of the theater feeling oddly sad. Actually not sad; full on melancholy, rather; the kind of anxiety and profound unhappiness that rattles at your very sense of who you are and might become or could have been. At the time I couldn't quite identify the source of my sadness and melancholy. Eventually I did. Here's what I came to understand and what continues to reverberate:

When I first saw Star Wars, I was five, but I was old enough to recognize a hero when I was one. Luke Skywalker was, what, maybe 21? The age of a hero. Not to old, not too young. He would always be 21, eternally and forever on film. By the time I saw the re-release in 1997, I had aged and had surpassed the heroic age of 21, even if Luke had not. I found myself to be older than Luke, who would remain 21 forever. And however many times I had envisioned it happening in one shape or another—the notion of some mentor tapping me on the shoulder to point out that I was, in fact, and whether I realized it or not, a rather remarkable Jedi-like individual, one who had a role to play in the larger intergalactic battle between good and evil, between right and wrong—it never quite happened, at least not in the shape or form that I had anticipated. No Obi Wan ever tapped me on the shoulder. The hero's journey that I imagined for myself never quite emerged. Which is not to say that it hasn't happened.

I had always imagined the dramatic moment, the decisive cut, the transformative moment when everything changes (the moment when Obi Wan takes me to the cantina and I realize that I'm on the threshold and that if I go out, and if I return, I will not return in the same form or shape… Everything will change).

Life is far too subtle for that sort of thing. Too discrete and full of nuance and ambiguity. I think we all are, potential Jedi Knights, even if we continue to wait for Obi Wan Kenobi to come. Maybe he has already come and tapped and asked, even if we never understood or recognized it at the time. I think he probably has.

In the spirit of someone who is constantly looking for his own Obi Wan Kenobi, here are some thoughts from someone who knows nothing and is adviceless. Or maybe that's not exactly right. I have learned a few things. No doubt these are obvious and well-known to you. No matter. Let me re-iterate and re-galvanize.

1. The Lightness/Heaviness of Being. This seems to me to be the natural state of affairs. And it pendulums. All of this both a burden and a gift. We are all in some sense bipolar; lightness and heaviness, happiness and sadness, love and anger. The ontological thrum and swing of being. There are things that we all carry. None of us gets to pick which we bear. And everyone I know is on some kind of pharmaceutical.

All of this is waaaay harder than we were ever told or prepared for. And, I suppose, how could anyone prepare us for all of this? Life is both crushingly difficult and light and sublime. Like a good episode of Project Runway or Top Chef, what makes the challenge of living so goddam exciting is that we have limited resources, a limited amount of time, and an infinite imagination.

Here's Walter Pater, who is always helpful:

Not to discriminate every moment some passionate attitude in those about us, and in the brilliancy of their gifts some tragic dividing of forces on their ways, is, on this short day of frost and sun, to sleep before evening. With this sense of the splendour of our experience and of its awful brevity, gathering all we are into one desperate effort to see and touch, we shall hardly have time to make theories about the things we see and touch. What we have to do is to be for ever curiously testing new opinions and courting new impressions, never acquiescing in a facile orthodoxy of Comte, or of Hegel, or of our own. Philosophical theories or ideas, as points of view, instruments of criticism, may help us to gather up what might otherwise pass unregarded by us. “Philosophy is the microscope of thought.” The theory or idea or system which requires of us the sacrifice of any part of this experience, in consideration of some interest into which we cannot enter, or some abstract theory we have not identified with ourselves, or what is only conventional, has no real claim upon us.

Solipsism, aloneness, the feeling that we are utterly alone in the world…these sentiments seem to me to be the very substance of society. The suspicion and perhaps even knowledge that everyone else that we brush shoulders with on the street feels the very same thing might well be the thing that saves us. We are all alone together. There is something about the communal experience of beauty that salvages and redeems.

2. Humility. We are each of us brothers. Things might have gone differently. Whether we were born in the right or wrong place at the right or wrong time, we owe everything to contingency, chance, and providence. As my high school track teacher used to say before a track meet, when we were all feeling wildly anxious: “everyone puts there pants on in the same way.” I never quite knew what he meant by that at the time, but I think I understand now.

Charles Baxter says something somewhere (in his novel Shadow Play) that our lives end at our fingertips. There is truth to this. There are large gestures and small gestures. Most of what matters in this world are the small gestures. Tipping well; being nice to the cashier; dropping whatever money you might have in your pocket into the homeless person's cup (or at the very least, acknowledging their existence…saying ‘hello,' type of thing); letting the car in front of you merge when they need to. These are small gestures. The dramatic and pivotal decision that ramifies beyond our immediate experience is rare, and perhaps not worth worrying about. By all means, vote. Like political messages on facebook. But the actual work of a truly democratic society happens in the everyday, in the dust kicked up by just waking up and existing with others in time.

3. The Soul-Suck of Everyday life.

Under the paving-stones, the beach!

~Graffito, Paris, May 1968

Everyday life is, almost by definition, routine-y, ritualistic, and habitual. It's hard to feel intensity, beauty, or otherness everyday and all the time. It's not so much “seize the day” as “seize the week.” The week is much harder. And how does one seize a week?

According to Frank Kermode, there are two fundamental ways of thinking about experience: you've got your chronos and your kairos. Chronos is the time of everydayness, the time that just slips right through our fingers and toes, the time that just passes. Kairos, on the other hand, is the time of crisis, the time when things are full and animate with energy. The latter wouldn't mean anything without the former, of course. Kairos is obviously better than chronos. But I think we would all do well to pursue the unique ecstasies of chronos.

I used to be one of those douchebags who would ask people I didn't know well at parties something like, “What's the most beautiful moment of your life,” and actually expect to get a straight answer. There are many reasons why this is a douchebag question to ask, and an impossible question to answer. For one, it's not the sorta question you can answer point blank or at the drop of a hat. I used to think that it was, but I understand now that it's the kind of thing you have to think about for a bit. I was, back in those douchebaggy days (from which I hope I have emerged, even if ever so slightly), convinced that if you didn't have a snappy and immediate answer, then you hadn't really examined your life. Beautiful moments should be the first thing, the thing at the forefront of your mind and memory. If you can't immediately conjure a beautiful moment, then you aren't fully aware and alive. But of course this isn't so. Although, still, maybe in some small way it should be…

(check out the part that begins at 4:27):

4. Love.

Of all forms of caution, caution in love is perhaps the most fatal to true happiness.

~ Bertrand Russell, The Conquest of Happiness.

There are some things that arise and emerge from some part of us that is unknown and that are probably better for not being known or even knowable. The idea and feeling of not knowing is one of the best things in the world; to relinquish the reins of knowing and control to the vagaries of whim is a lovely, impossible, and necessary thing. This, in my experience, is what love is and is like. Not knowing what you're doing or where it's going and not really caring. It's all so full of history and memory and nostalgia and hope. It's amazing when the educated heart allows feeling to overwhelm logic and reason.

So much held in a heart in a lifetime. So much held in a heart in a day, an hour, a moment. We are utterly open with no one, in the end — not mother and father, not wife or husband, not lover, not child, not friend. We open windows to each but we live alone in the house of the heart. Perhaps we must. Perhaps we could not bear to be so naked, for fear of a constantly harrowed heart. When young we think there will come one person who will savor and sustain us always; when we are older we know this is the dream of a child, that all hearts finally are bruised and scarred, scored and torn, repaired by time and will, patched by force of character, yet fragile and rickety forevermore, no matter how ferocious the defense and how many bricks you bring to the wall. You can brick up your heart as stout and tight and hard and cold and impregnable as you possibly can and down it comes in an instant, felled by a woman's second glance, a child's apple breath, the shatter of glass in the road, the words 'I have something to tell you,' a cat with a broken spine dragging itself into the forest to die, the brush of your mother's papery ancient hand in a thicket of your hair, the memory of your father's voice early in the morning echoing from the kitchen where he is making pancakes for his children.

~ Bryan Doyle, “Joyas Voladoras”

Ironically, the selflessness of Love is also closely allied with possession. All of us, I think, want someone to love us wholly and totally, even to possess in some way the other, to have them love us and us only unconditionally. This is silly of course. I sometimes wonder if this isn't the wisdom of living with “eyes wide shut,” of living with full knowledge that even as desire continues to live and breathe even as we seek to shut it down through speech acts and expressions of dedication—even as this desire animates everyone, we need to acknowledge it with eyes wide shut. With a full understanding that we don't always want to know what our lovers are thinking. This might be the source of happy monogamy, the figuring out of how to live with eyes wide shut.

There were at least three other things that I wanted to address (the notion of the true gift, the concept of grace, and the idea that there is something important about creation—about making something where once there was nothing), but these are things for another day.

The sun has long since descended into the Hudson River, and it's waaay past my bedtime. I will leave you with a piece of Monty Python's wisdom: