by Max Sirak
(Click here or scroll down for audio version.)
"As above, so below" is possibly the best known Hermetic aphorism. The phrase itself comes from The Emerald Tablet of Hermes Trismegistus. An actual tablet that was translated into Latin during the 12th Century and quickly became a favorite of medieval alchemists, and then a bit later someone whom you may have heard of.
His name was Isaac Newton. You know, the guy with the apple who "discovered" gravity. Well, turns out Ol' Zac was quite the mystic. In fact, some believe "As above, so below" is the seed which sparked Newton to begin searching for the similarities between ourselves and the stars.
This principle is said to be represented symbolically in a couple places. One is the six-pointed Star of David, with its two equilateral triangles overlapping and pointing in opposite directions. Another is in the Tarot. The Magician card raises one arm above his head to the sky and drops the other below his waist to the ground.
While I can't necessarily speak, authoritatively, to the origins of symbols that pre-date me, one by many thousands of years, or what precisely motivated a luminary of science to put forth ideas forever changing they way we look at our world, I do think the phrase "As above, so below" could use an addendum:
"As it begins, so too it ends."
In the last couple of years I've noticed six similarities between the beginnings of our lives and their ends. It's almost as though life is like one of those nifty pieces of art where a centerline divides two identical-though-reversed images creating a spectacular and intricate pattern when viewed together.
I don't remember my birth and early development. And I'm not yet dead. I don't have any children of my own. And I've been fortunate enough to not lose anyone in my immediate family. However, I have thrown dirt on three grandparents and I've watched a majority of my friends trudge along the roads of parenthood.
My dad's mom is 93. She's not as spry as she once was, but she's here and kicking. Albeit, not as swiftly. And, I've also got some kids running through my life becoming little people.
Here, I sit. Perched at a midpoint, legs hanging and swinging, I watch. To my left, a slide into abysmal eternity. To my right, rug rats running the ramp to maturity. And I am in the middle, free like Newton, glancing in both directions and "discovering" enough similarities to say, "As it begins, so too it ends."
My birthday is in July. This means my parents had a choice. They could either make me one of the older kids in my school grade or a younger one. I was pushed ahead and therefore the last of my friends to hit any age-related milestones.
By the time I could legally drink in bars, I was entering my senior year in college. I wasn't able to vote until after high school. My awkward fat-kid phase felt like it lasted forever, on account of being a late-bloomer. It also meant I was the last to get a drivers license. By the time I was behind the wheel, my friends had been zooming around for a year or more.
I remember how exciting it was, piling into Josh's car, when he got his license. It was great! The freedom. The adventure. The ability to go where we wanted, when we wanted, with no dependence on mom or dad.
As we age, similar situations arise. Only in reverse. Instead of moving toward liberation, we capitulate toward captivity as our licenses and our abilities to drive are revoked.
Eventually, there comes a time when, again, there's only one person in our peer group who's able to drive. And, like it was when we were teens, we pile into his or her car, still savoring those feelings of freedom and adventure. Until they too are gone as our last friend is no longer able to operate the auto, then it's back to relying on others to get us where we want to go.
Want to know a sick, sad truth? One "privilege" the longest lived of us get to look forward to is watching our friends die. Cool, huh?
My grandma has been blessed/cursed to outlast ‘em all. She has no social life. Or, as she likes to say, "I used to play cards. But now I don't. My friends are dead."
This too is kind of like how it is at the beginning. We don't get any sort of say about who we do and don't spend our time with as babes. We come into this world and there are people already here. They choose who we see. We certainly don't.
Then, one day, we are ushered off to a different place with more people our own age. When we're young it's daycare or pre-school. When we're old it's an assisted living facility or a nursing home.
See, grandma likes to gamble. And when one of her home healthcare workers refuses to take her to the casino down the street, she gets nasty.
Not unlike a child you might see in the ice cream aisle of the grocery store in mid meltdown. You know the scene: Tears stream. Voices scream. Hugging the ankles of their father or mother as said parent refuses to give them whatever the kid wants but shouldn't have.
Yeah. Grandma doesn't need to spend any more time in her "casino." Even calling it that is generous. The place isn't some glitzy, glamorous temple to lady luck with slot machines ringing and cheers around tables. It's in a strip mall. It's a dark. It's dingy. If there were more teenagers, cigarette smoke, and energy drinks you'd swear it was a Chinese internet gaming den.
Oh man – watching a kid learn to walk is the best. They're like tiny drunk people, all unsteady and swervy. Little steps. Irregular gait. Poor balance. No rhythm.
(Wait. Am I talking about me dancing?)
And all the while, mom and dad are nervous. Looking on they see every toddle, worry over every wobble, and quickly assess any dangers; a flight of stairs here, a sharp corner there. A fall, especially in certain places, could be disastrous.
In September my parents came to visit. While here my dad got a call. His mom fell. She lost her balance while trying to open a drawer. Backwards she plopped. Luckily, she didn't break anything. Granda's hearty. But falls for seniors don't normally bode well.
When we're born it's our parents who are vigilant. Toward our end it's a different set of caretakers. Only the watchfulness remains the same.
From milk or formula to pureed plants to the soft and gumable to sticky, hard, and crunchy. It makes sense. Babes don't have teeth when they come into this world. When it's time for us to go, baring stellar dental care, we may not have any when we shove off.
It seems as though the sensitivity of our stomachs also flow and ebb with age. I've seen many of my parent friends be very careful about the level of spice in their children's food. Makes sense to me. It's mom and dad who are dealing with diapers. They're on the front lines of the back end.
Similar stuff happens with seasoning as we season. Our tolerance for such, or our willingness to deal with the consequences of our culinary choices, seems to diminish with age. At each restaurant grandma and I ate, she made a point of making sure whatever she ordered was as bland as the chef would allow.
(I assume this is because my grandmother is a delicate flower. Lord knows, bowel movements aren't quite couth discussion among our family.)
Mike Tyson said it best. "Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth."
Ain't that the truth…
I'm not anti-preparation and planning. Both are good uses of time and have their place. But life (and death) are bigger than us and don't conform to our ideas about what they should be like.
I've watched my first-time parent friends study and read. They took classes and flooded themselves with as much information, from as many sources as they could, in hopes of being ready for when the lil' ‘en arrived. And you know what?
All those plans got thrown out the window. Dealing with their newborn in real time wasn't the same as imagining it. There's a difference between on paper and in hand. The gap between knowing something on an intellectual level and feeling what it's like to go through it on a physical one is wide indeed.
It's the same with losing a loved one. We all know our parents, friends, and family are going to die. And, in the instance of a slow decline, we may even think we've prepared for their departure. But guess what?
Knowing it's going to happen isn't the same as it happening. Understanding in the abstract doesn't make the absence more bearable. It doesn't stave the strife.
Practicing What I Preach
This column has been about symmetry. The parallels between the various milestones of how lives start and end. And this principal, the end mirroring the beginning as beginning foreshadows the end, is something I keep in mind when writing.
The best conclusions call back to their introductions. Referencing how a speech, essay, paper, etc. begins at it's end ties the work together and contains it. Like bookends, matching objects opposing each other while imposing continuity and order for what's shelved between.
Newton's imagination and view of the world may very well have been colored by a Hermetic idea. Reconciling the forces and movements of the stars in the sky and the ground at his feet was kind of his jam. "As above, so below."
Me? I'm more into the horizontal. Understanding our movements along the axis of life lived and coming to terms with them is what gets my creative juices flowing. Which is why I'm for adding a corollary to Hermes Trismegistus' vertical wisdom.
"As it begins, so too it ends."
I guess it's time to start working on a four-armed Magician card and a 12-pointed star…
1) Tree – http://prozit.com/na/218982169/on-flipboard-httpswww/218982/
2) Floral image – designed by Freepik from flaticon – https://www.flaticon.com/free-icon/floral-design-with-vertical-and-horizontal-symmetry_30127
3) Fat-Kid Max – whoever took my 7th grade school photo
4) Mike Tyson – Punch Out!! by Nintendo