Most of us who live long enough are eventually confronted with this eternal question. The one that goes along the lines of: So this is it? This is what life’s all about? Not that our lives are necessarily bad, it’s just eventually you reach a point of having been there and done that and you begin to wonder what comes next. What’s after this? Is this what eternity is going to be like for me? Just more of the same old, same old? If so, you might decide that maybe eternity isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
When faced with this dilemma we humans tend to follow various approaches in an effort to resolve the conflict it creates within us. I suspect this conflict is responsible for much of the excesses that have collectively come to be known as “the mid-life crisis”. It’s not surprisingly that it takes until mid-life for this tension to surface within us. Most of us are too busy in our younger years to worry overly much about eternity. Our lives are consumed with just figuring out how to get by in this physical world. In our youths, our time is spent on education and socialization. Then we’re off to the world of work and paying our bills and keeping a roof over our heads. Then often children come along and we are consumed by educating and socializing them and keeping a roof over their heads. Just about the time when most of us begin to feel some relief from those overwhelming responsibilities, we are often faced with a new and heartbreaking reality; that of taking on the role of parents, or at least caregivers, for our own aging parents. We’re so busy just trying to keep our heads above water; it’s hardly surprising there’s not a lot of time or energy left over for us to contemplate such esoteric conundrums as the eternal nature of our existence.
For those of us who learned about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs in college, (which is likely now being taught as part of grade school curriculums), our lack of interest in the eternal nature of our existence is hardly surprising. Maslow outlined a pyramid of human evolutionary progress that each individual proceeds through in order to attain what he termed self-actualization. Maslow’s theory states that an individual cannot attain the next level until the needs on the current level are satisfied. At the broad base along the bottom of the pyramid are those needs having to do with physical survival: air, food, water, shelter, etc. Hardly surprising that it would be somewhat difficult to focus on the concept of self- actualization when one is starving to death. At the next level from the base are safety needs. Human beings need to feel secure, safe from predators, safe from being thrown out on the street, safe from all the violence besetting our world. After that comes the human need to belong, to be loved, to be part of a family, a community, a group of friends, colleagues, etc. From belonging we’re on to esteem needs. Human beings need to feel respected by others and to respect themselves. Finally, after all of these needs have been satisfied a person looks to realizing his potential…to being all he can be…to having it all.
We all probably recognize ourselves as being at one of these levels or we can look back and remember ourselves passing through the various life stages leading to where we find ourselves now. I’m guessing the mid-life crisis stage probably comes about as a result of having satisfied the first levels and being at a point where there’s this urge within us to “be all we can be”. We look at our lives to date and our confronted with the diminishing number of years left to us, and we think we’re running out of time. Our thought processes resemble something like this: ‘If I’m ever going to be all I can be, I better get on with it now, this instant.’ Hence the desperate plunge into adventure, unhealthy relationships, extreme physical activities, or foolish purchases that implode a life-time of careful savings and planning.
Most of us, after a few (hopefully anyway) regrettable excesses realize that self-actualization, at least in the form outlined above, is not what we were after. Such behaviors, such seeking outside of ourselves for fulfillment doesn’t work. In his later years, even Maslow figured out that it’s not all about us. True happiness is not to be found in self-actualization, though I suspect many of us never reach beyond that stage. It’s a pity really. Because when we ascend to the stage beyond the one where our overriding focus is on self, on me, on what’s in it for me, that’s when things begin to get interesting.
Beyond self-actualization lies self-transcendence. At this stage we are focused on trying to figure out where we fit into the grand scheme of things. What’s our purpose? What should we be doing? Is our current way of life leading us towards it or away from it? And if life doesn’t have a purpose, then what in the world are we doing here? Is this all just a big waste of time? What’s the freakin’ point?
When you reach the point when profanity enters the picture at the absurdity of it all, then you know you’re ready to begin. The funny thing is that while most people spend a life-time just getting to this point, they are inclined to give up their search for answers far too easily. They read a few books, maybe go back to their childhood church for a month or so, adopt a healthier life-style, dabble in yoga or meditation for a few weeks, but when the answers to their questions about the universe and what lies beyond this physical life do not immediately descend upon their momentarily seeking selves, they grow frustrated and all too often abandon the path of truth before they’ve even taken more than a few steps along it.
Isn’t it ironic that we spend decades learning the truths of this passing world and yet are willing to devote no more than a few hours, weeks, months, or even years to educating ourselves as to the nature of eternal truth. Wisdom does not reveal itself to the unworthy. She prods and tests and challenges those who seek her gifts. Faith is not for the faint of heart or will. Faith is an exercise in 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. To wander along a winding path with no idea where that path is leading you, getting tangled up in briars and thickets, losing your way not once or twice, but dozens, maybe even hundreds of times, then painstakingly making your way back again, often all in the face of being a source of confusion, if not polite amusement to those around you, is not a journey to be undertaken lightly.
So we delay our hearts’ urging. We suppress our awakening spirit. We tell ourselves it will pass, that we’ll go back to being our old selves, happy with who we were and with how we spent the time we’ve been given. The more we try to suppress our burgeoning spirit the more frustrated we become. Until eventually we stop fighting the longing of our hearts and our spirits and we begin.
It’s not unusual as is often the case with new beginnings, we find immediate success in our new endeavors and are thrilled with our choices and the new selves we see emerging from the old. But inevitably the pace of our progress slows. Rather than making great strides in a single day or week or year, our advancement stalls as the climb becomes steeper. Instead of looking over our shoulder and being pleased with how far we’ve come over a period of time, we’re frustrated to find ourselves still so close to where we were before. Often times we realize that in order to overcome the challenge ahead of us, we have to backtrack and go around obstacles we’ve already conquered once before. We become discouraged. We’re tempted to give up. We might even try giving up. We tell ourselves we’re through with all of that. That our new selves were an experiment in some kind of temporary insanity, but we’re better now, we’re back.
For a while we’re comfortable being back, we like the rebound to our old selves and we throw ourselves with great enthusiasm into our former habits. We are welcomed lovingly by old friends who had secretly wondered what was going on with us. But such familiarity does not come without price. Eventually we find ourselves alone and then we’re forced to confront the truth. We’re really not as happy with our old selves as we thought. We become aware of a new sadness inside and recognize it as the voice of our spirit we so long suppressed crying out at being once again relegated to the dark, silent cage where it spent most of our earlier years.
The longer we try to pretend we really are who we once were, the more we become separated from the truth until finally something gives. We are confronted with a most unwelcome truth: We’re stuck. We can’t go back to who we were but we’re afraid to move forward. We don’t know how. It’s too hard. We don’t know what we’re doing. We have no idea who we’re supposed to be and there’s no one around to follow, to show us the way. The spiritual journey is by its very nature a very personal and intimate one. You can’t find anyone to show you your way because you’re going to different destinations. Hence the fear. Hence the uncertainty. Hence the enormity of just how much you don’t know, how much you don’t understand.
If you are familiar with this feeling than you are already much further along than perhaps you realize. As hard as it is to celebrate your confusion, be grateful for it, because it is a sign that you have begun your journey along the eternal way. For you at least the question Is this all there is? has already been asked and you have begun your journey to discovering its answer.
Namaste. I wish you good fortune along your way…