A love letter to inevitable uncertainty
Blink. A page turns. A new reality dawns. A home no more; soon to be an old address. Photographs. People who will promise to stay in touch but won’t. If once I talked the talk, now I stand ready to walk. Maybe walk the Earth. Who knows. Which is the point. I don’t. Just sketchy details. And the ending.
If I believed in ‘meant to be’ I would doubtless be framing this moment in terms of spiritual evolution or karmic reckoning. The flurry of shifting circumstance that has enveloped me since late 2021 lends itself to a thousand easily concocted ‘growth & journey’ narratives. The clichés fall like monsoon rain.
- Letting go
- Moving on
- Opening up
But none of this is why I am writing to you now. Neither am I here to beseech or ask you for the strength, the wisdom, etcetera. For you will stay silent on these matters – because you are the silence. The emptiness. The destination.
Dear Eternity, no matter how the next chapter unfolds, I will simply be on a path back to you. As I prepare to wheel my bag away from the forest that has been my sanctuary for the last year, I know only where I shall end up, not how I shall get there. When I say goodbye to these walls, these people, I will walk into a new now, a yin/yang of increased uncertainty and increasingly undeniable inevitability.
- Hit the link for more on living lightly and anchoring in process.
Setting the esoteric waffle to one side, the brute metrics are as follows: I am 57, probably going blind, likely to remain single and sexless, unlikely to hitch myself to another office gig, and almost certainly not the heir to an immense fortune. My parents are in their 80s, my friendship circle is diminishing, my body aches more than ever, and the mirror reflects an unflattering truth. Time is an egalitarian banality. I totter, a little giddy, on the threshold of undramatic entropy, while at the end of the road,an ordinary oblivion awaits. Blah, blah, blah. No violins required.
I write now because in the last few weeks the pace of change has intensified, the relative neatness of things abruptly upended. I have been asked – politely and reasonably – to vacate my current digs. In addition, a dear friend and trusted production partner is moving interstate, and a lifelong pal has hinted that he too is seriously contemplating a shift. In his case, South-East Asia.
Meanwhile, ticking in the background, octogenarian parents, a brother I barely know and a niece to whom I have been a stranger.
When I say background, I mean middle ground – because the sudden call to quit the premises, (coupled with the reality of a tight and pricey housing market here in Australia), has prompted me to ship what goods I have back to my father’s garage. It is an easy get. The challenge of next begins when I land on his doorstep. Not just the family I am used to living hundreds of miles from, but the import, real or imagined, of returning to a room I slept in as an undergrad, (even if only temporarily).
- Here I recall of the stories of a close friend who has, for several years, been living with his now 90yo father in their old family home; and I am duly warned. Staying at Dad’s is not a viable ongoing solution for either of us. Therefore, the upshot of all this upheaval is a commitment to more upheaval. More uncertainty.
I shall not bore you with my plans because, (even if I wanted to), they are far from fully formed. Deliberately so. Indeed, as I type, it strikes me that perhaps my desire for an embrace of an unsettled and fluid existence is itself a response to the obvious and upcoming certainties awaiting me and everyone I care about. Might both entropy and the ruthless order of oblivion somehow be counter-balanced, or have their edges softened, by a half-blind leap into a smudge of unplanned and serendipitous meandering? Cue: one ad-hoc adventure in aimlessness to go.
Why bother aiming when the target is unmissable?
This will strike some as complacent and/or nihilistic, others as spiritual and creative. In truth, I suspect it contains a measure of them all – in tandem with a hint of naivete, a suspicion of laziness, and a side order of self-indulgence. Deciding to drift, rather than stick, is a complex choice. Reducing it to heroism, hubris or hippie-shit is a tabloid response.
There are no banner headlines here. No hero/villain stories. This is not about courting drama – even though the next few weeks and months are sure to contain more than their usual share of lurid self-spectacle. This is an experiment. In how to die.
Yet, before we delve into what the Buddhists call anatta – un-self, without substance – allow me to confess that I am not immune to the ordinary humanity of fear. There is a flurry of butterflies in my stomach. I do feel slightly vertiginous. But also excited by the prospect of nomadic latitude and novelty. New places, fresh faces. The plasticity of adapting to the unfamiliar. Of re-coding the algorithms of identity. Experimenting with self.
If all of the above sounds like an overdue gap year or a prolonged mid-life meltdown, maybe it is. I will not deny that the opportunity for hedonic play is a big part of the attraction. Likewise, I am impelled by a deepening sense that I should do this stuff now. Before it’s too late. Or I simply don’t have the energy, (physical or otherwise), to embrace anything other than the comforts of ordered domesticity.
- Zooming out from the theatre of self, I accept that I operate from a position of great privilege. I am both lucky and thankful to have the ability to embrace life outside the box. For most of human history, and for the vast majority of us, uncertainty and insecurity have never been a holiday, a lifestyle option or a spiritual pursuit. If I am willing and able to dabble in the discomfort of being dislodged, it is because I am now fat on plentiful security.
However, as previously indicated, the baseline here is not uncertainty, it is inevitability. Mortality. Decay, decline…
And so…the whys and wherefores, the costs and benefits, the rights and wrongs…all equal out in the end. To zero.
For many this is the horror of futility. Or worse, judgement. It underwrites the clamour for Essentialist1 meaning and the lure of after-life and trans-migration theories. It drives us to the cash cow of medicine, has us fretting about legacy, and trying desperately to appease the karma police.
But for me, futility is the ultimate freedom. As a friend of mine likes to argue, the finality2 of death means that ‘we might as well.’ After all, you won’t care if you made a big mistake (name, fortune, etc) when you’re gone. All value judgements, wisdom trophies and signs of status will become irrelevant. The dead have no need of such.
Drilling down further, we arrive at anatta. A state without self or substance. In anatta the impermanent self, including the soul, are entirely absent. The emphasis here is on the nature and effect of impermanence. By focusing on this we free ourselves to frame self and life as a verb, as pure action, rather than as a fixed or essential entity.
From here it is a small step to another Buddhist idea. To quote the famed Thai monk, Ajahn Chah: “When we’re born, we’re already dead.” My take on this is twofold.
- The primary action of living is dying. Thus, I am already engaged in the process of self-nihilation.
- There is no essential me. I am an event. A witnessing phenomenon. Indeed, I ‘am’ what I witness.
Mapping that onto my presently fluid circumstance, I am, dear Eternity, already in your embrace. For this is the act of uncoupling from the false fixity of self. What matter that I may, for a while, have no set home, or that ‘my’ possessions linger awhile in various boxes? What matter if I ‘let the guitar go’ or even stop writing? So what if I make little provision for a secure tomorrow? My future is already secure. Oblivion.
The only unknowns about my death are the timing and the means.
Something about this brute process fills me with lightness. Absolves me, permits me. It is clean. Simple. Beautiful. All anxiety, all grasping, all ego dissolve in it.
- Hit the link for more on the ecstasy of nothingness.
Therefore, although true that I was caught out by the abruptness of the change in my living arrangements – and that right now my next steps feel a tad tentative – I am ready to surrender the known for the unknown. Or rather, the impermanent for the eternal.
Meanwhile, there is a sign outside my door that shows the way. In big bold script it says: ROME. The eternal city. Yet there is no arrow, no denominated distance, and the roads fan out in every direction. At least I know where I am going now.
Blink. Breath. Choose. Walk.
1: An Essentialist view is that existence – the universe, life, etc – has a pre-set, hard-wired meaning and/or purpose. We are here ‘for a reason’ and so on. We see this view in religion, New Age spirituality and even in some branches of psychology and cosmology. Indeed, the Essentialist mindset is ubiquitous. That said, it is not one I find convincing, let alone attractive.
2: Clearly, I have no way of knowing 100% what ‘happens’ after death, but my considered bet is that the current self – my encapsulated, atomised ego, the event I know as Paul, as me – will be entirely erased. Although it is conceivable that a form of ‘higher’ self, an identity-less form of self, may persist, and furthermore that a grand uber-consciousness is the wellspring of all individual identity and experience, it seems arrogant to assume that the anthropic I somehow lingers outside the parameters of our Earthly lifetime. The great spirit, if there is one, is highly unlikely to be humanoid, let alone OCD about eating habits, head coverings and trinkets of virtue.
Leave a Reply