In this era of “fake news” and “truthiness,” I still like to think I know a real truth about life when I hear it. I am, of course, particularly interested in the truths of old age. (If you are an old age denier, I suggest you stop here!) Three truth-tellers who come to mind are a motley group: the Buddha, Virginia Woolf, and Albert Camus.
The Buddha started his teaching with the Four Noble Truths, of which the first is “all life is unsatisfactory.” The is sometimes translated as “life is suffering,” but it is my understanding that the original Pali text connotes stress rather than suffering. In any case, it was a relief to me that someone important acknowledged that life is not a breeze. I no longer had to ask myself what on earth was the matter with me! The Buddha came to this conclusion after escaping the royal palace (in which he had been raised in opulent isolation) and meeting the divine messengers – an old man, an ill man, a corpse, and a wandering yogi. Note that the first of these divine messengers was an old person. Such a shock for the young prince to realize he too would get old! In fact, of the five daily recollections that the Buddha recommended, the second is to remind ourselves that our body is subject to aging and decay. This would seem obvious, but I still seem to be spending a lot of psychological effort to deny it.
When I was a young woman, I read Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own for the first time. There was much there to inspire me, but the passage I most remember is this: “Life for both sexes – and I look at them shouldering along the pavement – is arduous, difficult, a perpetual struggle. It calls for gigantic courage and strength.” Why did no one ever tell me this? It certainly wasn’t in the advice I got from my parents or the music I listened to. As I was growing up, Madison Avenue led me to believe if I made the right choice between Coke and Pepsi, Covergirl or Maybelline, everything would come up roses. In another essay, Woolf talks about the “great wars which the body wages with the mind” and goes on to warn us that “to look these things squarely in the face would need the courage of a lion tamer.” Yes. And somehow it was easier to summon up that courage once I knew it was not supposed to be easy.
And last there is Camus. Camus tells us in The Myth of Sisyphus that life is absurd; that there will always be a gap between “the human need and the unreasonable silence of the world.” Unreasonable because we are going to grow old and die and it would seem that the earth does not care. If we are aware at all, we will suffer. “To a conscious old man, old age and what it portends are not a surprise. Indeed, he is conscious only in so far as he does not conceal its horror from himself. There was a temple in Athens dedicated to old age. Children were taken there…” Old age is not punishment though: “That is the rule of the game. And indeed, it is typical of his [the conscious man’s] nobility to have accepted all the rules of the game. Yet he knows he is right and that there can be no question of punishment. A fate is not punishment.” This is an important distinction. Think about it.
OK – this all sounds somewhat dismal, doesn’t it? True, but dismal. How do these folks recommend that we handle the facts of life? The Buddha said that we needed to loosen our attachments to the way we thought things should be because craving was the root of our suffering. This, presumably, would include the wish to be young. Woolf, you say, committed suicide. Yes. But until overtaken by depression, she lived the most creative of lives and even, in her suicide note, assured her husband: “I don’t think two people could have been happier till this terrible disease came.” And she wrote her wonderful books out of an ecstatic appreciation of life set within the limits of biology and fate. She has one of her characters say, “the compensation of growing old… was simply this; that the passions remain as strong as ever, but one has gained–at last!–the power of taking hold of experience, of turning it round, slowly, in the light.” And so she did turn experience round and round. Read the scenes where Mrs. Dalloway traverses London on a spring morning or the interludes in The Waves.
So, if Woolf found happiness, it was through creativity. This is also Camus’s answer. His solution to the absurdity of our life is to be creative and make our own meaning – knowing all the time the absurdity of it. Having, as Simone de Beauvoir would put it, our projects. Camus says that “in this [absurd] universe the work of art is then the sole chance of keeping his consciousness and of fixing its adventures.” He quotes Nietzsche: “Art and nothing but art; we have art in order not to die of the truth.” Or in another translation (Will to Power): “Art is with us in order that we may not perish through truth.”
Camus contends that art/creativity is the solution for the writer, the artist, the dancer, the liver of life. Living one’s own life is the ultimate creative art form. Thoreau told us (and lived) this secret: “To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of arts.” Yes. I guess this is all by way of saying that living in ignorance might be easier, but it is not an art. Living despite some hard truths is the highest kind of creation and the best solution. True of life. True of old age. Blessed be the truth-tellers.
This week’s story is “The Mustard Seed.” I have been told by someone who edited the piece for me that the ending was unsatisfactory. Perhaps the Buddha would agree. Perhaps the ending is always unsatisfactory in some way. You decide.