Why exult in true connectedness, given the inevitability of loss?
Last week on a remote lake in the Adirondack mountains I had one of those moments in life of pure peace. The sky, the water, the trees all framed this small protected spot in the world where I was spending three nights with family and friends. Earlier I had lost myself in the smooth glide of my kayak through dark water, in the narrow pass between a promontory of evergreens on one side and tiny islands of grasses on the other. I was with two companions, who glided along with me in their boats, and none of us uttered a word. We didn’t need to.
Sometimes one of us stopped paddling and we were suspended there, nowhere to go, nowhere to be, the way forward identical to the way back and to the place we were. Lily pads floated delicately on the water, occasionally supporting a white or yellow flower, raising it on its own little pedestal, as if for us to see, reverently. A hawk circled in the distance, eying the scene.
Now I took it all in from the vantage point of a large porch of a log cabin placed several yards up a sloping bank covered with pine needles. It was the magical time between late afternoon and nightfall and the choreography of the clouds had conspired to allow in just the amount and type of light that rendered everything a silvery-gray unity. It seemed like nothing could ever change, that I was sitting, curled up there in my comfortable chair, in the very eye of eternity.
Things changed. Darkness fell. We made a feast and ate it. We shared a lively, even raucous time, a comradely connection so comfortable we even weathered our first little tiffs here and there in the days to come, before we parted, pried apart by the gentle wrench of time and everyday commitments and plans.
Exultation, ecstasy, elation, elevation, exhilaration, euphoria, enjoyment, enchantment. Our inherited vocabulary hinting of our access to infinity, eternity.
What a glorious state of being. Mind-body-soul is one. You find yourself transported to another realm of experience, blissful perfection.
This feeling–or whatever it is–lies at the very heart of what it is to be truly alive and fulfilled. This does not, alas, mean that every living human has access to it often, if ever. But enough have experienced it that Freud gave it a name, the “oceanic feeling.” In shorthand here, of necessity, it has something to do with loss of self, with the deepest connection between people, a sense of oneness with the universe.
Even when not referred to directly, the presence of this phenomenon is apparent everywhere, underlying what we do and how we arrange our lives. It is at the center of religions. It is part and parcel with the highest climes of lovemaking and sexual union, with their most intimate invitations, entrances, mutual inhabiting, vulnerability, and climaxes; it can be, at any rate. Love itself is famously implicated. Music embodies it as closely as can be; it is all beauty, worship, gratitude. Words and wordlessness. Sheer silence. Poetry.
Hawkers try to capitalize on it, but it is notoriously difficult to simulate.
Hunters and seekers try to capture it, but it is notoriously elusive.
Its contradiction–whether it is paradox or simple cruelty, you tell me–is that it is an immersion in timelessness in the rushing stream that is human life, yet it comes and goes. How can that be? It’s like our kayak ride, when our oars moved us forward then sometimes didn’t, suspending us in the moment of going nowhere. This is the moment of pure being and nonbeing the philosophical marvel over. How can an experience like this, of total perfection and completion, our one opportunity for the satisfaction of our inexorable torrents of desire, our window on all things ultimate, just end? Have a heart!
My father once told me he had difficulty with goodbyes. Well, I am my father’s daughter. Is there anything more hypocritical than fate is when it throws us together then, not always as gently as after my vacation in the mountains last week, wrenches us apart?
Why do moments of bliss, so hard to come by that they may never arrive at all in some people’s lives, ever have to end? Must they? In actuality do they? Is that how things work? Is there a way to think about them, a way to re-enter them, a way to sustain or retain them, a way to restore the reverent regard that allows us to lose ourselves to them as I did among the lily-pads? A way out of, or through, the pain of separation, loss, longing? A way to be filled up, healed, overflowing, replete, complete? At one with the beloved? Lost, or found, for all eternity?
Isn’t this, at least sometimes, what a goodbye, however temporary, brings forth? Isn’t this what it is to miss someone so much that one’s life seems to bode nothing but a waking death?
How to deal with absence, how to miss someone, how to accept the movement of time– these are some of the greatest things we are charged with figuring out. And accomplishing. It’s a familiar old question I’m asking, nothing new. It is at the center of entire cultural practices, traditions of inquiry, disciplines. Culture can be seen at root as one great attempt to come up with disciplines against time, loss, death. Or, at its most enfeebled, a way to plead the fifth by refusing to ask or try to answer the question, creating a distraction, erecting a smokescreen, burying the evidence. Is our culture in such a state of shambles that it is engaged in a gigantic coverup operation, driven by the impulse of denying the centrality of this question and how we approach it to our well-being and to our very life, or lack thereof?
Today the answers that are most frequently volunteered come down to attempts to deal with the feelings brought on by an ending of such a moment of bliss or the failure to find one in the first place. Drugs are prescribed to deal with what we call now, in our attempt to name the infinite varieties of sorrow that accompany the knowledge that bliss exists, depression. But beyond the often vital function of sometimes helping someone temporarily survive the very worst, most life-threatening seizures of grief, they are not working. Nothing else is either.
Is this in part because the only antidote is re-entry, as in the blissful return of the beloved?
Is it because our window on eternity is always closed and any small opening only ever a mirage?
Many years ago now, though it is all very real and present, a particular friendship came to me completely out of the blue, presenting nothing short of communion, opening up a terrain of inner existence I didn’t even know existed. It can’t be captured easily or fully in words. I didn’t will it, anticipate it, plan for it, or invite it. I didn’t even think to wish for it. If I had known about it, I would have.
Naturally, I found myself looking forward to the time we spent together.
At first I looked forward to these times with tremendous interest and anticipation, thinking in advance of things I wanted to share. I inevitably forgot what these things were in the riveting focus that overtook me in our all-too-rare times together; I was lost, or found, in those moments.
As time passed, though, I realized there was some other feeling that rose up to take its place alongside my eager anticipation of the engagement and connection our interactions brought me. At the very same time I was anticipating the purest, most unadulterated joy, I felt excruciating pain. Why? How could a real connection with another human being bring not happiness alone, as I and so many others had been led to believe it would, but its exact opposite?
I realized that my joy of reuniting was so great that it made parting unbearable. The anticipation of painful parting became ever-more poignant, overtaking the anticipation of enchanted times together.
To my friend, I confided one day what I deemed a brilliant, if necessarily tragic, solution to this dilemma of pleasure and pain, of painful pleasure. If we never reunited, we would never part. The pain of parting could simply be overcome by not getting together in the first place.
So I put it to you:
In the face of the anticipated pain of parting, of the unbearable wrenching of the poor wayfarin’ stranger from her rare “oceanic” moments, why should we ever knowingly enter into bliss?
It is obvious now to me just how much easier it would have been never to have exulted than to have exulted–and lost.