Tuesday, July 18, 2017


Maybe sacredness isn’t the right word; maybe it’s a little too strong. I’ll describe the sentiments involved, and then see if another umbrella term fits. Sentiments like: I want to be a force for good in the world. I want to make a positive difference in people’s lives, and when I have a client come in for counseling, I want to make a positive difference in that individual’s life, no matter who they are or what they’ve done. Each person has a story and dignity, and I want to honor and help them cultivate those things. And I also want goodness for myself. I want to live a life with purpose, love, and pleasure, and hopefully have that kind of life for as long as possible. The human spirit is a wondrous thing, and it is a tragedy for that spirit (as it manifests in any individual or group) to be diminished, demeaned, corrupted, or destroyed.

So, what’s the concept I’m gesturing at? The “sacredness of life”? Or maybe more broadly and vaguely, that there’s such a thing as “importance,” that things can “matter.” Life has worth; it’s worth the effort; reverence and responsibility are appropriate reactions to living. We should take ourselves and each other seriously. Life can be a sacred task.

“Sacredness” then? In googling it, the fifth definition “sacrosanct” and its synonyms “protected, defended” felt appropriate. Life is worth protecting, defending, and I’ll say further: nurturing, fostering, etc.

I try to keep it to myself but I’m a pretty morbid person. I think about death when I think about career, money, children, or the climate crisis. Like other folks, I have morbid thoughts while coming up or down (or in turbulence) on a plane. When I consider my life as a whole, I often reflect on the (incessant, if you can imagine) inner monologue that is so much of my personality, and then am quickly struck by the vast ocean of silence that is the time before and after my little life. More recently, I’ve noticed a new pattern-- when I kill a bug in my home (usually as swiftly as possible), the thought comes “I wonder if that’s how I’m gonna go.”

In both the plane and bug situations, my thoughts are framed by a keen awareness that I am not in control of so many forces that determine the length or brevity of my life, and that whatever might kill me is likely to be something impersonal, like a disease, an accident, or an eco-socio-political event. Even if (hopefully not) I am killed by something personal, it would still reflect the smallness of my existence-- that my desire to live was just one thing, and the other person’s one thing (desire that I not live) was enough to trump mine.  

Even without getting morbid, the fact that I (or any individual) am basically nothing occurs to me often, although mostly that’s been happening more since I moved to New York City. I’m on the train, and we stop for 30 minutes because 10 stops away somebody got on the tracks. Thousands of individuals have their goals suspended because one person’s story is getting in the way. The train is often the site of these humbling thoughts-- it’s difficult to hold onto one’s sense of self-importance when in a crowd of people all tightly holding on to their own senses of self-importance.

Ok, so, individual nothingness established. What, then, do I see as an adaptive approach to this nothingness? I don’t want to call it complacency, resignation, or defeatism, so I’ll call it “letting go.” On the plane, I take a look at my life so far, and I think “well, that will just have to have been enough.” On the train, I think “Huh, I guess I am only one person.” I let go of the assumption that I’m in control or that I matter outside of a very small sphere of personal contact. It’s humbling, and I breathe into it, and in this manner facing my smallness does not evoke rage or despair.

Sacredness and Nothingness
The stance of sacredness engenders great care, striving, and fear of loss (of life or meaning). The stance of nothingness engenders letting go and allowing for loss.

Both stances feel authentic, are responses to very salient dimensions of living life as a human. And, it appears, both stances are in direct competition with one another.

The graceful approach to these stances, as far as I can tell, is holding both well in their own time, and vacillating between the two in a manner that doesn’t cause too much existential whiplash. I think I try to effect that gracefulness by seeing the two stances as a rhythm rather than a battle, a dichotomy seeking balance, no different than wake/sleep or work/play.

How do you make/find balance between your own sacredness and nothingness?

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