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Excerpt from A Language Older Than Words

Death and Rebirth (p. 324)

From chapter "A Time of Sleeping"

I don’t believe it would have been possible for me to undergo a meaningful death and rebirth had I been working a wage job. There would not have been time. No one expects a caterpillar to spin a cocoon, pop in for ten minutes, then emerge a butterfly, and at least my mother understood it would take me months or years to recover even physically from my episode of Crohn’s disease, yet not many of us are willing or able to make the time necessary to begin asking the right questions about who we are, what we love, what we fear, and what we’re doing to each other, much less answering these questions, and much much less living them.

I don’t always know what the right questions are; I only know that they reside in my body, and that in order to discover them—or better, remember—I need to be still. In that sense the disease did me an immense favor; had I at any time been tempted by poverty, rampant deficit spending, and social pressure to get a job, my body would have killed me.

At the time, through my twenties, I did not know what was right, only what was wrong, and I didn’t know what I wanted, only what I didn’t want. I didn’t know how to live, only how not to live. I knew a job wasn’t what I wanted or needed.

We did not evolve working for others forty hours or more per week. We evolved, and one need only look at nonhumans or at remaining indigenous peoples to see this is so, spending a great deal of time doing not much of anything (or once again in the lingo of bee research, “loafing”). As the Dane Frederick Andersen Bolling said of the Khoikhoi of South Africa, “They find it strange that we, the Christians, work, and they say, that we are all mortal, that we gain nothing from our toil, but at the end are thrown underground, so that all we have done is in vain.” Another colonist noted of these same people that “their contempt for riches is in reality nothing but their hatred of work,” and a third remarked that “the principle work of the men is to laze about.”

Had I encountered these comments in my twenties, they would have encouraged me by helping to blunt the voice inside: What’s the matter? Lazy?Looking back, I can put a positive spin on my activities—or lack thereof—of those years by calling it a period of pupation, or saying I was undergoing a death and rebirth, or calling it my own forty days in the wilderness.

But the truth is that for the next few years, living first in Nevada and later in Idaho, I didn’t actually do much of anything. I felt guilty about this, but I couldn’t find anything to do that interested me more than nothing. I certainly wasn’t going to go back to physics, or to any other means of selling my hours. I called myself a writer, but didn’t write much: what was I going to write? I didn’t have anything to say, because I didn’t know who I was. To discover that takes long, slow, uninterrupted time. Time enough to get bored, and then to move beyond boredom, which is really just another screen to deflect our attention away from the arduous yet delightful, joyous though painful process of allowing ourselves the stillness to remember what we feel and to begin assuming responsibility for our lives.

Nearly every day I walked the railroad tracks to the Humboldt River, then climbed down to the concrete footing of a bridge. There I sat in the sunlight and read, or more often just watched the river. I walked the banks, and in spring saw a mother bird feign a broken wing to distract me from her nest. I saw beetles crawling in and out of a beaver dead on the tracks, and I saw the beaver’s teeth, orange as carrots. I saw plenty of trains.

Albert Einstein once observed that “the significant problems of the world cannot be solved at the same level of consciousness at which they were created.” I think he’s right. I believe Carl Jung was onto much the same thing when he wrote, “All the greatest and most important problems of life are fundamentally insoluble. . . . They can never be solved, but only outgrown. This ‘outgrowing’ proved on further investigation to require a new level of consciousness. Some higher or wider interest appeared on the patient’s horizon, and through this broadening of his or her outlook the insoluble problem lost its urgency. It was not solved logically in its own terms but faded when confronted with a new and stronger life urge.”

The first statement points out to me why there must always be a death for there to be a meaningful transition—one that sticks. We do not easily give up our acquired ways of being, even when they’re killing us. Although when I sat on the couch as a child, or lay in bed feeling my father’s flesh against mine, it had been unspeakably crucial for me to control my emotions and body, I could not later quit manifesting that same control until it had very nearly killed me. That level of consciousness had to play itself out to the end, or rather to an end. Only when that mindset had, like a plant in a too-small pot, exhausted its own possibilities did I begin casting about for another way to be; only when I no longer had any real choice, far past the time when what little choice there was—death or change—had become all-too-painfully obvious, did I begin to reject the earlier mindset. This is why I don’t think our culture will stop before the world has been impoverished beyond our most horrifying imaginations.

The second statement reveals to me why the period of hibernation takes so long. We do not stand in front of a tree, shouting, “Grow, damn you, grow!” and we recognize the futility of wishing a broken foot to heal in a day. But in myself and in so many of my friends I’ve encountered an unwillingness to acknowledge that even having sloughed off an old level of consciousness, it takes a long time to grow a new one.

It could be argued that my own railing against the culture exhibits the same blindness to process as that of a person yelling at a broken foot: the culture is broken, and shouting ain’t gonna fix it. But there are two differences.

The first is that if a person continues to pretend against all evidence that his foot is not broken, he may re-break it, as I did high jumping. Had I allowed my foot to heal through the fall during my last year jumping, I could have jumped in the spring. I may even have fulfilled my potential as a jumper. I will never know. It might have been appropriate for my coach just that once to yell at me. Not at my foot, but at me for not listening to my foot.

The second difference is that there is a distinction to be made between shouting from frustration, and shouting because a house is being destroyed and no one is paying attention. Another way to say this is that given enough time—perhaps ten thousand years—even my father could probably heal, but what about the people whose souls he murders in the meantime? And what about the secondary damage caused by those whose own destructiveness had its genesis in the violence he did to them: my siblings, for example, when they pass on damage to their children. In contrast to the Buddhists on the panel who blew the question about compassion, my loyalty lies with the innocent, and I need to do whatever I can to stop the damage.

It’s a fine line to walk, that of waiting for the arrival of understanding—for kairos—and the need for action. I am active now. In my twenties I was not. I believe my present level of energy is a result of having fallen deeply into my lethargy then. Had there been no time of sleep, there could not now be this time of awakening, but instead I would still be as I was before, turning most of my energy inward to maintain the imprisonment of my own emotions.

I need to now step away from much of what I’ve just been saying. To believe for a moment that what I was doing in Nevada and after constituted “lazing about,” or “inaction,” makes plain another form of silencing, once again of the unseen. Hidden here is the absurd presumption that to flip burgers or repair televisions is more important and difficult than to shake off the effects of a coercive upbringing and education, and insofar as possible to vomit out the internalized voices of a coercive and deeply violent culture. This is but one more way we value production over life.