Steve and I have been talking about concepts lately. We humans think conceptually, like it or not. Words, thoughts, concepts and the associations they suggest invariably bring with them emotional reactions and suffering. Trying to leave concepts behind, or to do without them somehow, is what “enlightenment” points to…I think. Maybe it’s not so much trying to eradicate them as it is to acknowledge their fabrication and refrain from investing them with a lot of meaning or credence.
The most troubling concept for me is death or mortality. I have huge emotional associations with that concept that do tend to exert a lot of influence on me. And yes, this causes suffering. I suppose I can say that I come by this honestly, having had both my sister and my husband die at my side during my lifetime. Consequently, I often feel the weight of a burden hanging around my head and shoulders, casting a shadow over my footsteps, causing me to be slow and rather plodding instead of eager and light on my feet. You might call this a certain level of pervasive depression. I find that, as I get older, I am more circumspect, less enthusiastic, and can easily convince myself out of an adventure. I can never dismiss the danger of death with a casual “Oh, that’ll never happen to me!” Instead, I tend to think: Why bother? What’s the point? Why start anything now, with the end so near in sight? That kind of thing.
Let me direct your attention to Exhibit A: Stephen Hawking.
As many of you know, Dr. Hawking celebrated his 70th birthday today. When he was 21, and shortly before his first marriage, he was diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) and told that his life expectancy was about 2-3 years. “Why start anything now?” was a question that occupied his thoughts to some extent as he wrestled with the idea of starting his doctorate. Wikipedia reports that the turning point came with his marriage. “When his wife, Jane, was asked why she decided to marry a man with a three-year life expectancy, she responded, ‘Those were the days of atomic gloom and doom, so we all had a rather short life expectancy.”‘
We all still have a rather short life expectancy. None of us has a guarantee on the next minute. What do you do with that concept? “Refrain from investing (it) with a lot of meaning or credence.” What do you invest in? Your passion. Your bliss. That’s what Stephen Hawking did. The speech he would have delivered today in person included this admonition: “Remember to look up at the stars, not down at your feet. Try to make sense of what you see and wonder about what makes the universe exist. Be curious.”
I took a walk along the Ice Age Trail at dusk. Driving home, I asked Steve to pull over at a cornfield so that I could look up. Here’s what I saw:
And this is just with my own myopic vision through some vari-focal glasses and a point and shoot digital camera. I am curious about my experiences. I am curious about how I think about them. In the end, though, I think I want to concentrate mostly on being aware of being alive.