The full-life manifesto

Woke up this morning with a very upset stomach that left me feeling weak. I stayed home from Kimber’s strenuous yoga class and spent that hour and a half doing gentle stretches and restorative poses instead. My stomach has not quite been the same since we got back from Ithaca three weeks ago, though today was unusually bad. I hope, hope, hope this is not a return to my stomach problems of earlier this year. I’m not worrying about it, because what good would that do? But I admit the little anxious thoughts do creep in from time to time.

As you know, I’ve been reading Madeleine L’Engle’s A Circle of Quiet, and I finished it two days ago. I have noticed in all her work, adult and children’s fiction as well as her nonfiction, her conviction that everything is important. In a L’Engle story every single thing, big or small, is of life-or-death significance, or at least is as valuable as if it had life-or-death weight to it. It’s like what my LA yoga teacher Linda used to say to us sometimes in class: “You are everything that has ever come out of your mouth.” Everything counts. I guess I always felt like this attitude was a bit much; it’s as if my brain were rolling its eyes every time L’Engle’s characters looked at little birds and saw the entire scope of the universe: “Gawwwwd, Madeleine, not everything is a big deal.” But when I started writing about this in my journal, it was hard for me to articulate just what it was that bothered me. That’s when I realized that I don’t really have any philosophical objection to living as though everything counts; in fact, I support that outlook. So then I was forced to ask myself why I find L’Engle’s attitude so foreign, even odd, even possibly suspect.

Thinking this through, it hit me that the reason I don’t behave as though everything is vitally precious — though I do believe this — is that I grew up in a world in which so much of life was structured by things and activities that were utterly pointless. I don’t know whether this was as true in L’Engle’s or her children’s time — I suspect it was not — but it’s so true for us. Our lives are, to a very large extent, governed by pointlessness: by unnecessary things, by useless activities, by decisions forced upon us by people far distant, who themselves had little personal investment in making these decisions.

Some of the meaningless things that shape our lives:

  • waiting rooms
  • waiting in line for anything (this is not always a meaningless activity, but it’s more ubiquitous than should be necessary)
  • trying to get customer service over the phone
  • excess packaging
  • standardized tests, much school homework, many school projects; heck, too much of school in general, unless you were a very lucky child
  • traffic
  • our broken health-insurance system
  • talk radio and TV
  • advertising
  • consumer culture, including fast food and junk food (not that it’s not fun sometimes, but a great much of it has no lasting value, and we all know that)
  • doing things we don’t like or don’t believe in, because someone will give us money to do it, and we need money to get by
  • computer games, internet quizzes, Lolcats, and the like (I myself am a total, and willing, victim)

It’s not that these things are bad, necessarily, but if you are really going to live your life as though everything you do is a tradeoff you’re making vis-à-vis the time you have left before your death, as though each choice is an expression of your truest self (L’Engle would say your ontological self — your essential identity)… well, then you’d really rather not be standing in line at the DMV or on hold with f***ing Comcast or clicking to swap tiles with pictures of shiny stones on them. You wouldn’t choose to lose sleep over your GRE score, to watch loudmouths on TV “debating” whether Obama is ushering in a new socialist age. You might not even want to eat processed cheese, which I love, or buy that sweet minidress with the gold sequins. These things are all part of the way we live now, but none of them is worth anything in the long run, or even in the short run — which is all we’ll get if we die tomorrow, as who knows? we might do. In my wasted time I could be making art, I could be making love, I could be cooking real food instead of eating bad stuff that I then have to exercise off. With my wasted thoughts and my wasted energy I could be plotting stories, observing the world, just being me in stillness and calm.* Without so much excess stuff I could be enjoying more space or saving on rent, or giving my extra resources to those who don’t have the fundamentals.

The point is, the vast majority of what we do and see and hear — the vast majority of how we live in these short, precious lives we’ve been given — doesn’t count, but the real crime is that we’ve stopped noticing. Reading and thinking about Madeleine L’Engle has made me see that. If I want a life where everything counts, and I’m starting to think I do, then I will have to make it for myself. Not just in spite of our culture, but in constant defiance of it.

*Or, Pema Chödrön might add, in anxiety and boredom. She is big on meditating not just when you “feel it” but specifically when you do not feel it, when you’d rather be anywhere else, when you want to just stand up and shriek and wave your arms rather than sit with yourself. I approve of this.

Writing this has made me realize what it was I didn’t like about L’Engle’s writing. She writes as though everything counts, but I live in a world where everything does not count. So that’s why there was always something that rang a little false — idealistically false — about her stories. And yet, having written this, I realize that her impulse is a good one. We need to try for making everything count. I still think that falseness is there, but I understand it now.