Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Clinging to the branch whilst it is gnawed away

This whole "death awaits me" thing has always weighed on my mind since I first awoke sometime during my ninth year on earth (this time around) with the stunning realization that someday my existence was going to end. Into my sixth decade now and with parents and family mostly having expired in or shortly following their 60's, I feel somewhat as did George Washington, when he wrote his good friend, the Marquis de Lafayette, December 8, 1784, saying "I called to mind the days of my youth, and found they had long since fled to return no more; descending the hill, I had been ...years climbing, and that tho' I was blessed with a good constitution, I was of a short lived family, and might soon expect to be entombed in the dreary mansions of my father's. These things darkened the shades and gave a gloom to the picture...but I will not repine, I have had my day." In Leo Tolstoy's "My Confession" (written c. 1880 when the author was 52 years old), he relates an old Eastern fable: "...a traveler in the steppes ... is attacked by a furious wild beast. To save himself the traveler gets into a dried-up well ; but at the bottom of it he sees a dragon with its jaws wide open to devour him. The unhappy man dares not get out for fear of the wild beast, and dares not descend for fear of the dragon, so he catches hold of the branch of a wild plant growing in a crevice of the well. His arms grow tired, and he feels that he must soon perish, death awaiting him on either side, but he still holds on; and then he sees two mice, one black and one white, gnawing through the trunk of the wild plant, as they gradually and evenly make their way round it. The plant must soon give way, break off, and he will fall into the jaws of the dragon. The traveler sees this, and knows that he must inevitably perish; but, while still hanging, he looks around him, and, finding some drops of honey on the leaves of the wild plant, he stretches out his tongue and licks them." Tolstoy then comments, "thus do I cling to the branch of life, knowing that the dragon of death inevitably awaits me, ready to tear me to pieces, and I cannot understand why such tortures have fallen to my lot. I also strive to suck the honey which once comforted me, but it palls on my palate, while the white mouse and the black, day and night, gnaw through the branch to which I cling. I see the dragon too plainly, and the honey is no longer sweet. I see the dragon, from whom there is no escape, and the mice, and I cannot turn my eyes away from them. It is no fable, but a living, undeniable truth, to be understood of all men. The former delusion of happiness in life which hid from me the horror of the dragon no longer deceives me." I bought some honey at the market recently and have enjoyed it, not being able to eat much of my former diet anymore. Life indeed has a certain appearance of hopeless absurdity when the distraction of happiness is absent, yet we are blessed with the capacity to move the frame of reference, to slide the scale of comparison somewhat so as to find some value even in the worst of times. The other side of that coin (sliding scale of comparison) is that some become restless in good circumstances that have become relatively stable (I would not know from personal experience).