I’m calling bullshit on Buddha. I mean no disrespect, but really, enough is enough. The first rule of the Buddha is that we only suffer because we want what we don’t have. As soon as we stop wanting it, the suffering ends. Self denial. It’s a curious idea …and one I’m calling bullshit on. The reason? I’ve been thinking a lot about significance. I’ll get back to the Buddha in a minute. First,
Sig-nif-i-cance [sig-nif-i-kuhns]. Noun. 1. Importance; consequence 2. Meaning; import 3. The quality of being significant or having meaning.
Is it a human condition to want to be significant? Or is it a western affectation because we are so obsessed with celebrity in our culture? My first inclination is to go with the second explanation because it really is easy to assume that the influence of mass media is what regulates our internal compasses to such an extent that we have no more ability to live outside its pressure than Greedo did of shooting first. We are trapped by our own legacy of “rugged individualism” that tells us our destiny is to work hard on our own and we will succeed. In the US, especially since the Gilded Age, success most often means material wealth. But our more lenient 21st century minds have allowed it to be redefined into a bland justification of our lack of material wealth: “oh, success is doing what you believe in” or “success is being happy!” or any number of other explanations. Meanwhile we wonder why we feel so inadequate or lost or listless or directionless or…insignificant. If Snooki managed to become significant in the annals of American culture, why not any of us? This feeling of wanting to be significant may also be tempered for people who are in relationships with significant others. When you have someone or several someones, or even a career filled with someones who provide that significant reverb that pumps that feeling of importance and worth into your veins, it’s no longer such an existential question. But when those things go away? Existential questions, here we come.
All those things went away for me last year. Within the span of 3 months in early 2011, my marriage ended, I was laid off from my position as a high school civics teacher (a career about which I was, and still am, deeply passionate), I lost my home and had to declare bankruptcy and move myself and my 9 year old son into my parents’ house to avoid homelessness. In the year since The Upheaval (my son calls it “the old life”), some things have improved, and many things have stayed the same. The bankruptcy was finalized, as was the divorce, I found a temporary position teaching that lasted 2/3 of the school year, so I had some basic income last year, and we kept our health. But the cycle of trying again (wait…there IS no try!) has begun once more. So here I am, a newly single geeky Gen X mom raising a geek kid, trying to find work, living with my baby boomer parents, completing a 2nd masters degree in the hopes it will give me a few more options, and waiting. My plight is so much less than so many millions of people in this country and billions of people in the rest of the world. But it’s mine, so I’m owning it. And here is where the Buddha comes in.
It is easy to go existential when you find your life turned upside down and then stuffed into a time vortex where every hour turns into a month where hope clings on a precarious ledge. Though it’s tempting to contemplate the odds of an insane (yet wildly good looking) Doctor showing up in a small blue box on the front lawn, the time vortex is not my friend. Especially in these economic times. But, as my friend reminded me the other night, Joseph Campbell faced such a dilemma in similar times – he completed all his studies and prepared to conquer the world, but to his unlucky timing, his entrée to that world was in 1932. There was no work, no avenues for success, really no entrée at all. So he ended up living in a shack and reading for years. He described it in his biography: “I would divide the day into four four-hour periods, of which I would be reading in three of the four hour periods, and free one of them… I would get nine hours of sheer reading done a day. And this went on for five years straight.” I only have experienced a fraction of his Waiting Shack. (Then, of course, he went on to become Joseph Fucking Campbell.) …So. Significance. The pull of that desire for some sense of significance definitely is at its strongest when the shack and the reading become all there is. So I have tried the Buddha’s answer – if I would just stop wanting what I don’t have, I won’t suffer. But you, know, I tried that for the last five years of my marriage, and guess what. The rewards of self denial are as mythical as those of “rugged individualism.” Ask any professional who has been unemployed for the last two years. Or more. Just telling myself that wanting to be or feel significant is a cheap substitute for true inner peace that comes from not wanting anything just isn’t cracking the code anymore. And to be honest, I think it’s been part of what’s been making ol’ Yoda so heavy on my back these days.
So I’m calling bullshit. I may not work in a position for which I can be financially comfortable and provide for my son in the way I always intended (and used to). I may have to live with my parents even after I had previously lived quite well as an independent, self-providing woman. I may not be doing what I love, and I may have no idea when it will get better. But sorry Buddha, I’m just not going to stop wanting those things. And I’m not going to stop feeling like significance matters. But I AM going to stop trying NOT to want them. There is no try on this bullshit anymore, Buddha.
So this is my new way of out-waiting the Waiting Shack. I’ll just write my way through it. And whether I write about things I love or the things I hate or all the stuff in between, it’s my own way of dealing with the fact that my shack is stuck in the middle of the Swamps: I may not have what I want and I may be existentially suffering for that want, but I sure as hell don’t have to be quiet about it while I live in this fucking Waiting Shack and trudge through the Swamps with this green sensei on my back. Self denial is out. ACTUAL denial? SOOOO underrated. So suck on that, Buddha.