|Very obviously, I do not possess the copyright to this image.|
On Friday I walked to the mailbox, and discovered that it was a stunning, cloudless day. I decided I'd take a walk after lunch, just a short one for some fresh air. There's a passage in Bridget Jones's Diary that I've never forgotten, where Bridget muses that perhaps there are only so many beautiful clear spring days ever apportioned to one lifetime, and sitting inside on one (or many) of them is wasting a valuable gift. This is probably far more dire a problem in England, and living in California would bring me more than my share of such days, but the spirit and the point of the passage remain, and bothered me during every single beautiful day I ever spent behind a desk in an office.
So I took my walk, looking up at the sky, walking over to the trees and smelling their blossoms, feeling and hearing the breeze. I was filled with wonder at how perfect the temperature was, how fresh the air. I walked up the hill to the strange little wisteria-enveloped not-exactly-a-gazebo thing a couple of blocks away, and then walked back. On the way home I noticed a field that I had somehow never noticed particularly, a rough circle of land that had recently been mown and was set away from the road behind some low bushes. I walked into it, found a flat spot with good grass cover, and sat down. Then I lay down. Then I closed my eyes.
I felt the sun on my skin. I felt the breeze play over my shirt. I heard the trees rustle, heard some kids practicing layups on the community basketball court a few hundred feet away. Occasionally a car passed.
I could have stayed there all day.
There was work waiting for me at home, and I burn in the sun very easily. It wasn't practical to really stay there all day. But I felt precisely like Hobbes in the last panel of the cartoon above: that happy, that much in my element. My mind as still as a pond, aside from "Ah, this is nice" every now and then. Peaceful.
I also thought to myself how grateful I was for the opportunity to spend half an hour in a big sunny field, when last spring I only could have done so on someone else's schedule rather than my own. I have been swimming in an ocean of gratitude since things began to change in October and November of last year, trying very hard not to take it for granted, to enjoy every opportunity that's afforded me. Even (perhaps especially) the opportunity to spend half an hour in this field.
A thought crept in that had the substance of "Finally." The idea was that after long years of unhappiness, I was at last free to set my own schedule, to make my own path. Immediately I found this thought distasteful. I'm thirty, not sixty; I haven't had a very hard time of it at all; a lot of people who don't deserve shabby treatment have to work a lot harder than me in environments far more unhappy and never get to break free.
I got stuck on the verb "deserve". That was the essence of what I was thinking with the word "finally": that I deserved days like this one in a sunny field, deserved the opportunities and the freedom, deserved the success that came from being in a job where I belong. That after hard work and good ethics, I was being rewarded in a fitting way.
How wholly wrong, I thought, for my brain to construct such a dynamic. I no more deserve a good day like this than I deserved to cut my finger open on a tomato can in 2004, leaving a scar I will ever have. No more do I deserve joy than my friend deserves sorrow from her father's early death.
The more I followed this line of thought, the more I came to the conclusion that the concept of anyone deserving anything is mu. I worked for a couple of years in tort law, where "deserve" is codified, often measured by mathematics, and the work still granted me many opportunities to philosophize on the problem of repayment for wrongs. Ultimately I decided that no mortal payment is likely to bring peace for certain wrongs. Very simple equations, such as hard work deserving reward (such as a salary) and extraordinary endeavor deserving recognition (such as an award for a work of art), make good enough sense. But when we try to discover appropriate metaphysical desserts for behavior that strays into the realm of karma, things get far murkier.
Who are we to determine what is deserved? Do mass murderers really deserve death or ignominy? Do brilliant artists always deserve fame? I tend to believe they all have a part to play, and the only script I can even begin to write is my own, no one else's. I have an acquaintance who retired at age 35, because he had earned enough money through sudden success to live and support his family in a fairly luxurious lifestyle for the rest of his life. He did not see the need to do anything but play, more or less, for the rest of his time on Earth. Does he deserve that? Did he have a very difficult childhood, was he a martyr in a previous life? These determinations seem easy at first, when we want to pass judgment, but in fact are not. At all. To the point where I think that to believe anyone deserves anything, based on past or potential behavior, is too colored by our impossibly narrow vision to approach truth.
I talked it over with Matt the following day, and told him that I thought the concept of "deserve" was perhaps a primitive one. To present suffering people with an opiate by telling them that if they work hard and keep free from sin, they will deserve everlasting bliss upon death--I don't think that's such a terrible harm if life is nasty, brutish, and short. But I believe human intelligence is (gradually) evolving beyond the need for a paternal church to check our behavior against a list of sins, and that eventually we will find a universal code of right and wrong through feeling responsibility to our fellow humans, rather than via the promise of deserving a reward for a lack of transgression. I could be wrong about all of that, but I do think that free from bad ==> deserve good is too simplistic for the crooked, weird path of any human existence. And I think "deserve" itself is by far the weakest part of that equation.
So, to whatever force (even if it was my own judgment, my own script-writing) bestowed that beautiful, perfect half-hour to me on Friday, I owe my sincerest thanks. I will try not to squander gifts like that, wherever they come from.
On my way home, I passed a gangly African American teen immersed in his cell phone. I smiled at him, and he flashed me a peace sign.
And I went home and got to work.