There are two books that have had an inordinately large effect on my life. One of them I can remember large parts of and can offer reasonably intelligent analyses of what the author was trying to say. The other one I can hardly recall one thing about, save for the overall message the author was trying to convey. The reason these two come to mind—and have affected me so greatly—is that they’re closely related conceptually and their messages resonate and overlap, at least as I see them and I’m pretty sure that’s about all that counts.
The first of these two books is “The Wisdom of Insecurity,” by Alan Watts. The second of these books is “Passages,” by Gail Sheehy. Without going into any detail, I’ll merely note that each of them speaks to the inexorable rhythms of life and the inevitability of change. They also offer a philosophical approach to dealing with those rhythms and changes that offers one a chance to navigate them with as little friction and pain as possible. I read the book by Watts in my early twenties. At the time I was head-over-heels in love with a young woman, but the relationship wasn’t to be and she broke up with me. I was young, impetuous, and prone to bouts of manic happiness and deep, dark depression.
I somehow found the book; how is lost in the mists of my slowly calcifying synapses. Perhaps it found me. It wasn’t the first book by Watts I had read. That was “The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are,” which I found quite helpful in navigating the changes I was going through shortly after high school, a short stint in the U.S. Navy, a slightly longer stint as a businessman, a somewhat shorter flirtation with Haight-Ashbury in the Summer of ’67, and a steadily growing antipathy toward the nation’s conduct of the war in Vietnam.
Another thing I thought interesting, and somewhat serendipitous, was the juxtaposition of the release of two Beatles records that coincided with my reading of these two books by Watts. When I read “The Book: …” the Beatles had just released “Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey.” The book was kind of my introduction to Zen Buddhist philosophy and the concept of the dialectic as represented by the Yin-Yang symbol. I was beginning to understand the duality of nature and the essence of all forms of evolution. Some of the lyrics in the song point out that same kind of duality, e.g. “Your inside is out when your outside is in. Your outside is in when your inside is out,” and the title of the song seemed to resonate with Watts’s message that we needed to get in touch with our actual selves (our “inner monkey”) if we were to understand our place in the world and not color it with the expectations of others.
The second song, which coincided with my reading of “The Wisdom of Insecurity,” was “Let It Be” which, as I understood it was the message Watts was conveying about the reality there is no such thing as security, that all things are in a constant state of flux, and the only way to (paradoxically, a very Zen concept) achieve any semblance of security—no matter how ephemeral and transient it may be—was to stop seeking it.
Sheehy’s book, as I recall it (and I only read it once, whereas I’ve read The Wisdom of Insecurity three times) had a similar message, but it was less on a spiritual and philosophical level and more on a practical, everyday “here’s what to expect” kind of approach. She wrote of what she referred to as the “passages” we all go through as we age and gain experience, while everything around us is changing and moving forward.
The reason I’m bringing this up is because I have reached a point (a passage, if you will) in my life where I find far too many reasons to prepare myself for the end. I’ll be 74 years old three months from today. Next month I will be fourteen years older than my father was when he died. I realize I’ve reached an age where I could, conceivably, live another decade or more, but I could also drop dead tomorrow. There sure are a lot of people doing it who are younger than me.
Throw in the reality that I still have two daughters at home, one of whom is a Junior in High School, the other a Freshman in College, and it’s producing a bit of a tension arc that I’m struggling to put behind me.
I’m not trying to be morose, or overly glum. I am, however, attempting to approach what is definitely the autumn (more likely winter) of my life with as much spring in my step and lightness in my heart as I can muster. I need to understand what this passage I’m experiencing is all about (Sheehy did not write about septuagenarians) and position myself to take advantage of all it might offer. If there’s one thing I have learned over the years, it’s that there’s always benefit to be found in nearly every situation, at least until there isn’t (if that makes sense.) I am an optimist, so even when I get deeply (perhaps depressingly) introspective, I usually snap out of it within a few hours or now more than a day or two.
I’m looking forward to what the next stage of my life is going to offer. Both of my girls will be on their own in a few years, God (or whoever’s in charge of these things) willing and the creek don’t rise, and Linda and I will be on our own again. The difference for us, is we won’t be in our early to late fifties, like most people who have their families when they’re no older than their thirties. As long as I know my girls are doing well and taking care of themselves (which is an entirely different story) I’ll be OK with whatever happens. I will say this. Not having to help with high school homework will be deeply enjoyable!
If I live that long. 🙂