There is a sense of make-believe about much of life, as if it were a play.
I buy books I won’t read for year, or keep up the appearance of my house, or do so much for a “future” I am not even guaranteed.
But so much more of what we do, or become attached to, involves planning for a future we are not guaranteed: for retirement, for next year, for the weekend; and yet we play along.
There is always the tension between living in the moment and preparing for the future, but preparing for the future almost always wins out, so that our present is bogged down with duties, assumptions, and apparent obligations we don’t question, and so much else that we could slough off if we thought about them for a second.
It is a lovable trait, that we do this.
Perhaps the planning for the future beats out living in the present because we can pretend to have control over something that hasn’t arrived, while our control over the present is limited, at best.
We are all playing a part, acting in a drama, probably acting in a comedy.
We are playing a game. When I worked in retail in New York City and was confronted with men and women of all ages dressed almost too-impressively, I was reminded of dress-up day at kindergarten; and when I handed them their bound reports or signs, it reminded me of coloring class. Not to judge them, but it was just strange that the business world could apparently not get going without this pretend seriousness of reports and signs, these horridly serious images of what “business people” are obliged to look like.
There was something a little ridiculous about it, but something endearing, too, if you saw it for what it was, how frail and make-believe, that the image wasn’t working: they either looked uncomfortable all dressed up, or if you knew they really were confident and difficult people, that made it even more sad, that made them even more weak, that they had to be hard and disagreeable to everybody.
Yet if ritual is dead, in part this is perhaps because many of our rituals commemorate events with little meaning.
We are acting in a play. It’s been pointed out to me how odd sects like Mennonites or Amish are, in shunning certain technologies. After all, what they do allow were once as new as the wheel. “How did they draw the line,” I was asked, “at 1850, or whatever it was? Buggies and electricity were the hip thing once.”
It seems that they only knew a line needed to be drawn, some limitation to produce discipline and order, and they drew it. Many of us draw our different lines in different ways. We pretend our lines—political, dietary, cultural—are somehow eternal and not random, when they are actually entirely random and preferential, yet no less meaningful despite that.
This is the essence of what I mean. So many of us become so attached to our preferred ways of life, especially those we believe we were “meant” to live, or were “called” to live, that we cannot see that other meanings and other callings are possible, even necessary.
These ways of life are a play and a game, yet they are our lifeblood. They are both, you see.
They really are actually both! We could drop them and cling to another and live just as meaningfully. The meaning and strength are not in the specifics, but in the order and empathy derived from living with some kind of imposed discipline, or care.
Yet we are so strange, inevitably clinging to the specifics, to our country or religion or ideology or form of art. We make life so unnecessarily difficult.
We are singing in our opera. As I’m feeding my cats, for instance, it stops me now and then to realize there are both homeless people and starving children in the world, and yet people have pets; or that there is war and famine and totalitarian government, and yet people use millions of dollars to do things other than address famine or dictators; or that, with diseases in need of cures, there are scientists involved in (apparently) more mundane things; or that, with every trouble in the world, music is made, books are written, photographs are taken.
Our comedy is an odd one. It’s particularly strange when I visit a nature preserve nearby, where a new family of ducks waddles around, the young ones growing, all of them flapping their tailfeathers when they emerge from a pond. Or, in that same pond, hundreds of frogs grow to fill that small world with their croaking. Meanwhile, some country is mad at our country, there are elections, I need to buy groceries, I apparently need to write a new essay, someone I know is in mourning or terminally ill or living alone, and yet these ducks live their day, these frogs, with no knowledge of any of it.
Robinson Jeffers writes of “divinely superfluous beauty,” and our opera is something like that. The things we most value are, from any “practical” perspective of mere survival, entirely superfluous—they don’t warm our bodies, or fill our stomachs or bank accounts. They are useful for being useless. These are our loves, if we are lucky enough to have them; these are our secret joys; these are the things we don’t get paid for and that no one, except perhaps those closest to us, will ever know about. Like the retired man I heard about who was fixing a bedroom window upstairs in his house, who suddenly realized the road outside was empty of cars, and that he could actually hear leaves landing on the garage nearby, and that he had the time now to notice such things.
These are the moments we live for, they are rare, and the rest is a game, and we play it. In both the epic of Gilgamesh, and in the Buddha’s discourses, someone says something like, “We all live our lives and laugh as if it will all last forever, as if death isn’t possible at every moment.” And in the Christian Desert Fathers one poor fellow says something like, “We have all sinned and will die, and you can laugh at something?”
Yet we do laugh, and in many ways there’s nothing better than comedy; we do live our lives, we do enjoy ourselves and accumulate things and meaning, superfluous or impractical though they are, because they are somehow divinely beautiful, both passing and eternal, both here and gone and here forever, both utterly random and arbitrary yet firm and life-sustaining, after all.
We could do with pruning some of these things to see the divinely beautiful more clearly, but that process too is part of the game, part of the bittersweetness, the perpetual learning.
It is strange, on the one hand, that life exists at all. And it is stranger still that it exists in this way, in any way, in all its ways.