Today, I feel like going for a hike. Getting out in nature, being surrounded by hills, trees, creeks. This is an improvement from yesterday when I felt like being surrounded by nothing at all. Literally wanting to be removed from everything, surrounded only by void. The hike gets me away from people and buildings and highways and chatter, but there’s still the hard, spiky reality of a world all around me to reckon with. For someone like me, who occasionally feels like I’m having an out of body experience in my own body, aware of the utter strangeness of my existence in a world whose own existence is equally strange, and how weird it is that I can contemplate my own conscious perspective within that world, the periodic desire to be separated out from that world, to retreat to some neutral space that isn’t me and isn’t the world, is to be expected.
It’s in those moments that you feel like the cruelest thing about our universe is that it doesn’t have an edge — an existential boundary. I mean, yes, our universe, properly speaking, may have an edge. A constantly expanding edge, even. But expanding into what? What’s beyond it? More space? A multiverse? Other spacial-temporal dimensions? The point is, it’s endless, and it’s everywhere. The comfort that the man lost at sea has in knowing that in any direction he travels he will eventually find coast line is not extended to the man lost in existence. Travel in any direction as far and as fast and as long as you can, and you will never reach an end to existence. If you want to be an existential wall-flower, safely observing all of created reality from a vantage at its edge, not needing to worry about what’s behind, above, or beneath you…tough luck. There is no farthest wall in nature that you can put your back to.
I’m fully aware that not everyone experiences this feeling, or in quite the same way, or using quite the same language. But I do think that I’m hitting on some kind of ultimate feature of the human condition: the fact of and difficulty in dealing with our very definite limits. Not only are we embodied and thus bound by laws of physicality — we’re also stuck being who and what and when we are. None of us asked to be born. None of us chose the parents we would have, the circumstances we’d be raised in, or even much of what makes up our personalities. The moment the concept occurred to us as toddlers, we all began asserting our wills against the world with all the might we had — raging, rebelling, renouncing and then reshaping the world around us however we could. Throwing food on the floor if that’s where we wanted it; coloring on the walls; dropping to the floor in protest if we didn’t feel like going somewhere; and screaming bloody murder if someone bigger and stronger than us asserted their own will over ours.
Most of us have learned to adapt to a world which prevents us from getting our own way all the time. Some of us still actively work to get our way, either through material means gained by honest, hard work, or by cleverness and scheming, or by lying, cheating, and stealing. Sometimes even through violence. But the wiser of us adopt a philosophy that acknowledges our human limitations and accepts them, conforming our wills to reality instead of the other way around, finding peace with the fact of our existence in the kind of universe we’ve got.
I hold such a philosophy, but I’m an imperfect practitioner. Most of the time I’m just coping. Deep down, I have a will that’s constantly being thwarted, that’s always screaming from the depths, “Why?!” It can’t usually be heard from the outside; I wear a pretty calm, collected persona. But I hear it — echoing up from the dark, resounding through my mind and my heart. Sometimes this inner voice hits the right frequency and starts to resonate, rattling my coping mechanisms, cracking my persona. Through the cracks the world starts to seep in. I feel exposed. I want to back away slowly, from everything — but to where? No hideout is remote enough, no corner dark enough. I wish I could put my back against the edge of the universe and not have my will tested, my existence acted upon.
There’s a real strength and courage required to step out into this world of otherness and changeability, especially while consistently maintaining that will to relinquish one’s will. The worthiness of the prayer, “Lord grant me the serenity to accept the things I can’t change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference,” truly merits it a prominently embroidered spot on many a bathroom hand-towel. You know it’s a good prayer when it’s so obviously sensible and yet so extraordinarily lofty in its ideal. But from the deep, a voice keeps calling, undermining the prayer, making the very beginnings of it impossible to attain: “Why?”, it shouts. “Why is the world contrary to my will? Why is the world such that I can’t change it according to my will? Or why do I have a will that’s contrary to the world? Why am I the kind of creature that has desires, passions, yearnings, inclinations, and curiosities -many inexplicably mine by no choice or encouragement from me- that are never or imperfectly fulfilled?”
Some people will do anything to escape this voice, either by placating or ignoring it, feeding the will or distracting it – both of which require going outside into the world. I’m the kind of person who’s less comfortable with the world outside than with the disconcerting voice, so I descend inward. Down, down into the deep from whence comes the voice I go, passing mysteries and secrets of the cosmos as I descend. If I’m lucky, I will sometimes hear the Doppler shift in the voice, moving from below me to above, growing softer and lower. I’ll reach a dark calm, my descent becoming meaningless as the space around me grows into a gravity-less eternity. I’ll still be firmly within the realm of existence, somewhere, but I’ll also have somehow outgrown it by shrinking far enough into it. Here I find the closest I can reach to the edge of existence, but I haven’t drawn near to non-existence. No, down here it’s definitely super-existence, Existence-as-such. It’s not derivative, changeable, or noisy, like everything up there. It’s eternal and still. It’s bright, but not radiating. It’s energetic, but not buzzing.
I can tell that whatever energizes my will, my desires, my personality must get its heat, its energy, its life from here. And also everything that generates the noise and motion and frustrating realities of the world outside of me must get its energy from here, too. In fact, my very existence must come from here, and the existence of the cosmos must come from here … Here, the reality that simply is, before time, surrounding space, beyond everything, but so deep within everything that it sustains everything in existence. Where does existence come from? Here. Where does time gain its meaning? Here. Where do reason, will, and personality draw their reality from? Here. Here is the solid space, the still eternity, the bright darkness from which and to which all of my questions, angst, and joy return. With my back against the wall of existence, I feel the embrace of God.