“When you get big,” my grandmother promised, “you can do that.” It was some sort of adventure that I wanted, or a toy that boys my age dreamed about but somehow never got. “When you get big,” she said, “you’ll understand these things.”
It might have been my grandfather’s pipe. I loved the smells that haunted their house, the pipe smoke and the cookies, and Granddad’s big leather chair. I wanted, and I waited, impatiently.
When I got big I smoked my own pipe, but I didn’t understand these things. I just did them because I could. Or rather, I did what I could. And I still wanted, and I still waited to get bigger when I could do everything I wanted.
The wanting never went away, and the understanding never
came. There was a time when I had everything, but it still wasn’t enough. The
yearning, the wanting, flowed under my surface like a dark stream seeking
sunlight. Maybe it’s this. Maybe if I
did this thing . . .
The trouble is, of course, we don’t live alone. Every thing I did affected someone else, and as I bounded on I trailed shards of expectations, of promises, of responsibilities, . . . of hearts, . . . of loves.
I don’t know just when it was that I stopped wanting. Maybe I never did stop altogether. Still, I don’t feel the yearning the way I used to. Maybe it’s a hormone thing—the young dream and yearn for whatever gets their attention, and eventually they don’t anymore, whether or not they got what they wanted (or thought they wanted). Our genes make sure we get the urge while we’re young and healthy and have the energy to go and do and conquer, and the genes don’t care what happens after that.
The interesting thing is that even though the young come to think they understand what’s going on, mostly they don’t, not really. It takes years of experiencing and laughing and crying and suffering to put it all together. It’s not enough to say, with Paul Simon (who was shy of thirty at the time), “I am a rock, I am an island . . . and a rock feels no pain, and an island never cries.” A good insight, a glimpse of reality, that’s all—most folks don’t even recognize that the pain and crying come from inside; they think suffering is caused by others.
Even the yearning seems to happen to us, rather than
welling up from inside. She loves me, she
loves me not. I can’t help what I feel.
The whole trip is loaded with irony. We get used to the
yearning and the dissatisfaction, and when it’s not there anymore we think
something’s missing from our lives. When the noise in our head lets up, we
think the music stopped. About the time we realize that we don’t have to keep
paddling to stay afloat, we discover that our paddle is nothing but a stick, and
all our effort was nothing but exercise, that the dark stream under our surface
was carrying us along regardless of what we did. It’s only life, and we grow
up and grow old no matter whether we understand or not.
Naturally, the young don’t want to hear that—which is yet another genetic imperative. We don’t know how many cultures—how many species, even—have become extinct because the young understood and simply stopped paddling. Money wouldn’t be made and bridges wouldn’t be built and children wouldn’t be born to make it all happen, generation after generation.
The odd thing is, sometimes there’s this vestigial thing, this nostalgia for passion. Of course it’s counterproductive. An eighty-year-old who yearns for anything other than inner peace is pitiable. He hasn’t the resources, physical or emotional, to do much about it. Understanding is the only substantial resource one has at that point. To feel something, and simply acknowledge the feeling without responding, is all there is to do.
That doesn’t mean that life is over. In fact, life without wanting leaves that much more time and emotional space for appreciating and for enjoying what there is. Many of us have a lot to be grateful for.
Waiting is hard when one is young. It gets easier. But maybe wanting never really disappears. If I’m lucky, it will become one more thing to simply observe, without yearning.
Donald Skiff, December 20, 2007