It was late at night and all was quiet and we were in our home office just thinking and looking through our bookshelves randomly. We pulled down a copy of Wisdom of the Heart by Henry Miller and opened it up to the title essay. And we came across the following passage:
“In his present fearsome state man seems to have but one attitude, escape, wherein he is fixed as in a nightmare. Not only does he refuse to accept his fears, but he fears his fears. Everything seems infinitely worse than it is, says Howe, ‘just because we are trying to escape.’”
That last phrase stuck with us – ‘just because we are trying to escape’ – and we thought about it for quite a while afterwards. We think it is profoundly true and speaks directly to the fears and anxieties people have.
We thought of some of them. Fear of death. Fear of failure. Fear of poverty. Fear of loneliness. Fear of imprisonment. Fear of boredom.
Some of these we’ve written about before on the blog, particularly fear of death.
Miller’s essay, which is mainly a review of the ideas of E. Graham Howe, is brilliant in many respects and we lingered over choice passages. But this idea of things being worse because we fear them brought to mind a key part of the absurd – which is acceptance. Utter acceptance of everything. That means you accept life and death. You accept successes and defeats. You accept what comes, whatever comes.
This is extremely difficult, but it seems the pinnacle of wisdom. It is, as Miller writes, recognition that “life’s problems are fundamentally insoluble and accepts the fact graciously.” It is a lenient view of life… forgiving, open, calm.
You cannot be afraid of death if you accept it as part of life, part of the process. You cannot fear failure if you look at it as just another experience, with as much indifference as success. You cannot fear poverty if you accept it as a natural outcome, no different than riches, as natural as the sun and the sky. It is something that happens and it is neither good nor bad.
You can apply this idea to small things in life, too. Life is lived in the details, after all. You get stuck in traffic. So you are stuck in traffic! Accept it. So you stained a favorite shirt! So it rained on a day you wanted to go to the pool!
You make them worse by trying to escape. You make traffic worse by stewing and getting angry and trying to get around your fellow drivers. You make the stain worse by pouting over it and rubbing it and cursing. You make it worse by moaning about the weather and shaking your head and feeling sorry for your bad luck and thinking dark thoughts.
Instead, accept it all. Try to think of these things as no more important or meaningful than any other outcome. They are all equally unimportant and equally meaningless. Relax in traffic. Wear the stained shirt (or not). Enjoy the rain.
For whatever other benefits such a worldview confers, we can attest that the absurd has helped our golf game, which we started playing again after a year hiatus. What does it matter if I make this par putt on 18 or not? And so we relax more deeply than we ever have on a golf course. We enjoyed the warm sunshine and soft breeze, the weight of the club in our hands and the curve of the green. And oddly, or perhaps not, the putt went in.
But even if it didn’t, it wouldn’t have mattered. Life is absurd. Rather than run from that idea, or try to fight it with mental contortions of meaning and purpose, we accept it as it is and whatever life may bring, in things big and small!