The 99th Monkey

One man's spiritual quest—and his continuous and utter failure to find the answers.

Good News & Bad News...& Woody Allen

Kvetching taken to its existential extreme.

First the good news: as Woody Allen so succinctly reminded us the other day in an interview from Cannes, when commenting on aging, "I find it a lousy deal. There's no advantage in getting older. I'm 74 now. You don't get smarter, you don't get wiser, you don't get more mellow, you don't get more kindly. Nothing good happens. Your back hurts more. You get more indigestion. Your eyesight isn't as good. You need a hearing aid. It's a bad business getting older, and I would advise you not to do it."

And that's the good news. Of course to be fair, he should have replaced each "you" in his statement with "I," as in, "I don't get smarter, I don't get wiser," and so on. For surely we've all known at least one elderly person who was an exception to the inevitable grim progression Woody describes, and certainly we all hope to be that exception ourselves one day. Yes, sure, we will all die, but perhaps some of us do get more mellow, wise and kindly with age. I have actually seen it happen to a few of my older friends—mostly the ones who have been meditating for the last 40 years—but Woody's right, it's definitely not the norm. And the eyesight, hearing and indigestion bits happen pretty much across the board. (Don't even talk to me about arthritis and joint pain; you don't want to know. Or maybe you do want to know? I'd be happy to talk to you about it at length.)

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As for "nothing good happens" to older people, that's not really true. I mean, at least he gets to gripe about aging while cavorting in Cannes with the likes of Naomi Watts!  (Though I imagine he might take umbrage at my use of the word "cavorting," which the online Free Dictionary defines as "To bound or prance about in a sprightly manner." His prancing and bounding days are likely long gone; forget about spright.) Good things even still happen for my 86-year-old Dad, caring for my Mom who is living at home in the advanced stages of Alzheimer's: his granddaughter is getting married, the plane tickets are booked, and he is planning to sing a song to her (okay, that could be a good thing or a bad thing); he still receives letters of gratitude from students he taught 40 and 50 years ago, declaring that he changed their lives forever; his sons (that would be my brother and me) come to visit as often as they (we) can; and finally, his recent stroke miraculously left his driving leg so minimally impaired that he was back behind the wheel in a matter of weeks, though I still shudder to think about the elderly couple enjoying an overstuffed corned beef sandwich, sitting just inside the plate-glass window of the Kosher Nosh Deli, through which my Dad nearly crashed before managing to bring his vehicle to a halt. That the car stopped at all was a really good thing, especially for the elderly couple. And the sandwich.

 

So just as bad things happen to good people, good things do happen to old people. But if you're looking for evidence to the contrary, we don't need Woody Allen to point it out; we have Buddha, and my wife. As humans, Buddha seemed gleeful to point out, we are subjected to the ravages of time and sickness and the inexorable march toward death, whether sudden or prolonged; virtually none of us escape some form of debilitating disease at some point, with it's concomitant pain and suffering; all of us, without exception, will at some point, if we haven't already, experience great loss, the unbearable agony of losing a beloved parent, child, spouse, friend or pet. (For more on aging, disease and death, please refer to Buddha's First Nobel Truth: "Life is jam-packed and spilling over with pain, misery and suffering," or words to that effect, loosely translated from the Pali.) Or to put it more simply, as my wife frequently reminds me in her efforts to cheer me up, "We're all going to wind up as a worm sandwich anyway, so what's all the fuss about?"

Now here's the bad news: Beyond life's built-in, unavoidable process of aging and decline, we are also co-existing in a human-created culture that is constantly hammering us with heartbreaking news on every front: wars and rumors of war, terrorism, torture and violence, abductions, beheadings, rapes and child sex slavery; poverty and hunger, greed, financial scandal, foreclosures, homelessness (are we having fun yet?) and the bellowing prophets of economic doom and collapse; pollution of our water, air, and earth, the gradual disappearance of unfathomable numbers of entire species, dire predictions of climate-related apocalypse and/or nuclear Armageddon. Not to mention Ebola and hay fever.

To top it off, even if we somehow get all the people on the planet to be nicer and behave better, we're still in constant danger of being hit by all manner of natural disasters, flooding our cities and quaking vast populations of perfectly nice folks, tornadoes twirling our homes right out from under us just when we thought we could relax for a minute and enjoy back-to-back episodes of Everybody Loves Raymond.

It's not a pretty picture, and we are bombarded by it on a daily basis. The Evening News should change its name to The Horrible News.

Given the situation, what are we to make of those unusual and rare souls who share the very same planet with us, suffer the same indignities of aging as the next miserable wretch, and yet somehow seem to emanate a genuine sense of well-being and even happiness in the face of this entire mess that is our life on Planet Earth, circa 2010?

Or circa anytime, really. The late spiritual teacher, Adi Da Samraj, suggested that even though many of us grew up fearing the end of the world through nuclear annihilation, villagers of earlier times simply feared decimation by the next tribe over, and from their point of view, that would have been experienced as the potential end of their world. Only the circumstances differ. While no outside institution was about to foreclose on a man's cave, the guy with the big club standing in the entranceway eyeing his wife and his winter's supply of elk meat amounted to the same thing.

In other words, the situation here, for humans, has never been optimal, for any of us, at any time. We are simply able to destroy ourselves with more efficiency now. But being alive has always been a risky proposition, fraught with danger, tragedy, accident, loss, suffering, disease and death. (Who can blame Woody for complaining? I'm the same way, as are many of my friends. Maybe it's a Jewish thing, kvetching taken to its existential extreme, whining about Creation itself. It's as if we majored in despair and did our graduate work in foreboding.)

The presence in our midst of even one relatively happy person is evidence of a possibility for human life that many of us remain unaware of, or long ago gave up on. What would it really take for us to live our lives from a stance of relative equanimity, peace, or even joy? It doesn't even seem right. To quote Woody again, "If one person is starving somewhere, it wrecks my whole day." There but for the Grace of God goes Woody. And us. If a horrible thing can happen to somebody, it can happen to anybody, including you or me. But the same logic applies in reverse: if but one of us manages to find a way to live a life largely free of suffering, it means any of us potentially have a shot. And such people do exist and live among us. So what's their secret?

Thank God, or someone, that Buddha didn't stop after his First Noble Truth about suffering, but went on to explicate its cause and cure as well. But for that I'll have to ask you to kindly consult his next three Noble Truths in the texts, where the details are all spelled out; hey, this is a blog, not a theology class, and I'm not trying to sell you on Buddhism anyway; all of the religions, spiritual paths and contemporary psychotherapeutic approaches suggest ways to beat the system, though as far as I can tell, the house always wins. I'll give you a hint, though, using the famous Zen punch line, which is useless unless you first figure out the joke, which could easily take the rest of your life:

"No self, no problem."

See, if only you weren't around, you wouldn't be in the predicament you're in. Even Woody gets this one:

"My only regret in life," he once said, "is that I am not someone else."

My sentiments exactly.

 

Eliezer Sobel is an author, musician, and retreat leader.

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