In the Nature of Things

As he awakens, the Old Man glances out of the large window by his bed, noting the autumn leaves, already red and yellow, beginning their descent.  Even within the house, the air is cool and bracing.  Leaving his warm blankets seems forbidding and inviting at the same time.  Mostly inviting.

He pads around—a scouting mission of sorts, checking all the windows to see if there are any deer or coyotes walking by.  The pond, just a few yards away, is already noisy with the Canada Geese.

This morning, like the last, the Old Man is amazed at his good fortune.  There’s a wife he still loves, children and grandchildren too, books to read, friends to see, students to teach.  The granola has been tasting particularly good these days.

As he sips his coffee and reads the newspaper, sitting as always next to his wife, the Old Man yearns for the moment to last.  They talk about last night’s lovely dinner with friends and the wonderful documentary about Country music that they watched upon returning home—a guilty pleasure to watch TV late and not worry about getting up “early enough” the next morning.

Through the quiet morning, the Old Man is aware that he doesn’t just feel good or grateful or all those feelings he’s supposed to feel in circumstances like this.  In fact, he can’t shake off the feeling of being disappointed with his life.  There’s no particular target for the disappointment.  Sometimes, when he reviews his life, he checks off one experience after another, noting how, overall, even the bad times worked out well enough and the good times were more than he deserved.  But that soft blanket of disappointment continues its embrace.

Still, he looks forward to a meeting planned for the late morning.  He’s going to see an old client in the Cambridge office he has retained for the last few years in spite of his retirement.  It has become a sanctuary, now undiminished by the exchange of money.    He loves the shelves and shelves of books, the hundred little artifacts, collected over a lifetime, the paintings and wall hangings.  They keep him company, demanding nothing in return.

As the Old Man settles into his easy chair to take in the wisdom of Yuval Noah Harari’s brilliant new book, Sapiens, the buzzer from the waiting room startles him, so engrossed had he become in his book.  The visitor is actually right on time and the Old Man buzzes him up.

The tall, stocky man, in shirt sleeves and suspenders, enters the Old Man’s study with an air of unease.  He is a gray, jangling presence.  Before he is fully seated, he begins to talk about all the things he’s doing and all the people he’s responsible for.  Yes, he has been successful in his business but since he turned 60, he has grown increasingly aware of an estrangement with his children.  He hadn’t had the time for them and he regrets it now.  The more he experiences the estrangement, the more obsessed he has become with their well being.  If he failed them in the past, what about the future?

He can see that they struggle with their finances.  Their marriages are just alright.  Their own children seem vulnerable in this terrible world beset by violence and massive climate-induced storms.  Is there something he can do to protect them?  He wants answers from the Old Man, who had once helped him to repair the fragile marriage of his middle years.  He talks and talks, his worries and pain crowding out the air of peaceful contemplation that, minutes before, had filled the room.

The Old Man is well aware that his visitor wants assurances, comfort, solutions to yet-to-arrive problems.  Miracles, really.  Guarantees of financial and marital security for his children and grandchildren, at least.  He listens intently, his face rapt and sober.  His visitor looks for clues: a knowing smile, a wise sense of comprehension and compassion.  There is none to be seen. The Old Man is quiet.  His face is impassive.  Unable to read or apparently influence the Old Man, the visitor finally stops.  The room is very still.

Eventually, after an uneasy silence, the Old man, begins, “Your grandfather died; your father died; you died; your son died; your grandson died.”

“What???”.  The visitor had come, asking for wisdom, and instead he is hearing nonsense at best, mockery or doom at worst. “What the hell does that mean?”,the visitor yelps, half screaming, half swallowing his words,.

The Old Man wonders if he should continue.  But he is comfortable enough with his visitor’s indignation and confusion, so he does.  He goes to his shelves, finds a treasured book of Zen stories, and reads the words of the Buddhist sage:  “No joke is intended,” says the sage who had responded to a wisdom-seeker, in his time)…”If before you yourself die your son should die, this would grieve you greatly.  If your grandson should pass away before your son, both of you would be broken-hearted.  If your family, generation after generation, passes away in the order I have named, it will be the natural course of life.  I call this real prosperity.”

The visitor is confused.  Something in him knows that the story points him in the right direction, even if he can’t grasp it at the moment.  He’s still irritated but no longer angry.  As he walks off, you can’t tell if light will dawn on him.

So too the Old Man and his disappointment.  Yet there’s a small smile on his face, and he feels his entire body relax as he glances out the window to watch the falling leaves.

 

 

 

3 thoughts on “In the Nature of Things”

  1. Good beginning – I really could feel the moment, and I can understand the vague sense of disappointment. However, it seems a stretch to relate the disappointment to “his life” rather than “his day”. There seems no justification for a disappointment with life. So are you implying that disappointment is part of the natural order? or that reminding himself of the natural order makes the feeling of disappointment fade? We get too caught up in our day-to-day worries, that we lose appreciation for the 10,000 foot view?

    Hope the old man’s client/visitor is okay with the fact that his therapist has transformed into Buddha.

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    1. Thanks for your comments and questions, Andy. It might take a whole new essay to explain but let me begin.

      The disappointment is just there. It needs no explanation, and it seems unattached to actual experience. A kind of existential feeling of the sort that Camus might have written about. And I think that it is more or less part of the natural order. But i think it also has to do with unrealistic expectations about life. Hence the Old Man’s flat articulation of life experience. And, in articulating that experience for his visitor, the Old Man is not just a wise man. He his humbled by his own insights and calmed by the reality of reality.

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