In The Beginning...
Our hero, Bob Everyman, grew up in the culture of one of these types of modern religions. Everything was fine at first, but with age he began to run into some serious difficulties. His religion couldn't give him what he needed, in spite of the fervor with which he believed. It was unable to even prune let alone expunge his fears and anxieties, the scars of a dysfunctional upbringing [is there any other kind?], one hallmarked by neglect and indifference. He found the internalized beliefs to be unsatisfactory in the extreme, so he left the Church.
Looking for a set of moral rules and criterion of behaviour to guide him, he turned to philosophy, studying and immersing himself in its many schools both east and west.
Existentialism intrigued him with its emphasis on choice, individuality, subjectivity and personal freedom, which is what he was trying to find. Of the schools available, it seemed the most earthbound. Existence, he figured, was his problem. But after much sifting little appeared to apply to his practical needs.
He followed with Humanism but found nothing at its core, only an arrogant attitude and perspective from which humans were supposed to see themselves as occupying a special place in the universe. Ludicrous, he muttered, as he tossed that into the trash heep as well. Next he sampled Idealism with its proponents advocating varying degrees of objective-world denial. That objects have no validity independent of the mind perceiving them meant nothing to him as he stubbed his toe on a very real and independently existing leg of a chair. He tossed that too. Materialism? of course, what else would these existentially independent things be made of? Nihilism? Yeah, right, ultimate and total denial is actually all about essential assertion of self through will -- the will to power. He felt he already knew that.
With Pragmatism, an American invention, he thought he had something. It's basic attitude of whatever works struck a chord. But discouragingly, it too showed its true colors by its uselessness, an ironic twist belying its pretentious boast. He had followed his nose and gone off on a tangent for its own sake, or so it seemed.
He then turned to the East. Confucianism left him cold, just another authoritarian set of pronouncements on how one person thought everyone else should live. Taoism, Buddhism and Zen, on the other hand, were agreeable to his mind's sense of needed harmony and groundedness, but, once again, lacked those personal details he so desperately sought.
Bottomline, this avenue led to a wasteland of inapplicable facts and self-serving sophistry passing for wisdom [Plato's Republic, anyone?] and likewise failed to provide answers for the job at hand, serving only to feed his gnawing uncertainty. He needed something pertinent, specific, a recipe with a human touch. So, despite its intellectual appeal and assist in developing a rooted and workable worldview, he lost interest in philosophy as a means and an aid to unraveling the tangled threads of his personality. A course correction was in order.
Possessed of an analytical mind, he next subscribed to psychology. However, the alternative realities created by Freud and Jung, being archetypical in character, spanned too wide a mesh to capture the intricate particulars of his troubles. Labeling helped to understand the structure of the psyche -- self-actualization was what he was about, after all -- but in his attempt to flesh out these ideal bones it occurred to him that he was merely reconstituting the nature of the problem back one step. In other words, if he knew what the flesh was to begin with, he wouldn't be wasting his time looking for it. Consequently, he fell through the net.
Magazine articles, both paper and internet-based, representing every current and diverse school of psychological thought under the rainbow -- including the fringe element -- though down to earth, were also deeply disappointing. They only served to throw fuel on the fire of his confusion. He saw pieces of himself in every study, in every functional shortcoming and abnormality, and in every form of maladaption and biochemical disorder. He knew if he were to take it all seriously, he'd be a basket case. Instead, he laughed at himself. With everything else he had going, he balked at giving in to psychological hypochondria. Thinking of himself as paranoid schizophrenic, manic-depressive, possessed of a borderline personality [whatever that is] plus a dozen other categories didn't help him feel any better when walking on a busy street in a crowd. It was all academic; the list of psychological schools was as long as his arm. Sooner rather than later, he abandoned that field of inquiry as well.
Understanding that his fear and anxiety might stem from long-repressed hostile feelings towards his domineering mother, his absent father and a whole host of other significant figures in his life, including the bully from 6th grade whose name he'll never forget, still didn't give him anything positive to hold onto. His mother, the most important person in his world, never struck or physically abused him in any way. But whenever she would become angry at him, and the stresses of her life easily put her in that head-space occasionally in spite of her strong moral character, she would withold love. And without her love, he believed he would be at the mercy of an unfriendly outside world and surely suffer the consequences.
Tenaciously unwilling to give up altogether, he ventured into epistemology, the last resort of the terminally muddled, suspiciously questioning the very thoughts and ideas with which he questioned thoughts and ideas. His mind churned and recoiled at the affront, threatening to fall into an enveloping whirlpool of circular assumptions and misconstrued conclusions from which there would be no escape, save madness. Vertigo held him in its grip; he dropped the ball and ran.
During subsequent years he sought fulfillment in the satisfaction of his appetites, and in the process, ran the gamut of life's vicissitudes: falling in and out of love, or at least what he thought was love; learning and then quitting one occupation after another; bouncing between absolute arrogance and long bouts of guilt and depression; drowning his loneliness in debauchery and hedonism; and occasionally brushing with the law. His chaotic life traced a trajectory of disillusion and self-destruction.
At last, with the coming of age and out of disgust and despair at the shallow preoccupations, the cruelties and hatreds of people, he retired to a small cabin in the dense woods, a narrow stream running nearby. Drinking profusely and shunning all company, he grew away from people, turning instead for solace to the many creatures who populated his world.
At first, he'd sit for hours, on moss-covered logs, on old lawn chairs he found about the property, and on the makeshift porch he hammered together one day. Sit and think of nothing and no one. Not moving, staring off at the trees, watching the birds living their lives, busy, involved, and one red-tailed squirrel who sometimes complained, loudly, for no apparent reason. He tried to read, fiction, but usually would lose interest somewhere in the middle and leave the book on the ground to be ruined by the rain. He felt worthless, empty, desolate, like driftwood drying in the sun, flaking away, to be blown by the wind.
He scoured his mind looking for those specific memories that would tell him where life had gone wrong, trying to find people to blame, people who had betrayed him, let him down, abandoned him in the hour of his need. But the finger of sober justice always came back to him. He was the one who had spoiled it for himself, sabotaging his own happiness as though undeserving, and maybe, he thought, maybe that was true. And the pain of knowing how easy it would've been to act on his own behalf to assure a meaningful life was only coal on the fire.
He was haunted by countless acts of cowardice and evasion, by manipulation of others, by honest shame, by his betrayals of trust and caring, and by his selfishness. He would shake his head often in total disbelief and mutter to himself, I did that? Burdens he couldn't drop, wounds that wouldn't heal, ugly parts of himself he couldn't cut off. He was incapable of love, resisted it with all his might, out of fear; the hard knots of unsatisfied longing held him in check, like a would-be swimmer frozen on the block. And the situation reinforced itself, over and over again, nailing his feet to the ground. Every act of weakness and restraint just made it that much harder to let go in the future.
When in a lighter mood, he would reminisce over comrades with whom he shared adventures when times were good. Friends who taught him much about what was important in life. Experiences would crop up unbidden, out of context with whatever he was doing. Something about it resonated with his former self -- the way he saw, a certain movement, the feel of the air on his face, the smell of the dirt in the hot sun. He'd meet them, get aquainted, work together -- sometimes at the risk of their lives -- get drunk, and then say good-bye, see ya' later, knowing full well that would never be. How meaningful it all seemed now, exhilarating just to remember, but then, a lifetime ago, merely taken for granted, ordinary, trains passing.
He had long since stopped believing in God, a God who stood on high watching and judging his every move. A God who would forgive him and make all things right again, someone with the power and the will to push the reset button. No, it was up to him to forgive himself, and that was unlikely.
With time and an openness he never dared with humans, he began to feel a connection to some mysterious life force that seemed to pervade all his creatures, including the trees and wild plants and the very earth on which he walked. Eventually leaving his world-weary self behind as unsalvageable and dead, he surrendered to this newfound sense of belonging with an almost visceral yearning. He was tired of thinking, so the illogic and intuition of immersion was an obvious alternative. As a nurturing, soothing bath, it bestowed on him an inner strength and confidence he'd rarely known.
Over seasons of aloneness, he lost track of his former quest, instead spending his time marveling at the wonders of nature, savoring the tiniest details. The sweet caressing air and busy insect life of the summer and the purity and stillness of the winter with its snow and ice were his teachers and mentors, his books of learning. A profound peace settled over him like fine dust. Nevertheless, in the back of his mind an ineffable question, like a shadow in motion, still lingered.
One sunny day, while on his rounds of random wanderings, he abruptly stopped as though a stone falling to the ground. Listening to the sounds of the woods and the fast current of the stream, he thought in amazement, All this time, it was right there in front of me. He scanned the woods and saw in a different light. His mind went out to it and his heart raced. With a vision he knew half a lifetime ago, he saw every cranny and nook, every branch and tree, every creature, great and small, suddenly stilled, appearing to come at him in a rush.
At once, the ground opened and he passed right through the molten iron-knickle core of the earth and out the other side. Above it, moving outbound, quickly traveling beyond Mars, the asteroid belt -- barely missing a few of the smaller ones -- passed roiling Jupiter and ringed Saturn with their many moons, and then, angling sharply at 45 degrees before Uranus, he headed out. He did not feel cold or heat from radiation, or friction, of course, in the vacuum of space. As he distanced himself farther and farther from the sun, the thick band of stars composing the Milky Way, his galaxy, increased in brilliance, crispness and scope. He was part of it, in it, and not feeling to be an outsider, was not afraid. Moving away from the galaxy towards a larger cluster; passing single, solitary planets and misshapen hunks of rock-ice; entering and leaving multicolored, ephemeral nebulae the substance of gossamer mist; hearing strange, delicate, tearing sounds that were not unpleasant, he had no time to wonder at his situation and how he got there. He just let himself completely relax and enjoy the view.
A week later, a UPS truck pulled into his driveway bearing a package from his sister. The driver went to leave it on the front porch but as he approached he noticed something that looked like clothes and a boot on the ground beside the cabin. Investigating, he found the decomposed body of a man, he guessed, skin eaten away down to the bone, clothing in tatters. The sheriff's office informed Bob's sister he'd been dead for close to three months, the last time they spoke, cause unknown, although foul play was ruled out. Privately the sheriff suspected suicide. A knife was found several feet from the body which evidently had been dragged by animals, probably coyotes. But, because of the body's condition and the effects of weathering on the knife, forensics could point to nothing unnatural.
She came to his place, the first time in all these years, and walked over it, appreciating what her brother had told her, recognizing the special spots he'd described and understanding why he saw them that way. She collected his few possessions -- journals, diaries and books, clothes and special momentoes -- and left after the brief service.
His remains were cremated and the ashes strewn about his woods at places Bob's sister knew to be meaningful. He would've wanted it that way; to be with his woods and his creatures who he loved completely.