I would still choose to exist
It recently occurred to me that before I get about seeking inner peace, I ought to have some idea what it is. So I’ve started thinking about what it actually means to me and focusing less on how to get it.
It’s almost easier to start with what it’s not — continuous inner conflict, guilt, self-dislike, a general and chronic unease with just being in this world, and a myriad of other inflictions over which we feel no control.
Such disquieting factors can throw one seriously out of kilter. I am also mindful that minor irritants are tolerable and inevitable and don’t really affect my overall sense of contentedness, although they can be triggers. For example, worry can metastasize into dread, and trivial annoyances into outright anger.
Hamlet’s “heartache and thousand natural shocks” comprise the vexations that plague us all, but anger poisons the spirit and feeds the other, more deadly demons. I could argue that the banishment of these demons is a prerequisite to inner peace.
Other root causes of unhappiness can arise from a sense of powerlessness and the disheartening quest for meaning in an absurd universe. It was this sense that drove Buddha to abandon a life of privilege and seek a universal solution to human suffering. He ultimately found the answer in spiritual detachment, but the ability to completely detach is a kind of luxury in itself, not available to us all, and to be honest, speaking for myself, not always that attractive. (The bodhisattvas are fun to hang out with, and they still know how to have a good time.)
Anyhow, one sensible therapeutic strategy in the quest for inner peace is to avoid anger and anxiety and to graciously accept powerlessness, to see the acceptance of powerlessness as an act of humility, not a fatalistic surrender.
But then comes the “how?” Repression doesn’t work and can lead to a worsening of one’s condition. By understanding the causes of negative emotions, one can learn to recognize the triggers before they take control. To help with this, the universe has given us teachers and spiritual guides and the healthy power of introspection — there is no shame in availing ourselves of all these gifts.
People always told me, even when I was a boy, that I overcomplicated things. They were right. I now concede that there is a good argument for just keeping things simple. The following quote is often attributed to Abraham Lincoln: “Folks are usually about as happy as they make up their minds to be.”
Jean Paul Sartre, taking a drearier and more ponderous route, arrived at the same conclusion in “Being and Nothingness.” So it goes.
In his moving personal journal, “Markings,” published after his death in 1961, Dag Hammarskjold, the second secretary-general of the United Nations, admonished us to, “Say yes to life.” As he put it, “For all that has been — Thanks! To all that shall be — Yes!”
With this simple affirmation, we can give meaning to our existence. We can gratefully accept all that is, good and bad, and embrace the flow of things. This applies to both the external forces gusting through the universe, sometimes battering us with hurricane strength, and to our internal struggles with self and meaning, which can seem at times both a blessing and a curse. Above all, we must love life — not because we fear death, but simply because we love life.
And, with a nod to Walt Whitman, one must say “Yes!” even to the contradictions.
At this point, for me, inner peace is fleeting and sadly fragile. But I’m OK. I’m smiling as I type this. I recall a moment, long ago, during an hour of terrible despair, when I wasn’t sure whether I could go on anymore, or whether I even wanted to. I asked myself a very simple question: Knowing what I know, if I could go back to the hour before my conception, and I was offered the choice of existence or nonexistence, which would I choose?
I would choose to exist. I would say “Yes!” to life. It was a good decision.
Richard Carey lives in Ashland, happily retired from all forms of gainful employment. He now spends his time scribbling poems and in sporadic meditation, among other aimless pursuits. Email 600- to 700-word articles to Sally McKirgan at email@example.com.