This is part five of a six-part essay called Choosing restraint. You can read the whole essay here.
How can we find this love? How can we come to feel this kind of appreciation?
I believe that all paths to such feelings are deeply personal. What affects one will not necessarily affect another. But there are some commonalities. The most fundamental of these are related to life and death. To the wondrous, unfathomable depth and richness of the many forms and shapes of life around us. And to the awareness of our own mortality and frailty. Talking of such things can easily become very abstract. So I will try to illustrate what I mean through two very concrete examples.
When the artist Frances Whitehead moved to Chicago, she started a vegetable garden behind her house. One year she planted bottle gourds — one of the first plants domesticated by man. These plants have flowers that only bloom at night and wilt in the morning. So they require nocturnal insects to pollinate them. But there aren’t adequate pollinators in the Chicago area because the climate is too cold. So Frances did what all of her garden books recommended: She went out every evening and pollinated the flowers herself with a paint brush in order to get the gourds that she wanted.
But one night, she came out to find an enormous sphinx moth among the flowers. It was going from flower to flower, quietly and affectionately pollinating each in turn. Frances was awestruck: Here in this bombed-out neighbourhood of vacant homes in the middle of the city with hardly any trees — let alone nocturnal bottle gourd flowers — this moth showed up because she had planted the plant that it wanted. The plant that it had co-evolved to pollinate. Where did it come from? How did it find its destination?
I became like this child. And what was revealed to me was the closest I have ever come to a mystical or theological moment. So, I guess I am now officially a nature worshipper. But what I believe that I came to worship was not nature in that kind of tree-hugging kind of way. Actually, I got a glimpse of the complexity, of inter-connectivity that was beyond my comprehension up until that point.
She saw the magical complexity of life in that moment: Something bigger than herself. And she felt like she was stepping outside of herself, and feeling a deep sense of wonderment. She came to appreciate the interconnectedness, the interdependence, of every living thing.
But just as appreciation can build on the wonderment of everything living, it is also intimately linked with death. We don’t like to think about it, but with every passing day, we are one step closer to death. And it should give us pause to think.
All that we know will die. As will we. Knowing this, do we pay attention to what really matters? Do we pay enough attention to the people around us? Do we pay enough attention to what matters to them? Do we pay enough attention to ourselves? Are we making the most of it? Are we appreciating the lives we have?
In David Fincher’s film Fight Club, Tyler Durden (the dark, anarchic club founder) holds up a convenience store. Durden pulls the clerk, a poor fellow named Raymond K. Hessel, out into the alley behind the store and puts a gun to his head and tells him that he is going to die. Does he realise that? Does he want to work in a convenience store for the rest of his life? Doesn’t he more from life?
Shocked and sobbing, Raymond admits he once wanted to be a veterinarian.
Durden says that he’ll be watching him. That if Raymond’s not on his way to become a veterinarian in six weeks, Durden will find him and kill him. Then he lets Raymond go.
Why did he do this?
To make Raymond consider his life. To make him appreciate being alive. As Durden reflects:
Tomorrow will be the most beautiful day in Raymond K. Hessel’s life. His breakfast will taste better than any meal you and I have ever tasted.
Putting a gun in someone’s face is a very drastic way to make your point, but it is a point worth making: What would you appreciate after somebody had put a gun to your head and threatened to kill you?
There are so many things we don’t seem to appreciate. So many things we take for granted. We get caught up in churn of everyday life. We are often so busy just keeping everything rolling that we forget to enjoy it. Sometimes, we get so caught up in our goals and ambitions that we forget to appreciate all the wondrous things that happen along the way.
As Nietzsche said, “not every end is a goal. The end of a melody is not a goal.” Or put in another way: You don’t have to wait for the music to finish before you can enjoy it. If that was the case, all musicians would play as fast as humanly possible so that they could reach the end, and allow people to appreciate it. Life is a process. A perpetual state of becoming. An endless now. We can only appreciate it as we live it. Sometimes, we just need a little reminder.