A few weeks ago, I wrote about the cycles of history. How we – the human race – are racing through time, not in a linear progression that gradually climbs up up up, but in cycles. We face huge pandemics that cause the economy to constrict or cause nations to try to expand, to get more space, more resources. When things don’t feel like they are progressing upward – when it feels like we are losing something, or at risk of of losing something – governments fall, chaos ensues, and even the fragile stability we have gained is lost. And yet humanity continues. Sometimes it is dark. Sometimes it is bright. And still we continue.
Actually, I don’t know that I wrote about it that clearly, but that is where I was thinking while I was writing it.
History is not an upward journey. And neither is life.
Our own life happens in cycles, it just doesn’t feel that way because time seems linear to us. Our bodies start small, get larger as time passes – sometimes too large – and then smaller as we get even older, until our bodies fade away and then our spirit fades out of the every day life, forgotten by many of those around us who knew us, forgotten as they, too, die. Think of all the millions of millions of people who no longer live in this world. How many of them do you keep alive in memory? Maybe those you loved best. Maybe a religious figure that you hope will do something for you. But all of those other people, whose friends and families have died out, they are gone. And the people who the religious figures were, when they were alive, are gone, too, leaving only a construct, an idea of a person; someone we never really knew but have formed in our own image. Historical figures are that way, too. When we think of George Washington, or Alexander Hamilton, or Martin Luther King, do we really remember them as people? Or just what we’ve learned about them in school, read about them, or seen in movies or musicals?
And so we, too, each of us, travels down this road. But, although time is linear, our lives are not. They, too, travel in cycles. We find ourselves facing challenges, facing them again, and again in different forms. We find ourselves learning the same lessons over and over again. Sometimes we can’t even formulate what the lesson is that we are learning.
For me, that lesson has to do with the balance between letting go and controlling. I get ideas in my head about how things could be, how organized, how different, how orderly; ideas that drive me to strive for something awesome. Sometimes I am able to inspire others to join me in this quest; sometimes I fail to inspire them; sometimes I inspire them to join me, and we seem to be making progress but, when we finish, the results are unimpressive. Sometimes I pursue this quest on my own, with various levels of success. Sometimes I achieve it and am then disappointed because achievement didn’t suddenly transform my life into something different, something better, something more. Sometimes I don’t achieve it and am sunk into disappointment, a failure, and it feels like everything has crumbled around me. Sometimes I achieve part of my vision, a mere glimpse; others see the success but I just see the failure.
This is the lesson that I am constantly trying to learn, since I was a small child, in varying ways. I may continue learning this lesson until I die. When I am aware of the lesson, I can tell myself that here I go again, learning this lesson. Most of the time, I am living the lesson and lose sight of the lesson itself. Sometimes I don’t realize I am learning the lesson until afterwards and then, oh, there’s that lesson again. Sometimes I face a choice: this was hard, there are other ways to live, I don’t have to keep living this lesson over and over again. Maybe I could just declare the lesson learned and move on, stop striving, stop driving, and let things happen. But then it turns out that was related to the lesson, too.
I have other lessons that I am trying to learn. Lessons about speaking my truth, rather than what people want to hear. Lessons about how I interact with people that I perceive as having more power than me. Lessons about trusting people whom I like. Lessons about how, as one person I worked with put it, you don’t have to know everything about a subject to be an expert, you just have to know more than the people you are leading and you sometimes underestimate how much you do know, because you have been living it.
These are my lessons; they may not be yours. Perhaps yours has to do with compassion, or patience, or learning to lift your eyes above the dirt of the path that you walk along to admire the as you walk. Your lesson is your own.
And that lesson is the meaning of life. That is the reason we are here. To figure out what our lessons are. To practice recognizing it and try different approaches to learning it. And to recognize that, even if we think we’ve learned the lesson, we’re going to go on learning it. It’s Groundhog Day except, at the end of Groundhog Day, he’s learned his lesson and they move on, hand-in-hand, as if the lesson was over, when it was really just beginning. (Unless the meta of Groundhog Day is that he was dead all along, and stuck in limbo until he finally learned his lesson.)
We get tired of learning these lessons. They knock us down. Sometimes we don’t feel like getting up again. Some people give up, try to escape the lesson. Or hide from the lesson – although the lesson will always find you. If you read the work of the monk, Pema Chodron, who writes about her life before beginning to practice Buddhism, the challenges she faced when she first started seriously studying, and then the challenges she faced leading her monastery, you see her lesson. If you watch Hamilton, you see Lin Manuel Miranda’s lesson.
One of the ironies of life is that it is easier for others to see your lesson than for you to see it yourself. And that if they tell you what your lesson is, and how to learn it, that it doesn’t help you. Because you have to learn it yourself.
And keep learning it.
That is the meaning of life. That is why we are here.
To learn that lesson.
What is your lesson?