By John Lee Pendall
I’ll be 32 years old soon. 32. As I sit here, I can’t help but wonder, “What the hell happened?”
One of my co-workers is 19. He talks fast, belching out whatever thought comes to mind. He takes pride in his hardships. Was I like that when I was his age? As another co-worker (two years older than me) and I sat on the bench during lunch, he just yammered on and on while we shared the same weary silence. She was exhausted from dealing with all the red tape involved in buying a house, and I was weighed down by memories and thoughts of where I’d rather be and who I’d rather be with.
I’m at the age now when I can start calling 19 year olds “Kid” without it sounding awkward. When he was born, I’d already gotten drunk and walked naked through a cornfield. I’d already discovered porn, weed, social anxiety, the Upanishads, Nietzche and maladaptive coping mechanisms.
And how do you tell him, ya know? How do you tell a 19 year old how fucked up things are gonna get, how challenging it’s gonna be some days to just get out of bed and go through the motions?
How do you tell him that dreams are heavy, and that they grow heavier with each passing year?
That the winters get longer, and that a great memory becomes a burden over time. That at around 22, people and pets start dying and that they don’t stop. Every year. That the body is not your friend and will start to grow hair out of places you didn’t think possible.
How do you tell them that things might not work out, and that nothing—literally not a single thing—will go exactly as planned? Well, you don’t, because they wouldn’t believe you anyway. The most I’ll do is use the First Noble Truth in a joking way. “Ah, we’re out of coffee filters!” “Yeah, life is suffering.”
I hope things go better for him, that’s all we can hope for. I try not to get cynical, but it’s difficult. It’s just that the reality of the first two Truths really settles in over time. Too many heartaches, too many botched dreams, too much impermanence. Nothing is sacred, that’s what time reveals. It even comes for our lips, which used to be so full but are now chronically chapped.
This is the entry into practice, the sturdiest gate. In Buddhism, your diligence is going to be equal to your desperation.
The more you see of this decaying world, the more you’re going to want to see through it to its heart, to its true nature. It literally becomes a matter of life and death after awhile. There are times when your practice is all that you have, and all that you can depend on. Other times, even the practice seems distant and the path we’re on grows unfamiliar.
The teachings have detailed landmarks, but there are long stretches of open road between them.
Sometimes I’m tempted to just totally give myself to the Way, to cast myself off like a pair of old shoes. Because you get that option eventually—the choice to leave your self-concepts behind. But, I keep myself around. Enlightenment is not a viable solution to our problems, it’s a fuel for further practice so that we can have the strength to not hide from our problems. We can stare them down, and dive into our humanity as long as we keep that link alive to our inner Buddhas.
Because, honestly, even though I know that our lives are mostly made up of the stories that we tell ourselves, I’m really into them. I’ve really connected with my character and I want to see how all of this turns out for us, for all of us, for everyone in this chapter of the human comedy. But, it does get lonely. And the revolving door of “Things are well and practice is great,” to, “Life is pointless and I lost my way,” can kinda make you sea sick after awhile.
But I know it’s all just a work in progress, as am I.
I don’t know what this year will bring. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in 32 years it’s that I don’t know a fucking thing. And that I love those days when something in the air makes me feel like a kid again. That precious clean slate that’s so close I can almost forget that I’ve had to start using skin care products and taking multivitamins.
Editor: Dana Gornall
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He has a B.S. in psychology and lives between two cornfields in rural Illinois. His errant knowledge base covers Buddhism, philosophy, psychology, astronomy, theology, music theory, and quoting lines from movies.
Feel free to check out his Facebook page, and his blog "Salty Dharma".