I set out to comment on this post by Thom Ingram, and realized instead that his writing had inspired more than just a comment. I’m not going to rehash his post; just read it for yourself because it’s a beautiful mindful struggle with the meaning of life.
I haven’t studied – or even read – multiple spiritual texts as Thom has – but I have this sense that in addition to the commonalities across texts that he mentions, there is also a shared thread of being fully present in the here and now; of living compassionately and empathetically towards myself and all others. And I think that is actually based on – and counterweight to – the commonalities he does bring up – that there is more than we know or sense, that we are more than we know or sense, that so much of what we think we are apprehending is not by a long shot the last word or the ultimate reality.
For me the idea of presence and humble empathy is often embodied in the squirrels I see out my window, just a representative for me of all the small and mindless little creatures living out their seemingly ultimately pointless little animal lives. I imagine what life is like in a squirrel’s mind. I empathize with this tiny furry rodent feeling warm sunlight and wintry winds on its body, its heart racing as it scurries illogically across the street in the paths of roaring automobiles, its simpleminded squirrelly chuckling laughter from a branch high in my backyard tree directed at my outraged terrier below. I think of it feeling hunger, cold, pain, and also delight, contentment, even rodent-level joy.
In the cosmic scheme of things, I am that squirrel. Except that my kind have tasted the fruit of the tree of knowledge, and there can be no unknowing, no returning to the simple thoughtless life of the squirrel. I – and you – live in a cosmos that is beyond even our most-exalted-of-all-species intellectual capacities, but we have this extra level of knowledge that as far as we know, no other animal possesses: we know we’re going to die, that no matter what, every one of us is housed in a body that is falling apart, destined for the dirt. And beyond that, our knowledge fails us**. It appears to be the last word on the reality of the human body, as far as we’ve been able to ascertain through the senses and mental capacities of these bodies.
So we turn to imagination, art, faith, drugs, anything mind-altering, to see if somehow we can transcend the painful reality of the knowledge we can’t unknow, this knowledge of the ultimate decay of all things. And sometimes we can, and do. But that transcendence never gives our intellect the words and ideas it needs to feel satiated.
Thom says in his post, “I want to be in this world. In the here and now. I want to be centered on this place. But it’s all an illusion.”
And that’s where I turn to my powers of squirrel empathy for a little help. Whether it is all an illusion or not, this is the world where I have found myself. It is the reality I know, and you are here too. You are, right? Because maybe if everything is an illusion, then all the people around me are an illusion too, and it doesn’t matter how I treat them or what becomes of them.
I wonder, is this why the Genesis account of the tree of knowledge treats the tree and its fruit as so dangerous? If I understand that the world I think I know to be real is merely a virtual reality created by my senses and fed into my mind, why not seek to rise above it all? Why not make myself a god, the god of my own life, the god of this reality? Why shouldn’t I pilfer the planet and its people for the things I want, since it’s all a sham and even that is ultimately all falling apart anyway?
But back to the squirrel. The humble life of the squirrel. Breathe in, breathe out. Sunshine. Wind. Fear, laughter, hunger, and joy. And then, the human, who asks why? Always why, always, but why, what for, where is all this going, what’s it all about?
I don’t think asking why is ever a problem on its own. Instead, I find it concerning when we stop asking why because we think we know it all and we’ve come up short, disappointed and disillusioned with all we know, and throw up our hands and sigh, who cares, it doesn’t matter anyway.
It’s a hard fight some days, and others it feels small, pointless and never-ending – but I keep trying to faithfully live like a humble squirrel and an inquisitive human. I don’t think the fruit of the tree of knowledge is only bitter poison. Maybe if you squeeze out the sweetest part of it, let it ferment and share it with your friends, it can bring you some joy too.
**Of course humans are intellectually much smarter than squirrels, making discovery upon discovery, building wizard-level technological masterpieces – but that to me is just a way more powerful version of the squirrel brain. I’m referring here to consciousness, a sense of me and my place in the world, and its most painful realization of death and decay, that we haven’t knowingly encountered in any other species.
Bonus material – here’s a song I wrote last year and the origin of this post’s title: