“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way—in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”
So wrote the English novelist Charles Dickens in the opening sentence of A Tale of Two Cities in 1859. This was 70 years after the French Revolution he was alluding to and two years before our own Civil War began here in the U.S.
You grammar geeks will be dazzled to know the sentence went on for 119 words and included 17 commas and one em dash. It is very possibly the best-known and most oft-repeated opening line in literary history. (Besides, of course, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth”…)
People often recite the first two clauses (“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”) without even knowing where they came from.
And for our purposes here, those clauses denote the two opposite poles or extreme emotional states of human life: highs and lows, peaks and valleys, joys and sorrows.
A friend told me the other day he’d become a cynic because he doesn’t think the world will survive climate change. I told him it’s not cynical to fear the end of the world—it’s cynical only if you therefore stop caring about it.
We all know about those: the at-least-occasional brushing up against states of extreme joy and abject despair. Or as the more modern writer Irving Stone had it in the title of his book on Michelangelo, “The Agony and the Ecstasy.”
Still later, the late and lamented ABC sports show that some of you of a certain age might remember—“The Wide World of Sports”—had a slogan that became a major cultural meme in its own right: “The thrill of victory, the agony of defeat.”
Sometimes it seems we are doomed to ricochet between those two poles all our lives. We climb up the ladder of happiness thinking maybe we’ve finally figured this thing out and…Ka-boom!
Something intrudes to burst our bubble yet again. Maybe some catastrophic event, or an existential crisis when we become slowly haunted by doubts and questions about the lives we’ve led.
I came across this recently from the English literary critic Terry Eagleton: “The meaning of life consists in the search for the meaning of life.” (So now that you know what the meaning of life is, maybe I should just wrap things up right here?)
The one thing we know through it all, though: The mountain rises, and right over the other side, it descends to the valley. Neither exists without the other to define it. Talk about a metaphor…
Down about mid-state, there’s an annual ultramarathon that goes from the lowest point in the continental U.S., Death Valley, to the base of the highest: Mt. Whitney.
It crosses three mountain passes over 135 miles and a total elevation gain of 13,000 feet. It was just held again this past week—mid-July. Hot. Sooooo hot.
Having hung out with some of these ultra characters over the years, I can tell you they are all slightly touched in the head. The winners usually finish in about 24 hours. There are marathons, and then there is that marathon, and it is only for people chasing a very peculiar form of ecstasy.
We might look at them as addicts of the extremes, personifying in their physical exertions and travails our desire to live with intensity and a burning need to do something that matters. That allows us to stand out from the humdrum.
Not just the same old same old, but to engage fully with life on a quite literally different terrain.
Nikos Kazanzakis makes that case through his main character in Zorba the Greek:
“It’s all because of doing things by halves, saying things by halves, that the world is in the mess it is in today. Do things properly, by God! One good knock for each nail and you’ll win through! God hates a halfdevil ten times more than an archdevil!”
Or as Jack London, our favorite son here on the North Coast wrote in the inscription to one of his books for a friend: “I would rather be ashes than dust.”
That line is from a longer quote that has been attributed to London but which scholars allow may have been embellished greatly by the journalist Ernest Hopkins. (Kind of an early version of fake news…)
Hopkins hung out with London as London’s health was failing at his ranch in Glen Ellen. Hopkins wrote what he claimed was transcribed from one of London’s utterances during that time. You may have seen it emblazoned on a poster or coffee cup:
I would rather be ashes than dust! I would rather that my spark should burn out in a brilliant blaze than it should be stifled by dry-rot. I would rather be a superb meteor, every atom of me in magnificent glow, than a sleepy and permanent planet. The function of man is to live, not to exist …
Obviously, London was not going gently into that good night, to paraphrase another famous line from the poet Dylan Thomas. (We might note as an aside that London and Thomas, bright burning meteors that they were, lived to be all of 40 and 39 years old, respectively. I think there may be a lesson in that…)
In any case, the journalist Hopkins later wrote of that occasion:
“When he made that striking summary of his personal philosophy, London was marvelously alive. He irradiated vigor. Every breath that he drew was to him a brilliant sensation. Every moment of his time was crammed with events. He was in love with life—and with vitality—ablaze with… joy and poignancy… Of all the ardent group that heard him on that occasion, he was the most alive. Beside him all other men seemed colorless.”
So if we are to believe Hopkins, even when London was traversing through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, he was busy scaling ever more peaks.
A question to consider: Does hearing that about London make you feel inspired…or just tired?
Does it make you want to stop reading and hop online to plan your next bucket list adventure?
Iceland! Mozambique! Paris and Patagonia!
Or does it leave you more inclined to stay home, light a candle, curl up on your couch and reflect on just how peaceful and satisfying life can be when you’re not jostling your way through the world’s airports and traffic?
Certainly, we all need our peaks, our glimpses of the divine, however we define that. Those times when the world seems to add up to a perfect whole, and we feel perfectly fitted and filled within it.
That’s the spice, the juice, the elixir that adds color to our experience and—almost as important—to the storytelling that comes afterward. Those moments of joy that seem to fill us to the brim.
Just as certainly, no matter how high or sustained those ecstatic glimpses may be, the shadow eventually returns, the valley beckons. Nobody gets out of this life alive.
16th century English poet Francis Quarles laid it out quite nicely:
“The way to bliss lies not on beds of down
And he that had no cross deserves no crown.”
And then we come to the place between those extremes of peaks and valleys, crosses and crowns. You know: boring old sea level, or just a little above it. Where most of us not named Jack London, Dylan Thomas or Zorba the Greek live, most of the time.
Not up floating around the peaks, “making all others seem colorless.” Nor down there in the sweltering valleys.
Just hovering close on the flats.
A kind of Kansas of the emotional life.
What does this moderate middle have to say for itself?
Buddhism, of course, posits a whole religion, if one can call the “no-religion” of Buddhism a religion, on what it calls “The Middle Path.” It’s that place between extremes, not indulging the pinballing between elation and dejection.
Famed basketball coach John Wooden of UCLA preached this relentlessly to the 10 national championship teams he coached through the 1960s and ‘70s. He never wanted his team to get too demonstrative and joyous in victory, nor downtrodden in defeat.
He wanted an even keel. Be glad in victory, gracious in defeat. Don’t get all pogo-sticky about it emotionally. It’s probably no coincidence that Wooden was a midwesterner, born in Indiana and a graduate of Purdue University.
You may not have known this, but most midwesterners, with their self-effacing, modest, culturally sanctioned middle path ways, are closet Buddhists.
Now you likely have heard the Buddhist dictum, “Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.” It’s a typically clever aphorism that reveals a whole world of understanding.
The most common take on this dictum is that even assuming you finally become enlightened and plugged into the deepest insights of existence, you still have to deal with the material world. You still have to take care of things, still have to clean the latrine now and again.
But it also goes deeper than that. It points to a difference between peak experiences—those brief brushes with the divine that often send us crashing back to earth—and enlightenment.
In most of the eastern literature that exhaustively chronicles the topic, enlightenment is far more a settled, less volatile state of mind and heart. No drama, no trauma.
No one can stay high all the time, even with the assistance of alcohol or drugs. We certainly have millions of case studies attesting to that!
This brings up not only Bacchus the wine god of over consumption and religious ecstasy, but also Icarus, who flew too close to the sun and paid for his brazenness by melting back to the earth.
Sometimes it’s useful to ask ourselves: Are we just collecting peak experiences like some people collect old cars or rare books?
“We went to China last year and walked along the Great Wall!”
“Hi, you’ll never believe where I am! The pyramids! Let’s see: 5 continents, 43 countries and all 50 states. And I took a selfie with President Obama. Bucket list complete.”
The torch singer Peggy Lee had a question for that approach to life: “Is that all there is?”
So here’s the true test of a life lived beyond a bucket list and all the fine memories it might leave us with.
And here’s the key question in that test: What are we like in our time on the middle path, when we aren’t up there beaming among the clouds, or down there getting pummeled and just trying to survive? During our regular workaday life, neither high nor low nor particularly inspired? Just being a regular person in our regular world.
How much are those days imbued with what we have brought back from both the peaks and the valleys? How have they chiseled and refined our character, our perspective?
A friend told me the other day he’d become a cynic because he doesn’t think the world will survive climate change. I told him it’s not cynical to fear the end of the world—it’s cynical only if you therefore stop caring about it. If you fail to live in even more commitment to the world, bringing more joy, understanding, compassion, mercy, humility and forgiveness to it.
So do “the best of times” and a perfectly rational expectation of more “worst of times” add up to something more whole, more unified and wise, a kind of fusion that leaves us more content and more courageous in what we love and commit to in our everyday lives, whatever else is going on around us?
The question seems especially pertinent in times of great societal stress as our country seems to be experiencing now. It’s no small matter, maintaining our equanimity and even daring to be joyful when all seems engulfed in chaos and roiling emotion.
I have always remembered a story I read from the Lebanese Civil War that raged from 1975-1990. It described residents of Beirut calmly visiting with each other and reading newspapers in a café while air battles and artillery fire were taking place along the Mediterranean Sea within sight and earshot of them.
The reporter was astounded, but the café patrons told him they simply refused to curtail their lives, refused to stop sipping their espressos and visiting with their friends.
That’s a different kind of “blazing meteor” than Jack London represented, I think.
And in many ways, it’s a more powerful statement of living fully, committed to everyday joys, whatever the circumstance. One can regard it as either profoundly reckless or profoundly enlightened, perhaps some of both.
And by “enlightened,” I don’t mean some perfect sainthood that leaves one above the hurly burly of life, wiped free of all neuroses. If that state exists, I’ve never met anyone who inhabits it.
But I am thinking about a basic state of equanimity. A middle path of lightness and generosity of spirit, an abiding, quieter joy that doesn’t require or cause so many highs and lows.
One that isn’t dependent on who the president is, or what our checkbook balance says.
A state of mind that instead greets most all daily life with acceptance and observes it with an ever present inner glow. Not every second of every day, but as a basic default.
It seems to me the road there is paved with the sum total of all those high and low experiences we have had, all the thrills of the peaks and spills to the troughs—now internalized.
It includes all our youthful indiscretions and even those when we’re older and exclaim, “Wow, I thought I was done with youthful indiscretions!”
All of it adds up to a different baseline, one not so inclined to pinball from high to low and back again, but steadier, more serene and reliable for others, and fulfilled in ourselves.
In other words, Kansas, with all the best that California and New York, Paris, Patagonia—and even Beirut—can add to the mix.
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Deep appreciation to the photographers! Unless otherwise stated, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing.
Elizabeth Haslam, whose photos (except for the books) grace the rotating banner at top of page.
Library books photo by Larry Rose, all rights reserved, contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
Death Valley photo by Steve Rider
Prairie photo by Jeff Wallace, Alberta, Canada
Pyramids photo by Keith Yahl, https://www.flickr.com/photos/yahl/