In his memoir, My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer, the poet Christian Wiman writes: “If you believe at 50 what you believed at 15, then you have not lived—or have denied the reality of your life.” Wiman is talking specifically about religious belief, but the idea applies just as well to politics, culture, and even our food and drink choices as our palate matures from the narrow simple tastes of childhood to the more adventurous, complex range to which adulthood invites us.
Wiman’s line got me wondering what it is that ignites this evolvement, this integration of more range and nuance, subtlety and contradiction, in our lives. Wherefrom this refinement of our sensibilities? What are the Life-Changers that set us on this often stormy and wind-blown path of what psychologist Carl Jung called “individuation?”
I’m going to posit six such Life-Changers, though there may well be more and you are hereby invited to create your own list. It’s just that a specific number—“Ten Ways to…!”, “The Seven Habits of…” seems to be all the rage in books and articles in this world, so perhaps the same principle applies to blog posts to snag your attention and then keep you reading to the end. (Or so I hope…)
So herewith, my Top Six Life-Changers, proven through long experience to blow the human mind to bits and make it all different.
1. Travel—At first, the world is restricted and encompassed only by our mother, then perhaps our father, siblings, extended family, then the neighborhood, the school, the local community. This is not only our world but the world, and these are our meaning makers, the inputs around which we form a consciousness.
Then someday, if we are lucky, we take a trip outside the zone where things look and sound this way and, by dint of a long car or plane ride, things look and sound that way—which is so very different from that one way we have known. And we realize: It could all be different. And: I —this person I think I am—could be all different! My world, my view, my experience, my opinions, represent just one way among many ways. Trying to account for this essential fact is something that will challenge us for the rest of our lives, and cause us never again to rest all that securely on our assumptions about the nature of the particular life we were born to.
2. The Arts—Movie, a theater production, a painting, a novel, a dance. Whether we simply behold or also create it, art has the power—sometimes explosively, other times with repeated exposure in greater depth—to give us a new prism, a new capacity for vision, a new relationship to the things of the world.
Great art immerses us in an alternate reality, deeper, more wide-angled, challenging us to look again at everything in front of us. It exposes us to a different way of seeing and interpreting the world. So many narratives, so little time…Which begs the question: Why do we fritter so much of it away on junk?
3. Love—We go along loving our parents, our rellies, our toys and teachers, and then one out-of-the-blue day that love, that other kind of all-consuming, only-one-person-in-the-world, all-I-can-think-about-is-her kind of love takes us into its grip and gives us a profound shaking, right down to our core.
We lose ourselves, the self we thought we were, and we are newly lit, immersed, enfolded into another’s being, seeing and being seen in a way we hadn’t even considered as a possibility before, because we had no experience of it. Suddenly, the borders of our previously defined self are all sloshed over, and we look up at the stars with new and enlarged eyes.
4. Sex—It was tempting to fold this into love, making of them one unified entity, which ideally they perhaps are. But if we’re honest, the initial discovery of sex can be and no doubt frequently is very much on its own terms, inviting us into a physicality of previously unknown depth and delight. So this is what it means and what it is to fully inhabit my and another’s body, at play in the fields of fathomless, tingly sensory delight. Wow.
5. Mood-Altering Substances—For better and worse—and they represent both in abundance—alcohol and drugs take us beyond the normal confines of consciousness, causing immediate physiological changes that can have powerful effects on our psyches. These effects influence not only the short term—“Oh how I love and feel all warm toward my mates and the entire world!”—but also our long-term perspective, as we come to realize that everyday consciousness is one frame, one angle, among many frames and angles and moods with which we can behold and make sense of our world.
6. Children—I list this last not because it is the least important, but because its effects are so encompassing, so previous-life-shattering, no matter whether we have even experienced the other five Life-Changers. Now, there is another, a completely dependent and helpless other, for whom we are completely responsible, and for whom, not coincidentally, we would immediately and forever dash through fire and bombs to protect.
Unless we completely relinquish all claims and care for our children—and even that decision would haunt all our days and thus not absolve us at all—we are now bound in a new way to the ground of existence itself, to the generativity that is in our very genes and so deeply embedded in our psyches as to be instinctive, driven and whole. Life cannot possibly be the same afterwards.
Is there perhaps one item conspicuously missing from this list? But of course: religion…Doesn’t that dramatically change people’s lives, isn’t it perhaps the ultimate life-changer/meaning-maker?
It most certainly is, but the narratives of religion can in many ways be seen as the ultimate art form with which a huge preponderance of art—or at least great art—has been in direct dialogue over the eons. Human beings created religion as the over-arching meaning-maker, trying to make sense and bring coherence to our inscrutable and mysterious existence, and the very creation of religion involved the arts of narrative, drawing, sculpting, movement and more.
Religion is in this way seen as the ground of being, out of which its expressions emerge in the fields of art—and travel, and love, and sex, and mood-altering substances, and children.
And so we close the circle of this discussion, only to stay open, if we remain fearless and have experience enough in the life-changing aspects of existence, to invite ever fresh ways of seeing, being seen, and inhabiting this earth we are blessed to trod upon for the time that we do.
Thanks to the photographers:
Rotating banner photos top of page courtesy of Elizabeth Hamlin, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/lizhaslam/
Small whitewater photo courtesy of “One Day Closer,” some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: http://www.flickr.com/photos/onedaycloser/
Neighborhood children photo courtesy of yours truly, shot the first day of my daughter’s kindergarten in what alternately seems both a lifetime ago and just yesterday morning.