Wednesday, September 24, 2008
Every Life Ends Badly
A middle-aged guy thought he had it made. He had a good job that brought in plenty of money, and he was respected in his chosen profession. The job wasn't always fun, but sometimes it was, and anyway everybody has to sometimes deal with the not-fun parts of working. That's why they call it work.
This fellow was married to a lovely woman who loved him above all else, or so he thought. She wasn't perfect, being a somewhat shallow and superficial person, but considering her physical beauty, her passionate nature, her devotion to him, her easygoing demeanor, and her steadfast faithfulness and stability, he couldn't have asked for more. Her parents spent more time "visiting" than he liked, which is to say, they were like a couple of unwanted props from central casting as far as he was concerned, but considering his wife's virtues and positive attributes, he was mostly willing to overlook that.
He was an accomplished musician, and in fact in his younger days had made a living in gin mills and beer troughs all up and down the west coast. But he gave that life up for something more respectable and reliable after he realized he'd been bitten by the alcohol bug, and besides, a bar musician's life is too unpredictable and peripatetic for any but the young.
He loved to drive by himself, and in his prime would take long, solitary overnight trips in the great Southwest desert, or three-day tours of selected California missions. He saved money for the future, but mostly lived for the moment. One golden moment followed another, with never an indication that the good times might abruptly come to an end.
He lived in a three-bedroom house he loved, even though it was in a bad neighborhood. Above all else he enjoyed sitting on the patio at night and smoking as he listened to the drone of traffic on the freeway, a mile's distance from his little paradise, recalling Jonathan Coulton's lyrics:
And as the freeway hums the cars go by;
The headlights roll across the sky;
Many miles away but I can see them speeding through the dark.
The truth is, it never really was paradise; it was an illusion. The house was an old, shabby, cheaply-built tract home, and the town he loved so well because it was just the right size and easy to live in is distinguished by alarming levels of air pollution. So as our guy who had it made sat smoking on his patio, his lungs were combining cigarette smoke and the chemicals from the fouled atmosphere like a pair of catalytic converters, and he was giving himself emphysema.
There were other elements of his ideal life as well that were not quite as ideal as they appeared on the surface.
Then he retired from his job, and thereafter, in very quick succession, lost his wife, his home, his prosperity, and his manhood, and found himself sitting in a travel trailer in a desert wilderness asking himself where his life had gone. He was old, sick, and alone.
Siddhartha, before he became the Buddha, left the palace he had grown up in for the first time, and took a day excursion, accompanied only by his charioteer. About a mile down the road, Siddhartha saw an old man. He had never seen one before, and his charioteer had to explain why the man looked the way he did. Siddhartha was horrified.
The next day they went out again and saw a sick man. Siddhartha was horrified. The day after that, the prince saw his first corpse. He realized that everyone gets old, gets sick, and dies. He wondered what was the point of life, seeing as how every life ends badly.
He spent the rest of his days trying to answer that question.