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“A man knows when he has found his vocation when he stops thinking about how to live and begins to live… When we are not living up to our true vocation, thought deadens our life, or substitutes itself for life, or gives in to life so that our life drowns out our thinking and stifles the voice of conscience. When we find our true vocation – thought and life are one.” Thomas Merton
LAGUNA BEACH, CALIFORNIA: SUMMER OF 1998
The second half of my second decade in this world was filled with frustration, ugliness, striving, suffering – and death. That these afflictions were mostly of my own creation led directly to their main (only?) beneficial legacy: I learned. Who am I, really? Where do I fit into the world? What should I do with my life? These are not easy questions to resolve satisfactorily. What a relief then it was to turn 30 years of age, eager for a fresh start to a new decade now that I knew a thing or two about life!
Which brings me to this summer of 1998, having just turned 31 years of age. I am living here in Laguna Beach on a cliff overlooking the Pacific Ocean, house-sitting for my father who is sailing around the Aegean Sea. Every sunset I put on some relaxing classical music, read poetry, and watch the sun go over the islands some miles out in the ocean. At night I contemplate the moon and read by candlelight until the fog comes in and covers everything. I go to sleep to the sound of waves crashing on the shore. I have even had a minor but refreshingly tender romance, and of that I cannot complain at all. (Such things come my way less and less frequently as I get older!) At times you just have to sit back and let the good times roll, knowing they will not last indefinitely.
I grew up not far from here. So much of my childhood and adolescence I spent in typical California-style exercising outdoors nearly incessantly. However, the first five years out of the university I worked and hustled so much simply trying to survive and make my way in the world that I found very little time or energy for working out. But not this summer. I stormed here and there, a young man fresh out of college, enmeshed in the polemics and diatribes of the time. The just suffer and the wicked are rewarded! I was whisked this way or that by political passions or aesthetic prejudices: this faction I loved, or that school of thought I hated. I loved women so much it hurt, but could not settle down committed to only one. I made myself miserable. If happiness was not to be found in my own land, I thought to travel to foreign countries where exotic different cultures might render better fruit for harvesting. But the fears, desires, ambitions, and unease followed me from job to job, place to place, as I wrestled with this “intractable social problem” or that “crisis of the age.” It was all a fool’s errand. But it is not one I have indulged this summer. I have returned to a more simple and natural life.
This summer I have run some six miles every day in the late afternoon. They have often been torture to finish. You stride and sweat in exquisite pain and want to stop running and start to walk. But then you fight through the rough stretch, finish the course, and then feel as good as you felt bad during the run. I hit the gym in the mornings and groan and strain lifting the weights; and then I spend almost an hour sweating like crazy in the sauna, Jacuzzi, and then jump into the bracingly cold water of the pool as my heart jumps into my throat. Afterwards I return to the enervating heat of the sauna, Jacuzzi, etc. I feel exhausted after various repetitions of this cycle, but then I cool down, shower, put on fresh clothes, leave the gym finally, and feel like a million dollars. Do we have to introduce pain, chaos, and exertion into our bodies to keep from becoming soft, lazy, and lethargic? Must we sweat to feel strong and vital? I think so.
Men have a way of getting lost. Our parents and teachers strive to protect us when we are children, sheltering and keeping the harshness of life at arm’s length. They give us direction, answer our relatively simple questions as best they can, and love us. But then we find ourselves adults in the world about whom nobody owes any consideration or even cares much about, buffeted by the winds of society and its hatreds and distempers and misfortunes. After a few years, one looks back and wonders with dismay and astonishment, “What happened to the person I used to be? What am I doing here? How did I get so far from where I should be? What happened to me?” But if men get lost sometimes, they can find themselves again with a bit of luck and hard work. We can look long and deeply into ourselves to find the answers; the solution to the problem lies inside us and not out in the world. As Montaigne so aptly describes it:
It is not enough to withdraw from the mob, not enough to go to another place: we have to withdraw from such attributes of the mob as are within us. It is our own self we have to isolate and take back into possession.
It is we who are responsible for our own happiness; only we can give ourselves peace of mind. As Walt Whitman sings, “Henceforth I ask not good-fortune, I myself am good-fortune.” So let it be.
In the dry Southern California heat with the sweat stinging my eyes and surrounded by the acrid smell of sagebrush from the desert foothills above, I feel this summer like I have returned to my “roots.” I feel like I am living again as I should – living as I was meant to live. I want nothing, I need nothing; I just am. There is no past, no tomorrow; there are only these golden days of languid happiness. Thank you Lord, for the gift of this summer. I do not know what I have done to deserve this.
The old Anglican prayer reminds us that in the midst of life we are in death. Let the memory of this time of simple, unlooked for happiness, then, be a source of light and life when it is my time to suffer and die.
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