What is life?
In its most basic form, life is simply the awareness of the passage of time. I think John Lennon said it best: “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” African tribal culture is unique in that it does not possess a concept of the future. They cannot articulate the notion of ‘tomorrow.’ This simplicity of living entirely in the present, while at first glance may sound appealing – no worries about what might happen, no concerns about the impending storm, whether it be figurative or literal, can have significant impact on the destiny of the tribe.
Early European explorers could not grasp why women would continue to draw water every day at the same spot on the river where a crocodile had been systematically picking them off one-by-one almost like clockwork. The exhortations to find another location or watch out for the croc were met with blank stares that seemed (and probably were) incomprehensible to the casual observer.
Equally perplexing were the fierce gazes of the natives when one stranger followed them to the river next morning and killed the maneater. The inalienable ‘Law of Non-Contradiction’ has been broken by both parties at this point.
The tribesman’s basic / false premise is: “There is water at the river, go get some. The crocodile was not hurting you, why did you kill it?”
The explorer’s erroneous assumption is: “Why do you draw water from the same spot each morning knowing that you will probably be killed? Let me help you by dispatching the crocodile!”
You ask yourself: What is lost or gained by being unable to articulate the passing of time? The biggest item missing here is ‘expectations’. Without an expectation, there is no worry. The theological history of philosophy has taught us for thousands of years that “worry never adds a second to your life. (paraphrased)” Luke 12:25-26.
Who loses more? Is it the Existentially naïve native whose culture disappeared worry and angst eons ago? Or is it the sophisticated Europeans who have mastered the art of handwringing and pacing, fretting over the possibility that another young woman will face a miserable death in the morning at the hands of such a vicious predator?
Many would probably admit that the perception of the passage of time (without which life has absolutely no coherence) is first and foremost. The trick here is how to move along the firehose of this continuous stream of events without the dismal dread that accompanies failed expectations. This is indeed “The Heart of the Matter” (thank you Don Henley).
Phyllis’ cousin, Monsignor Nicola Rotunno (1928-1999), the man who had the single greatest impact in my development as an adult put forth the biggest challenge anyone can face in their life; knowing that if it could be accomplished, would lead to an existence of at least contentment, at most pure unadulterated bliss.
He travelled the world dealing with more evil than any person can expect to face in a single lifetime. Yet at each juncture of his life (marked simply by the passage of time) he would exclaim when asked about this: “I have no expectations, therefore I am never disappointed.” Hold onto this thought and weigh it against your own life. If you can honestly say you have embodied this ultra-simple yet razor sharp philosophy throughout your time on the planet, I tip my hat to you. In my 45 years living as an informal student of his philosophy / theology, I have come about as close to incorporating this notion into my day-to-day life as I have been able to jump high enough from the ground to land on the moon.
I reiterate it daily until its mantra-like simplicity has struggled to become the cornerstone of my existence. Is it from trying too hard, or from not trying hard enough? Where is the point of balance that permits one to embrace a concept that was hardwired into the simplest of people, yet is as elusive to the rest of us as trying to stuff a shadow into a box?
I will not surrender. I will never stop fighting. I will defeat this foe, even if only for the briefest of moments as I draw my last breath.