According to the ancient Greeks, we humans are susceptible to two essential instincts, Eros and Thanatos. Everyone knows what Eros is (sore Eros rose), but you might not have heard as much about Thanatos, the death instinct, which my dictionary says is “usually expressed as violent aggression.” But that’s not what we’re going to talk about right now. (Phew!)
In John Banville’s most recent novel, The Infinities, Hermes, Zeus, and Pan, three Greek gods, involve themselves in the affairs of the Godleys, an Irish family. Hermes is the only one of the gods who acts as a narrator, and he tells the reader that all the immortals yearn to die. “Everyone knows that.”
What supposedly separates us from them is that many of us mortals suffer from the opposite malaise: we long for immortality. It seems to be the hallmark of human nature to want more than anything what you know you can never have. This tendency, when you stop to look at it with cold, clear eyes, is so self-defeating as to be downright preposterous. Why waste your energy striving to attain what cannot be? I mean, what could possibly be more idiotic?
In the average person’s life, there’s a feeling of confinement that sets in over time as one realizes how circumscribed his or her world is by a deadening routine, by habits so unvarying as to border on the robotic (especially if one has what you might call an addictive personality–and these days, who doesn’t?).
And yet, each of us is possessed of dreams and goals and ambitions and aspirations we’ve been inculcated with, virtually since birth, as were our parents, and theirs, and generations of ancestors going back to the time when our species first learned to walk erect.
Depending on one’s ethnicity and gender and the opportunities to achieve one’s goals in any given society, the urge to “make something of yourself” is so intense as to be damned near paralyzing. It pushes you forward through life, so that you plunge head-first through the crowd, determined to win at all costs.
Only not everyone can win, and eventually we all lose. The stature many of us crave remains seductively elusive, perennially out of reach, so that we exhaust ourselves in the effort of grabbing at quicksilver phantoms.
For those successes we do achieve, how often do they become stale, practically the moment we’ve attained them? How bitterly do they smack of disillusionment considering how vigorously we’ve imbued them with the weight of significance?
Certainly, wealth, fame, the benison of good friends and a loving family, are nothing to shake a stick at. And yet, the former two feel hollow without the latter, and the latter two you’re liable to burden with that many more demands if you’re unable to attain the former as, of course, most of us aren’t.
As the late author and Buddhist nun Ayya Khema said, it is this wish to be somebody that gets us into so much trouble. Why not give up on such a fruitless pursuit and settle for being an anonymous nobody? Who cares what others think of you? After all, deep down inside, everybody is a nobody anyway, right? All the trappings of status and material good fortune are so much window dressing contrasted with the narrow space wherein lies the bone marrow.
Despite what the world may say, nobody is really any more or less important than anyone else. Letting others go first, falling behind, even failing need not be humiliating, miserable experiences. One can be healed not just by doctors, but by wounds.
And death is the one surefire cure for the sexually-transmitted, terminal illness called life.
(To read the words of Ayya Khema, who’s the inspiration for this piece, please go to http://www.vipassana.com. Click on “Authoritative Teachings.” The next page should read: “Modern Texts on the Practice of Meditation.” Scroll down to where it says “22 Talks on Meditation and Dhamma, by Sister Ayya Khema.” Click “All of Us: Beset by Birth, Decay, and Death.” Click “IV. Be Nobody.”)