Kevin Brennan Writes About What It's Like
The older I get — and sixty is just around the corner in May — I see that I’ve actually developed a philosophy of life at this late date. I remember being asked in high school by an English teacher what my philosophy of life was, and though I can’t recall what I said, it was probably along the lines of, “Just do your best, be cool.” I wasn’t a very deep kid yet, focused mainly on staying out of the school bathrooms and wondering why it was so hard to get a girlfriend.
But along the way I became one of those perpetual searchers, always grasping for something new that would scratch a general itch. Searchers, I’ve come to realize, harbor an interior desperation that feeds unhappiness. Because nothing they ever find in their constant searching sticks. I think of those westerners who land briefly on Buddhism, for instance, after trying a lot of other practices, but I can’t imagine very many of them remain Buddhists for the rest of their days. If they’re searchers, they’re going to ramble on looking for the next big thing. Zoroastrianism? Kabbalah? Zumba?
A life of perpetual searching is also a life of incompleteness. Ironic, since you’re compiling a lot of experience and awareness in many things, yet none of them seems to fill that empty zone in the heart of your being. So you keep searching. And each thing that you wind up rejecting is now scratched off the list of possible solutions to your yearning. Yearning in general I advise against. It’s overrated as an emotion and makes you seem like a whiner to other people who are perfectly content.
So what’s a good alternative to searching? There must be something, otherwise life is just a pointless way station in a bigger and more pointless journey.
Here you go: it’s receptiveness.
Instead of obsessively searching for the answers to your inner ache, let yourself be open to the unexpected. What’s more satisfying, for example, than stumbling upon something that you know you’ll cherish for the rest of your life? A killer recipe. A singer you happen to hear in an interview. A writer (ahem) whose book shows up on a list of under-appreciated delights. Heck, someone you admire might even turn you on to Buddhism, but not having been desperately looking for it you might just be more casual about what it offers and be open to taking what you can from it.
Maybe this is the thing Christians call revelation, that sweet born-again feeling that just hits you one day, though as I always tell my Christian friends, you can’t fake a revelation.
Still, if you’re in an open frame of mind, revelations of one kind or another might hit you all the time. I’m open to almost any kind of indie music because a lot of serendipitous finds over the years have been amazingly satisfying and I can still listen happily to things that came to me years ago. And I’m open to reading things I never heard of before, such as last year’s Pulitzer Prize winner, Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life by William Finnegan. And I read Carrie Brownstein’s memoir on a whim and loved it. And many novels by authors who happened to drift into my radar.
And on another whim recently I baked some bread for the first time in my life, and now I’m hooked. I used to brew my own beer, but bread is a hell of a lot easier, and I’m not searching any longer for that perfect homebrew recipe because you can buy terrific beer in stores now. Mess up a loaf of bread and all you’ve lost is a few cups of flour and a yeast packet.
I’m so open now I don’t even know all the things I’m open to being open to.
I used to be a big travel nut, but more and more it seems like travel, especially international travel, is a gigantic metaphor for searching. It was Malcolm Muggeridge who said, “Travel, of course, narrows the mind.” Think of it: There are too many places to see in a single lifetime, so that even if you manage the pyramids there’s still Angkor Wat. What, you couldn’t make your way to Machu Picchu? What about the Great Barrier Reef? What about the northern lights in Iceland? You haven’t lived till you’ve seen the northern lights in Iceland. I’m so sad for you.
Don’t forget the cautionary tale of one of the great searchers of all time, Spalding Gray, who, in Swimming to Cambodia, spoke of always looking for that perfect moment. The upshot, of course, is that there is no such thing as the perfect moment, especially if you’re always looking for it. And Gray, in his incessant searching, wound up dead in the East River, possibly having jumped off the Staten Island Ferry.
Another kind of futile searching is the desire to get rich, which is really just a kind of infantile wish for complete security. The kind your parents were unable to give you. But getting rich only causes a whole new dimension of searching, a dysfunctional need to get more and more rich, grab more and more power, and destroy all competition so you can feel safe in the dead of the night, though you’re still going to die and you know it.
And by the way, if you’re wealthy, stop your searching before you get to cryopreservation, okay? That’s just plain sick, frozen heads n’ torsos.
At the risk of sounding smug, when you’re open to the full bounty of what life has to offer you might just find that selecting “none of the above” is also a suitable choice. Turn on, tune in, drop out. It’s worked for some. Or, as your mother might have put it when you were a kid, Why don’t you just go out and play?
I’ll let you know if my philosophy changes. I’m open to ideas.