Sometimes life appears as a blockage, a grinding to a halt, and obstruction of all the essential impulses. We come up against a huge dark wall that is somehow of our own making, looming infinitely, expanding through all the space in front of us, such that there is no moving away from it – and it is also not possible to back away from it. The wall itself seems quite tedious, without feature, with only a giant shadow made up of futility and desperation. Such can life seem. Or if it is not a wall but something more dynamic, it is like one of those stretches of beach with hugely violent waves that pick you up and hurl you onto the sea bed, and that you are powerless to escape from, either into the open sea or back onto dry land, but you are stuck there, slammed and sucked into the same surging spot.
How do I encounter my overwhelming life and participate in it in a way that is more interesting to me, not just as a bystander to it being hauled and mauled around by its irrational demands? These last few days I have run right up against a rock face wider than I can run around: 1) the last stages of my divorce, in which I have been scurrying about collecting, copying, collating financial documents for the lawyers and feeling both angry and hurt that I’ve had to do this; 2) the rigors of having a stepson with a rare auto-immune disease who is rapidly deteriorating and spends most of the time in the hospital and who hates me for all kinds of reason; 3) my love for his mother, who, caught up in her son’s disease and her guilt and love for her young daughter, has no time for me, so that on all counts, physical, emotional, intellectual, spiritual, we have lost contact; 4) my terrible financial anxieties, as I face the reality of a tightening monetary noose around my neck as I slowly run our of credit; 5) my longing for a harmonious relationship with my daughter; 6) the presence of 5 dogs and 3 cats at home, who are my responsibility because I am the only one with the physical strength to do the wearisome task of walking the big ones, and who is up early enough to be cleaning diarrhea off the carpet when one of the little one sneaks his business; and 7) a very demanding job. I should be taking anti-depressants by now, and indeed I hate this life of being jerked around by all these different pressures. How do I not hate it but turn it into something I can create and own, turn it back into something that feels like my own life and not somebody else’s life that I happen to be incarcerated in?
Zhuangzi gives this problem a more playful expression:
Hui Shi said to Zhuangzi, “I have a large tree, of the sort people call a shu tree. Its trunk is too gnarled for measuring lines to be applied to it, its branches are too twisted for use with compasses or T-squares. If you stood it on the road, no carpenter would pay any attention to it Now your talk is similarly vast but useless, people are unanimous in rejecting it.”
Zhuangzi replied, “Haven’t you ever seen a wildcat or a weasel? It crouches down to wait for something to pass, ready to pounce east or west, high or low, only to end by falling into a trap and dying in a net But then there is the yak. It is as big as a cloud hanging in the sky. It has an ability to be big, but hardly an ability to catch mice. Now you have a large tree but fret over its uselessness. Why not plant it in Nothing At All town or Vast Nothing wilds? Then you could roam about doing nothing by its side or sleep beneath it. Axes will never shorten its life and nothing will ever harm it. If you are of no use at all, who will make trouble for you [or: What is there to be distressed about its being useless]?
The tree is my life: something I never wanted, never envisioned, that fits in no plan or dream I ever had, that seems to be an encumbrance on the earth and something that everyone would reject. It is of no interest to the carpenters of life because nothing useful can be made of it. The whole thing is just an ugly mess. Zhuangzi’s response to this is to compare it to the amazing animals in our world: they all have their own lives, their own weirdnesses, their own amazing capacities and dumbfounding incapacities – yet they are all alive and interesting in themselves. Why not the tree too? If we look at it severed from its ties to imaginary uses, it is its own thing with its own magnificence: Seeing this, why would anyone want to change it into something else?
Thus I have a huge tree and not a wall, that I can lie under and simply behold – very much like the novels and symphonies I love, which all seem to come from Nothing At All Town or Vast Nothing Wilds. If I do this, how could I not see that each of the threads colliding in this moment holds a story that stretches in all directions and has a life of its own, fully independent of anything I may want to make of it? The frustration comes from wanting it to be something other than what it is – even before I have seen what it is. I am reminded of our attempts to clear the garden of weeds. Here are all these unpleasant goathead plants popping up all over the place with undauntable resilience and generating potent little thorns – and yet who knows anything about this plant? It is ugly, nothing can be done with it, it must go and be replaced by roses. Then we find out that it is tribulus terrestris, an herb much prized for its hormonal benefits in both Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine. This one thus turns out to have a use that we were too dim-witted to imagine, but its utility is only an offshoot of the potency it has in its own autonomous life. And such weeds are in every corner of my world.
Chesterton describes an incident in his life thus: ” It has no explanation and no conclusion; it is, like most of the other things we encounter in life, a fragment of something else which would be intensely exciting if it were not too large to be seen. For the perplexity of life arises from there being too many interesting things in it for us to be interested properly in any of them; what we call its triviality is really the tag ends of numberless tales; ordinary and unmeaning existence is like ten thousand thrilling detective stories mixed up with a spoon.”