As I break through this year of COVID isolation, and fractured teaching and learning, I’ve come to understand a basic truth in my life. I always kind of assumed that life followed a roughly narrow linear path between two points: birth and death. That as we age, mature, think, and experience, our lives would slowly build into a final denouement, an end that one could look back into the past, and see the choices and decisions that led to those final moments.
Now, it’s pretty clear that life does not follow a straight line at all. It has twists and turns, and more often than not loops back on itself, reliving and experiencing challenges previously faced at some earlier point in the process. These thoughts remind me of a professor at the University of Georgia who taught medieval philosophy. He believed that we do not, in any way, learn from our mistakes and that we simply relive or revisit moments in our lives over and over again. His parents were Holocaust survivors and he had come to embrace the idea that those kinds of human horrors are repeated, over and over again. At the time, in the mid-80s, I didn’t want to believe that he was right: that human suffering was repeated. As I know understand it, suffering is the norm in our world and we face suffering repeatedly in Historical patterns that unfold in a myriad of terrible ways.
While I have never experienced a pandemic like this one, as a historian I’m very familiar with pandemics in History and have read about both ancient and modern diseases that ravaged societies. While my own silly experience with this event is laughable in comparison to others who have suffered greatly, I’m seeing more clearly the repetition of events in both human history and in my own life.
On some days, I think about ways to recapture some of the feelings I had years ago, wondering if I can find that place in my mind in which joy was a natural expression of my experiences. Those moments of joy feel far from my daily experiences and it’s clear that something has limited my understanding and ability to sit in an experience and find the kind of joy that used to come easily.
I’ve read a few philosophers talk about this idea, the idea that we cannot reclaim those moments in life. Thomas Wolfe, in his short life, wrote You Can’t Go Home Again, which addresses the proposed truth that we cannot find those moments we enjoyed in our past. In a nutshell, the past stays in the past and we cannot revisit it. Simply put, I’ve come to realize that Wolfe and the writer Ella Winter did not capture a basic fallacy in that idea. It’s that we always go home again, over and over, repeatedly reshaping our understanding of those moments in our past. If we’re being honest, those moments at home shape us over and over again.
There is not better example of this spiraling nature of experience than in meditation. I’ve been completely in the moment, in meditation, as my mind opens to the kind of clarity and vision of the infinite. The very next day, my mind is dull, warped and wrapped in obsession and pain. A year later, I’m back to that awakened moment. We relive, day in and day out, our previous experiences and lives. It could be that we imagine we are making some kind of progress toward a better self or identity or enlightenment or whatever. Instead, I wonder if we’re not just reliving previous experiences in new settings?
It’s been a year since the start of COVID and the various masks and quarantines we have experienced. I’ve seen us open businesses and close them, open schools and close them, repeating patterns of behavior on a societal level. Yes, we are slowly emerging from the worst of the COVID spread and we inevitably we face such challenges again. Will we learn something, this time, or simply repeat the patterns? I’m wondering if, in fact, it doesn’t really matter. Maybe what we are experiencing is this kind of circular or spiraling effect in our lives on a grand scale. We need ourselves, again and again. Our experiences simply recreated in those fumbling moments of choices and actions. We wonder if there is a way out or through of this common, repetitive existence. Can we break the cycle in our lives? Can we find freedom from samsara?
May you be happy, may you be well, fellow humans.