Writer’s block! All of us who enjoy writing must deal with it. In years past I would sit, staring at the typewriter in front of me, paper loaded, and fingers poised for action, but my mind a blank. In this age of high tech, the only thing that has changed is that the typewriter is now a laptop computer, and the blank sheet of paper is a blank screen with a vertical line flashing like a neon bar sign along some lonely street at night.
I have been struggling over the past week trying to think of something to write about. Finally it came to me, a subject, that is. It came in the form of a line from a movie I was watching, because as I was saying, I had writer’s block.
The movie was Life Stinks (1991) starring Mel Brooks as Goddard Bolt, a billionaire trying to survive thirty days as a penniless bum in the slums, and costarring Lesley Ann Warren as Molly, the Cinderella of the slums with whom Goddard Bolt falls in love. The film was a flop financially, which is not unusual for movies that I like.
In one scene Molly fears that Goddard, lying unconscious in an infirmary for the homeless, may be dying. Confessing her love for him, she pleads with him not to die and leave her alone. She reminds him of things they have done together in the past few days, then she speaks my favorite lines in the whole film: “I know they’re only moments, but that’s all life is, just a bunch of moments. Most of them are lousy, but once in a while you steal a good one.”
I’ve been thinking about what she said, and I think it is a profound statement. Life does in fact stink, most of the time. But we do experience joy, real joy, from time to time. That is the real mystery of life, those unexpected moments when we are, as C. S. Lewis would say, “surprised by joy.”
The major problem with life is that it is mostly boring. Madeline L’Engle put it well, when she spoke of the “dailiness of everyday life.” We live from birth under the shadow of death. We rise each morning to endure yet another day, then go to sleep knowing that in the morning we must rise to face a repetition of the previous day. And so it continues until one day, our sentence served, we take a bow and exit the stage.
The boredom of what might be called a “normal life” is expressed well in a poem by the award winning poet, David Ignatow, titled “The Jobholder”:
I stand in the rain waiting for my bus
and in the bus I wait for my stop.
I get let off and go to work
where I wait for the day to end
and then go home, waiting for the bus,
of course, and my stop.
And at home I read and wait
for my hour to go to bed
and I wait for the day I can retire
and wait for my turn to die.
[“The Jobholder” by David Ignatow from At My Ease: Uncollected Poems of the Fifties and Sixties. Copywright:BOA Editions, Ltd. 1998.]
The truth is that we are sojourners in a foreign land. In the words of Leonard Cohen, we are “just passing through, sometimes happy, sometimes blue. . . .” All too often the happy times are rare and far between.
From the dawn of human history our ancestors time after time paused during their struggle for survival to look up at the night sky and ask, “Why?” “What for?” As with us, they instinctively knew that there must be some purpose, some reason for our existence. It couldn’t possibly be some sort of cosmic accident. Hence, the eternal struggle for meaning mirrored in the stick figures painted on the walls of Lascaux Cave in France, all the way down to the painful cries of our own postmodern age.
The French song, “L’Important C’Est la Rosa,” translated into English by the poet-songwriter Rod McKuen, has a great line that goes: “In the eyes of time we are just heaps of dust along the highway. . . .” The French philosopher Voltaire put it somewhat differently. He said we are only worms crawling around on a dung heap.
It’s easy to understand why human beings tend to have a rather gloomy view of their place in the scheme of things. Consider the universe. Our finite minds must think of it as an entity, that is, something with borders, something finite like ourselves. But what we are able to discern about the universe reveals it as an endless something (the word “space” is too limiting), punctuated by glittering lights that represent planets, stars, solar systems, etc.
In the vastness of the universe our little planet earth is like an insignificant grain of sand on a beach. We speak of stars so many light years away that we cannot verify their existence. By the time a star’s light reaches earth, it may well have ceased to exist long before. We do not pause to consider that from some other vantage point in the universe, our sun is that star millions of light years away. Likewise, when we consider that on the earth a single human being is but a grain of sand, that existential question, “Who am I?” takes on a terrifying urgency.
It seems that everything we know tells us that our existence is meaningless, or if it has any meaning, we must create it. Something, or someone, deep inside each of us tells us that conclusion is not true. We instinctively cry out against the thought of meaninglessness. I like the way the singer-songwriter, Neil Diamond, expresses that emotion in his song “I Am . . . I Said”:
But I got an emptiness deep inside
And I’ve tried, but it won’t let me go
And I’m not a man who likes to swear
But I never cared for the sound of being alone
“I am,” I said
To no one there
And no one heard at all
Not even the chair
“I am,” I cried
“I am,” said I
And I am lost, and I can’t even say why
Leavin’ me lonely still
[Copyright: Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC]
I read an article recently about an experiment that has been repeated many times over the ages. It seems that if a person is blindfolded, that person cannot walk in a straight line. He or she will walk around in circles. Even when not blindfolded, if the sky is cloudy or visibility is low, a human being will walk in circles. There is no proven explanation for the phenomena. Still, it is true. Without a focal point, a point of reference, we are doomed to wander around in circles.
So what does this mystery of why human beings cannot walk in a straight line when they have no reference point ahead of them have to do with the subject of this essay?
Imagine that you awaken surrounded by total darkness. You might assume that you are in a dark room. But where is the exit? How do you find the exit, if you do not know in which direction to search? How big is the room? Ever more troubling questions arise. Perhaps paralyzed with fear, you merely sit down and curse the darkness. Maybe you begin to grope about in the darkness hoping to find an exit, not knowing, but perhaps suspecting, that you are wandering around in circles.
Then you catch a glimpse of something. It’s a mere dot, or sliver, of light. Perhaps it is coming from a keyhole, or the crack of a door? You must make a decision. Will you begin to walk towards the glimmer of light, keeping focused on it as you walk? Or, will you deny that the light is really there? Perhaps it is like a mirage in a desert? Maybe you think that you cannot trust your own senses. For whatever reason you may decide to turn away from the light, to move in the opposite direction, still searching for the exit, still wandering around in circles in the darkness. Whatever you choose to do, you know that you must choose.
I believe that the answer to the human predicament, to the question of meaning or lack of meaning is similar to that illustration. We are troubled with anxiety, what the Germans call Angst. We feel alone in a cold, dark universe. With the post-impressionist painter, Paul Gauguin, we ask, “Whence . . . . What . . . . Whither?” But unlike Gauguin, we are not answered by silence.
In the Old Testament book of Deuteronomy, God speaks to the ancient Hebrews, and to every human being, saying “. . . I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life. . . ” (30:19). In the midst of the darkness that is despair, there is a light, and each one of us must choose whether or not to focus on the light.
Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the light” (John 14:6). When Jesus asked his disciples if they would turn away like others who had followed him, Simon Peter answered him, “Lord to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life . . . .” (John 6:68). Like Peter and the other disciples, everyone must choose whether or not to follow the light that gives life.
So, what do I conclude? Life does stink, but not all of the time. The path of life, down which we must walk as pilgrims in a foreign land, traverses both mountains and valleys. The important thing is that we keep our eyes focused on the light ahead, and not be forever stuck in the “Slough of Despond.”
[To hear Garrison Keillor read “The Jobholder,” go to http://writersalmanac.publicradio.org/index.php?date=2010/09/04. To listen to Leonard Cohen’s “Passing Through,” go to http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XAzKhhzZU0I. To listen to “L’Important C’Est la Rosa,” go to http://www.rodmckuen.com/music/rose. To listen to “I Am . . . I Said” go to http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ht0zsE9GPrs&playnext=1&list=PL05B265E4D3B36EC1&index=9.]