Existential Crisis, Or Just a Bad Day?
It’s fair to say that Monty Python understood perhaps better than anyone that while life might be hard now, it was suffered even more harshly by the previous generations.
Their famous 1974 comedy skit, The Four Yorkshiremen (also known as You Were Lucky), is a classic, the best enactment of one-upmanship the world has ever seen.
I was in my late teens when I first heard that comedy routine, and laugh as much now as I did then at the inherent truth in it, and the behavior of my own family members that I recognized in the script.
My grandmother was born in 1900 and my mother in 1928, and while their stories weren’t as dire as Monty Python’s humorous sketch, the theme was the same: “If you think life is hard now, you’ve no idea. When we were young…” followed by a tale of what real difficulty they’d gone through compared with the imagined hardship I believed I was suffering but which really amounted to… well, very little.
And it was a fair comparison: my grandmother was born in turn-of-the-century working-class Dundee, Scotland. While poor, their work ethics and dignity were their backbone. She lived through two World Wars and proverbial drought and famine, in large scale and small, and at the age of 70 and widowed, she migrated to Australia where life was finally good: warm sun, open space, beautiful beaches, and the promise of a bright future for the following generation of children she had given birth to, who had moved with her to Australia and were themselves parents.
My mother, too, had a life that sounds like a story: born on the eve of that great Wall Street Crash of 1929 into a childhood lived during the subsequent Great Depression of the 1930s, and then entered her teens in a world entering the second war. The term easy life was only heard in dreams. If you were lucky…
Not surprisingly, then, I was born in 1963 with an acceptance and understanding of life’s difficulties inherent in my genes, along with the correlating chromosome of work ethics and a just get on with it approach to life. I’m grateful to the generations of strong, dignified, hard-working men and women that I came from.
“They don’t make ‘em like they used to,” as Monty Python would say. They certainly don’t…
Consequently, I have to admit I have little tolerance for what people deem suffering these days.
Even saying “these days” makes me realize I’ve moved into that next generation category where I feel like one of those four Yorkshiremen, and long to burst into my best Monty Python accent and tell the complainer how lucky they are, and educate them with stories of how it was “when we were young…”
But these days I’m up against not only a soft generation of spoiled children grown into self-absorbed and complaining adults, I’m also met with the alien political correctness gene that was bred into a generation from the 1980s onward, which, when combined, form a hail of be polite, not truthful bullets from a seemingly inexhaustible munitions supply.
Sorry, does this sound judgmental or non-accepting of youth and all its glorious possibilities? Perhaps it does. Or perhaps it is more likely that the previous generations were made of sterner stuff. I’m not alone in being unimpressed with what the world calls mettle these days.
Yet, in all fairness, I’m not sure human suffering can be so easily categorized and departmentalized, listed in order from 1 to 10 on a scale of difficulty or personal suffering. Life is hard, despite how it might look or how soft the cushions might be.
In the end, maybe it’s all just relative: one man’s food is another man’s poison, so the saying goes.
But without doubt, while perhaps not easier, life is indeed different, at least, than it was a couple of generations ago: certainly life’s comforts seems to be more easily accessible. And maybe that’s the problem, that so much ease and comfort and luxury have made us think this is what life should be like all the time.
The world seems to be absorbed in a hedonistic rush to a more comfortable place with a more beautiful view occupied by more attractive people dressed in more expensive clothes and driving a more elite model car to a more private club to meet their friends who are just, well, better than yours.
But what happens when life’s traumas visit us? Doesn’t matter if you’re rich or poor: life’s problems are indiscriminate, unprejudiced, and as regular as clockwork for everyone. But there seems to be little evidence of the strength that the generations before us had running through their veins.
They faced their existential crises with dignity and tolerance, an acceptance and understanding that this was simply life: nothing more, nothing less, just get on with it.
These days (there it is again, these days!) we’re meant to believe there’s more choice available to us with which to face our life’s crises. But is there?
While there may be more to read, more literature to access, more readily available spiritual paths to choose from, or more varieties of therapists — all of which promise to lead us out of the forest of confusion we’re lost in — it seems to me that there’s even more bewilderment than there used to be.
So what do we do in times of trouble, crisis, and trauma? Is the global library of information that has opened its doors to us actually helpful? We might read or see so much about how to deal with something, but when we’re going through it, do we actually apply that knowledge?
We must sometimes truly despair at ever being meaningfully altered or affected by the things we claim are so important to us.
I’ve been through enough in this life, certainly not as bad as some have had it, and maybe worse than some others, but enough.
The death of my father in an accident when I was 8, the death of my grandmother, whom I loved more than anyone in the world, divorce, my own near-death in a head-on collision, the loss of loved ones, grief, pain, recovery, more pain — certainly enough to learn one thing, to actually have realized one sure truth, not something trotted out like a daily inspirational quote posted on Facebook, but something that was planted in the depths of my heart and mind during the worst of days, that grew into a deep, familiar understanding, and that is this:
It’s not what happens to us that matters, it’s how we react, it’s what we do in response that turns us into who we will become in the future, that plants the seeds of strength and fortitude from which grow oak trees, not little saplings that will blow over in the first strong wind.
There’s no dearth of material online or on bookshelves and in magazine racks telling us what we should or could or would be if only we did this or had that or read this or became that or learned this asana or did that form of Yoga or whatever… it goes on and on, a constant stream of information on what is considered spiritual, or better, or worth striving for.
Unfortunately, it often doesn’t seem to be backed up by substance, or in other words, how to be that way. We all know what we’re meant to be aspiring to…
… but where’s the road map out of our existential crisis and into spiritual wisdom?
I’ve been a practitioner of Bhakti Yoga for 27 years, I’ve read reams of philosophy, scripture, and transcendental literature, and been guided by saints, gurus, and wise women and men — including my own immediate family members.
A thousand things could be said, repeated, written, and shared; a thousand things whose burning light might indeed lead us out of the proverbial darkness and into a world that we understand better, a life we can manage with tools that we know how to use.
And at the end of it all, it comes down to who we are. Not the condition of life that we’re born into, but who we really are.
The philosophy, scripture, and literature that I mentioned I’d read, it all offers the same information; the saints, gurus, wise men and women I’ve been guided by all share the same qualities that, in the end, are what we all aspire to, what we all need in order to understand ourselves, and consequently the world and others in it — those qualities that act like armor in the face of our existential crises, our life traumas, our loss, grief, suffering, and more.
“Fearlessness; purification of one’s existence; cultivation of spiritual knowledge; charity; self-control; performance of sacrifice; study of the Vedas; austerity; simplicity; nonviolence; truthfulness; freedom from anger; renunciation; tranquility; aversion to faultfinding; compassion for all living entities; freedom from covetousness; gentleness; modesty; steady determination; vigor; forgiveness; fortitude; cleanliness; and freedom from envy and from the passion for honor — these transcendental qualities belong to godly men endowed with divine nature.”
Those words are straight from the Bhagavad Gita. We might be familiar with them. No doubt more people are reading books like the Gita these days: it’s available worldwide, whereas 50 years ago, there wasn’t a copy available outside of India, practically.
The planeloads of Westerners who visit India’s shores in search of the meaning of life and spiritual depth and transcendental knowledge haven’t waned, but grown more and more plentiful. Millions every year land in India, seeking, and sometimes even finding, the answers to the mysteries of life.
And the funny thing is, when I read those words from the Gita above, I’m drawn back again to thoughts of my grandmother and mother, of the qualities they were born with, of the strength with which they faced their trauma-filled lives, of the smile that always remained on their faces, of the words of bitter complaint that they never uttered, because it wasn’t the done thing, you simply didn’t complain.
They’d learned to be strong, tolerant, gentle, modest, and grateful for the good things in life.
So what’s the answer, “Hark the days of old”? Perhaps. But more likely, just the realization that life was simpler then.
Philosophy and transcendental writings will also tell us that it is very difficult for someone who is materially affected to understand, what to speak of pursue, a spiritually meaningful life. Life is hard, but finding our way out of it often seems harder: a case of better the devil you know.
I doubt there’s much point in comparing the olden days to now: the world isn’t really a better place, despite it’s prettier face, nor was it better then, despite the tales of yore. It is all relative, the suffering of the human condition.
But the one thing that maintains, that never changes, that always prevails, conquers, succeeds, and which functions in any era, any century, any country, language, or culture, and that is the qualities of a person that the Gita speaks of: qualities that actually work in the face of trauma.
Not that trauma veers around us, that grief dodges us, pain avoids us, fear runs in the opposite direction, or scars don’t form. It’s all going to happen: count on it.
But how we respond to it is a whole different story when we’re armed with those qualities that were second nature to the likes of my grandmother and mother. I wish there were more people like my Gran in the world — she was a jewel; I watch my mother age into her 80s, and know that when her day comes, an era will die with her.
But that they both share the qualities that the Gita speaks of, this tome of wisdom from 5,000 years ago, spoken by Krishna to the mighty warrior Arjuna — that knowledge gives me hope; that these qualities are still there in people we know, people in our families, in even one generation before us, is something that makes me understand that the circle of life always comes back to the same place.
That I now strive to develop those qualities I fought with my mother about as she tried to teach them to me is something that no doubt puts a smile of satisfaction on my mother’s face.
And in the end, whether it’s an existential crisis or just a bad day, Mother is always right…