“If you want to identify me, ask me not where I live, or what I like to eat, or how I comb my hair, but ask me what I am living for, in detail, ask me what I think is keeping me from living fully for the thing I want to live for.” ~ Thomas Merton
Hell is the illusion of freedom, an illusion that feeds and grows as our souls starve and wither in boredom and insignificance. Hell is a labyrinth of mistaken definitions and unmet needs…where weakness poses as strength, poverty as abundance, loneliness as independence and emptiness as fulfillment.
As in any prison, some of our needs are met…minimally. We have some certainty, comfort and occasional variety. But we lack significance…the sense that we matter to others, that we are important in this world. We also lack love…and connection beyond what we might experience in occasional, necessary solitude. We lack growth, because there is no challenge to push us beyond our comfort zone…to inspire, frighten us, excite us, help us get creative. And we lack contribution, the opportunity to create and give something of value to something and someone other than ourselves…and thereby give ourselves the greatest of gifts: a true, lasting sense of joy, connection and satisfaction.
No matter how we choose to live our lives, if we don’t know what we want and have a great reason why we want it…something to live for that allows us to grow and find ways to meet all our needs…we’re in prison. It may be a prison where we have a house and car, kids and a spouse, a career and money in the bank…or one at the other extreme where we live alone in a cave, eat wild berries, mingle with random strangers and switch caves from time to time.
We’re just as trapped in either one of these scenarios…one is a common recipe, the other a rebellion against it. Neither has substance if we don’t live with purpose, with passion, with connection and contribution…if we don’t wake up every day and know that no matter how hard or easy things may be, we have, as Neruda so beautifully puts it, a reason for our song…that our soul smiles, and other souls notice and smile back.
It’s not opportunity or ability that we lack in life most of the time. It’s motivation that inspires. We need a reason to do things, and it must be one that reaches beyond the fulfillment of minimal, self-serving, sterile obligations…beyond seeking to relieve restlessness and a profound sense of unease despite the distractions and achievements we gather. It must be a reason stronger than fear.
But how to find that reason…or those reasons? We’re not all born knowing…or know early on in life. Often it takes a while to get to a point when we are ready, when we realize that we’re not only running out of time, but have made enough mistakes, and are finally sick and tired of excuses…of fear always winning.
What we’re looking for is within us of course. But how does one look for something without knowing what it is? One doesn’t. And here is the problem. We get stuck because we’re looking for that mysterious something, meanwhile we should be looking only to remove fear…that voice who lies, threatens and reminds us of past failures and hurts…that tells us we are in danger, that we are unworthy, that we are incapable.
Sometimes the fear can be removed by simply recognizing it. Personally, I find this is not enough. We need to do what it suggests we can not and must not. I’m with Vincent van Gogh on this one: “If you hear a voice within you say „you cannot paint“, then by all means paint and that voice will be silenced.”
The opposite of hell, which is the ‘paradise’ of a life we deserve, is not a place far far away in some other dimension. It is a state of being, of living. Once we are free of fear, by recognizing it and ‘painting’ when it tells us we can not, we can finally find ourselves in our own hearts. And where we find ourselves, there we will also find what and who we love…the reason(s) for our song.
And then we have an exit…and with it, an entrance.