Deliberately Choosing Life, Every Day (A Response to a Hoagland Essay)

I’m writing this post for a reading challenge, Deal Me In (hosted at this blog). Though it’s difficult to write it at the moment, because of what’s going on with the pandemic and the serious economic problems we’re facing, I find blogging helpful, so I’m keeping at it in between various obligations.

Edward Hoagland’s essay, “Heaven and Nature,” deals with a topic people tend not to want to think about: suicide. His meditation on suicide encompasses everyone, including people who don’t – at least outwardly – appear to be troubled by anything.

Our faces are not molded as if joy were a preponderant experience. (Nor is a caribou’s or a thrush’s.) Our faces in repose look stoic and battered, and people of the sunniest temperament sometimes die utterly unstrung, doubting everything they have ever believed in or have done.

The bleak discussion of human nature is tempered somewhat by Hoagland’s matter-of-fact tone. And in the bleakness of this essay, there are some kernels of light.

He discusses what it takes to negotiate the cracks and fissures of the self and of life. Sometimes it’s a matter of not dwelling too much on misery. Love and prayer are other answers. However, he doesn’t present them as a quick fix. Meaning to say, if you pray, you need to work out, over time, what prayer means to you, what you believe in, what you think can sustain you. This may not be the same from one year to another, or one decade of your life to another. Similarly, with love – habits of love are key to making love a powerful force. You need to stay open to “new and sudden insights” and/or engage in a “long practice” of love. And this can mean love in different forms, not limited to a romantic relationship.

He also talks about the urge to achieve a unity with something larger, to transcend the self, and for nature itself to be wedded to Heaven. However, this unity is also something to grapple with, to sustain or work towards actively. There are no guarantees of complete freedom from harrowing doubt.

Just to be perfectly clear, this is not a self-help essay. It’s not an easy read either, and Hoagland isn’t doling out solutions (and especially not one-size-fits-all sorts of solutions). Reading this essay can be a challenge, and may not be for everyone in every frame of mind.

I think what helps sustain me is the belief in the meaning of life and holiness of life. Not to regard people as sentient sacks of meat or bags of water, as organic trash. Seeing the moments of life, day to day, as holy and meaningful requires active practice and choice, habits that you develop and that hopefully don’t become merely rote. It also involves some flexibility and adjustment over time. To not let yourself dry up spiritually is a matter of deliberate, consistent effort. And if you do dry up spiritually, to not proclaim that you’ve reached your end. Instead, to keep walking through that desert, experiencing the desert and finding meaning in it (which is not the same thing as finding happiness). And staying open to the possibility that the landscape will change or that you will find things in that desert that are still meaningful, wondrous even.

I write this as someone who’s religious. Religion itself is a regular practice, a deep grappling. It isn’t a source of pat answers, though the practice of it may become stale and crumble into clichés. Regardless of what religion you practice – or whether you even consider yourself religious – you need to find what it is that sustains you and then sustain it through repeated choice, through practices that you may need to alter as the years pass. What are your relationships with others, with the world, with what transcends you? If you don’t know, keep thinking about it. Keep searching, and be patient. Keep choosing life.

It’s interesting how an essay that deals with a grim topic can bring out a response that affirms life, but it had that effect on me, even with an awareness of the doubting, the fear, the darkness.

Surprising insights from Neelix’s struggle in Mortal Coil

I recently watched an episode of Star Trek: Voyager called “Mortal Coil,” where one of the characters, Neelix, suffers a loss of faith and becomes suicidal.

During the episode, he dies on a dangerous mission and is resuscitated hours later. Because he remembers nothing from the moment he died to the moment he was restored to conscious life, he starts thinking that his faith in an afterlife has been based on a lie.

NeelixChakotayMortalCoil

Years ago, his family was murdered in a war, and he long believed that he would see them again in this afterlife. The realization that he might not – that there’s nothing there – wounds him deeply to the extent that he questions the meaning of life and the point of living.

There are two things that really stuck with me from this episode:

When Neelix reaches the point of wanting to kill himself, Chakotay, the ship’s First Officer, tries to convince him not to. After Neelix speaks with certainty of what he now knows about his beliefs, Chakotay says,

“You don’t know. You’re not there yet.”

To me, those were the most powerful words in the episode. Chakotay was telling Neelix that he had rushed to a premature judgment about his life and faith. The crisis he was going through wasn’t an end state. It could be the start of something new, including an even stronger faith or a deeper understanding of his life’s purpose.

The second thing that stuck with me was how the episode affirms the need for relationships, community, and a sense of purpose to help make life worth living. Recovery from despair is much more difficult when someone is adrift. Neelix is re-focused at the end on what he does for the ship, the meaning of his work, and his important relationships with others, including his goddaughter.

The ending might be too tidy (and on Star Trek in general, the writers often struggled to understand and portray effects of trauma and the work of psychologists or therapists), but at least there’s an emphasis on an ongoing process over quick solutions. Neelix will continue working through his crisis with Chakotay. His relationship with his beliefs and with other people, both the living ones and the dead, aren’t static. They can change in various ways over time; they can deepen, become stronger, or be perceived with new understanding. Maybe he won’t lose his beliefs permanently. Maybe he will find a new way to understand his life and its meaning and take nourishment from how he lives among people. It’s an ongoing process, this journey full of questions, this struggle with its crises, and this ability to change. He hasn’t reached a definitive end.

(Image credit: Memory Alpha.)