A friend once asked me “what is the key to finding peace in life?” A curious question to ask a man half through his twenties. A man more acquainted with being wayward than having all the answers. I kept thinking a grandma or grandpa with decades of insight would be more fitting for the inquiry. Because far as peace goes, I’m not a lighthouse observer who can see the big picture from up high. I’m down in the tide with the rest of my generation. I’m looking for my own bit of driftwood to cling and hope for shore with.
Though I count my life as good, not a single year, month, or even day of it has ever been easy. I come from poverty, a home where we never had much. My mom was gone most days working three jobs trying to keep the bills paid. My dad was nowhere in the scene. I was old too damn fast. No one was there to guide me through growing up, and no safety net existed for when I tripped. I’ve known loss. I’ve known injustice. I’ve known the feeling of futility, where it seems like no matter how you scramble, you slide back down to nothing. I think being born on the Pine Ridge Indian reservation in many direct, and not so direct ways, affected much of my life. It is nothing but the highest honor, to share the blood of all my amazing relatives, to be close to a rich history and philosophy. Yet it also means I make my way in a land without much opportunity, where Natives are some of the most marginalized of all American people. If life had difficulty levels like a video game, “born on an Indian reservation” would certainly be a hard mode.
A lot was scarring. A lot was not good. A lot was confusing. In many ways, I started this race a few miles behind. And yet today, I’m happy, to be alive, to have known all the wonderful people I’ve known, to learn, make music, walk to the forest at sundown, sit on a sandstone ledge above the ponds. Maybe it took twenty years, but I see through the hardship, there’s also enough for contentment.
So what do I possibly have to say to my friend, who wonders what the key to peace in life is? A couple observations, by no means exhaustive, or even objective, but merely pulled from my own life:
Peace is something that finds you when you least expect it, rather than a door that will open with the right key. Search and search, and peace won’t be found. Try on a new ideology or three and none will unlock it. Yet mysteriously enough, peace shows itself, perhaps in your darkest, weakest moment, when it seems there’s nothing to be at peace about. The elusiveness of peace to the pursuer, and its strange, sudden availability long after the hunt has been abandoned, brings to mind Ranier Maria Rilke’s advice:
I beg you…to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.
You have to live with your questions. A time comes in everything where analyzing, wishing, permutating a problem, agonizing over every possible angle, can do no more good, and the only thing left is to live with it. Think of every problem, every consternation, as a duration and a distance that must be traveled, rather than a bear trap your leg is caught in, needing immediate extraction. And answers, closure, resolution? They are not so easily consumed. Answers to long-lived troubles aren’t something you can order for a dollar and swallow smoothly on the drive home. They are more like an agave sitting on a desert mountain. A walk and a climb is ahead of you before you can taste your answer, find closure to what troubles you.
Peace comes through resilience. You see your hopes capsized enough, you learn how to deal with it. One day, it’s not so devastating when well laid plans go awry, because you can adapt. Everything is always changing. No person, institution, or place in the world will keep the same ideas forever, or remain as they are forever. Sometimes that is cause for great despair. For example, when a friend grows so distant you barely know them anymore, when a spouse eventually is not the same person you fell in love with, when a movement you were a part of abandons its roots for something you disagree with. Yet this constant evolution of persons, of communities, of all things can hold great hope too.
If a puzzle is unsolvable, don’t fret, because it’s only a matter of time before the pieces change.
The incomprehensible will become known, the unattainable will become attainable, the blocked path will be cleared, the closed door will be opened, it’s all a matter of patience and being alert. The person with the resilience to adapt can surf the changes, is flexible enough to move with the dynamic flow of the world. The person who can’t adapt is swallowed by the weight of change, destroyed trying to make moving entities remain static. Resilience is weathering the hard times. No one’s lot in life comes up all snake eye’s, and something better will inevitably come. Never underestimate the power of perseverance. Stay your course until you can find the way through.
Peace comes in forgiveness. A supreme disappointment follows when people betray the faith placed in them. People are often weaker than we assume, unable to meet our expectations, or always follow through on what they promise. Yet that makes them more worthy of pity than resentment. Evil and evil persons do exist, but in the normal course of life’s petty dramas, when someone harms us, it isn’t because they are evil. They have weaknesses, and flaws, that they are doomed to trip over. Don’t give up on anyone too easily, because everyone has similar shortcomings. Hate evil. Hate the murderers, the exploiters, the rapists, the despots, the sadists who delight in destroying everything good. Make allowances for human weakness, forgive what you can. It’s not possible to retain bitterness for someone without poisoning yourself. Let go of those grudges against ex-lovers, parents, former friends, people who’ve done you wrong out of weakness, rather than evil. Marcus Aurelius once said:
“The best revenge is to be unlike him who caused the injury.”
I believe in that. When someone hurts you, its easy to grant them a sort of power. Negativity has a contagious way about it, as does cynicism, and the tendency to take advantage of another. If you are enveloped by someone else’s negativity, touched by their cynicism, or taken advantage of by them, then you become more prone to act like them. This contagiousness of mindset is how every cycle of abuse and dysfunction begins. Don’t grant an ill-influence that power. Let toxic persons pass through your life without becoming toxic as them. You’ll be happier for it, and nothing will disturb those toxic persons more than seeing someone existing outside the negativity they live life within. Don’t hate anyone unless what they do is truly evil. Simply making it your goal not to become them will suffice.
Peace comes in self-acceptance. Knowing oneself is hard. Not at all the fun, syrupy, enlightening adventure its often made out to be. Knowing yourself is a black trip. It requires facing up to inner dark recesses that you wish weren’t there. It requires going where you can’t pretend you are strong, and seeing all your own brittle fragility. It requires an honesty about your own wrongs, the ways you’ve hurt others, the ways you’ve failed. Knowing oneself is not something anyone willingly does, but something that circumstance forces on most people at some point.
Peace comes through trying not to collect too many ghosts. There is an ease to becoming a tangle of loose ends, to letting complications in relationships fade with distance, and time, rather than resolve them. There is an ease to becoming fragmented with people (everything about the modern age facilitates and encourages this). One thing I hate about facebook, blogs, and all this connectedness that’s not true connection, is that it suspends people having to think about what they mean to each other. In our age, there is never goodbye, everything just continues perpetually, and nothing seems to ever gain closure. Everyone is ever present, just a click away, but distant and unconnected at the same time.
And modern life has a way of thrusting all bonds between people apart. Get a job, say goodbye to everyone, move away, slowly fade from a dozen lives. How many million times does this story play out in the modern world? All this abrupt ending, this homelessness in community, eventually leads to regret. Everything unfinished, everything just sort of wasting in this illusion of presence, all a persons ghosts, catch up with them. So even when life moves so fast, and people get tossed to opposite ends of the earth, try to maintain a unity and honesty to it all. Don’t leave too many things unfinished. Don’t let people just fade. Because all those ghosts, you can’t outrun them forever. Bury your ghosts. Seek closure with everything, and everyone, before moving too quickly to the next thing.
For peace, don’t waste time worrying about the future. Especially never feel doomed because of the future. Because the future doesn’t exist. Any idea you have of the future is likely mere imaginings, unbound to reality. Think back to last year. Did you then, predict the twists and turns, all the events, all the developments your life would see? No, you are no auger of fortunes, and probably any conception you had of how the year would be was highly off mark. Think back to five years ago. Did you then envision the person you are today, did you foresee all the circumstances, all the people who came and left, all the places you found yourself? Likely you did not. The reality of the future will come, and you should observe by reflecting on your past speculations, that the future is beyond your imagining, beyond anything you can conceive, beyond anything you can predict. Make the most of right now, this very moment, this day, to better yourself, become someone you yourself could respect. Your character is your destiny. The things you value, and how you pursue those values, are a better prognosticator than your anxieties. Never worry about what hasn’t, and certainly isn’t destined, to come to pass.
Peace comes through being awake. A line from a song that’s stuck with me from my high school days:
“I reach for the stars above, not noticing the flowers all around my feet.”
There’s so much beauty, all around, everywhere. Everything is shot through with something worth learning, worth knowing. Much of life seems to be a forgetting of this worth and beauty of existing. It’s so easy to become tunnel visioned, and obsess on one or two things gone wrong, when there’s a hundred thousand things that could bring happiness, if a person would just look. Life is full of pain and ugliness. Yet don’t let it paint your entire perception with a broad, dark brush. Joy and beauty are equally abundant. You might lose the ability to see the good if something shoves you too far down the painful side of existing. Yet climb back, regain your balance. Get to where you can see there is pain and people who will hurt you, but also a lot of beauty and people with good intentions. Bitterness is a choice, and one that will color your world dark and lonely. Consider that maybe the world isn’t as bad as it seems, but that you are just in pain and need to regain a realistic perspective.
Finally, peace comes in surrounding yourself with tasks and persons that you love. What sort of activities would you do, even if no one ever rewarded you for them? What stimulates your mind, your heart, your reasons for being alive? Whatever it is you are passionate about, don’t let it sit on the shelf too long. Vigilantly, constantly pursue the arts, the crafts, the studies, the projects, you find most engaging. This seems to be the way to fulfillment: do what you love and make yourself proud with what you create through it.
Keep in mind most friendships fall into place by inertia, and fall out by inertia too. It will be rare anyone wants to truly know you, rare anyone truly cares at all. So grip to anyone true, anyone loyal, as you float through this world of shadow, half-true, not as seems, and bad intent cloaked in beneficent robes. Don’t act as if everyone were disposable, expendable, insignificant. Try to see who a person really is, not just who they appear to be. Try not to judge a person on first impressions, on appearances, on the surface-deep. Most are too selfish to even listen to anyone else. Make sure you really see people, what they’re about. Don’t just let them go unknown through your life, because you were too self-absorbed to meaningfully get to know them. Do this, and I think a person will be rewarded with those friendships and relationships that last for life. Bonds that are like flint and steel striking flames, feeding inspiration between persons.
***Nearly a year after I wrote this, from year 26 of my life, I have to say all these things are something must be rediscovered through continual practice. Nothing, even peace, is sustained without constant vigilance of what allows a person to find peace in the first place.