When I read The Razor’s Edge by Somerset Maugham in the late 60s I couldn’t help but relate in part at least, to the male character who abandoned his affluent life as a stockbroker in Wall St and his beautiful, wealthy fiancée to travel to India in search of something more meaningful, indeed more spiritual, than the materialistic comfort he enjoyed, well before India became the Mecca for hippie hedonists seeking a drug doped haven of happiness in the 60s and 70s. Suffice to say, none of the character’s family or friends could understand why he embarked on this journey. Similarly, in Nikos Kazantzakis’ novel, Zorba The Greek, a young, male English teacher at a private school in the UK also jettisons his secure environs to travel to Crete looking for something more from his life. I recently finished reading Australian comedian Judith Lucy’s book on her spiritual journey penned some 60 years later than Maugham’ and Kazantzakis’ novels, only to reflect on my own personal quest over 40 years ago when I first travelled to Israel in 1969 and later to other countries such as Spain, still searching for something more than the tireless treadmill of a workaholic lifestyle often accompanied by too much personal loneliness. I found comfort in too much coffee and too many cigarettes, gluttonising on chocolate biscuits as companions instead. In Australian society, where news bulletins attest to the increasing incidence of obesity (as well as other complex eating disorders), excessive consumption of alcohol and drugs, pervasive prescriptions of anti-depressants, entrenched demand for all things technological and mass materialism, you can’t but help contemplate what else is really going on beneath the surface. Why are millions of people indulging in these perilous pursuits at risk to life and/or spending copious dollars on the latest computer wizardry and renovating their homes so they are even bigger and better than what they really need? Is this abuse of their bodies, and of course, more unconsciously, their minds, merely masking a malcontent with life itself, erroneously believing these pursuits are panaceas to quell their individual angst, however unacknowledged. These self-destructive habits, often favoured as fun, actually do nothing to fill the empty void within, masquerading as meaningful when they are in reality, meaningless. Of course, not everyone turns to these fads as a cure for alienation and pain; many others seek another kind of faith in religion; far more respectable than recreational retreats such as drugs, alcohol and food. I’m not demeaning this need for faith, but believing in God, whatever that means for each individual, is an entity, albeit a nebulous one at that, of the external; not intrinsic to our inner essence as I believe faith should be. But who am I to glibly mock others’ search for meaning when I too searched for more spiritual rewards for so much of my life?
Certainly, I have read much more fiction and non-fiction over the past decades about humankind’s need to find a meaning; a raison d’etre for existence, some clarity that can constructively illuminate a path to pursue so we feel half-full instead of half empty most of the time. The reality is each and every one of us is different; where we find peace, calm and tranquillity is so individual that there are no universal truths about that; so many of us struggle along the journey of life with our own unique agenda for what’s important; even more, convincing ourselves that true happiness is just around the corner with our next Lotto ticket. Hollywood, showbiz, even Wall St and royalty, with their parade of the beautiful, rich and famous, bear witness to the fact that celebrity, with all its material accoutrements, protects no one from the agony of unhappiness and misery. There have been, and continue to be, too many breakdowns, suicides, multi-marriages and divorces, as well as a proliferation of eating disorders (the late Princess Diana just one tragic example), drug overdoses and alcoholism in these pinnacles of prestige and power. The streets of so-called success are sadly littered with these sins of our western society. Sins because too many of us have been duped into believing, even trusting, that materialism is the new faith of the 21st century; and found wanting as it has been for decades past, only evokes faith in other false fantasies such as excessive use of illicit drugs, alcohol and food et al. When these fail, anti-depressants are close at hand! Or even other socially ordained drugs that our medical fraternity chooses to impose on us with all too frequent prescription. Forget about finding the real cause; just block out the pain as a solution for sanity, that’s sadly, NO solution at all, just a bandaid response to a much deeper wound that continues to fester, unforseen and uncared about. So what, I ponder, is really the problem? Can any of us really hope to discover the quintessential elixir of life; however individual it might be? Or do we all want to pretend our pain has dissipated because it’s simply too much for us to bear?
I don’t have a clue what the answers are to some of these endless BIG questions about life and the self-indulgence of others; but I did read another life-changing (at least for me) book in my late teens called The Art of Loving by psychologist Erich Fromm (I re-read it in 1985 after the worst eight months of my life as detailed in the Staying Alive blog). Published originally in 1962, Fromm writes so lucidly and profoundly about love; how complex and difficult it is to not just love ourselves, but others too, and how so many of us delude ourselves into mistakenly defining as love feelings we should more honestly call something else entirely. We think we care about ourselves, about others, but how valid is that? Real altruism, real philanthropy, is reward in itself; without fanfare or fame. Real love is by its nature an art; to be learned, practised and created, both for self and others. It can’t be bought over the counter or withdrawn from a bank, it’s priceless. I’m not sure if I recollect Fromm’s writing that accurately because I read his book a long time ago, but it’s these beliefs that reside within me today; some maybe attributed to him, others borrowed from other books I have read too, I’m not sure.
I learned on my first sojourn abroad that you can’t escape your pain by living in a new environment in some exotic country, it’s an old cliché that you take yourself with you wherever you go. I soon discovered how true that is. So for more than a decade, I kept searching for that something indefinable; something inexplicable, something meaningful that would provide some spiritual succour to my life; when love was my answer all the time. Maybe even the universal truth we are all in need of. That’s not to say we don’t need a level of material comfort in our lives; financial security to feed, house and clothe us etc and money for enjoyable pastimes that enrich our lives. I’ve written before about the excesses of our greed is good mentality; so enough said on that. Meaning for most of us lies beyond that; it’s about real love; whether it be discovered in organised religion or another faith that transcends ego, power and status. At 17, I penned a poem about Love:
There is always time for Love,
Let it grow, nurture and remain
Within our hearts forever.
For without love, we are nothing,
Incomplete, empty, useless,
Love provides our purpose.
I still believe that today. And I thank all the writers, philosophers and psychologists I’ve been lucky enough to read and all the good people I’ve encountered in my journey so far who I’ve tried to really care about and hopefully, have really cared about me. I don’t know the answer to the latter, but Fromm also writes about respect, maturity, knowledge and understanding as integral aspects involved in our capacity to love and receive love; there is nothing more I could hope to say as he’s summed it up so beautifully.
But there is a footnote: That when you really love, both self and others, then winning that lottery can be just what the doctor ordered, or should have! At least for me.