SPRING AND ALL
“April is the cruelest month,…” T. S. Eliot.
The energy of spring coming to life is at one with childhood and youth, but by mid-life and on into old age, it can be hard on a person. On me. Even if I’m doing “well enough,” so to speak, If all around me nature is being born again, and I am not quite, how can I not feel the contrast in an unpleasant way.
One patiently waits for a burst of new life tantamount to the budding pear tree in the yard. Surely if such a burst comes, it will be something unplanned, something that happens of its own. But as the years in any particular life accumulate, it becomes less easy for the spring within to find its way back to the surface again.
The springs that correspond with falling in love would be obvious exceptions, but how many times does one fall in love in a lifetime. And, let’s face it — our lives become more and more indoors — which is to say, push more and more inward. And pretty soon a debt has built up that is hard to repay.
No one speaks more clearly to that debt than Henry David Thoreau. He says in Walden that “every morning was a cheerful invitation to make my life of equal simplicity, and may I say innocence, with Nature herself,” suggesting, of course, that without such a practice, the aforementioned debt will soon be accumulating a heavy interest.
Indeed, one’s life not moving into its spring energy may just be an inevitability. There are other seasons after all. Are they not also real and vital? A child cannot say or think, for example, “Vanity, vanity, all is vanity…. There is nothing new under the sun. ” The book of “Ecclesiastes” was not written by a child. Those are autumn thoughts, or winter thoughts, and as valid to the circle of life as a child bouncing out of bed in the morning, ready to play.
In my world literature survey course, I recently taught Leo Tolstoy’s “The Death of Ivan Ilyich.” It has long been one of my favorite writings, and though I’ve read it and taught it at least twenty times, for me it’s always new — and renewing, but in a way almost opposite to how spring can be (should be?) renewing.
In a short review, Ivan is a worldly successful man, who in mid-life, at the height of his success, slightly injures himself while decorating a new house. But instead of getting quickly better, he slowly goes downhill from there. The pain in his side, where the injury occurred, won’t stop growing. In a few short months, he has to face the facts of it — “My god, perhaps I’m dying.”
He avoids this reality for as long as he can, but the ever increasing pain stalks him from within. His doctors, his wife, his friends speak optimistically to him, but in time he is aware that they are lying, if for no other reason that they are in denial of their own sad mortal condition (“poor Ivan,… but he is the one who is dying, not I”), and that he is brutally alone, in unremitting physical and psychological pain. And no rescue in sight.
A thrilling moment in the novella for me is the moment that Ilyich, now always lying down, turns his face into the sofa and begins to asks himself the big questions: who am I anyway, and what is the meaning of life, and what has my life been. It takes a while, but finally he is able to say that most of his life, and all of his adult life, devoted to the appearances of success, has been false. What mostly captures my attention at this point in the story is the utter isolation and loneliness he had to be thrust into before he could honestly ask such questions. He turns his face into the sofa only when he has become convinced there is no help for him outside of himself. And immediately a slight shift begins to happen. The pain doesn’t go away, his dire situation remains unaltered, but the questions he now raises begin to interest to him — and to provide relief in that sense. They are the real questions. For the first time in his adult life, he is genuinely deeply engaged in the depths of his own life, as opposed to his “success story” or frustrations around it.
I won’t go into how the story finishes up — only to say that the end is positive, and optimistic to the extreme, in spite of the fact that Ilyich dies in great physical suffering.
And this is what I’m trying to get at in this first blog. What seems to be happening to me is not a turning my back on spring, but more of a growing revelation of how hard spring, rebirth, has to be, after we see clearly that the world of ego, success, vanity, security is going nowhere, and isn’t in the grand plan of life at all.