This morning I woke with a question that occurs to me with some regularity: What’s the point? What is the point of existence, not just my own, but anyone’s? We appear, we struggle mightily to perform our little dances, we die. Some of our leaps and pirouettes are remembered for a time, some not. All are forgotten sooner or later. All is vanity.
Then, quite unexpectedly, my mood shifted. First, there was the admission that yes, all of us, every single one of us no matter how valuable our contribution to humanity or progress or world peace, are replaceable. Eminently and utterly dispensable, there being no shortage of people with similar talents and energies to substitute for us should we have never appeared in the first place. And even if some once-in-a-blue-moon intellect like Einstein or Mozart were to have never been, the world would still have gone on its merry way, none the worse for their absence, perhaps better off with the geniuses who no doubt would have arisen in their place.
Then came the other hand—arising on the memory of the many figures in my life, friends, family, acquaintances, teachers, students, children, lovers—the other hand which said that each one of those figures, every last one, is indispensable to my world. Without each one of those absolutely one-of-a-kind beings, my world would be deeply impoverished, a wholly different world. I think it is the same for all of us. The people and things that constitute our world are irreplaceable. And not solely or simply for what each one does or says or accomplishes, in either the qualitative or quantitative meaning of that word. Achievement is decidedly not the issue here. The issue is being. Each person in my world, in all our worlds, is indispensable for himself or herself, totally aside from doings. Indispensable for being absolutely what he is or she is. For being totally and absolutely themselves. You are you, even aside from or in spite of what you do. Your presence loudly proclaims you as you even before you do or say anything. So does mine. We spend lifetimes trying to work on these things, developing a presence or a way of being, developing a skill or talent with which to present ourselves to the world, hoping that the world will see only it and approve of us, adopt us, become like us, perhaps. And yet, it is all vain. Presence is not amenable to change, or at least rarely. No. One’s being is there, one’s being is unique, one’s very presence proclaims one above and beyond all that one does.
The problem is that most people do not respond to this overtly. Or rather, everyone actually does respond, but most are not aware of it. And so we dwell on what she said, or how she smiled, or the way he acted when he found out, trying desperately to put such things into words. But most of us are rarely able to put our finger on the feel of such things. And even more rarely are we able to convey to those people in our lives our appreciation for their being.
I am guessing that this is what that rare person, the Dalai Lama, is able to convey. Somehow, with the intensity of his attention to each person, he is able to convey his absolute and utter joy in that person’s being. And each person so attended to feels it. Perhaps the infant feels this from his attentive parent as well. But not for long. Soon the attention gets focused on what the child does, his performance, his behavior. And he spends the rest of his life, perhaps, longing for that undivided and unbridled attention to his being. Most of us rarely get it, and rarely give it either.
I remember one sesshin (several days of intensive zen meditation) I attended. After a few days, I had drifted into a mood where nothing—no person, procedure, or thing—pleased me. All I noticed (I think I was one of the sesshin leaders and so had to notice what people were doing) were defects: this one never replaced the sugar; that one left a mess at his cushion; the other kept jerking or shifting during meditation; the schedule was ridiculous. This had my mind and my thoughts tangled in knots of annoyance. Why can’t he do this? Why can’t she do that? What is the matter with these people? Eventually, my mind quieted some. And a period ended, and we began to do kinhin, walking meditation, an apparently pointless circling of the small room we were in, passing each other in a kind of snakelike round. Annoying, it still seemed annoying, everyone deep into their quirks, annoying.
Then, without warning, it shifted. Suddenly, each person became lit up as wholly himself or herself. Each droop of clothing, each jerky step, each frowning expression took on an aspect of deep rightness, the full and unchangeable signature of that person. This one’s annoying twitch of the head became only itself, the thing without which he would be wholly other. That one’s slouch and grimace of boredom became wholly her, perfectly suited to who she was. And I, I found myself loving each quirk, each frown, each being completely and utterly himself and different from every other not just here, but anywhere. I became aware that I would not, under any circumstances, have that person or her signature changed. For each one was, each person walking or jerking or slouching along that floor in that place was, for me, the necessary stuff of my world, the absolutely indispensable beings without which it would no longer be itself.
I now think that is the way it is always. We don’t know this. We usually don’t recognize this. But that is the way it is. And the only circumstance which reminds us of it—of how indispensable the being of any person is to the isness of our world—is death. When one of our central figures dies, then we suddenly realize: it’s gone. That person’s being, which that person alone presented as a phenomenon unlike any other, is gone. And I miss it terribly. I miss not what he (and here I am thinking of my older brother, who died almost two decades ago) accomplished or made himself known for; I miss him for himself. For what he alone was. And it is gone, utterly.
In another sense, we sometimes know this at the moment of birth. I was present at the birth of my daughter. And I still remember the astonishing moment when she appeared, as if ex nihilo, in that birthing room. And it was not her face or her size or anything of the kind, at least not alone; it was the entire presence of her, a presence which one could feel as if something huge had just entered the room, huge as the trains used to seem when they entered the station when I was a boy, obliterating all else on the platform with their steaming, overwhelming presence. The appearance of a new being is like that. And the disappearance of a being is like that. We suddenly understand how unique and indispensable is that thing we call being, how bereft our world when it is gone, how enriched when it enters.
This, then, is what I think we are for, the point of our lives. We exist for each other. We are the indispensable ingredient in each other’s lives. And when I say “we”, again, I mean not only what we do or achieve, but what we are. Our beings are necessary. Who we are is necessary, not only to ourselves, but to the others who make up our world. And it matters not how “good” or “bad” we are, how steady or flighty we are, how accomplished or ordinary we are; for in this most fundamental sense, what matters is what always matters: simply being.
Perhaps in this season, we could all, at least some of the time, in whatever way we can (and it doesn’t have to be in words), convey that to our necessary others.