Our own tree of life is rooted in one tap root question: Who do we serve?
In the Arthurian legend written by 12th century troubadour Chrétien de Troyes’ the young hapless knight Percival may only continue on his quest if he can give right answer to the question, “whom does the grail serve?”
The grail is understood to be the vessel of the divine spirit, the breath of God. In these terms the grail is anyone who is moved by the spirit of God for the sake of the good. By asking whom the grail serves we ask ourselves the same question. The answer to that question will be embodied by the person we have become.
From early adolescence to middle age, we take on roles, labels, names, careers and other outward definitions. We develop our style. If we are lucky we cultivate dreams into a way of making a living and if we are luckier still, a life. We accumulate, souvenirs and photographs, memories and experiences and if you’re anything like me, plenty of extraneous, miscellany.
We’ve walked and walked telling ourselves the top of the hill is our destination only to find one strange and otherworldly morning that we have reached the summit sometime during the night.
Those dizzy heights of achievement, stability, security and experience which seemed so out of reach to our childhood/teen-aged/twenty-something selves are here, finally. We have arrived. Right? Yet rather than feeling more grounded and stable our legs tremble with vertigo. Perhaps, it’s all downhill from here.
Perspective broadens vision and insight. For indeed, the higher you stand the further you see.
The way in which inner and outer worlds inform one another deepens from this precipice, this brink. We become fledglings once again. Hindsight sobers. Foresight sharpens into relief. What really matters defines itself. Shadows lengthen as the sun begins its descent. We see the way our experiences have moulded us like a river moulds the earth, like lines etch the topography of our skin.
From the vantage point of years that have seen their share of births, sickness, success, failure and death, life seems even more precious than ever. Even suffering is somehow flushed with beauty. All that is alive is marvellous for the simple miracle of its aliveness. Life dazzles with its intense, precious, vivid, raw, messy and fierce fragility. And so comes confrontation with our mortality.
Whether we can make peace with the terminal nature of our lives in this earthly realm is determined by whether we have lived the first half of our lives with integrity.
What has driven our choices? ‘
Whom have we served?
At middle age we are often confronted with the startling fact that the ideologies that drove the first half of our lives have not brought us to the place we imagined they would.
If we know that we strove toward meaningful goals with integrity, the result of the work will not appear in vain to us. It will be a burden we can bear because we know we did the best we could with what we had. We did the work for it’s own sake. We valued process as well as product. We didn’t make the end a justification for the means.
Middle age is a little like a second adolescence. At the dawn of puberty the scales fell from our eyes. We had to reconcile ourselves with the fact that the adults around us (even beloved older family members or teen idols ) were fallible, flawed and frail human’s full of contradictions. Even more, the systems, institutions, and establishments that had framed our childhood perspective and formed the basis of our reality were equally fallible, flawed and frail.
And so, as we perch on the brink of this new summit we slowly see that the peak is not the destination and if we are to go forth we must descend. This will mean different things to different people. To descend can mean to unravel, peel back the layers, return to the simplicity of the child within yet bestowed with deeper consciousness and keener awareness. It can mean a returning to the simplicity of one who doesn’t carry a pack on their back, a label in their pocket or a persona heavy with the expectations of the crowd.
The older I get the more I feel myself returning to that experiential state. The one that just is. The one that feels it’s beingness. The one whose body goes first into the world before its mind, its ideas, it’s opinions, its carefully constructed and socially scaffolded ideologies.
At the age of sixteen I cut my long blond hair into a pink mohawk. The self within me wanted to wade fearless and true into the world in a pair of oversized Doc Martens. I wanted to express my disappointment, disaffection and alienation on the outside like a statement. It didn’t take long for me to see that corruption, pettiness, judgement, shunning and hypocrisy was prevalent in all facets of society. The tribalism of sub-cultures was no different, simply a microcosm of the same human proclivity toward self- interest that reigned in the upper echelons.
As a teen, I thought that my outward appearance and behaviour was my statement. I thought the things I did were my statement. My statement was the lens through which my perspective both looked out on and reflected back the world in which I lived. I thought that statement was my reason for being in the world, the badge to prove I’d earned my place.
At age forty, life is simpler. It is about breaths and moments and connections. It’s about nuances and the sacred, silent pause between life’s big events rather than the big events themselves. It’s about experiencing and accepting things as they are rather than how I think they should be. It’s about allowing the flaws within become part of the great story, part of the humility that grounds me and connects me to every other living thing. It’s about weaving in those loose, frayed ends and making them a part of the whole work just like the irregular patterns which are inherently woven into a corner of every traditional Navajo rug, or the gold sealed cracked in wabi sabi pottery.
Every voyage we make around the sun deepens the lines on our skin and the mark of the material plane on our lives. Middle age is likely to make us hardened, calloused and numb without the wounding of our own imperfection to temper the grit.
As Leonard Cohen famously said. “There’s a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.”
“If only I may grow: firmer, simpler, — quieter, warmer.”
– Dag Hammarskjold “Markings.”