This thing all things devours:
Birds, beasts, trees, flowers;
Gnaws iron, bites steel;
Grinds hard stones to meal;
Slays king, ruins town,
And beats high mountain down.
The Tao Te Ching has an interesting take on water (not the answer to the riddle above, by the way). Water is compared to the highest good. The translation I own has this to say about water:
The goodness of water is that it benefits the ten thousand creatures [taken as all living things]; yet itself does not scramble, but is content with the places that all men disdain. It is this that makes water so near to the Way.
Water doesn’t try to stay on top. It gives in to gravity and, in doing so, is one of the most powerful things around, eroding mountains and forming great canyons. Not to necessarily personify things, but water is patient. Water has nothing but time on its hands. Phil Connors, similarly, has nothing but time on his hands. It becomes his only asset outside his mind. Sure he’s got that nice coat that Harold Ramis kept after shooting, and a nice scarf. But, these are just material things. They are replaceable. Despite what I said in my last entry, time is not replaceable.
Siddhartha would disagree, in his way. But, first, let’s return to water. Siddhartha, looking at the river, “saw that the water continually flowed and flowed and yet it was always there; it was always the same and yet every moment it was new.” He comes to see the river as “everywhere at the same time.” And his life—Phil’s life, my life, your life—is much the same:
I reviewed my life and it was also a river, and Siddhartha the boy, Siddhartha the mature man and Siddhartha the old man, were only separated by shadows, not through reality. Siddhartha’s previous lives were also not in the past, and his death and his return to Brahma are not in the future. Nothing was, nothing will be, everything has reality and presence.
There’s a bit of Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence here, but there’s also something else that I like even more. And, I don’t mean how well it describes what it must be like to be from Gallifrey. Siddhartha is, at the same time, saying that nothing was and everything is. This notion that everything is in the present is a strange and wonderful thought, and also a scary one. I asked yesterday if you could live with the worst thing you’ve ever done if you had to experience it again and again. What if it wasn’t again and again? What if it was always? How do you find absolution? How do you find joy if all is grief? How do you find grief if all is joy? If, as Siddhartha tells us, “there is no such thing as time,” what is there?
If we can live our lives like water, then maybe it doesn’t matter. If we can learn to simply… I find that I’m paraphrasing Derrick Jensen when I start to finish this sentence, so I will simply give you his words, from A Language Older than Words:
What if the point of life has nothing to do with the creation of an ever-expanding region of control? What if the point is not to keep at bay all those people, beings, objects, and emotions that we so needlessly fear?
What if the point instead is to let go of that control?
What if the point of life, the primary reason for existence, is to lie naked with your lover in a shady grove of trees? What if the point is to taste each other’s sweat and feel the delicate pressure of finger on chest, thigh on thigh, lip on cheek? What if the point is to stop, then, in your slow movements together, and listen to birdsong, to watch dragonflies hover, to look at your lover’s face, then up at the undersides of leaved moving together in the breeze? What if the point is to invite these others into your movement, to bring trees, wind, grass, dragonflies into your family and in so doing abandon any attempt to control them? What if the point all along has been to get along, to relate, and experience things on their own terms? What if the point is to feel joy when joyous, love when loving, anger when angry, thoughtful when full of thought?
What if the point from the beginning has been to simply be?
We spend so much time worrying about what comes next. In yesterday’s entry, I ended with the notion that I want more in my life. I think there is a distinct point in Groundhog Day at which I am jealous of Phil Connors. Don’t get me wrong, I like the idea of the repeating day, exploiting it for a while, and finding purpose in it. But, on a more fundamental level, the point at which I envy Phil comes in a specific line close to the end of the film. Rita doesn’t know what to say in response to his sculpture, and he tells her he knows what to say:
No matter what happens tomorrow or for the rest of my life, I’m happy now, because I love you.
And, he’s being honest. No matter his genuineness, there may be no real reason for Rita to believe him, but this is one of those points where it helps not to think about it too much. Phil is being honest, so it would be wrong for Rita to disbelieve.
There’s a quotation from Ralph Waldo Emerson I’ve had on my desk most of the time I’ve been working on this blog—and I posted it once on the Groundhog Day Project’s Facebook page. It provides a simple—
(Well, no, it is anything but simple, in practice. It seems so often the human condition that we don’t forget things. We let old feelings find harbor in our minds to linger and fester and sometimes when we least expect it, they come back to haunt us.)
—way to look at the day-to-day world, to remove yourself from the ongoing. It goes as follows:
Finish each day and be done with it. You have done what you could. Some blunders and absurdities no doubt crept in; forget them as soon as you can. Tomorrow is a new day; begin it well and serenely and with too high a spirit to be encumbered with your old nonsense.
There’s a poetry to Siddhartha’s notion of the “indestructibleness of every life, the eternity of every moment,” but there is also a contradiction of a sort, in that I think Siddhartha would support Emerson here in that we should not carry all our baggage with us wherever we go. We cannot carry every moment and every life with us forever. Sometimes, like Rita, we just need to go with the flow, see where it leads us. We need to be like water and, rather than fight and fight all the time to get ahead, sometimes just let things happen and be human.
Of course, just that alone can be a frightening prospect. Daniel Quinn describes, in his short story “The Boy in the Window,” music that evokes
[the] ancient and eternal lament of the loneliness and terror of becoming human, of the yearning and despair of knowing love, of the certainty of abandonment and the terror of death, of the passing of generations and the pathetic renewal of life, of the ceaseless cycle of resting and rising, of the search that knows no end, and of the heavy, heavy weariness of that search….
Just being isn’t easy. To just be, we have to know that feeling Phil expresses on his last February 2nd, being happy now. Instead, happiness is more like a memory and a dream, something we long for and remember but never actually know in the present. I think of moments in my life where I was happy, or at least my memory is of me being happy—I don’t think I can objectively identify just what I may have felt, but I do know how certain memories are filed away in my mind, and there are moments that go, without question, in the happiness side of the file room.
I start to list them here, but I delete the list, because, it’s quite remarkable that the list keeps going and going when I focus on individual moments. It’s also quite remarkable how the happiest memories can make me sad. Maybe that’s why I rather like the idea of eternal recurrence or Siddhartha’s river; happiness and sadness are not necessarily two separate things, not opposites but just two labels on a continuum of feeling that cycles around and around just like time does with Nietzsche. In the Tao Te Ching, “the only motion is returning.” In Siddhartha, there is no such thing as time. In Groundhog Day, time is a trap, and every experience quite literally happens on the same day.
I don’t believe in eternal recurrence or Siddhartha’s river, but I think they provide useful windows for looking at the world. It isn’t simply important that we can live with our worst actions or our worst experiences if they were to come back again and again, but would we want to experience our best actions or our best experiences if they were to come back again and again as well? Or, are our memories of those things perhaps better for us? In our memories, we smooth out the edges, we skip past the trivial and focus on what matters… there is certainly time for the trivial, but what if we were to experience our best moments again only to find the imperfections stand out a little more this time? What if we were to experience our worst moments again only to find that we enjoyed the pain? Time is useful to us because it allows us to focus, it allows us to remember the broadstrokes sometimes when the details might distract or detract and to remember the details when the broadstrokes might paint the wrong picture.
And, sometimes all of this seems so trite I want to delete whole paragraphs and start talking about the film and TV roles of Stephen Tobolowsky… which I do intend to do at some point, but I think I’m still stuck with Phil in Punxsutawney. I’m still inside the movie.
Today’s reason to repeat a day forever: to do the same exact things I’m doing today, because that’s life. It doesn’t always have to be shiny and new. Sometimes it just has to be.