I was applying an over-the-counter remedy to the toenail fungus on my left foot—my right foot is asymmetrically fungus-free—when I found myself feeling disappointed that it doesn’t seem to be working. At that point a slightly modified line from Chuang Tsu popped into my head: “Why am I getting all crookedy like this? My back sticks up like a hunchback and my vital organs are on top of me. My chin is hidden in my navel, my shoulders are up above my head, and my pigtail points at the sky.” (Chuang Tsu; Basic Writings, translated by Burton Watson, 1964.)
Realizing I’m not in nearly as bad a shape as Master Yu immediately put my disappointment into perspective—things could be much worse. I started wondering how my brain’s unconscious processes had brought that particular quote to mind out of all the words it has stored away, how it had come up with a thought that would replace my disappointment with glee. It has always had a preference for happiness, but it hasn’t always known how to get there.
In thinking about my life—72 years of it as of tomorrow—I get the image of a stream, bounding down a mountain from boulder to boulder, pool to pool. There were times when I thought I had arrived at happiness, when a woman or a drug seemed the answer, but sooner or later gravity pulled me toward the edge of that pool, and I continued ricocheting downhill toward the next thing, accumulating words and experiences along the way.
I seem finally to have flowed into a vast, tranquil lake, and although the winds of toenail fungus and other maladies occasionally ruffle the surface, some calming influence always floats up from the depths, leaving me sparkling in the sun. New words and experiences wash down from the mountain so stagnation doesn’t settle in, but they arrive at a gentle pace—no drama.
This lake may have an outlet somewhere along the rim, and I may eventually be swept over the edge and on toward the ocean, chattering and complaining. Then again, I may linger here till I evaporate. We’ll see.
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