Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Take Your Pick: Banquet, Quest, or Pilgrimage

Today I spoke to a group of high school English students at the invitation of their teacher, my friend Tim. The class was a writing class focused on personal essays and memoir. Tim had read a draft of my memoir, and he knew my history as founder of Memoirs Unlimited, Inc., so he thought I might have something to say to his students.

I read to them from the memoir. It was terrifying.

I have been working on my memoir for two years, off and on. Like, how could my life require so much work, you ask? In twenty-five years of running Memoirs Unlimited, helping more than fifty clients write their memoirs, I had never taken a stab at my own. Now I’ve done so. It’s hard.

But harder still is putting it out there. In today’s world of social media, we think we are “putting it out there” all the time. Like in Facebook posts and Twitter tweets, Instagram images and Pinterest boards.

In a word, haha.

Try digging deep for the truth of your life, writing a book-length narrative about it, then reading selections to a bunch of bright but initally blank-faced seventeen-year-olds, when you’re technically old enough to be their grandfather. That’s putting it out there.

I did so. It was gratifying.

As the silence gathered, especially over the third and final excerpt, I realized that my story—with pseudonyms and other privacy preservers in place—has raw power. Young faces, already fresh and filled with life, suddenly had eyes. In the silence, that's what I noticed, their eyes. Afterward several students came up without prompting and really really thanked me.

There was only one awkward moment. After I had read my allotted thirty minutes and saw ten minutes left on the clock, I asked for questions and comments. There were no questions or comments.  Like, how could anyone speak after that story, I realized later, and Tim commented on this too. But at the moment of awkward silence I did what nervous people do. I filled silence with words.

As I did so I was hit by a brainstorm, and I shared it with the students. Here’s the brainstorm:

In writing memoirs, as in living our lives, it is important to realize that there are different ways of looking at life. I immediately named three ways, not that they comprise a complete list or that I had even thought this through much in advance. I told Tim’s students that you can think of your life as:

1. A banquet
2. A quest
3. A pilgrimage

Immediately, pens were gripped and began scribbling the old sage’s words. I told them that I was no expert on this subject, I was making it up as I went along, and but then I explained anyway.

If life is a banquet, I said, the goal is to consume the best food and as much as possible. Life has no meaning outside the banquet hall—or shopping mall—so eat, drink, and be merry.

If life is a quest, then Joseph Campbell is right, and each of us is one of the hero’s thousand faces. Life has no transcendent meaning. It has an existential meaning given us by the archetypes of our race. According to these archetypes, each of us is on a journey. We leave home in search of something, or to slay some dragon, we meet allies and encounter obstacles along the way, hopefully we find what we’re seeking or slay the monster, and then we return home both transformed and transformative. Some actually undertake such a journey; the rest of us stay home and watch TV, dreaming of the journey.

If life is a pilgrimage, then we leave home, hall, and mall for a final destination, which is our destiny. I added that for many centuries Christians believed that life ends in heaven or hell, and the point of Christian life is getting to heaven. And so we have famous books like The Divine Comedy and The Pilgrim’s Progress in which the pilgrim goes to heaven and stays there. There is no return home on a true pilgrimage. But now that science tells us there’s no heaven—no end point to life beyond the graveyard—we have lost the real meaning of being pilgrims, and we are left with two choices.

Either life is a banquet and its whole purpose is to satisfy our personal shopping list. It’s always Christmas season, and shopping days are limited.

Or life is a quest, and we will have to be satisfied that we are heroes and heroines just like our ancestors since time immemorial. Heroes don’t really go to heaven. They just come home and get big funerals.

In February, I am returning to the school at Tim’s invitation to talk with the students about pilgrimage and what it can mean to our lives today.

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