My spouse has spent the last 6 months teaching Philosophy classes again for the first time in 20 some odd years. Some days he comes home, and I can tell what he's been teaching, as he asks, "What does all of this matter? What is the meaning of our tiny human lives?"
It's interesting to have these existentialist conversations at midlife. In some ways, it feels like we've fallen through a hole in time--after all, as young students at a liberal arts college, we fell in love while having these kinds of conversations, since he was a Philosophy major, and I was an English major. That sentence probably tells you all you need to know about the kinds of people we were and the types of humans we have become.
But back then, we were trying to figure out what to do with our adult lives, which seemed to stretch out to infinity. These days, we feel that time is short, and we need to make sure we're not wasting our lives. At least, on good days that's the mindset that motivates these questions. On bad days, it feels like we're battling a huge tidal wave of darkness that will swallow us all up, regardless of our efforts.
These thoughts put me in mind of a poem that I wrote years ago, but I still think it holds up well.
We face midlife with Prufrock.
Midlife, that endless wait for Godot,
who might show up early or not at all.
Existentialism succors only the young.
And so, we, too, come to realize
what Eliot knew. At the last,
liturgy offers a consolation,
Compline a kind of comfort,
with its contrast to the sudden violence
of sunset. We remember the verses learned
by rote, repeat them to calm
our quaking, media-addled nerves.
Prophetic whispers surface from the sediment
of our days, a muddy
bit from Isaiah or the Psalms,
instructing us to comfort, comfort ye my people.
A voice crying in the wilderness
of our arid hearts, our desert dreams.
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