Some twenty-five years after my original read, I returned to Siddhartha looking for a trace of the teenager I had been, and perspective on the distance I’ve since come.
Admittedly, my reread began with some frustration. I wanted desperately to remember how I was first connected with the book. This contextual detail has become an important thread in my recent evolution. I have learned to embrace connections and the serendipity/fate that often catalyzes my most meaningful encounters. But despite my best efforts I have been unable to uncover the source of my initial interest. I suppose the question of how a 15-year old would stumble upon such a heady read will remain a mystery, at least until it is ready to be revealed.
Yet my connection with the book was immediately apparent. Its cadence and voice spoke to me in a way that was familiar and intimate. The story of a boy who is bright and curious, acknowledged for his academic gifts and promise, but rejects the easy path for a journey of personal growth and enlightenment. The resonance with my own childhood made me laugh out loud; curious and smart, certainly, with a leaning toward blatant insubordination.
Of course I had loved this book. The beginning of the story was affirming, giving me the validation and approval that I had so desperately craved. I was a precocious child who yearned for so much more – more experiences, more meaning, more truth. And although I did well by everyone’s standards, I felt trapped by the small town, small ideas, and compliance to conventional teachings and wisdom.
It was this insatiable version of me who leapt from the pages, urging me to rush forward, skipping over details devouring the big ideas, leaving me hungry for more. But as I sat rereading Siddhartha, pacifying my inner child, slowly reading aloud to appreciate the cadence and beauty of the prose, I found myself suddenly alone. Although the lessons of Siddhartha’s later years rang resoundingly clear and true, poignantly speaking to the adult I now was, the text had lost all familiarity. I was clearly reading it for the first time.
I laughed out loud as the realization hit me. As a teenager I had obviously skipped over the entire second half, racing toward the end, ready for my next read. I had gotten what I needed, what I had wanted from Siddhartha’s early years, and had dramatically declared the book to be pivotal to my growth and evolution.
To the current me, Siddhartha is clearly about the wisdom of humility, the insights that come from the rhythms of nature and the intimacy of touching souls. It’s about the riches of a life lived with honesty and simplicity, and about receiving the gifts that come when we are ready.
Although I cried when I came to the end of Siddhartha, it was not from sadness. Yes, I had enjoyed reconnecting with the youthful impatient version of me, but I was grateful for the sense of peace and reflection that enveloped my second reading. And this time rather than rushing through to get to the good parts, I instead found myself lingering on every page, hesitant for the book to come to an end.
*This post is part of an ongoing series associated with “The Big Reread”, posted on October 11th, 2014
I’m no martyr. I take little satisfaction in enumerating the various organizations and activities with which I’m affiliated. In fact, I’ve grown almost embarrassed by my obvious state of overcommitment, worrying that it reflects some sort of personality disorder or escapism.
To be clear, I have no problem making changes in my life. I have grown quite skilled at identifying negative patterns, making healthier choices, and embracing a better lifestyle. In general, I feel happy and content, but the more cleanly I live, the more glaringly obvious my commitment issues become.
So recently, I finally committed to cleaning out my commitment closet, extricating myself from boards, organizations, and other activities that have become somehow extraneous or nonessential.
I started by identifying my core commitments. Family was definitely first. As my children grow older, their school and extracurricular activities seem increasingly more demanding, requiring more of my time and attention. Next, my work, which has recently changed in its rhythms and demands, making it more and more difficult for me to get away from campus. And last but not least, myself, yearning for more rest, relaxation, and balance, a chance to enjoy my life and all its myriad blessings.
Once I clarified my core commitments, I began to inventory my obligations that lay somewhere outside, especially those that seem to conflict or take away from my key priorities. Participating on community boards, my membership in a service organization, and the various ways I try to help people, saying yes to basically every request, and driving around town to cultivate relationships and explore possibilities. Although each of these activities has had an important place in my life, I was ready to accept the fact that collectively they had become unsustainable.
But how to extricate myself? This was, and remains the hard part. Unlike a diet cleanse, there is no immediate gratification or visible transformation. Community work, when deep and meaningful, can prove difficult to bring to a halting stop. And even when one is able to find a way out, they might find a glaring hole left behind. Since we are drawn to community work for own emotional and psychological needs in addition to our desires to have a positive impact, these needs can reemerge even more defined and raw than before.
In this way, a commitment cleanse is more of a long-term transformation, involving three distinct yet interconnected categories of growth and change. First, the decisions of what to phase out and how to do so in a way that is not destructive or damaging to yourself or the community to which you are committed. Second, how to prevent yourself from slipping back into additional responsibilities and activities, and addressing the patterns that can manifest themselves in a variety of ways.
But the third process is perhaps the most important from the standpoint of ultimate happiness and life satisfaction. This involves shifting our focus back to our core commitments and finding more fulfillment, moving our gaze higher towards more powerful goals and objectives, and finding satisfaction in living a life that is balanced and aligned.
I am struck by the evanescence of life. It’s as if everything- and everyone- around me is evolving and changing at an accelerated pace. What once felt heavy and permanent has morphed into airiness with nothing fixed or immutable.
I wouldn’t say it’s alarming. In fact, I find myself welcoming this new state of being. It has forced a sense of presence that is both warm and comforting. Receiving the moments in their fullness, listening, honoring and feeling, before letting it all dissipate and fade, to be replaced by something slightly different and new.
Yet there is a certain oddness to the experience. Seeing my children grow before my eyes, meeting them each day as I marvel at their transformation. But perhaps even more profound are the changes I perceive within myself. As I let go of preconceived notions, fears, and assumptions, situations seem to morph and obstacles dissolve, with endless doors opening to a vista of dizzying expanse.
I am in an adventure. And while there is no use planning or packing, I find myself yearning to somehow chart my course, marking my journey and reconnecting with the places through which I have passed. Clearly, these points are neither geographic nor real in a concrete sense, but instead former versions of myself that I yearn to touch and embrace before letting them go.
My books. How thoughtful of me to have left such vibrant traces for my future selves, captured within the pages of my most precious stories. Recognizing them as treasures even while reading them, I infused them with my dreams, fears, and tears as I allowed them to permeate and touch my soul. In doing so I imprinted them forever with my shadow, a permanent snapshot of me contextualized in time.
By delving back in so many years later it is so much more than a reunion. I am indeed finding joy in reconnecting, but also a yardstick for measuring how far I have come. As I acknowledge and appreciate the distance, I am gradually released from the residual angst and pressure. In its place is lightness, lifting me further upward, back into the glorious unknown.
The books I am rereading
Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse (high school years)
Garden of Eden by Ernest Hemmingway (junior year studying abroad)
Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand (early college)
The Love Song of J. Afred Proofrock by T. S. Eliot (college)
A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (college)
Dalva by Jim Harrison (adulthood)
West of the Night by Beryl Markham (adulthood, Tanzania project)
The Little Prince (by Antoine de Saint-Exupery, see earlier post)
The Alchemist (by Paulo Coelho)
Night Train to Lisbon (Pascal Mercier)
*Please share your own rereads and what you are learning/have learned along the way