I’ve been thinking of hostages lately.
I’m back on dry land after a recent four-day cruise to Key West and the Bahamas. The weather was so vile that the cold wind closed most of the boat’s observation decks. The weather also closed one port of call and forced a change in the second to a lesser stop.
Not quite what the travel brochure promised but it’s no one’s fault. Captain and crew, regardless of their power asea, cannot control weather. You take a vacation built around getting outside, you dare Mother Nature, ever the fickle mistress, to say, “Today is not your day. Nor tomorrow. Nor the day after.”
After interminable hours aboard the boat, I joked to my wife that I felt like a hostage; unable to leave, unable to enjoy the thing I’d desperately needed: to quiet the white noise that constantly blares through my days.
Yes, I found time to read from books of essays and yes Kathy found time to play with her house design and work on Barker Farm, her food insecurity non-profit, but we didn’t do it from deck chairs while a light and comforting sea sprayed our faces or while embraced by a warm sun. We did it by almost desperately seeking out hidden and forgotten places of quiet that appeared and disappeared like eddies in the water. Those eddies ran counter to the main current of endless drunken pool parties with the screaming thumps of DJ So-and-So or this or that beat-heavy, massively over-amped band.
But that joke, “I feel like a hostage,” led me down a thought-chasm: mankind is perpetually in a hostage state and there ain’t thing one we can do about it. Pay this bill or lose your car, accept this assignment or lose your job, etc.
Yet perspective is everything. Does doing something that is required to survive make one a hostage to that thing, even if there is a threat at the end of the sequence? “Pay the electric bill or you’ll freeze to death,” versus “Pay your electric bill or we, the electric company, will turn off your power and you will freeze to death.” Does the added spice of someone else acting upon the situation make it a threat more so than a survival action?
The hostage-situation on the boat was, obviously, nothing on a scale so grand. It was: stay inside because it’s cold and windy. Ultimately, Kathy and I found a house band that played really great jazz. We also had a conversation with the assistant art curator who gave us a quick, very cool, history of the English artist Peter Max, whose work I’d seen ubiquitously but hadn’t known. We read, we talked, we laughed outrageously. Plus, we had gobs of time with the kids and their plus-ones, which was the point of the entire affair.
But those good moments tore at me as I fell deeper into my self-created thought-chasm. Why couldn’t I get out of my own head about what was missing from the cruise and simply enjoy the vacation as it was presented?
In Ethics, the philosopher Spinoza took apart man’s intellectual passions, which he called affects, and said that allowing oneself to be dominated by these affects can torment someone into a life of disharmony.
(Yes, I realize this is a wildly reductionist view of Spinoza’s work, but it points toward the bottom of my thought-chasm that started with a joke. And oddly, the ‘joke’ reminded me of the 1968 Bee Gees hit, “I Started A Joke,” which, seen through this particular lens, is more more Spinozian than I’d ever realized.)
Spinoza’s disharmony, thought and heart disordered by passion, has always been part of my life but only recently become part of my vision.
There is an obstacle in my road, coming soon, that has held me hostage for seven years. I can neither walk away from it nor chase it full-throated, and I have done both…passionately. It both seduces and repels me, and it claws out space in my heart and soul when it chooses rather than when I choose. That lack of choice leaves me useless and impotent and angry.
Or…to summon up Spinoza…disharmonious.
Am I Spinoza’s bondage? Or am I simply surviving, though not necessarily on my terms?
And really, who actually ever survives on their own terms?
(Which could lead me to a whole different thought-chasm about defining one’s own terms throughout life and whether we are being true to ourselves if we redefine as we mature or if that just means we’re moving the goalposts to make life easier…see how these thought-chasms work? Sheesh!)
In most other ways, my life-56 years in-is finally harmonious. I’ve jettisoned some baggage, inward and outward, I’m playing with an orchestra, I just bought the drum set I’ve always wanted, I’m taking percussion lessons again, I’ve begun reading again, and I’ve found a new connection with God through nature and Barker Farm, which is the most peaceful place I’ve ever found…physically or emotionally.
But this thing coming down my road is exactly where I fail to control my own bondage. I’ve told myself for years that not only will I not enjoy it but that I will actively hate it, therefore I don’t want it. Which is exactly what I said about the cruise. Yet I managed to have not only a decent time but an occasionally great time, hostage or not.
So maybe what’s coming down the road is not to be feared or raged against. Maybe it is to be enjoyed, or at least dealt with, just as it presents itself.