Runnin’ Up That Hill
I spent some time at ⸺ Hill a couple days ago. It was intended as getting some spiritual reorientation, and ultimately that’s what I got, albeit not in the way that I expected. I’ve been given a lot to think about, but not in the sense of analysis, more just sitting with some things and seeing what happens.
Midway in the journey of our life I came to myself in a dark wood, for the straight way was lost.
— Inferno by Dante Alighieri (tr. Robert and Jean Hollander), Canto I, 1-3.
I was thinking about the opening events today, especially the part a little bit later where Dante comes across a hill in the wood. It’s been quite a long time since I’ve actually sat down and read the Inferno, and that first verse hits very different. I was in high school when I last read it thoroughly, but I certainly couldn’t appreciate the “midway in the journey” part then the way I can now. At 39, I’m actually four years older than Dante was when the story takes place. (The scholarly consensus, to my understanding, is that the beginning takes place in 1300, while Dante began writing the Comedy in 1308 when he was around 43.)
One thing that came up during my couple-hour retreat the other day was that one of the big questions I’ve been asking lately—so what?—is on time given the stage of my life that I’m in. I’ve done the things that you’re supposed to do, established an “adult” life, and now I’m left wondering in many ways what it was all for. A lot of self-reflection and self-analysis is going on, and I find much that is disappointing.
This isn’t really about feeling unhappy with myself or that I’m a failure in some way. Instead, it’s feeling like my priorities and the way I’m wired is just fundamentally incompatible with societal expectations, or at least what is valued. It’s all well and good to be interested in the things that I am (which can best be described as “everything, for a little bit”). But in what way has this aspect of myself made my life in any way better? Society seems to value having a niche a lot more, given the steady march towards hives.
I’ve seen the odd think piece in praise of the generalist, and that’s all well and good, but doesn’t really seem to be the reality. No one’s hiring synthesists these days.
This line of thought doesn’t really go anywhere productive. I’m having a hard time valuing much that I do beyond some variation of it was fun at the time, which doesn’t ultimately count for much. But at the same time, it feels weird and almost mercenary to put too much stock in, say, my relationships with my family. I don’t try to be a good father because of what I get out of it, and it feels wrong to try to think in such transactional terms.
At the same time, I don’t like avoiding questions just because they’re unpleasant. It’s one thing to acknowledge something as unknowable, but even that feels pretty dissatisfying in this instance: some vague hand-waiving towards “hoping for the best” isn’t really enough. On the one hand I can’t pretend otherwise, but on the other, keeping myself in this (strange?) loop of reminding myself that I’m unhappy with x, y, and z isn’t any better.
All I can do for now is hope that the next hill I come to is one that makes sense.