On New Year’s Daythere came to mind a little book I had read a good many years ago called “On Not Knowing How to Live.” I thought I’d put it up on a self with other little books I’d found particularly wise, but, wouldn’t you know, the book wasn’t on that shelf, or any shelf in the house, far as I could tell. So here’s what I remember about it.
It was written by Allen Wheelis, a psychiatrist in San Francisco, who, after years of trying to help people who didn’t seem to know how to live, realized he didn’t know how to live either. And he came to think that maybe nobody really knows how to live and maybe that’s OK up to a point. After all, we don’t get to practice beforehand. We’re thrust into our lives and have to do the best we can, something like raising that first child. By hook and by golly we learn or don’t learn how to do it. That’s not exactly how he put it, I’m sure, but it’s how I remember what I got from the book.
And so, I concluded, we are, to some extent at least, bound to be confused, make mistakes, and suffer as we go through our days and years. That’s kind of a downer, isn’t it? But I believe Wheelis also said we do well to accept that we don’t know how to live and live the best we can anyway. And he said we can do this. We can be happy, at least to some extent some of the time, even though we don’t know all there is to know about how to live our lives.
Toward the end of his book, if I’m not mistaken, Wheelis says that whatever else we do in life, we “bear spirit forward.” That phrase has always intrigued me. It assumes something about us that is more than our successes and failures, more than our hang-ups and neuroses, more than what limits us and holds us down. I’ve always hoped that to be true, and, in fact, on the basis of dealing with folks over one thing and another for some 60 years, I believe it is.
Whatever else we do or don’t do, we bear spirit forward into the world. We’re part of the huge human enterprise that bears spirit forward into the generations as they come along. To realize this and embrace it tends to move our focus away from our muddled self-centered selves toward the grander totality of life. We may not know how to live, but we can think of our lives as worthwhile elements of a larger whole. At least that’s what I get from Wheelis’ succinct and well put phrase. We bear spirit forward, and that’s a good thing to know in the midst of not knowing how to live.
It seems to me our nation would do well to acknowledge that, as a people, we show signs of not knowing how to live. I was a strapping young lad during the Second World War, too young to serve in the military but old enough to know what was doing on. The big impression those years leave with me is that my nation really knew how to be a nation then.
We knew how to strive and pull together to overcome a huge threat to our sovereignty and well-being. Among the generation ahead of me there were some 200,000 casualties in the landing on Okinawa, for crying out loud, and there were many other landings and battles. And we kids went around the neighborhood pulling our little wagons and picking up tin cans and old newspapers to be recycled for the “war effort,” as it was called. Everyone sacrificed for the greater good, and it went on for four years. Together we prevailed.
Now we seem unable to wear masks, keep our distance and put off partying for a year in order to overcome a threat comparable to that war. Over 3,000 of us are dying each day, once again for crying out loud. Many of them would still be with us if we pulled together, hunkered down and let that old American spirit arise in our hearts again.
I’m not sure we have time to figure out how to live as a nation right now. But I believe we can bear a more dedicated, dutiful and unified American spirit forward into the fraught situation we face. I pray that’s what we’ll do in 2021.