Some thoughts approach so stealthily it's as though they were always there. You don't seem to think them so much as recognize them, notice them bubbling up to the surface of consciousness. Then you go back, naturally, as the reasoning creature you are, and delve and probe and guess and probably assign an origin or a cause, or connect the concept to a pattern, or develop it into a theory, or any of the other wonderful and often productive things we do with thoughts.
But there is interest in the thought itself, the inchoate, mysterious impression that you see as a truth, the idea itself devoid of explanation.
One such thought is associated indelibly in my mind with a picture, a scene, which I suppose represents the place where I had (or, more properly, recognized) the insight for the first time. With a little research through photographs and maps and calendars, I could probably isolate the event in time and space to within a week or so and perhaps fifty miles or less, pretty close for something that occurred more than twenty years and half a world away, but I fear that the attempt itself would corrupt the memory, which is surprisingly vague for its persistence and vividness, and in itself of little consequence. There is an image there, and I prefer to have it in the corner of my mental vision, where it can lurk with associative strength, a reminder of what it was I there recalled.
The thought was this: I am corrupt and I cannot escape.
Put like that, it is hardly original, as any theologian would surely explain. Put like that, it is in fact wrong, though not entirely misleading. We start from somewhere familiar; we may end at someplace new.
I was trekking in Nepal at the time. Not in one of the most spectacular regions, in an agricultural area to the west of Kathmandu. Few tourists went there, for it was neither a destination in itself nor the most efficient way to head west towards the Annapurna region since there is a good road to Pokhara, but it suited me perfectly at the time, because what I needed was an opportunity to absorb the experiences of the previous couple of months, and walking meditation is one of the best ways I know to do that. Physically I was in the best shape of my life, and spiritually I think as well.
I was twenty-nine years old and I had just fulfilled a long-standing ambition to see Mount Everest. I had spent five weeks away from electricity, hiking up to roughly 20,000 feet, carrying my own pack without hired assistance or regular companions, and sleeping mostly in crude tea-houses of the kind that allowed you to roll out your bag if you bought a rice dinner for about twenty-five cents. I was relying on this simple accommodation being available, since by western standards I was ludicrously poor and ill-equipped for such a journey (I had scraped together the money in the course of a year's part-time work waiting tables at a cheap restaurant); my overcoat was a jean jacket, my trousers the same ones I wore at home, and except at the highest of altitudes, where I rented an old pair of Italian mountaineering boots that were several sizes too large, my footwear a pair of cheap sneakers. All this was planned, not happenstance; I had done a couple of shorter treks before, including one to Annapurna, and I knew what would be available and what was truly essential to bring. I had taken to heart Thoreau's admonition against enterprises that require new clothes, though I trusted that the sage would forgive me some long underwear and woolly socks, hat and gloves.
Looking back from my fifties, I admire that young man, not least for the fact, of which I am sure, that he did not consider himself especially admirable. There wasn't much self-consciousness in his choices (sure, there was some), just a certain deserved pride in stripping his requirements down to the minimum. He that is, I did so partly for economic reasons, partly to limit the load on his back, and partly out of an ill-defined and never really articulated sense of what was appropriate. Nepal was one of the poorest countries in the world, and there were inevitable contrasts between the wealth of even the poorest foreign visitor and the deep financial poverty of all but a tiny minority of those who live there. Flaunting it just seemed wrong.
Not that the Nepalese seemed to care all that much. In the best possible sense of the phrase, they didn't seem to care too much about anything. One of my favorite memories (from a previous trip there) is of when an ancient rattletrap of a bus broke down, miles from any town; while the driver and his mate tried to figure out how to fix it, all the passengers piled out, none of them seeming in the least disconcerted, and immediately started swarming up the hillside enjoying and occasionally picking the new spring flowers. Somehow, this seemed to be a nation that had completely internalized all those fine-sounding precepts about taking life as it comes.
That life came hard, and short. People were amazed that I was almost thirty; to them I looked perhaps eighteen. In the city, the characteristic sound was the human cough; tourists were warned not to drink the water, but locals had less choice in the matter and not all that much more immunity. On the long march in towards Solu-Khumbu, a tea-shop was likely to be in the living-room that is, the only room of a doorless hut with a mud floor and it was not unknown for the person in charge to be a pre-pubescent child. The customers were mostly porters, for in those mountains there were no roads and few pack animals; everything not produced locally was carried in by people working for a dollar a day. The standard load was around 30 kilos (sixty-five pounds), and the workers generally went barefoot to save the wear and tear on their shoes, if they owned shoes at all.
Ah, but there was magic afoot. Every pass, every river crossing had its shrine and how could you fail to pay respect? The land was suffused with the supernatural, though the word itself in rigid black and white is wrong there was nothing of the other about the mystical feelings that seemed no more and no less than integral to the most ordinary of mundane activities. Was it the mountains? Perhaps. The Himalayan peaks are in their immanent glory are awesome beyond words, spell-binding to an extent no photograph can ever convey, and the more so for the latent cruelty with which they casually punish the unlucky trespasser, but the feeling was as strong in their absence, in the hidden valleys, the stony fields.
And in those fields, up at 13,000 feet, what do they grow? Potatoes. Introduced from America more than a century ago. Shangri-La isn't out of touch, it just seems that way sometimes.
In the midst of this unique combination of land and people, part of this extraordinary environment simply by virtue of being there, was a young, healthy, educated, alienated stranger stranger not least to himself watching and walking and walking and watching and thinking if at all mostly of his various homes, none of which he owned and none of which, it seemed, owned him. Reading Carl Sagan on the universe and Thomas Pynchon on Rocketman and paying homage to Ed Hillary and to Shipton and Tillman and Mallory. And becoming fit enough to double-march all day and into the night if that would get him to the road and the bus and a meal served from a menu.
No wonder I needed to decompress.
The lake at Pokhara was said to be a place to do that, but in my unconscious wisdom I chose to walk there, a sort of cool-down, as an athlete might jog after a race, five days or so of relatively gentle striding. The people were different in that area more like Indians while the Sherpas of Solu-Khumbu were more like Tibetans but they were in important ways the same. Pursuing a traditional way of life, strangely leavened by the occasional transistor radio or imported tool. Working in fields either contoured into the hillsides and set off with dry stone walls or marked by levees of pounded earth. Unsurprised by the intruder, neither friendly nor not, willing to let him pass as he wished, willing to sit and sip tea and smoke, willing to wait and to work and wise enough perhaps to sense that the stranger brought them nothing but a distant love and would leave them almost untouched.
The weather was hot, in the late spring before the monsoon, and the sun so bright that all the colors seemed to fade. Sweat was a reality to be accepted and ignored, water and tea necessities. I lunched in the shade on cheese and sugary biscuits and roasted soy nuts and purified water, rested and read at the noontime and rose refreshed, wanting the day to last, hoping that the village where I planned to sleep was not too close, relishing the beauty of my own body in motion, slipping thoughtlessly into rhythm.
Everything was perfect, and I became filled with a sense of irretrievable loss.
Not unhappiness. Something more profound was happening here than self-pity or sorrow, and something much broader than myself. It was not I that felt the loss, exactly, it was us. It was not then, and it is not now, something that fits neatly into words, it was a feeling, a sensation, an integration of all the joy and sorrow I had lately seen and felt, a sense of the enormous price we have paid for the dubious benefits our civilization has brought us.
The Nepali people I loved so much were tragically poor and yet, it seemed, content. The westerners I knew were relatively rich and yet, it seemed, dissatisfied. Was this the bargain? A few more years of life for a little less joy? A little more convenience in exchange for less fulfilling work? Book knowledge for understanding? Self for community? And on, and on ... but those comparisons were not what struck me, not exactly.
I had no choice.
That was the loss.
I was that lack of choice. We all are.
Now, that was something else, and what saved the feeling from the banal and locked it into something deeper. I am corrupt and so is everyone else and we cannot help it.
(That sounds suspiciously like the doctrine of original sin. To believers and disbelievers alike, let me emphasize that I am trying to articulate and elucidate a purely personal experience. Inevitably, the account trespasses into the realm of the religious, where it quite properly belongs, but I hope to stay completely away from the doctrinal.)
I wanted simplicity, and I knew I could not have it. I wanted to live the life of a peasant and I knew that for me such a life would be insupportable. I wanted to un-learn, and that is impossible, for what I really wanted was never to have learned in the first place. And I knew that this mythical peasant had as much or more to un-learn, in order to enter my world. And I feared how I feared that what the peasant had to lose was more important than what I had.
In that moment I felt a connection with, as well as an alienation from, generation upon generation of my ancestors. I felt, to the deepest part of my soul, to some point where hunger exists and love and the urge to pee, to whatever basic animal level of our existence is accompanied by that strange sense of knowing that we know and knowing we can say so, to somewhere in the root of my of our being, I felt just what it is to be a person.
It's not a bad thing. It's not a good thing. It is, that's all, it simply is.
And it has not changed, not at the root, I do not believe it has changed for many thousands of years. Listen to the tales of the Iliad, listen to stories from the Old Testament, listen to the Bhagavad-Gita read them if you must, but listen if you can and are these not people? What is there in modern literature that the folks who first heard those could not fathom? Nothing, I would say, of importance, nothing at all. Mere technology and alienation, tricks of technique perhaps. Our language is different, but better? The question makes no sense.
And were those ancients corrupt? Of course they were. I don't mean that they committed murder and adultery and theft and all the other deadly sins, though of course they did (they wouldn't be sins if people didn't commit them), I mean they lived in a state of struggle between the conflicting impulses of what they felt and what they had learned. And, by the way, their poets often expressed that in terms of an idealized peasantry when Virgil wrote his Eclogues almost 2000 years ago, he was consciously working in the pastoral tradition, indeed bringing it up to date, every bit as much as, say, Wendell Berry today.
Why do I feel called to make this testimony in this way? Why introduce it with a vague generalization and then locate it in a specific place and time? Because it felt right. That's enough. I can add to that: I can say, because the context in which the understanding appeared seems to me inextricable from the thought itself. Perhaps it took a virtually complete removal from the normal business of daily western life, combined with an unusual physical excellence, to be open to that realization; which does, however, remain solid in my psyche while circumstances change. Because I, like you, am a person.
And I am certain that confusion and contradiction are part of who we are.