Desolate exploration

Many years ago, well before my Parkinson’s diagnosis, my mother gave me a small piece of wall art depicting a Greek fresco of Saint George slaying the dragon. She proclaimed it to portray “Saint Peter, slaying his next dragon.” She was referring to my next life adventure and asked that I place it near the bed where it might protect me while sleeping.

Neither my mother nor I have been particularly religious in the organizational sense, but I do believe that we have both attempted to be spiritual in character. It hung on the wall as a silent nighttime companion for decades.

Intuitively, I understood that this ostensibly religious icon was appropriate for my life, but I had not attempted to understand why this was so, at least not on a conscious level. Until recently.

The legend of Saint George, a Roman Christian who lived during the 3rd century AD, at its essence tells of the killing of a beast that was terrorizing a local populace. It inspired myriad pieces of artwork across the ages.

The image is powerful, vividly illustrating a horse rearing up as Saint George readies to deliver the death blow. Both man and horse stare wisely at the dragon as the spear threatens to be thrust home. It can be vaguely unsettling, but given time, the picture brings me to a place of peaceful contemplation.

I believe that the legend points to several life truisms, the most obvious being that we all have our demons to conquer on some level. To me, it also speaks to life’s intrinsic struggle, and to the lack of a happy, acceptable, or even understandable resolution (Saint George was subsequently tortured and martyred for his refusal to denounce Christianity, never mind the fate of the dragon).

Regardless of how things appear, we are all hero’s, flawed and beautiful in our own right, silently battling our shared dragons of uncertainty, pain, and lack of meaning, each on a personal journey of desolate exploration, leaving me to wonder whether the target of the spear is really the dragon, or far beyond.

Unlearning kindness

When I was a child of about seven living on Long Island’s North Shore, I remember riding my bicycle to the end of a sanded street at the back of a local school. It was a crisp winter day, with a towering pile of dirty brown snow plowed weeks before serving as the rally point for a search. I was helping several adult neighbors look for a toddler who had gone missing, a frantic scramble that was quickly resolved–he  had merely wandered off a block or two.

A surge of young pride filled my chest as a grownup thanked me for my efforts, followed closely by a profound emptiness. I would not receive any tangible reward, not from the neighbor or my parents, not even from a still omniscient Santa Claus, a figure whose mystery I only recently had come to know was a parental invention.

A nagging question hung over me with troubling implications, “why be kind”? I resisted acting on the uncertainty, and it grew stale and powerless as the decades passed.

Why be kind? Why make minor daily sacrifices for outcomes which will probably never circle back? Perhaps it is a heart-driven response. Maybe those of us naturally on the sensitive side have no choice, but I think not.

The machinations of society’s contrived priorities pressure the ego into a belief system of benefit, revenge, and competitive notoriety. However, once societal pressure is recognized as an artificial manifestation, maybe humanity’s natural inclination is to return to kindness.

Unlearning society’s taught path to kindness by overcoming the obstacles of greed, fame, and legacy may seem counter-intuitive, trite or tiresome. But it need not be so complicated. To a seven-year-old, just doing what’s right makes all the sense in the world.

Folly and detour.

One of my most valued considerations of the past several years is an attempt to overcome unconscious prejudices, both the rigidly intellectual and gut-wrenching societal connections expressed through the judging of others. Not only am I not in a position to judge (nobody is), but I also believe that judging others severely limits potential insight into the great bottomless pit of human nature.

How do I know if I’m successful? The reality is that I don’t know, but that doesn’t mean that I can’t try my hardest, categorizing perceived conclusions along the sprawling vista of unknowns that haunt common humanity. This means not accepting that any part of me is unchangeable, a lesson that, again, should be exceedingly familiar given my circumstances with Parkinson’s disease, but seems to be relearned with Sisyphus-like repetition.

The corollary to this is to return to my pre-DBS surgery state of being, of not accepting or caring about what others might say or feel about me. This has turned out to be an even harder nut to crack. Vanity fills life’s voids like water seeks lower ground, seeping into each crack in our thin veneer of identity-armor and corroding from the inside. To be defined by others is to succumb to life’s misery, never recognizing the attendant joy that rides along nose-to-nose with despair.

Why is it so difficult to honestly disregard what others say or think of you? Is it due to the intrinsic confusion of existing, of accepting that you are as aware and enlightened as anyone else, or at least could be; to succumb to life’s ultimate vanity? And so, the circle distorts into a looping sphere of folly and detour, as we move through the world re-learning the same lessons over and over again.