What do sad people have in common?
It seems they have all built a shrine to the past
and often go there and do a strange wail and worship.
What is the beginning of happiness?
It is to stop being so religious
Do you remember a time before all this struggle started? When you were young and innocent and didn’t know how hard the world was? Like, when you learned that Santa Claus was an elaborate hoax your parents were conspirators in? Or when you broke your leg and couldn’t play sports anymore? Or when you walked through the doors of middle school for the first time?
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the human tendency to tell ourselves stories–neuroscience tells us that one of the many functions in the brain is to interpret gajillions of bits of information and put it into some kind of meaningful order [more on this in an earlier article I wrote here]. In essence, we are constantly telling ourselves stories about our experiences that are more fathomable than the random bits of information we are always absorbing.
A lot of the time, the story we keep telling ourselves is that of of Adam and Eve in the garden.
For example, I notice I’ve started splitting my life into two sections: Before getting hit by a car and After getting hit by a car. [and I quote: “I’m having a bad month because I’ve just gone through what feels like my millionth breakup, then I got hit by a car, I’m living at home with my parents again, and I’ve been spending a lot of time watching Roswell on Netflix and snuggling my parent’s cats.”] Before, I was innocent–my body was pure and unafraid, I was open to love and new experiences, I was able to go anywhere and do anything. Getting hit made me face my ultimate vulnerability as a human being, which changed everything. I lost my innocence.
Just like Adam and Eve: we were in the garden, and everything was awesome and perfect and easy and beautiful. There was this man, lord of the animals, and his helpmeet, who just wanted to help, and be naked, And then Adam bit that damn apple, and suddenly everything was ruined and God has been punishing everyone ever since.
If you grew up Christian, or in any Christian-influenced culture, this story has pervaded your mind and the way you understand the world fundamentally. Even if you’ve never read the Bible, this is an origin story for our culture. We live in a world that understands things in terms of Before and After. We like to take incidents and make them meaningful, so that we can daydream about the time before and wish we were there instead of here.
But was I really that innocent before I got smoked by a car on my bike? The story used to be that I was innocent until my first really bad breakup (which my friends called the Chernobyl of my love life). And before that happened, the story was that I was innocent until I met my first best friend (enemy) who bullied me mercilessly for years. And when I was even younger than that, I’m sure there were many other stories about how life was good Before something happened and now things are terrible After. Like, getting born was pretty stressful, I’ll put money on that.
When we start to understand the way we interpret the unfathomable world, we realize it’s all just story after story that we tell ourselves. We are just making shit up all the time. This started before Adam and Even even got kicked out of the garden–this started when Adam started naming the animals. The world just was until Adam had to go and name everything, giving an arbitrary meaning to something unfathomable so that we could categorize it and fit it into our stories. Neuroscientist Nick Herbert puts it like this:
At it’s core, the process of thinking depends on our ability to tell a good lie and stick with it. Metaphors R Us. To think is to force one thing to “stand for” something that it is not, to substitute simple, tame, knowable, artificial concepts for some piece of the complex, wild, ultimately unknowable natural world. […] Language is surely one of our most useful tools of thought, giving conceptual prominence to certain things and processes, while relegating the unnamed and unnameable to conceptual oblivion.
And anyway, many of us forget that the fruit Adam and Eve ate was actually the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. Their curiosity naturally drew them away from their innocence, their un-knowledge, so they could understand the world they were living in better and gain experience. Yes, they bit the fruit, and God got mad, and they realized they were naked, and thunder rolled and God kicked them out and it was all terrible. It was hard, and it was traumatic, and it was a lot like getting born.
Some call this part of the story the Fortunate Fall. If Adam and Eve never fell from the garden, they never would have realized they were naked, and thus never would have gotten down to making us, if you know what I mean. There could be no ‘After’ after.
This story, which is so ingrained in our cultural consciousness, keeps telling itself in our lives, and we often associate traumas of all kinds (physical, emotional, mental) with a Before and After point. We tell it to ourselves to the point where we actually begin to define ourselves by the trauma we choose as the action point in the BT (before trauma) and AT (after trauma).
The thing is, in many ways, just like Adam and Eve, we are lucky we discovered we were naked in the garden. We are lucky to have experienced pain and stress and grief and trauma. It’s uncomfortable, sure, but it actually makes us better people, smarter people, and often, much more compassionate people, because we can relate to every other human in the world who has experienced pain. Which is everyone.
I had a long talk with some girlfriends the other night where we lamented our inability to love innocently and purely because we’ve been hurt so many times and been through so many breakups (“I’m so sick of having all these BOYfriends!!”). But the times we tell ourselves we were loving ‘innocently’, of course, is really just a story. It’s through our experiences with many different heartbreaks (and not just in romance, but in any personal relationship) that we’ve learned what we want and don’t want, how to stand up for ourselves, how to communicate better, what we’ll put up with and what we won’t. Now, when we fall in love, we fall gingerly, with a rope and a shit ton of climbing gear. We go rock by rock, and we choose when to let go. We are better at this now, and our relationships are richer and more interesting, and they don’t have any more guarantees than they ever did. We just have a lot of gear with us. So we can climb back up if we need to.
All this is to say, I wouldn’t trade my experience for my innocence if God himself asked me to. It’s been hard, sure, but every traumatic experience I’ve been through has made it more possible for me to understand other humans, to be a better teacher, friend, lover, writer, student, and everything else. With every trauma I go through, I realize, man, we are all still naked in the garden. I’m not getting any more innocent, but the more shit I have to deal with, the smarter I get. And every step of the way, every single time we screw up, we are learning how to do it better, and telling better stories all the time.
Hafiz poems and excerpts are from Daniel Ladinsky’s Penguin publications The Gift, Poems by Hafiz © copyright 1999, and I Heard God Laughing, Poems of Hope and Joy © copyright 1996 & 2006. Reprinted by permission of the author.