Once when I practiced archeology my mentor asked a question. We were perhaps standing on some desert butte. Looking at this lovely perfect scene of wildflower and dune. Behind us the Land Cruiser stay still. The morning was ideal. Perfect. Like some desert god had imprinted with his fanciful vision. RWR looked down from a whiskered face. Contemplating perhaps how it would all change soon. Wind farms and roads. Small buildings would come. So behind his youthful yet ancient gaze he murmured
Are we living or existing?
There is some great distance between them I think now. Then the question seemed metaphorical or existential like tapping the feelings of that same desert god who playfully gave us the scene. I did not know it’s truth or faculty then. For me then all life was living. There was no distance to measure because life itself seemed bound with archeology and passion and doing.
Now I think I’ve found the sublime distance in the question. As I sit in the rainy morning in Siem Reap, I’ve felt just how far the distance is from existing. Existing is having moments but with perhaps no joy or vigor. Just doing the rote things to enable existence. Living is finding all the measure of life. Tasting its sweetness and variety. So how far is the distance? Can it be plotted on a graph or scale? Measured in emotion or feeling?
I think so but the distance is so deceiving. Almost as far as the distance from happiness and contentment. A psychologist once told me to think of the difference from happiness to contentment. His example was a field of cows chewing on grasses. He asked,
Are the cows happy or contented?
They are not jumping around the field with joy or excitedly running the field.
My wife asked me this morning if I was happy. I said no. She asked the long line of questions. Mad at her. Her mom. Family. Friends.
Have you ever noticed how people assume some external thing makes us happy or not? Or content and existing?
I told her I am neither happy or unhappy. I feel nothing. It’s hard for her to understand without believing or asserting it must be something external. How could someone not feel either way? I don’t. Much like RWR asking decades ago I can only find my way to existing. The pathway to living and happiness seems to be dangling forever out of my reach. Like the precious thing just there. See it?
Then we talked and I told her about the distance between existing and living. I told her I felt straddling some invisible fence line that broke the scene. Perhaps like a barbed wire fence that would have been put in the idyllic scene I started this post with. That desert view there but out of reach. That life now with happiness dangling and living teasing me. My wife cried after awhile because the talk went all around like married couples talk. We talked about our happiness and hers is out of reach as well. She has this desire to see the kids perform at some other level, to find each day they outpace her expectations. Of course it does not happen. It is the barbed wire of our desires separated from the realities.
I can see RWR carefully walking this path down the butte then. His boots scuffing the rhyolite and basalt sides. His quiet speaks volumes. I can hear my wife crying and her eyes staring into mine. Those warm, emotional, sensuous khmer eyes. They speak more than words to me. From then to now is like a ride.
This blogpost was also like a ride. I wished to write a thing which transected life and living. Happiness and joy. Unhappiness and merely existing. I lived many years without the joy and living without Alin. She too told me her life was not miserable but there were those open spots that never filled.
My message this morning after starting and stopping the writing to talk with my wife is that we all deserve happiness and to live. My wife nods vigorously. RWR would smile as he tenderly touched the wildflowers shining again in their pinks and yellows and blues.
I can almost hear him saying,
Mike, be happy in your life. Find the thing worth having and grab it.
I did that RWR. She’s mine and I’m hers. Each day we invent it all again. And that, my friends, is our path from mere existence to living. See you on the other side.