Might As Well Jump

 

 

 

In Frank Herbert’s Dune, the mystical Bene Gesserit sisterhood had a litany against fear.

“I must not fear.

Fear is the mind-killer.

Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.

I will face my fear.

I will permit it to pass over me and through me.

And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.

Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.”

To the Bene Gesserit, what separated a human from an animal was the ability to withstand and endure terror, suborning it to one’s will. The animal reacted. The human planned.

I’ve always been a planner. I got afraid if I didn’t have a plan. So when people ask why I left my job without another in hand, I tell them “I was about to turn 46, with more years behind than ahead, and my ‘maybe someday’ list was running out of somedays.” When it’s more than a passing conversation, I quote Annie Dillard in The Writing Life: “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour and that one is what we are doing.” They commend me for having the courage to pursue my dreams, which embarrasses me because it had nothing to do with courage, or even dreams. I’m privileged to have resources to get by while I figure things out. My family is in no real danger. All I did was react to my calculus of competing fears.

They weren’t even interesting fears. On one side was the mid-life crisis of a plateaued career, mounting frustration, and a nebulous sense of being trapped. On the other were the worst-case scenarios of starting over. The boredom I knew, versus all the worse ways I could fail. Endurance versus action. I flipped the Bene Gesserit’s script, building up a fear-driven resilience to the daily grind that paid the bills and gave me a respectable job title. I could detach my emotions, do the work, and set my brain on autopilot. “The examined life is not worth living,” I’d joke. Because once examined, I’d have to respond to what I saw. And that meant I’d have to leap off the edge of that plateau, into the unknown.

Jumping was on my mind when my supervisor took me to task for not being enthusiastic and inspiring enough for my team.

In my sophomore year of college, I joined some dorm mates and went skydiving. It was a half day process of getting familiar with the equipment, practicing the sequence of actions that would get me to the ground intact, and drilling on the safety contingencies. That done, we went up in a tiny Cessna. A static line was attached from the plane to our parachutes; they would open automatically when we fell a certain distance, provided we arched our bodies in the way that kept our backs up and bellies down. One by one, we followed the steps we’d practiced.

When my turn came, our instructor called ONE, and I stood in the open door frame in the side of the plane.

TWO. I stepped out between a pair of bars under the wing; one that I could grip in my hands, and the other that supported my feet.

THREE. While holding on to the upper bar, I stepped off the lower, and hung from my hands under the wing.

FOUR. There was no getting back into the plane now, even if the shame of doing so was endurable. The only things I could do were continue to hang there, or do what I’d come to do, and just. let. go.

Confusion. The roar of wind in my ears through my helmet. A jumble of images and no idea which way was up. Then the parachute opened, and it all went quiet. Peaceful. Free. I hung in the sky supported by air, and drifted over green and brown rectangles of land. I saw a barn. A house. A Christmas tree. It was a sublime, singular experience. Only later did it hit me that I’d jumped out of an airplane. It seemed insane. They key was that I hadn’t approached it as a single action. Even at the very end, it was four steps, which I concentrated on executing as well as I could, my mind focused on that specific task and not the entire chain of events that would put me in freefall, 12,000 feet up.

Of course, underneath it all was a huge amount of faith in the entire support system. I had faith in the instructors, the pilot, the equipment handlers, the equipment itself. I had faith in the invulnerability that came with being 19 years old. More than two decades later, I had forgotten that faith, especially in myself. As my responsibilities expanded beyond myself, so did my caution. I allowed my roles to define me, and as they did, my life became less about me and more about my obligations. That’s even considered virtuous to some. They call it a work ethic. I suspect that’s what a mid-life crisis is: after years of paying dues and being responsible, the sidelined self roars back into focus, demanding satisfaction. It wants, selfishly, unapologetically. In my case, it wanted, once again, to jump.

ONE. I told my supervisor that if my attitude was such a concern, but there was nothing to do about what caused that attitude, I really had to think about why I was here.

TWO. I asked my wife how concerned she’d be if I outright quit. This week. Tomorrow. She had once quit in frustration. She said we could make it work.

THREE. I backed up and cleared away everything personal on my laptop and desk, and took a final inventory of what I’d be leaving behind. Surprisingly little, all told.

FOUR. I looked forward to the follow-up meeting with my supervisor. For the first time in a long time, I felt like I had power. I was no longer beholden, no longer obligated. A feeling of magnanimity swelled up in me. I didn’t need to vent my grievances, I simply thanked him for his candor and give my two weeks notice.

I was light, free, floating and smiling all those two weeks. My relationship to people and objects in and around the office had shifted. I moved among them, but untethered. All the weight was lifted. Ironically, I could focus better, and the magnanimous attitude buoyed me through the remaining work days. I did ask myself if I could have somehow manufactured this way of being while keeping my job, but it was a passing thought. The feeling of release, of hope for the future, couldn’t be faked. It could only come from facing down my fear, letting go, and tumbling into open air.

CODA. The following week after my last day, my phone buzzed with texts, emails, and instant messages. Several people, including my supervisor, his supervisor, and half my peers, had their jobs terminated. A part of me wished I had held out three days, for a severance package. But the better part was happy to have my instincts validated. It’s better to jump than to be pushed.

 

The Myth of Darth Vader

(With apologies to Albert Camus’ “The Myth of Sisyphus”)

(Some SPOILERS for Rogue One)

The Emperor condemned Darth Vader to live in a castle straddling a river of lava, on a planet where he had killed his wife in anger, and was betrayed, maimed, and burned by his one-time mentor and friend. The Emperor had thought, with some reason, that there was no more effective a way to tether Vader’s loyalty to the Dark Side than to be constantly faced with the worst day of his life.

If one believes George Lucas, Anikin Skywalker, the child who would be Vader, was plucked from enslavement by a Jedi who believed him to be an instrument of prophecy. Presented to the High Council, he was chastised for feeling fear and being too old — things over which he had no control. The Council accepted him only after the Jedi who took him from his home — without informed consent — vouched for his behavior. In this way, Anikin was passed from one form of bondage to another. The rules of the Jedi demanded the abjuration of passion and strict loyalty to the Jedi order. Beyond that, the Jedi held expectations that he would “bring balance to the Force,” without having any consensus on what that meant.

Anikin trained under a system that wasn’t equipped to deal with students with his — or any — life experience. His natural talents and innate power grew, but the yoke placed on him by the Jedi chafed and provided no succor. He had but two friends outside the Jedi order. The first was a woman he knew since childhood, the only woman he knew well. The second was a man who admired his instincts instead of condemning them, and was willing to discuss topics unspoken inside the Jedi orthodoxy. Anikin’s acts of volition, and there were only a few, were considered acts of defiance. He set off to rescue his captive, dying mother. He married the woman he loved. He fought against what he saw as the unlawful arrest of his friend. At this point, he passed to his third form of bondage: accepting Darth Sidious as his master, and embracing the Dark Side of the Force. It is in the Dark Side’s grip that Anikin — now Darth Vader — killed his wife and battled his former friend over the lava flows of Mustafar, resulting in yet another form of bondage: to the machines necessary to keep him alive.

You have already grasped that Darth Vader is the absurd hero, as much through his passions as through his torture. His scorn of the Jedi, his hatred of betrayal, and his passion for the freedom to pursue his own desires won him that unspeakable penalty in which his whole being is exerted toward accomplishing his master’s goals, which are meaningless to himself. If this myth is tragic, that is because its hero is conscious. Encased in black robotic armor, Darth Vader understands that the few choices he exercised led him to this state of utter servitude. A moment of anger and violence led him to become a machine of anger and violence, an attack dog on the Emperor’s leash, kept alive and functional to serve a purpose outside himself.
In those quiet moments in his hell-castle home, when the Emperor has no need of him, Darth Vader may contemplate his fate. He can no longer lie in repose or take his ease as other men. When he is not being used as a blunt instrument, Darth Vader hangs naked in a bacta tank, letting the medicinal organisms soothe what cannot be healed. Perhaps, during those moments, he broods over what could have been had he rejected vengeance, love, or justice. But during those ruminations, suspended like a specimen in a jar, he must also see that in different choices he would have found different servitude. His very conception was by another’s design, he was born into slavery, and at no turn in his life was he left answerable only to himself. And as the fatigue of railing against his fate becomes tedious, he must realize that at that moment, his thoughts are his own. The world inside his tank is the world of his own unfettered imagination. Boredom of monotony alone would inspire him to imagine joy instead of rage. And eventually he would realize that external forces are so intent on controlling his actions that his actions could just as well go on without the presence of his mind. At that moment, he is free. One must imagine Darth Vader happy.