Column: Life and Path
A death in my family
A cousin of mine died last month, a man with whom for a very long period I had no contact nor true family-feeling. Alcoholism killed him. We once were very close.
I feel called to apologize in advance to family members who might feel my remarks here are too personal, that I have said too much that should be private. I believe I’ve exercised sympathetic discretion while writing things I feel to be deeply true. There is latitude, I trust, to agree to disagree without harm to our relations.
Though my cousin moved to BC from Toronto in 1981, a few years later than I had, we saw each other only twice in Victoria since then, in 1999 and 2017. Our estrangement was surprising given how very close we had been as boys and young teens, but he and I went radically-different paths after our mid-teens.
In our teens, he modelled himself on James Dean and 1950’s leather-jacketed motorcycle-riding tough guys; I on John Lennon and 1960’s new-Left anti-war radicals. I spent years on university campuses in that heady time when some kind of Revolution seemed imminent; he, none at all.
Our outlooks on life were out of harmony. And, truth be told, I bore hard feelings toward him for some teen-aged instances of his rejection of me as a very uncool cousin. Country mouse and city mouse, one might aptly say.
His passing has made me melancholic for the way people choose a narrative, as Charles Eisenstein would say, for defining success by material acquisition through well-paid career paths. My cousin became an accountant and climbed high in the federal civil service, but at the end of his career his retirement was rushed by the fact of his alcoholism interfering in work.
From that time until his death, the tales I heard from family reports about his drinking, and my own two experiences of seeing him in person, revealed a man committing slow suicide by alcohol. The desperate circumstances of his last days were grim, in a hospital ICU.
Yet, all that aside, this was a man who made good friends who miss him now, who spoke of him with real love at his memorial. He had qualities valued by people who knew him better than I did.
Taking meaning from personal history
I said to my brother that our cousin’s last legacy to the family was a lesson in the cost of not following your heart, your passion for a meaningful kind of work. He ought never to have been a bureaucrat, for that was quite contrary work to the kind of activity he loved. We both worked for an Ontario farmer east of Toronto during summer holidays, but my cousin’s devotion to the life of a farm and all that life entails – a love of land and animals and self-organization and being outdoors – were the truth of his soul.
He “sold out”, as my Sixties’ idealist friends and I used to say about our peers who chased material success and lost their nobler motivations. Or in the words of my daughter, from a generation who never knew the Sixties, my cousin harmed himself in “soul-sucking work.”
Be sure that I am not saying that all persons who work in government service and accountancy have lost their path, for I have indeed known individuals who thrive and do much good in those pursuits; they were constituted by character and inclination for that kind of work. But my cousin was not.
His dismal marital history, his self-identified sadness that he was never a father, his attempt to re-create his youth by replicating the activities of our teens, the music and movie-musicals and the hobbies and interests of his father: all were to me evidence that he had distorted his life by forcing himself into a mould where he simply was not destined to flourish.
Anyone with a searching interest in this idea — that a human character, talent, and temperament are profoundly laid into one’s being even before one has begun to speak – is strongly advised to readThe Soul’s Code by James Hillman. Hillman is a celebrated Jungian psychologist passionate about the force of character as the defining aspect of human living. His explication of Plato’s notion of thedaimon is compelling.
Reflecting on my cousin’s death and unfulfilled life has reinforced my own prior agreement with Eisenstein, that people must choose work that matters to them. In his many public appearances, Eisenstein is lucid about that: happiness as defined by the “old Story of the People,” measured by material and social status, will lead a soul to sadness — and contribute to the degradation of our planet by economic exploitation; yet few people experience the freedom to escape the machinery of economic forces.
We are indeed at a pivotal point in human history, a time he calls the “time between stories” when an old story is dying and the slowly-manifesting new narrative does not yet possess the power of becoming real for masses of people. Eisenstein offers many options and good advice to those who want to be midwives at the birth of the New Story. If readers have not sampled his teachings, find him at www.charleseisenstein.org
Within the constraints of present necessity, all of us will be happier if we pursue meaningful work, and act compassionately in social and political contexts, in the manner that is a true expression of our character and selfhood.
The purpose of life is to find your gift.