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Introduction

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate.

Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.

It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us.”

—Marianne Williamson

 

If you’re brave enough to pick up this book, you know that no one is ever going to explain the deepest mysteries of the universe using words. Christ used parables, not explanations, to gesture at ultimate truths. And neither he nor the Buddha ever apparently wrote—or encouraged others to write—any of their wisdom down. Truth, these and other sages tell us, isn’t embalmed in sentences. It’s lived.

But words do matter. Words can be savored, taken in, digested, and incorporated into our own unique living. Words can offer nourishment and delight—a little something to help us along the way. Words can help.

So who am I to offer what I hope are a few helpful words? In case you’re wondering, I’ll tell you.

When I popped out of the womb, I was met by two well-educated parents and an older sister, as well as a little New Hampshire village, which offered me a few neighborhood friends and a lot of woods to explore and dream in. I was also met by The Beatles, thanks to my mom’s small record collection. We were not a religious family, so I don’t know where the idea came from. But I remember the distinct thought that if there is a God, He was speaking through their music.

Then one day—I may have been about seven or eight—the serpent showed up in my garden. I was playing one of my favorite wars—The French and Indian—in my front yard. Bang! Bang! A fellow officer went down. He was dead, but of course I fought on. That’s what you do in wars. But for some reason, on this day I stopped. Wait, I thought. This man was dead. What did that mean? It meant he was gone. Forever. Nothing in my experience indicated how it could be otherwise.

I had to sit down.

After that, periodically throughout my teens, I would allow myself to ponder my own death. I’d let it sink in: It was definitely going to happen. Me—precious me—would be snuffed out for eternity. To call the feeling horrifying doesn’t capture it. Grotesque? Catastrophic? It sent a coldness through my body.

But there was nothing to do except shake it off and keep doing the stuff I was doing. Get up, eat breakfast, go to school, try out for the baseball team. The strangeness of dreams and quantum physics interested me enough to read, if memory serves, a single book on each of these topics. But for the most part I was a conventional kid. No one else was talking about how we were all going to die for eternity. So why make waves? I wasn’t a wave-making kind of guy. I wanted to fit in and be loved, not dwell on the inevitability of death.

And there were plenty of distractions. Ironically, you could say school was the biggest distraction from this biggest of truths. It was, at any rate, a place where I could feel successful. By age nine, my parents had split and my mother had flown to California, on the next step in her spiritual questing. When I joined her, it felt like she had flown into the sky. So I returned to my father in New Hampshire. He, however, had pledged his loyalty to a new wife—who didn’t want me around. School, then, became a sanctuary. I didn’t feel I belonged in any home. But at school, I was well-behaved, conscientious, academic, athletic, and popular. After high school, I was thrilled to be given Harvard’s stamp of approval, and I leaped into its august and comforting arms.

As a little boy, I had loved to draw and wanted to study animals when I grew up. But when I arrived at Harvard, I felt no particular passion for anything. At first, I thought I’d be an engineer, which seemed like something solid, dependable, and likely to continue not making any waves, since my father was a scientist. But when physics class proved too challenging for my already lukewarm interest, I went in search of another respectable major. Finally, I settled on biology, figuring I’d be a doctor because, what-the-hell, that’s the kind of thing Harvard graduates do.

Meanwhile, something else was going on unofficially. (Which is where, I have since found, the good stuff is usually going on.) I had been accepted onto The Harvard Lampoon as a comedy writer, and was taking classes on philosophy and literature. I was drifting away from a conventionally scientific, “what-you-see-is-what-you-get” view of reality and starting to have an inkling that bigger truths lay underneath that veneer—in realms gestured at by art, philosophy, and religion. I remember sitting in a neurobiology class and thinking that the complex orchestra of even the tiniest nerve signal was just too exquisite to have come about through the trial and error of mindless evolution. Something else was afoot.

The pivot point came the summer after my junior year, which I spent at my mom’s in northern California. Free from school, I was choosing my own reading list, which included D.H. Lawrence and Nietzsche. I also discovered another record in my mom’s collection, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. I was finding artists and thinkers who were getting closer to something I could relate to—a certain attitude towards life. I didn’t read Eugene O’Neill, but it was after watching a PBS documentary about him that summer that I made a decision:  I would be a writer.

It felt romantic. O’Neill had sailed the literal seas, working on ships, before sailing the inner seas of his psyche to write his plays. I wanted to take such a journey. I wanted to know if I could write something grand, rich, and dazzling. I wasn’t sure I could. But I had the distinct thought that I didn’t want to be on my deathbed wondering.

When I was about to leave college, the serpent showed up again—this time with a vengeance. A crushing anxiety and dread descended on me, apparently out of nowhere. In retrospect, though, I think he came by invitation. My decision to be a writer—along with the subsequent decision to forgo med school and make a living as a teacher—cracked me open. It led to years of psychotherapy, reams of journal pages, and the exploration of anything that felt like it might have some answers for what I was looking for—fulfillment, comfort, richness, truth, God.

That search has been eclectic and often lonely. I’ve avoided belonging to any one school of thought. Many people bloom within one spiritual or artistic tradition. They are able to use its particular terms and practices to grow into their own authentic variation on it. But since college, I’ve never trusted myself in, or felt drawn to, any particular one of these. I’ve wanted a jargon-free, borderless spirituality. I’ve wanted my deep truth—call it God—to feel woven into the fabric of existence as much as the squirrels that run along my fence, or the air I breathe, the legs I lift, or the songs I sing while driving down the highway. My particular passion is to leave nothing out. 

That quixotic passion to “leave nothing out” has meant being—whether by turns or simultaneously—a screenwriter, singer-songwriter, science and math teacher, poet, and essayist. It has meant exploring Buddhism, Hinduism, Taosim, animism, Christianity, Islam, Zen, Western philosophy, New Age thought, mythology, depth psychology, anthropology, psychology, sociology, quantum physics, and the paranormal and supernatural.

Western culture is full of specialists doing helpful things, and I sometimes wish I was one of them. But, in these essays at least, I’ve tried to offer something that may be in shorter supply in our modern world: a meaningful synthesis. Or maybe you could call it perspective—a bigger perspective than most Westerners are accustomed to, even in this era of multiculturism. The incredible amount of information available to us now is both a blessing and a curse. It’s both phenomenally helpful and phenomenally confusing. It’s easy to feel lost in a digital blizzard of data, advice, points of view, and videos of baby goats. I try to back up as far as I can from it all and connect some dots you may not have thought could be connected—between for example religion and math, faith and reason, or the objective world and your subjective ideas. All these essays, I hope, will reinforce a sense, both exciting and comforting, that indeed the dots of all human experience somehow connect—that your life, and life itself, is not a jumble of randomness but something somehow unified, warm-blooded, and meaningful.  

I hope these essays do something else as well: help you see what has been in front of you all the time. That old saw that fish don’t know they’re in water is a fundamental idea in these essays. That which is most pervasive—and most important—in our lives is the hardest to see. It’s easy to spend a lifetime in the same waters, circling the same fishbowl, without realizing there’s something outside that bowl.

I feel my life has been a series of airlifts out of whatever fishbowl I’ve been in. The transitions can be anywhere from terrifying to thrilling. But to my delight, I’ve found I can not only breathe outside the old fishbowl, I can sing. It’s as if the serpent was part of God’s plan all along—a way to nudge us out of one garden and into a larger, more splendid one.

The nourishment I have found—in therapists and friends; in reading, writing, and reflecting; in listening, living, and loving—has alleviated that old feeling that in the background to everything lurks something blank and awful. I’ve come to sense that the opposite is true. No matter how it may sometimes look in our fishbowl, Jesus was right. Miracle of miracles! The news is, ultimately, good.

 

—Chris Spark, December 2021