A Call to Consciousness
I read an article recently about a street performer playing the violin at a metro station in Washington, D.C.. Several people stopped to listen for a fleeting moment, a couple even paused to toss a dollar bill into his violin case. However, the majority of the masses rushed senselessly on; some in a mixture of guilt and irritation with the demand on their time and money, some not even noticing the man. What they failed to realize was this street performer was Joshua Bell, possibly the world’s best violinist and internationally acclaimed virtuoso, who, in a performance only two days earlier, had filled the Boston Symphony Hall where seats cost upwards of a hundred dollars.
While walking my dog down an old fire road behind my house I realize this metro station has become a microcosm of our world; the millions pass by in a conscious slumber, caught in the preprogrammed cycle of mindless existence while only a scarce few stand apart from the crowd and are aware of all that exists, fully immersed in life, and truly alive. I feel a guilty conviction that I am not fully awake. An awake-ness that does not come from a full night of sleep or a steaming cup of coffee. My eyes are open but my spirit is asleep. Just how long have I been living life in this callus state?
Shiloh, my Labrador retriever, sniffs the air with an exaggerated enthusiasm, splashed through a murky puddle, and zigzags across the trail making sure there is not a detail in the earthy canvas untouched by her muddy paw print. I recall a time I had this genuine curiosity and interest in life. A time when every tree begged to be climbed, every butterfly begged to be caught, and every dandelion begged to be wished upon. And yet, I know this is a time and mentality exclusive to childhood. I wonder how I have slipped so subtlety and so entirely into the confines of adulthood.
If childhood is an unscripted play, then maturity is an age-old tragedy with strict character roles. Society has a written script for my life. The less I resist the easier it will be. I find myself now in a position Jack London once pronounced in his essay, What Life Means to Me: “all things [are] commodities, all people bought and sold.” Society demands my talents, my time, my vigor. Will I sell my labor, prostituting my commodity of muscle? Or will I become a “vendor of brains,” frantic in the pursuit of knowledge and eager to become a successful brain merchant? Society is not interested in me; it hungers only for the resources I have to offer. The day my stock of muscle is expended and there is not one ounce of fleshly talents left unsold on the marketplace of society, I too, will be forgotten forever. I will become yet another man who went “muscle bankrupt, and nothing remained to him but to go down into the cellar of society and perish miserably.”
The tragedy of mankind, therefore, is not when he sells his talents but rather, when he willingly sells his life away to the slavery of labor. It is when mankind no longer controls society but society controls man. Jack London was likewise aware of this. He observed of the upper class as “clean and noble; but with rare exceptions, they were not alive.” I cannot help but think of the masses in the metro station, caught in the shackles of labor and too busy selling every last bit of their life away to notice Joshua. Even the highest in society are not impervious to the danger of becoming entangled in “passionless pursuit of passionless intelligence.” As London asserts, they become “merely the unburied dead–clean and noble, like well-preserved mummies, but not alive.”
After all, what does it really mean to be alive? In words that would eventually become known as his “credo,” London stated his vision:
“I would rather be ashes than dust!
I would rather that my spark should burn out
in a brilliant blaze that it should be stifled by dry-rot.
I would rather be a superb meteor, every atom
of me in magnificent glow, than a sleepy and permanent planet.
The function of man is to live, not to exist.
I shall not waste my days trying to prolong them.
I shall use my time.”
My forehead furrows in concentration as I reach into myself and try to find a point of existence deeper than I have ever experienced. Every detail of my surroundings becomes momentous. Every blade of grass becomes a miracle in its own right. Every tree becomes an intricate cathedral. Every branch a flying buttress. Every translucent leaf a stained-glass window, the impossible network of veins disbanding the light into a thousand pieces. I look down at the back of my hand and see the tiny trapezoids of dust specks God once wetted and breathed to life. Each crease in my skin becomes the roadmap of my life: every line retracing a trial, a tragedy, a triumph. Each wrinkle becomes the geography of the earth. Little rivers run through canyons and plateaus spreading into the fabrication of the world. An eagle screams in the wind, an old fire trail cuts through a familiar hill. I feel the blood of my veins pulsing through the soil beneath my feet. Every atom in my body is aglow, every pore screams in life. This is what it means to be alive. This is the “ecstasy that marks the summit of life, and beyond which life cannot rise..such is the paradox of living, this ecstasy comes when one in most alive, and it comes as a complete forgetfulness of living” (The Call of the Wild). I look back towards my house and the realm of my daily life. The world of YouTube, cell phones, video games, and iPods feels so distant and detached, so irrelevant and insignificant in light of life. So where then, am I to go?
My shoe absent-mindedly kicks a rock along the path as I near my house and I stare at the dirt. I have no choice but to return, fulfilling my role in society’s production. Nevertheless, as I open the gate and return to my life once again, I hope–I pray somewhere among the surging crowd, somewhere amidst the fog of daily life, I will still hear the sound of Joshua’s violin, and I will stop to listen.