Hold Life Loosely and Laugh

Jun 25, 2020 | Building on others

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A Nobel Laureate’s advice for troubled souls.

The fictional notebooks of Harry Haller, aka Steppenwolf, reveal the brilliant but troubled mind of a man on a journey of integration — integrating his dark, animal aspects into a fuller version of himself and integrating as a spirited individual in the maddening bourgeois world of Weimar Germany.

Harry’s path, his battle to reconcile freedom and connection, contains lessons for any seeker.

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Nothing is more valuable in such a journey than a sense of humour. Only with this tool can a seeker practice acceptance, equanimity and surrender with consistency.

Only humour — the splendid invention of those highly talented but unfortunate individuals who are frustrated in the pursuit of the highest ideals, figures bordering on the tragic — only humour (possibly the most original and brilliant of humankind’s achievements) can accomplish the otherwise impossible feat of uniting all spheres of human life by bathing them in the iridescent light of its prisms. To live in the world as though it were not the world, to respect the law but to remain above it, to have possessions ‘as if not possessing’, to renounce things as though it were no renunciation:— all the things asked of us in such well-loved and frequently expressed words of wisdom can only be put into practice through humour. (59)*

Only with a healthy sense of irony can Harry reconcile the opposites that populate the world without fusing with one extreme or the other. This calls to mind Greg Goode’s ‘joyful irony’, an attitude of freedom from suffering and from literalism. Humour frees the mind from expecting the world to conform to our concepts of it or the words we use to refer to it.

The challenges of opposition and contradiction lie as much within Harry as they do in his external world. His feat of re-assembling himself is not a simple one of uniting light with dark. He has countless dimensions, and his character traverses the full range of each of them. Harry is a community of selves.

Harry is not made up of two characters, but of hundreds, of thousands. His life, like that of every human being, does not oscillate between two poles only — say between the body and the mind or spirit, between the saint and the profligate — but between thousands, between innumerable polar opposites. (61–62).

The thing is to shun identification with any passing state. Define yourself by any mix of fixed characteristics, and you suffer each time one or more of them goes absent. But see each personality as a costume of cheap material, and you’ll happily enough let it go for the next when the time comes.

… the ability to die, to slough off one’s skin like a snake, to commit oneself to incessant self-transformation is what leads the way to immortality. (66)

What is the snake in Harry’s case? If the skins to be sloughed are his oscillating character traits or costumes, what is he? He is what holds the entire costume wardrobe. Beyond that, perhaps he houses the stage and all possible sets as well. He may hold the world. Complete openness breaches the skin and includes freedom from all the vicissitudes of external circumstance. And this is the path of the great spiritual sages.

Instead of making your world more confined and your soul simpler you are going to have to include more and more world, ultimately the entire world in your soul as it painfully expands, until one day, perhaps, you reach the end and find rest. This, in so far as they succeeded in the venture, is the path taken by Buddha, by all great human beings, some knowingly, others unconsciously. (67)

Someone so open, untied to any moment’s content, can immerse themselves in the present completely. Knowing the transience of all detail and embracing every internal and external aspect of experience, they can give themselves wholly to each moment. Confident that they can embrace anything that arises, they needn’t concern themselves with the future. Harry observes this quality in his unpredictable guru, master and soulmate, Hermione.

Anyone knowing how to live for the moment, to live in the present as she did, treasuring every little wayside flower with loving care and deriving value from every playful little instant, had nothing to fear from life. (121)

Harry has long considered killing himself, but in the end, the world sentences him to life, to experiencing all it sends his way. He is to attend to it, but from that empowering ironic perspective that combines the child’s playfulness with the parent’s wisdom. Life’s details may be nonsense, but only through them do we experience life’s meaning. In the language of another tradition, we only reach Nirvana through Samsara.

You must learn to listen to life’s damned radio music, to respect the spirit that lies behind it while laughing at all the dross it contains. That’s all. Nothing more is being asked of you. (236)

Instead of taking his own life, Harry must die in each moment to make room for the next. With luck, he’ll learn to respect Experiencing — the spirit behind each experience — without getting caught up in the fuss that it often contains.

We hope he can, with humour, bear the vulnerability of opening his soul to the world. We wish Harry luck in holding the whole world but holding it lightly.

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Nobel Laureate Hermann Hesse’s stories are drenched in spiritual meaning and laced with deep themes of self-discovery. Although The Glass Bead Game is considered his opus, I recommend Steppenwolf, Demian and Siddhartha as the best places to start exploring him.

* All citations refer to page numbers is Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf (Penguin Modern Classics), Kindle Edition.

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