Quintessence and stuff

The Ancients believed there were four elements that founded the building blocks of the universe: fire, air, earth, and water.  From these base elements, all things could be created. There was also a fifth element, the “Quint-essence” called ether (or akasha, in Hindu tradition), that was unknowable stuff.  It was like über-air… the stuff that only gods could breathe (or even conceive of breathing).

Quintessence has since come to mean something entirely different to most of us. It’s almost like an ultimate metaphysical state: something very unknowable yet very pleasurable, if we could only reach it. We yearn for quintessence, although we don’t know exactly what the world we really want. The Buddhists call this phenomenon, this striving, dukkha, and it is the primary motivator of the entirety of the Buddhist philosophy. To attain a better state, we must recognize and cope with the pain and struggle. What they’re really looking for is quintessence: the end to the dukkha of everyday life.

Sometimes life hurts. Scratch that. Several times a day, life seems to get its barbs into our flesh. Big annoying things like finances (where’s the money going to come from, to make the car payment?) and little, annoying trifles all day long (Did she mean to snub our table at lunch, or was she just busy? Why am I so upset with her, then?) It’s constant, really.  It’s one of  those curses-disguised-as-blessings we humans possess. We are able to look at possible outcomes of everything that happens over the course of the day, and select the best and the worst of these outcomes, to guide our path. And I mean everything. Squeeze the toothpaste from the middle, and earn the wrath of the whole family. You go to work grumpy, and snap at your boss.  Boss dumps a whole load of irrelevant work on your desk in retribution.  You quietly fume at lunch, when they’re out of pastrami. You snap at the woman behind the counter, who spits in your soup. And on the day goes.

I suppose a key component of attaining quintessence is being able to stop, or reverse the chain. We can do this on a small scale.  A kind word or a compliment will work. A smile, or, if it’s appropriate, a pat on a shoulder. A thank you note. Giving a stranger a flower.  Or a $5 bill. Little things like these seem to clear the trail of slime, reverse the snail, and save the cauliflower.

It happened at work today.  An angry person in one cubicle was hurt by another, and snapped at a third, who snapped at a fourth.  It was 9 AM, and I thought, “Uh-oh. It’s going to be a long morning full of people seething in their own worlds.” And then somebody apologized and reset the clock. “I’m sorry. I really didn’t mean my comments to sound like they did. You’re absolutely right and I was wrong.” Just like that, the office changed. Four angry people were allowed to survive the next seven hours happily.

I bet if enough of these moments took place, the effects would cascade. Anger would be erased on a global scale. Forgiveness pouring from nation to nation, as hurts are reconciled and friendships are forged. But then again, I’m an idealist and just one person. Cool thought though, huh?

It’s the relational things that really bother us. Expectations and assumptions from others weigh much more heavily in our minds than actual objects.  I’m not mad because Sam didn’t record the game last night. The game’s not the point.  The point is, Sam forgot (maybe intentionally), and it’s disrespectful. It’s a slight on me as a person. I mean, I know I should forgive and forget because Sam didn’t mean to forget. Or did he? He forgot to tape the season opener of that program I like, too.  That Sam-I-Am, that Sam-I-Am. He never liked me. When it’s his birthday I think I’ll set fire to a bag full of dog poo and throw it at his mailbox. Our assumptions lead us in the wrong direction all the time. Maybe not to that extent, but we’re always searching. We’re constantly trying to find that hypothetical future where we are able to move forward unhurt. Why are we so concerned with it? when does it become Sam’s problem, and not mine? Maybe you let Sam off the hook, ask Julie to tape the game next time and move on. Our future is ours to screw up, not Sam’s. Although, you have to admit, Sam can be a bit of an ass sometimes.

Yeah. I know. It’s not really that easy. Pain always seems to exist where other people are involved. Families, especially, will harbor grudges from fights that happened decades before. I guess the upside is, not only are we possessed of the capacity to reason causality as human beings, but we can reset that clock. Maybe that’s what forgiveness is, and that’s where quintessence is found. I don’t know if I can forgive. I do my God’s-honest best, but it’s a daily struggle. I can only move forward. Somebody smarter and weirder than I said “The future just ain’t what it used to be.” (I saw the quote attributed to both Paul Valery, and Yogi Berra. Talk about your list of people you’d never expect to see in the same room together). Humans are the only creatures who can intentionally change our futures. Let’s try making a better one, and maybe, like Olympians, we’ll inhale quintessence and find ourselves in a better world.


3 thoughts on “Quintessence and stuff”

  1. Your office story reminds of the Scripture in Proverbs that says a kind word turns wrath away. I’ve used it with our son and it makes a huge difference. Praise, kind words and apologies can be life-giving in a downward spiral situation.


  2. Well-written, and thank you for it.

    “Quintessence has since come to mean something entirely different to most of us. ”

    I think it has; I think this is true, and yet I wonder if things really needed to turn out that way. At some point along the line, someone with influence decided to toss out the old (yet Actual) meaning of the word (quintessence), and took it upon himself to repurpose the word. Others took his repurposing and ran with it. I wonder if this is how it happened.

    A lot of food for thought here, written carefully and even-handedly.

    Thank you.


  3. Rock on, Bri! Loved this. I love doing random acts of kindness, often for strangers. A few years ago, I was in line at the doctor’s office, waiting to check in. The lady in front of me needed 85 cents to make her co-payment, and she just didn’t have it. The office worker was not being very sympathetic, and the lady said something to the effect of ‘gee, if only I had a friend in town!’ I said ‘how about me?’ and offered her the change from my overflowing purse. Her mouth actually dropped open in surprise, and she said, well if you give me your name and address, I will mail it back to you. I told her that wasn’t necessary, but that she could ‘pay it forward’ (Love the movie!) to the next person who needed help. I asked her if she was familiar with the movie, and she said yes, it was one of her favorites, in fact. She thanked me profusely, and her son got to see the doctor that day. I felt wonderful! It was such a simple thing to do, and it just felt ‘right.’ I would (and will) do it again in a heartbeat.
    More recently, I was about half way through my 4-5 mile walk when it started to rain. I got mad first, but as I resolved to continue my walk, I realized that I could tuck my iPod away in a zippered pocket and it would be just fine. Also, I knew that I wasn’t going to melt. Then, I totally turned it around and decided I was darn lucky to have two good, healthy legs that could walk me wherever I wanted to go, when I wanted to go there, and however fast I decided to move. I went from starting to be cranky, to being thankful for my blessings and my health, and my family and friends. It felt awesome! Anyway, I didn’t mean to ramble on; it just happened. Thanks for this timely, upbeat piece. Love ya, man! 🙂 –SH


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