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.