Paradise Lost and the Existential Quest of Spring

With the turmoil of the world surrounding me, my thoughts are too scattered to collect. Ever-increasing confusion cloud the horizon – twists of facts blurred by the speed of falsehood add to my detachment. I feel compelled to examine reality.

Intense weather, intense news, extreme political rhetoric. Should I wade outside or find a dark corner in my room to hide from this madness?

Distractions. All distractions.

Existential dread is a springtime affliction I experience with increased frequency. This year it’s more pronounced as I sit here staring at my swollen knee… a torn meniscus prevents me from long-awaited spring hikes into the hills of Czechia or heading out on a run to stretch the body and soul after a long winter.

Instead, I sit reminiscing, scrutinizing what lies ahead (and what doesn’t). Contemplating life.

Reality has taken the form of the parable Sisyphus, the mythical Greek man destined to push a boulder up a mountain only to watch it roll back down. And he gets to do it over again, ad infinitum. A bleak reality. A monotonous life… parallel to mine and those I know.

Viewed from the outside, we are but slaves to routines with the macabre void of death waiting for collection at the end. And if you are wondering, yes, these days, I am the life of the party… 🙃

The above photos remind me of my countless trips up and down Mt. Ellinor. And as with Sisyphus, each ascent had the same monotonous steps, albeit with minor variances but roughly similar. As did the days that filled the time between climbs. Hmmm, what is keeping me sane? 

Nothing changes. We eat. Sleep. Exercise. Work. Die. It is the abbreviated history of humankind. Spiritually, what keeps us alive? What keeps us striving?

Reviewing past photos of Ellinor, the answer comes in pieces, reflections on what has brought me to this point in life and, surprisingly, to the philosophy of Camus and Nietzsche.

The short answer: Art.

The human mind has an endless appetite for creativity. It observes reality, churns it around the head & heart, and creates its own existence – a world in which to belong. 

The question becomes, do we succumb to the chaos we experience daily from the mass of information and give in to the absurd reality fed to us? Put our mind on autopilot and drearily live through the day?

Such questions have become a spring tradition with me, to the point where I classify as an existentialist… with pieces of stoicism, Daoism, and cultures from around the world holding me together. 

Add to this dread my swollen knee and wondering if my future Ellinor will resemble the ones of my past, and I wish I had a beer in front of me right now. My Czech friends would laugh at this, as any authentic Czech has at least one in the fridge for such occasions.

Spring, as a concept, is hope itself. And being fooled again by spring is easy, for the silence of winter allows complacency to creep in, and with the Siren’s song of spring echoing loudly, it creates discomfort.

Discomfort is something to cherish and revel in. Wrap yourself up in the existential questions, for to live is to invite stress and difficulties to spur us forward. We need to churn thoughts repetitiously, to the point of madness… and from this existential quest, we find the lucidity of courage.  

It’s a love-hate relationship for me with spring, originating from an inherent romanticism since youth… The thought is in spring, I’ll be inspired, in summer in love, by autumn reflective, and by winter, ready to take solace in a year/life well spent.

In reality: it is ‘roll the stone up the hill, watch it roll down’ repeated ad nauseam.

Somehow I fool myself into believing in the comfort of spring’s Siren call – she makes me feel like I could be enough and contribute to her world. I’d say it is a lot like bad TV, rewatching those shows I’ve seen a thousand times… yet, even with the ridiculousness of it all, I rejoice in it. Star Trek, anyone?

Existentialists look to the absurdness of life as a catalyst. Getting sucked into the repetitive void that makes life meaningless is easy. But we have one tool which gives us freedom: the creative mind. In essence, our ability to appreciate and create Art. It allows us to escape this fucking Sisyphean reality. 

One of the critical points of existentialism is taking complete responsibility for one’s life. No excuses. Even in Nietzsche and, to a lesser extent, in Heidegger, improving oneself is the minimum of what we owe ourselves (and thus life).

“What makes existentialism so appealing to me?” I ask myself, slowly getting up from my chair to pace around the room – my obsession with hitting my daily step goal remains strong even while hobbled.   

Everyone, at some point, struggles to understand the meaning of life, and for me, existentialism cuts to the core of who I am. It allows me to revolt against what society/politics push my way and sink deeper into exploring my own reality and happiness. It kickstarts my creative mind; from this, I can find a slice of Heaven in this crazy world.

And what is this Heaven I mention? I seek one of the more pretentiously beautiful lines of the epic poem Paradise Lost by John Milton to answer this question.

When in such a mood as I am now, I think of my best friend from childhood, Pat Breland, who has been gallantly making great Art even after receiving a terminal cancer diagnosis in March. This quote fits well:

“The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.”

– Paradise Lost, Book One, lines 242 – 270 by John Milton

Throughout my life, I leaned on the ideas Pat taught me growing up on what it is to be great ~ he lives life artfully, in all respects. His music, family, and optimistic outlook create a world where he thrives. Having one of the highest IQs of anyone I’ve ever known also helps.

Take the beauty found in the world, assess it with an inspired mind, and craft it into a life desired.

Unexpected shifts in life happen; losing one you love fuels hope in memories. A loss of hope; I cannot imagine life without it.

Throughout his life, Pat demonstrated that the ability to make his own reality and build meaning is where the power of Art lies.

The flexibility of the mind is the most incredible power an individual has. An agile mind can warp itself in any shape to reconcile reality with what it is focused upon. It could be happiness, misery, or a depressed void.

We can be mired in misery yet find a way to make it feel like Heaven.

Art allows pathways to find this Heaven and find happiness. No matter how badly I may feel, I can inevitably find a way to make myself the hero of my own story, recreate myself and find a Heaven within, regardless of what Hell reality throws my way.

The mind is powerful enough to adjust to any situation. Within us, we have a paradise more incredible than the Garden of Eden. 

Reflecting back on these beautiful hikes, like Camus’ Sisyphus, I am not crushed by the hopelessness in my situation; I’m liberated by it. There is true freedom and happiness in the face of this illogical world.

Every hour, every second of the day, arrives the same Sisyphean choices we all face. And excitement comes from the revolution of Art and imagination inside to take us somewhere special.

I will escape with an admonition of Soren Kierkegaard: Life is not a problem to be solved but a reality to be experienced.

The words of great philosophers of the past are elegant in thought. There is a certain desperate beauty in feeling lost during our existential quests. Being lost allows us to put life into perspective – it is how we find ourselves.

The artful mind can take us to places the most beautiful scenes in nature cannot. It can reveal pieces of the human soul that are not easily understood, giving us a glimpse into infinite possibilities.

Art is not an imitation of reality but a way of expanding upon it to grasp new meanings of who we are.

Art is the brilliance of the human mind, to go beyond the beauty of nature and uncover an alternate reality. This is how humans continue to evolve and find answers to the universe and each other.

It is love. It is kindness and care for those with passion. It is meaning.   

Waking Up in Kenya with Nietzsche

The fog in my head feels eerily like a hangover but I know that’s impossible because quarantine took away such mornings long ago. The daylight can no longer be ignored so with a bit of indignation I roll out of bed.

It would take too much effort to walk over to the window, so instead I stare at the walls.

Life has become a strange, repeated existence. I had no idea how dull the world could be. Walking to the kitchen, I retrace my steps: choose the coffee, grind the beans, and press a button to signal the start of a new day.

Is it a new day? These repetitive steps all merge together, the same scene played over and over. No longer frustrating, instead replaced by a complacent feeling of comfort. Dull comfort.

Quarantine has caged the animal within.  I stifle a yawn; life is no longer lived enthusiastically, but endured. Millimeter-by-millimeter these four walls close in on me.

I slump to the floor and unconsciously reach for a book nestled under a family of dust bunnies. I turn it over and close my eyes, wishing to fall back into an empty sleep.

A wave of color floods to my face. Not sure if it’s my embarrassment of the mess around my flat or the apathy engulfing my spirit. Based on my pattern of eating, sleeping, and general slothfulness, both would be correct.

Before slinging the book back underneath the shelf, I take a quick glance at the title: Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra stares back asking, “what happened to this person who lived on the edge, recklessly, always reaching higher?” Perfect.

Nietzsche.  One of the few German philosopher I enjoy reading – his ideas mesh with my lust for life. A timely find, and perhaps through Nietzsche’s words I have the chance to escape this quarantine prison. “Become who you are…” I laugh a bit at the thought. 

My mind drifts back to when I was in rhythm with life, in tune with the basic impulses that once sparked human existence. I’m back on the Maasai Mara. Waking up with the sunrise, and the mysteries of the world coming to life. I’m a newborn kid in awe of the unlimited potential at dawn.

Kenya evokes the curiosity of a child at play, savoring the simple beauty of nature. Pieces of the world adults no longer see or experience. A spirit freed from the structure of modern life. 

Nietzsche also saw the wild child as a key piece of his philosophy, the spirit of his Übermensch, the superman, who raged against the colorless and sterile trends of modern society.

“In every real man a child is hidden that wants to play…” Nietzsche wrote, the child’s ability to forget quickly and continue moving forward in time. It is the free spirit of the Übermensch, his philosophy tapping into the childlike fearlessness to discover the magic of potential.

The haze outside my window flickers and comes alive; its piercing eyes reflect the wild side of life. Inviting me to attack.

Outside my room, the Maasai Mara glows, reminding me we are born to play, to race, and fiercely compete with ourselves. Creating friction in life to stir up the soul, and here in Kenya there is a cauldron of emotions I’ve long forgotten. 

Inside my room, however, there is decadence: TV reruns, day-old pizza, an unmade bed with empty cartons of Ben & Jerry’s scattered around ~ all slices of self-destruction further sucking me into contentment, a place my free spirit fled months ago.

Inside. Outside. Black. White.

It is a little humorous. Here I am, wrapped up on the couch, comfortable in this cocoon of safety with all this technology insulating my life. Everything is a tap away on my iPhone. 

And outside a wilderness is calling. 

I reach over and pick up the book again. 

The human spirit is a complex one, a dichotomy of two desires.

  • The first desire is of order and structure, necessary to build a world where humans and technology merge, advancing society.
  • The second is a competing desire, the undeniable urge for chaos, a place where genius and creativity is born.

When one is absent, there is an imbalance and the soul is thrown into turmoil.

“You must have chaos within you to give birth to a dancing star…” an ode to the necessity of exploring the forbidden in order to find brilliance.

In the Nietzschean world, it is the struggle between the Apollonian spirit of order and Dionysian spirit of chaos, and this year the Apollonian (confined spirit) is crushing the Dionysian (free spirit) ~ and it isn’t even close. 

Like an unhindered animal in nature, the spirit must be allowed to run free. 

The winds of Kenya break my thought, carrying spices of new experiences announcing the arrival of chaos, a migration to search and discover. 

The pieces of electricity we create define who we are, whether it’s living in foreign worlds or raising children and experiencing the world again from their perspective. 

Moments of bliss that move us up a higher level and remind us never stop seeking.     

Out on the Mara plains, I see the curious eyes of chaos staring back. Taunting me with the playful knowledge that this bizarre year is no reason to give in to indifference.

The beauty of Kenya taught my soul long ago to “become who you are…” and made me realize I am not at war with the world but instead searching for peace.

While my coffee grows cold, I get up and search for something clean to wear. I’ve been stuck in the mud too long. My Dionysian free spirit has returned with new dreams and I’m ready to tread on the edge of the void. 

Nietzsche and Kenya blend well together, and I’m wide awake. I slip on my shoes and prepare to step back into this brave new world. 

I place the book back on the shelf and hear the laughter of Nietzsche, his famous words pushing me out the door: “What does not kill you, makes you stronger…” 

You have brains in your head.
You have feet in your shoes.
You can steer yourself
Any direction you choose.
You’re on your own. And
you know what you know.
And YOU are the one who’ll
decide where to go.

– Dr. Seuss

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