Approaching the Saturnalia - A Meditation on Strength

Just in time for the upcoming Saturnalia, I am learning a lot about strength these days. Unfortunately, the way I am being taught is by being pointed to what it is not. I am learning about the fleetingness of boundaries we thought we had erected around us safely. About the permeability of the stone we had come to mistaken for our skin. About the fragility of the locks we had hung before the things we feared to lose.

The tough truth is: Everything that needs to be taken from us will be taken. How hard we fight against it, how much we think we can prepare against it, doesn’t make the slightest difference to the effort it will take to get these things from us. The fear that points us to protect what we think is meaningful is utterly meaningless in itself.Saturn will walk over the ditches we erected between us and the world, however deep they are. Saturn will walk through the stones of our castles, however thick they are. And Saturn will walk in darkness through the labyrinth of memories we built over a life-time just to find the cup we kept buried in our hearts. 


We all know we are walking towards our own death. The  difference between our lives is how far we have come on this journey - and how happy we are by walking. All the ideas of strength, of power and protection are meaningless once we make it to the end. Like clothes left scattered on our way, our strength will be taken from us gradually, piece by piece and bit by bit. Until there is nothing left of it. We finally will stand naked, unprotected, just like we started out at the beginning of the journey... So if true strength cannot be measured in the breadth our ditches, in the strength of our walls and the depth of the labyrinths we hide in - how can it be measured then at all? 

I guess this is the thing I am learning these days: true strength cannot be measured in how long we manage to adjourn defeat or death. True strength is measured in how calm and untroubled we remain while defeat is on its way towards us. True strength is measured in ounces of resilience. Much more than in our ability to expand into new territory true strength is measured in our ability to flexibly and nimbly adjust to the changing circumstances in the territory that is left for us. True strength is measured in our ability to experience happiness while suffering at the same time. It is a skill taught through paradox. It doesn't aim to resolve tension - but to comfortably live with it.

A couple of dear friends had to go through very difficult experiences recently. Most of them were diagnosed with severe illnesses. The type that don’t come and go like birds in a dovecot, but the ones that come to stay. Each of these friends have deeply impressed me with the way they are dealing with these experiences - and taught me about the nature of true strength. Each of them is losing and retreating from boundaries they had carefully erected over varying periods of time. And each of them needs to find a new dwelling on less ground that remains their own. As some ground gets taken by sickness and other by loss or age, the ground we can stand on firmly and ‘be ourselves’ vanishes slowly. Until we stand with our back to the walls we erected ourselves - and Saturn, tall and dark, right in front of us.

In these moments, when loss is inevitable, our ability to remain calm and composed and untroubled is defined by a curious thing I only learned about through the recent experiences of my friends. The level of threat we will feel will be equal to the level by which we identify with what is actually threatened in this very moment: ourselves. The more we identify with this thing standing against the wall, the higher the level of threat perceived. So here the real question emerges: What am I part of other than myself? Or in other words: What are the parts of myself that cannot be taken away? Not in this night and not in any other to follow...?

Three faced Saturn looking into past, present and future. 16th century, from Vincenzo Cartari’s book Imagini delli Dei de gl’Antichi

You can kill a bee, but it takes much longer to kill the swarm. The consciousness of the swarm will life on its hive and in its queen, passing it on from one generation to the next. You can kill a bird but not as much an entire flock. You can poison a lake. But deep down in the soil it will be connected through veins of water to a spring out of reach. We all know forest fires burn the trees, yet they don't reach the seeds sheltered in the ground... So if you kill me, or bite away at me for years until there is nothing left, I will need to answer this one question: What is it that you cannot take away? Answering this question will unlock what I call true strength. It will unlock a power that is rootless, and birthless and deathless and always with us. It unlocks a state of consciousness that is calm and composed and focussed not on ourselves, but on maintaing access to this one answer where all our power flows from... That is what I call true strength. 

I guess answering this question is a very, very intimate journey? In answering it we will not only see ourselves naked, but skinned and bleeding and approaching our final minutes. It is a dark journey, that still can shelter the most beautiful life. Tonight, sitting at the kitchen table, I am trying to answer it again. Because I learned it wants to be answered regularly. My answer from a few years ago might not be the same as the one I will find tonight. 

Answering what swarm, what flock, what system of rivers, what soil sheltering seeds I am a part of is a question made from equal parts of fear and beauty. It is a question of fear because in answering it I will be forced to realize my own meaninglessness. A swarm is not about any single bee. A flock is not about a single bird. Facing this truth thus will kill off many layers of egotism and selfishness that normally form the boundaries of who I think I am. Taking away these boundaries will make me more than naked. It will make me disappear. I will vanish for a moment. Until I realize that disappearing into the background was necessary to allow something else to come into the foreground. Every drop of water needs to take its place to form a lake. Every ant adds a needle or a twig until the hill is formed - and they all disappear underground.

My answer tonight is simple: my flock is the people who have touched me and who I  touched in return. My swarm is the memory of encounters that I have left in others and others have left in me. My lake is the difference all of them have made on my life and possibly I on theirs. It is in these encounters - many short and many seemingly fleeting, some longer, very few deep and strong - that we will live on together. And when Saturn stands in front of me I am ready to walk with him. Because I am part of a swarm that lives on. And even that swarm will fade away over time. Yet, just like I did in others, so it will leave an echo behind. And this echo will strike another string before it fades away... And so we pass ourselves on, even while dying, one through another, from one generation of living people to the next. An eternal echo traveling on.