Life’s Meaning and Hell’s Gates

Gustave Dore’, Charon herding sinners into his boat, crossing the Acheron, River of Sorrows that surrounds Hell From Dante’s Divine Comedy

Through me you pass into the city of woe:
Through me you pass into eternal pain:
Through me among the people lost for aye.

Justice the founder of my fabric mov’d:
To rear me was the task of power divine,
Supremest wisdom, and primeval love.

Before me things create were none, save things
Eternal, and eternal I endure.
All hope abandon ye who enter here.

from Dante’s Divine Comedy , inscription on the gates of Hell, trans. Rev. H.F. Cary

There was a day on which I begged for my life. I highly recommend it for those of us who drag our feet a little, or a lot; for those who have lost that ineffable meaning of life, an elusive thing often referred to but rarely investigated. For many adults, life’s meaning is a fish that keeps slipping the hook, an elusive critter that one dark night shimmies downstream, seemingly beyond reach. Prozac time.

In my overly mundane society, a vague and haunting meaninglessness is common, and pharmaceutical companies benefit greatly. Depression is rampant here, in Euro-Western society where dissatisfaction is all the rage. In my white educated middle class culture, happiness is eyed suspiciously, both within and without. Happiness is for the stupid, the unambitious, and most certainly the uninformed. We, the enlightened, know so much about the world that we have slipped past Hell’s gates and abandoned all hope.

Yet until we die, there is hope- certainly for healing the ennui and self flagellation that haunts our days and nights. On the day I begged, Nature brought me to my knees, both physically and metaphorically. Like a wise parent, Gaia humbled me in order that I might recover my appreciation for the gift of life. For many in my society, life itself takes on the heaviness of an unwanted gift at some point, a burden we might wish to shed, perhaps in mid life as was the case for Dante. Such was, and sometimes still is, part of my own perception; life as an antique award now tarnished, its original shine and purpose battered and veiled with decades of mundane wear and tear.

Just as Dante begged assistance from Virgil, begging God, the Cosmos, the powers, is sign of a healing crisis. Gaia, Nature, assisted my healing transformation in the form of a stinging insect; in the form of wicked poison and infernal piercing stab. I was scraping paint in the morning sun on the front porch of the old house we were renting, in a small town in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. My husband, four children, and I had moved there to be close to my father. I knew there were hornets living under the porch, but I had never been stung by one. I styled myself unfazed by stinging insects in general, having kept bees in the past. Stings hurt for a while- so what?

When I was stung, I went into the house to look for my Apis mellifica, homeopathic remedy for insect bites and stings. But soon I was feeling quite awful, very weak and dizzy. I thought, I have to get some help. The only other person in the house was my youngest son. Unable to stand, I crawled to the staircase, and called up to my son. Struggling against unconsciousness, I asked him to call his grandfather to take me to the hospital. Grandpa not being home, he called my great aunt, and then I passed out on the floor.

I woke up and somehow got out the door to my aunt’s car for the 15 minute ride to the next town. Along the way, she mused upon the fact that this was a reenactment of an event about 70 years previous, when she had done the same for my paternal grandfather. My grandfather, who died when my father was only 3, had upon that long ago day been stung by a bald faced hornet, just as I was. Erda’s healing crises often involve some ancestral nod of companionship. Meanwhile, I was begging.

I could not breathe; my ribs would not move, my diaphragm was frozen. I was drowning while surrounded by air, dying, while she chattered like a chickadee in a spruce tree. I wanted every ounce of will to keep from passing out again, for I feared I would not wake up this time. I was panicked at the thought of dying and leaving my children behind. In the passenger seat I silently begged the Divine to spare my life; not for me, not because I saw my life as precious, but for the sake of my children.

Not having been an abject selfish monster like Scrooge or anything, I did not make promises to be a better person. I did realize that I had been lax in the area of appreciating my life; its greatness, its intrinsic immeasurable value. When the IV epinephrine had done its work and I was safely at home, my life loomed larger, as though the shadow of death had shown me life’s shine. For we will take life for granted, most of us, won’t we? It’s natural, I suppose, if we have creature comfort enough. Obviously I did live to see my children grown and on their own. Sometimes I wonder what I would beg for now.

Like many of us, I have a depression history. In late adolescence and my early 20’s, I had bouts that featured beating myself up for relationship “mistakes”, days of crying like a fountain, suicidal ideation and shallow cuts to the wrist. Every ruined relationship dug the hole deeper. The depression crater loomed larger when I was unable to find “what to do with my life”. One day, at the age of 25, I birthed my first son, and the gates of Hell dissolved. Not entirely, for as I said, my social zeitgeist is conducive to melancholy, in the most essential of ways, and the path of parenthood is challenging at best.

Frankly, I had to work pretty hard to get into the depths of my depressive states, and I didn’t have energy for that when I was a Mom- not to dis those who experience deep (or not so deep) depression post partum. We all have our particular journeys and their exquisite timing; postpartum depression is not mine. At any rate, for me, depression must have been at least partly cultured by that lurking monster we call meaninglessness. As a new mother, I now knew what to do; I had a very clear purpose. And lack of meaning can, for many of us, dovetail with a lack of purpose. Many of us start a family because we desire life purpose; indeed, many adopt a pet for the same reason. And voila’! Instant life meaning.

But why does caretaking another living being feel so meaningful? For meaning is a thing that is no-thing; meaning is a feeling, a state of being. Loving connection with living things is available in caretaking, surely, however often these relationships might sour and fall short in that regard. And I propose that loving connection- ultimately with Self- is the thread that leads us out of Hell’s meaningless gates.

Loving connection with self is based on understanding our intrinsic worth. Children are stellar reminders of human worth, of the marvel that is an individual life, of course. For meaning comes intrinsically with the territory of infancy. We feel this on a deep intuitive level. That intuitive level is the soul speaking, for having no worldly purpose yet, a baby is barely physical, overwhelmingly soul; a fallen star that eats and poops and cries. Of what use is a baby, except to lend love’s meaning and purpose to others, to trade in smiles and their especial brand of hope, the eternal sort? We feel safe relating on a soul level with them, free of adult artifice and expectation, for everything in their life is yet to come.

Meaning and soul are that which lies beneath, and on that level, purpose can be felt as well. It’s not utilitarian purpose I refer to, as in, the purpose of a car is to transport things from point A to point B. The soul’s purpose is unique and complex, wandering and ineffable. The reasonable or intellectual definition of purpose is essentially mechanical, like a car. The soul is, however, beyond reason. The gap between a human soul’s purpose and that mechanical one is the difference between eternal time and clock time, between kairos and chronos.

As we grow to adulthood in mundane clocktime society, our soul connection is increasingly tenuous. In a mundane society, felt purpose shifts from childhood’s starry destiny to that utilitarian, objectified perception of life we know all too well in post industrial society. Thus the soul’s fount of felt meaning is somehow lost on the road to adulthood, in many who suffer what we call depression in my society.

My third birthday, thrilled about my red velveteen skirt

Children lend deeper purpose and meaning to adults in part because children are still experiencing meaning and purpose; it has not yet been conditioned out of them. A bit of their stardust rubs off on us, marvelous compensation for the rigors of childcare. Children still innocently and profoundly believe in their deeper selves; they still act from the soul. However much adults would hope to lead them to more mundane waters, for small children the drinking of it is quite impossible.

The soul inhabits a largely unreasonable dimension, though as it is said, the heart has its own reasons. Our connection to our soul is, then, the loving connection that is the foundation of life’s meaning. I do not really feel my soul if I am not loving myself, believing in my soul as I did in childhood, and vice versa.

Meaninglessness is a soul sickness that comes as we bit by bit learn that we don’t measure up, in a judgmental society where supposed flaws haunt our psyches like bats in a bell tower. We learn that we are here to fulfill a purpose in the mundane sense; to go to school and get good grades and learn how to work at MacDonald’s and support a family and deteriorate and die. Our more personal, creative, offbeat and impractical ways of making meaning must be left in the dust of childhood. The redemption of soul is the work of human elderhood, even as we close in on Gaia’s ultimate goad, Death. But that end game polishing work has disappeared in my culture at large.

Beneath everything that is meaningful in the soul’s reality, is love; indeed it is the fabric of the sacred universe. That which I love, is automatically made meaningful. I cannot love my life if I do not love me, because my life and myself are one and the same. Yes, we can attach meaning to anything using the mind, but the mind’s meaning often differs from the soul’s. I am no moral philosopher, just here musing on the tarnishing of our life’s inherent shininess, and the opportunities that arise to reconnect with soul and polish the gift.

Many will experience some kind of critical healing opportunity, most involving loss of some kind, Mother Gaia’s death card dealt in its boundless iterations. It’s not like you can fake such an event as my hornet sting. But opportunities arise for reconnection with our deeper self on a very regular basis, so nobody here is ever left out of the healing game. Returning through the gates of Hell is hand over hand for someone who’s slipped too far into the abyss, but momentum will be attained at some point. That’s the purpose to the potentially deadly sting, by the way. It was a goad, a whip to get me moving out of my rut, an invitation to choose which side of the gate I’m on today, and thus tomorrow.

For as Dante Alighieri says, the gates of hell are part of Justice, the balancing laws of the universe. Should we slip too far from the truth of who we deeply and eternally are, pain and suffering, including lack of purpose and meaning, will goad us into finding our way back. Back to the hope that springs eternal, as opposed to the hope that our life will one day measure up. The measuring stick is emblematic of that educated, mundane hope that keeps us dissatisfied. Measuring has its place, but so does the immeasurable.

Eternal hope is without goal and expectation, and therefore innocent. It is the feeling of fresh and new; it is the innocence we see in a child, knew as a child, and feel in our hearts and souls. Such hope and its ethereal meaning shine forth from loving inner eyes, undimmed by adult years of burdensome survival. The gates of Hell were raised in supremest wisdom, and eternal love. And so it is.

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