My feeds are constantly full of great life hacks.
And that’s just the first four of more than 28 million results for the search query “how to hack this life.”
As my two boys walk through their teenage years, I’ve been thinking about the loss of the rites of passage rituals that defined the jump from boyhood to manhood for so much of human history.
Good or bad, these tests offered boys the chance to pass through their worst fears, through struggle and pain and indecision alone and without aid.
Which, in and of itself, is an interesting concept.
You see, life as we know it today is actually a great hack.
When our ancestors stopped wandering all over god’s green earth, or ice covered, as it was back then, they formed communities and started growing things.
This great life hack is often referred to as the Neolithic Revolution, and it represents an extremely modern life hack, when you compare it to rest of our more than 3 million years crawling or walking about on this planet.
I assume that it was likely that we grew fat and lazy on those first grains and the accidental fermented bread juice and grape juice, and elders decided that in order to defend our farms against the hungry others, we would need some tough people in the village to fight for us.
So they tapped into something that was fairly standard before village life. They tapped into three essential areas of the human experience.
Separation from the village, from the community, from the family was to be completely self reliant. It was at once the most basic level of life. It was the hunger and the thirst, the pain and the fear.
The liminality is the adventure. The great in between. To be alone and disconnected from everything left behind and not yet to a point where a person can reconnect. It is the journey, the pathway, the experiences that shape us.
And the incorporation, the welcome return one to another and one to many. The great showcase of our change from separation and liminality. The sharpened and honed revelation of outliving our fears, of overcoming and experiencing the journey.
Life is full of suffering.
“Try to exclude the possibility of suffering which the order of nature and the existence of free-wills involve, and you find that you have excluded life itself”
― C.S. Lewis
Or, as Lewis put it so succinctly, life is suffering.
We hack life to reduce the inevitable suffering. We hack life to limit our risk, to give ourselves a slightly better experience along the journey.
We stopped wandering and settled down in caves and tents and mud huts and stone houses and brick homes and matchstick mansions.
My grandfather journeyed, often by foot or train or wagon, across the vast Eurasian Steppe. From his home that now sits at the bottom of a lake in Ukraine, to China, where he met his wife, my grandmother, and where she gave birth to three of their children who still live today.
His life was full of suffering. He experienced war, hunger, strife, pain, loss and loneliness.
From useless shelters against raging wind and rain to cold Siberian prisons to San Francisco, where he found more opportunity in life than anyone and everyone dares to dream of, my grandfather found himself in a far different world than the one he came up in.
In his old age, I saw a man who was blessed to be able to bless his own children. He bought houses for his children and bestowed on them whatever he could, which was more than he ever dreamed he would be able.
And his suffering was eased, somewhat, by the brightness of the future he had walked into.
I’m a recipient of his blessing. My life has been made infinitely better by his suffering.
His rite of passage, a necessity of the horrific century in which he lived, made it unnecessary for me to walk the same path that he did.
But I also lack his character, the wisdom lines that etched his face like the finest cut crystal and the work ethic with which he built our wealth and opportunity.
What does one do in a time of plenty to prepare for the lean times?
My life has not been one of ease, but if I compare it to the two generations that came before me, to say nothing of the lineage that disappears back into the great fog bank of time, I’m left with the conclusion that I’ve had it really good.
I’m not so sure that my progeny will fair as well. Especially if we continue to ignore our parasitic effect on this wonderful macrobiome of a rock floating through the cosmos.
And so I worry about my two sons, who at 16 and 13, have lived, if possible, a much better life than I did, so far removed, in fact, from the suffering and pain of their great grandfather, that they cannot even imagine it, nor, as can I, remember the stories he told in his own voice before he left us.
I wonder about rites of passage. There are no lions left for them to hunt like the Masai. There are no great spaces left to explore without eyes and ears to watch and listen for us. There are no journeys left undone, not here where we walk in the sunlight and the dust.
There are great depths to explore and the farthest reaches of our own solar system left unvisited, but it is the vast expanse of the imagination that I find barren of exploration today. We’ve ignored our own intellect in favor of taxing every last resource from the ground beneath us and the forests beside us.
I want to send my boys on a journey of significance, one even that I did not take myself. But I don’t have a cultural tradition of rites of passage to fall back on.
I can build a skin sweat lodge and we can meditate under the influence of Mother Nature’s psychotropics. I can send them along the Camino De Santiago or the Pacific Crest Trail in a test of endurance and will, of separation, liminality and incorporation. Or I could Bar Mitzvah them in an extravagant ceremony to mark their coming of age for all my friends and enemies to see, which is less for them and more for me.
As a father, I’m at a loss for an answer to a question I can’t quite formulate but which haunts me daily.
The best I can do is this.
If I leave them to their own resources, their own discoveries and their own journeys, have I given them enough in a time of plenty to prepare them for a time that could be leaner and meaner than I have ever known?
Does it even profit me to worry about such a time?
If I could but look at the 20 generations that came before my grandfather, I might be able to see what led to him and therefore understand what issued from him.
But that lineage is lost to history.
We’ve grown accustomed to hacking life.
We’ve mitigated suffering.
But the results are not appealing, nor even interesting.
You can hack this life. But should we?