When I was at school, I was taught about the ancient river civilisations of the Nile, the Tigris and the Euphrates. I remember being captivated by the story of Howard Carter who discovered the Egyptian tomb of Tutankhamen. As a young boy, I could not imagine a more breath taking experience than that of peering into this ancient chamber with the light of a flickering candle revealing the glistering gold of the young pharaoh’s buried wealth. I became mesmerised by the myths of ancient Egypt and, for a time, believed I wanted to be an Egyptologist, even learning how to read hiroglyphics as some sort of induction into this field of archeology and anthroplogy.
I am relieved that I did not follow that exact career path, but I guess what I have continued to explore is the myriad ways humans across history have strived to find some manner in which to make meaning of the experience of life. Howard Carter, awed by what his eyes beheld answered the question, “Can you see anything?” with the now famous words of, “Yes, wonderful things.” I imagine it wasn’t just the strange Egyptian animals, statues and golden ornaments by which he was being stupefied, but the gradual realisation that this discovery would change the world and help us remember that this pharaoh’s story was part of our universal story.
How do we make sense of life? Living is difficult and the grief of existence permeates our lives at all times. You can’t experience life without its counterpart of death. All temporal things have an opposite that shadow us. Our moments of joy are tinged by the haunting memory that sorrow waits in the wings, quenched thirsts will return, satiated hungers re-emerge. You can’t have the one without the other.
But we can enjoy rare, deeply moving euphoric mental states from time to time that remove us from the warring opposites of living that transport us into what Abraham Maslow called Peak Experiences.
Sometimes things happen that kick us out of our lives and lift us into a space that is an expression of our full potential. All our capacities and capabilities unite; time and space drops away and we operate within that moment as if we are no longer limited by our fears and the restraint of conformity. The past and the future are irrelevant – we are in the now. Athletes and artists find these moments. That extraordinary delivery of a song, the unmatchable pace of a race, the perfect arc of a javelin throw, a poem balanced with words of exquisite preciseness. I imagine any human procedure of intense criticality that requires our full and utter volition will deliver a Peak Experience.
I don’t think lives are necessarily filled with these moments unless perhaps you are a wise mystic, but I do think every life deserves a few of these Peak Experiences. I have had a few – some obviously sublime others mysteriously banal. When I delivered my children into this world, pulling there hot, slimy bodies from their mother; an exam I answered with first class distinction on the works of Thomas Hardy; a bedside vigil with someone who died; becoming enraptured by someone’s beauty; a presentation delivered that struck the audience with its message. At these moments I became dissociated from myself, no inner conflicts, no self-criticism. Just open to the moment. A transference to the highest expression of who and what I am.
If I were to fill a burial chamber for myself as if the contents could come with me to whatever lies beyond this life, I would create a shrine of memories like this. In fact I have such a chamber in my mind – I think we all do – maybe its what popular culture calls our happy place. Except it’s not crammed with things like a Victorian parlour, but rather it enshrines carefully selected precious moments, golden times that are, ironically timeless.
The gods and goddesses that peopled the mythologies of ancient worlds and indeed stand with us in modern times are the emanations of our ancestors and our imaginations. We all are trying to make sense of the forces of the world about us and within us. The wrathful god that smites the disobedient, the lustful goddess satisfying her urges, the ambitious fire-stealer, the generous demi-god that brings rain and fertility – they are the projection of the energies within us. Can’t we all be wrathful and lustful, rebellious and kind.
The gods and goddesses of the ancient and contemporary world help us make sense of the experience of life. But those Peak Experiences, well I think those are worth worshipping because they are all about being projected into your highest version of life and no words can suitably clothe those experiences. This is when the god-like, full magnificence within you reveals its perfect splendour back to you.
As we mature we form a sort of patina over our lives – we become oxidised by life. I think these layers are compounds of our beliefs and experiences – it’s a beautiful layer that represents our exposure to life, the accumulated changes that have weathered us. As we step through this thing we call life and use the objects and people of the world around us to capture an experience of what it means to be human we are both changing and accumulating mental treasures. If someone were to shine a candle into this shrine of your life and be asked, “What do you see?” make sure the answer is ‘Wonderful things.”