Friday, February 9, 2007


This is one of those times when I can’t get away from the feeling that the earth is a prison, a place of torment. Even in my own nice American town the widespread anxiety, fear, sickness, pain and discomfort cry out for notice. One can’t avoid the sadness of loss. One can't avoid seeing the hospitals and animal shelters and funeral homes, the cemeteries, the blind and the hobbling people, the dead animals on the roads, the shoppers on electric carts breathing with tubes up their noses, the horribly twisted man on the oversized tricycle with his pitiful hoard of aluminum cans.

Because you are reading this on a computer you probably exist on one of the relatively few comfortable spots among the many more uncomfortable spots on the planet, but you are nevertheless aware of the hunger and deprivation, misery and torture and oppression which, though they may have become numb clichés to us, nevertheless dominate the lives of millions at this very moment.

Worse, nobody knows why this has happened or what is really going on. As if we’d been dragged out of our sleep in the middle of the night and dumped into a prison camp on unknown charges, we wonder why. What have we done to deserve this? What’s going to happen next? Is there any life beyond this prison? Who’s behind it all? Is there even anybody in charge?

We humans on Earth speculate and speculate and speculate about our state and fate, and we know no more now than the philosophers of ancient Greece and those before them who speculated about the same things. Well, we do seem to know more about the nature of matter and the Sun and Moon and stars, but that’s about it. Essentially, we know nothing. We go about in a daze, hoping we will wake up someday.

Now I hear someone who, advocating a more cheerful attitude, is pointing to the pretty flowers and the birth of babies -- but Devil’s Island had beautiful views, and a baby’s first day on Earth is its first day on death row. I don't like to sound negative, but I am beginning to experience the psychological advantages of facing the facts.

William Butler Yeats described himself as a soul attached to a dying animal. As I get older my body reminds me more and more of that even though I am thankfully in much better shape than many people my age. At least I and Yeats developed a sense of soul, of “a real me”. You may put it down to wishful thinking, but I am glad that I see myself in the almost humorous position of sailing a small boat while bits and pieces break off and fall into the water. . . rather than seeing myself as the boat.

An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress. . .

Yeats, “Sailing to Byzantium”


  1. Excellent post Fleming. I find it incredible that for the past three days I have been back and forth on email with a friend who has thoughts of writing a book with the theme "We are all in prison here on earth." His take on life is that we did something so bad that God sent us into his garden to survive best one can in a body that naturally ages to the time of our sentences. This morning I read your blog and say "OMG" what is going on here? I'm emailing the link to my friend in TN who I'm sure won't believe it when he reads it. Thanks.

  2. Yes, sometimes you or I might feel the earth is a prison, but if it is, there is an outside to the prison, if only in our imagination.

    What makes it a "nice" American town? What do you compare it with? Baghdad, perhaps. In your first paragraph, you sound like the youthful Gautama who finds his way out from the palace and sees old age, disease and death, which he finds so unacceptable that he goes as a pilgrim to try and find wisdom till eventually, when he finally abandons his meditation under the sacred bodhi-tree, he gains enlightenment.

    It is not the earth which is a prison, and now is a good time to take that pilgrimage, not necessarily a physical one on foot.

    When we feel down, we identify in imagination with the millions who supposedly suffer the miseries you mention. But is there any point in imagining that there are others worse off? Perhaps when I am unhappy I am the most unhappy person on the planet, and everyone else is being lifted up, despite their grief, affliction and physical agonies, by merciful angels.

    In a later part of your post you refer to "we", the human race, as if we are somehow restricted to the wisdom of the crowd.

    By all means, face the facts, but what are the facts? To me, the biggest fact is the presence of soul. That is the way I try to describe a sense that there is something within every created thing, something which has a certain quality of sustaining us.

    But I think I know what you mean by the facts: the fact of death, poverty, human vulnerability, ignorance of any guaranteed true metaphysics, & so forth. As opposed to what the Toltecs (e.g. Don Miguel Ruiz) call the mitote the communal dream.

  3. Yves, what makes a "nice" town? I use that word to convey the general idea of "pleasant" when I don't feel like being precise. Yes, "nice" is relative. DeLand is a quiet university town, fairly small, beautiful oak trees and azaleas (about to blossom now), polite policemen, no slums, no hungry beggars, no factory smokestacks, no occupying forces, no checkpoints, no torture houses, no bombs exploding, no dead bodies on the sidewalks. I call that "nice" in comparison with many, many places in the world.

    Yet even here I managed to sound like Gautama, didn't I? I wish I had hope of even a single strong ray of his enlightment.