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Taking life seriously
How a jaguar helped me see what I want from life
It was a jaguar that ripped me from my comfortable coma of a life and shook me until I started taking myself seriously. A jaguar with rubies for eyes, so bright they burned the air throughout that cave and with it every defense I’d built to protect myself from the numbness of my okay enough life.
I had never been naive enough to believe I was destined for greatness, but maybe I was idealistic enough to believe I could bend history my way. And yet, overcome by the day-to-day responsibilities of daily life, history was bending away from me sharply. As it did, I felt lost. I didn’t know where to turn, didn’t know how to find myself, didn’t know who I even was. I was so lost that I jumped at the promise of psychedelic assisted therapy with its five grams of psilocybin and I took the medicine that dropped me into that cave where that jaguar chased me. When it was over I had my guide. I knew I needed to take my life seriously.
The other day I was reminded of how much I’ve shaped my life to be serious. I was sitting in a writing class with 14 other authors, talking about tactics to grow our audience: find a niche, focus on SEO, optimize for someone else’s platform, when my chest tightened up. I wanted to scream “no!” but I couldn’t figure out why. Only later did the answer hit me: I didn’t want to become a business; I wanted to build a life. I was working on my craft before I had a goal, building my foundation so that I can effectively tackle whatever goal emerges.
Taking life seriously isn’t a tactic. But I couldn’t explain that without explaining the years I’d spent healing on my meditation cushion learning to see the emotions that burned me up. I’d have to explain how I’d reexamined my relationship with money, with friends, with my wife and my children. I’d have to explain how I ran from that jaguar and started asking who I really was. Too many serious realizations for a 90 minute zoom call.
I recently attended a talk by Joel Peterson. I was there to learn about business from this storied leader, but he said he’d rather talk about life, about the things that a business can support rather than the things that support a business. He wanted to talk about his family. He showed us his family mission statement – he had written mission statements for businesses, but when he realized his family could use the same thing, it felt revolutionary. He wanted to take his family more seriously than his money, and he needed to get clear about what his values were before life challenged them. His 7 children and 25 grandchildren all keep returning to his table. Something must be working.
On Sunday I sit in the pew at Holy Rosary Catholic Church even though I’m not Catholic. This week, like most weeks, the church is half filled and mostly with young families trying to keep the little ones quiet for the hour long sermon. The man next to me has two young boys, both sweet looking kids playing on an iPad while the father listens to the priest. He nods along, seemingly enjoying the homily. I find myself thinking that maybe religion isn’t as dead as you read about, at least in this man’s life, and I’d like my spirituality to be a foundation of mine. But after church is over I comment on his attentiveness. He says that he probably won’t be back for another month, he comes often enough to make sure his boys know the stories of the Bible. He’s not alone, over 15% of Christians in America have stopped going to church altogether1. Contrast that with mystics like Meister Eckhart, Richard Rohr, or Dietrich Bonhoeffer who spent hours a day probing their spirituality and found strength through that practice.
Maybe people are growing outside church. After all, we’ve never had such easy access to books and art before. But the numbers show a different story. 49% of Americans will not read a single book this year.2 The humanities represent the accumulated wisdom of history’s greatest thinkers grappling with what it means to be human, and yet most of us don’t make time to commune with even one of them. An hour a week, far more than most Americans spend on religion or reading, isn’t enough to take our humanity seriously. That needs time.
It’s not like I didn’t know to take life seriously before. Four years of college and eleven years in the Navy had done nothing but try to convince me that life was serious. But they say jaguars have an ability to see into the darkest parts of the human heart, and it took a hero’s dose of psychedelics and the burning eyes of that terrifying cat before I would see.
If I ever go back into that cave, I like to think this time I’ll have a book with me. It would be one I’ve read before, dog eared and worn down with love. I like to think that book could soften the jaguar’s ruby stare, stop the burning. I want to show him I took his lesson seriously.