Opening lines are important. I’m not talking about the ones that begin a conversation in a bar or at a party. I’m talking about what we say when we say something memorable, weighty, important – those lines we want to stand the test of time, those that speak to the universal human experience.
Authors study opening lines. After all, opening lines in print seem to last, especially if they begin a classic or a bestseller. Authors read the opening lines of as many books as we can get our hands on. Some of us keep a list of the best opening lines. There are books for writers, from the novice to the expert, that critically examine opening lines and opening paragraphs and opening pages.
Writing opening lines can draw blood (if you’ve ever tried nailing down the perfect sentence, paragraph, etc., you’ll know what I’m talking about), and writing successful ones is the crowning achievement every author aspires to. When you get to an opening line or paragraph that has punch and elegance and meaning and says what it needs to say in as few words as possible — well, then you have true power.
Last week, while doing research for my new book, I picked up The Road Less Traveled, by M. Scott Peck. I didn’t intend to study the opening line — but what an opening line! The first paragraph of Peck’s book is (drum roll, please):
“Life is difficult.”
How’s that for being direct? I much prefer the straight truth to candy-coating. How about you?
There are thousands of books, seminars, groups, paths, and gurus trying to deal with the universal fact that life is difficult. People spend billions of dollars chasing the elusive promise of a balm to change the undying fact that life is difficult. In fact, it’s more than difficult, it’s brutal, despite all the happiness paths out there.
There are other “opening lines” that prove this premise. I’m thinking of delivery rooms around the world — whether rooms in antiseptic hospitals, rooms with dirt floors in third world countries, or rooms with cushy beds where the calming fragrance of lavender wafts through the air and Mozart plays softly while a loving family mills about the house.
Babies’ opening lines are fraught with pain and fear. The birth experience for the baby may vary, and we may try to lessen the baby’s suffering, but when all is said and done, the suffering baby gets no relief from the music, the aromatherapy, or the cooing of a loving family. Though we most likely don’t remember it, our coming into life was difficult.
Birth is our introduction into life’s truism.
M. Scott Peck’s observation that life is difficult concurs with Krishna’s statement in the Bhagavad Gita that this world is “a place of misery. ” Krishna is passing on a lot of knowledge to Arjuna and instructing him in varieties of yoga. He is giving Arjuna tools to deal his incredible quandary as Arjuna stands in his chariot on a battlefield where millions have gathered, including his teachers and family. His chariot stands opposite his loved ones. Faced with killing them, Arjuna has dropped his bow in abject anguish and shock and rests his head is in his palms. He can’t move; his body is shaking.
Krishna teaches Arjuna how to cope. After teaching him that he and all others on the battlefield are eternal spiritual beings, and not their temporary body, Krishna’s main instruction is that Arjuna should work in this world with detachment but with devotion to the divine. By acting with devotion, he can exit this world permanently. There’s another place, and it’s eternal and full of happiness.
But this world, Krishna certifies, is miserable.
We all know from personal experience that Peck and Krishna have it right. There’s so much suffering and agony in this world. If you’re feeling comfortable at the moment, think about what’s happening to people right now in Haiti or the Sudan or any of the other dozens of places wracked with human misery. I say anyone with half a brain wouldn’t want to come back to the material world—even if we can act with equanimity and control our mind to the Now. All the tactics we use to lessen our or others’ suffering don’t change the underlying constant: Life is suffering. Life is difficult. Life is agony.
I don’t know about you, but when I find incontrovertible evidence that going down a certain path is bound to give me pain, I start seeking out other avenues. I’ve knocked my head up against walls enough to know that changing a universal law isn’t going to happen by prayer, good wishes, affirmations, or positive or hopeful thinking. I just have to face reality.
This world, with all its beauty and good, has an inherent characteristic universally experienced as awful agony. Well then, I want to get the hell out. Don’t you?
I’m not talking about ending life prematurely, or about not living in gratitude and consciousness. I believe every moment is sacred and developing as a human being through the vehicle of relationships and experiences is not only a divine gift, but a glorious responsibility.
What I’m talking about is the broad picture. We ought to live life to its spiritual fullest and make exit plans.
There’s another universal truism, however, that inhibits developing the broad picture. We’re expert at, if not pathologically obsessed with, ignoring the signs of life’s truth. We must deny what we were shown from the moment we were born.
But what to do with our God-given nature to enjoy if this is a place of suffering? How about taking a trip to a place devoid of it?
Personally I want to prepay for a one-way ticket to the haven Krishna describes. Since he’s right about this world, maybe he’s right about the other one. Krishna lays out details for walking that road into eternity. All we have to do is take the steps on that path.
Now, that would be a road less traveled.