What struck me was not so much the presence of the eagle, but the willfulness of his gaze. I caught the gleam of his feathers when the light fell through the space between the encroaching buildings. I saw the breadth of his wings and the steadiness of his intention as he flew toward me, twenty feet above the slow rush of cars. He was flying north, defiantly, toward the lakes and the rivers that are, for now, still frozen. He moved through the city without showing any concern for food or climate, answering only the imperative to reach some isolated place, to claim breeding territory and wait for a mate. He flew over my head and I looked around expecting to see a throng of bystanders staring and pointing in wonder, but it seemed I was the only one who noticed. Nonetheless, I couldn’t stop smiling.
Here, where I live, we’re known for our winters. Still in April, everyone is talking about the cold. Those who thought they had missed it by travelling to Thailand for a few months, or vacationing in Mexico for the worst of it, are now returning feeling cheated. We complain, and secretly we feel proud to be distinguished as one of the coldest inhabited places on earth. For many of us who remain, we go into what is commonly spoken of as a kind of creative hibernation. We seal our doors and our windows, carefully minimalize our time spent outside, and forgive one another infinitely for cancelled engagements. We go inside and are quiet with ourselves. This is not always a healthy thing, but it can be. Sometimes we manage to produce something of merit. Sometimes we feel grateful for quietness and rest. Sometimes we sink into depression and then hope to move through that depression and emerge with a deeper understanding of ourselves. Our seasons are distinct, but I imagine people experience these periods in their lives regardless of where they live.
When we choose to enter a period of intense introspection, or when a period of intense introspection is insisted upon us, we never know what we’ll discover. We begin peeling back protective layers and the resulting vulnerability is often terrifying. We sift through our underlying memories and find that they are often incomplete, or skewed, and are always of a singular perspective. When we discover things that misalign with our self-perception our response is most often to alter them, or to condemn them, or to deny them. Rarely do we allow them to alter us.
One of my earliest memories is of a dream. I remember it faintly, but I’ve retold it to myself so often that I now know it more by rote than by true recollection. I was three years old at the time, and in the dream I had somehow managed to lean from the second-story window of a bedroom that must have been mine. It was a warm summer day. The sky was blue. The grass was green. Below me in the yard, several family members lifted their faces to me and calmly waved. When I lifted my own face to the sky I saw an eagle descending toward me and just before he reached my window I let go. He bore me away and I watched the world disappear.
This memory became the beginning of a living mythology to which I am constantly submitting new aspects and at times reaching back to alter misremembered facts. It is a mythology comprised not of experiences but mere reflections of experiences by mirrors that are never perfect and at times even intentionally distorted. Who I believe myself to be is defined by this constantly morphing story, which contains themes, and patterns, and plot, and subplots, and roles, and environments, and lessons. I see it is a morphing story, but it is more often my experiences that are morphed in order to align with the story. Occasionally an experience is so profound that my personal mythology is forever changed, but even then I retain some control so that these new developments do not contradict past events but instead provide further evolution within their already established trajectories. New experiences – however unexpected, or dramatic, or tragic, or euphoric – are absorbed and assimilated by the already established mythology and the full effect of these experiences is often missed.
As the protagonist of my personal mythology I have spent my life sorting though my experiences, choosing carefully those that support my self-perceptions and dismissing those that oppose them. The result has been ultimately deleterious. Within my personal mythology I’ve come to expect myself to be the flawless hero, and the only way to do this has been to diminish, distort, or discard my faults and my shortcomings. One of the most common themes in my personal mythology is: I am of value because I do the right thing. The obvious problem with this is that I do not always do the right thing. To cope with my awareness of these “anomalies”, I repress the memory of failures, or paint them with an altering light. I defend myself even when I should not.
If I continue to live as I have lived, believing in a mythology that requires me to be the flawless hero, I will inevitably fail. I will be constantly, and neurotically sifting through my experiences, my self-perception, and the perceptions of others, frantically trying to maintain a myth that is both frail and unconvincing. I will live in fear of my imperfections, of which I am constantly aware, and from which I have no escape. When I step back for a moment from the role of protagonist, when I regard my mythology from the perspective of author or reader, I see clearly that it is not my failure that condemns me, but the prohibition of failure.
I was twenty-four years old when my marriage ended. We fell in love quickly and were already, I think, falling out of love by the time of our wedding. A year later we went to work in Lebanon and then Ghana where we worked on separate projects in separate regions of those countries. When we returned home we endured a few months of increasing distance and then it was over, two weeks shy of our two-year anniversary. In the months that followed I experienced tremendous self-doubt, I questioned my value as a man, I felt stigmatized, and I felt like a failure. I felt like a failure but I presented myself most often as someone who had been failed. In my personal mythology I was familiar with the theme of martyrdom, but there was no room within my personal beliefs to allow for an admittance of fault so blaringly obvious. To admit that I had failed at marriage would be to dismantle a significant aspect of my personal mythology and put into question the very nature of my character. Instead, I subscribed to the belief that my marriage ended not because I had done something wrong, but because, as I had already imagined countless times in my life, I did not deserve love. I could see myself as a kind of heroic victim. And so, I survived, but only by retreating to the manufactured solace of a false belief.
In looking clearly and honestly at my experiences, and in allowing them to inform my understanding of who I am, I glean from both pain and bliss the possibility of growth and change. In these moments of introspection it would be easy to ascribe to old belief systems of who I am, to adapt experiences to confirm a belief I have about myself. Alternately, in my awareness that my old belief systems are limiting me, I could just as easily created a new belief system to counter my old one. I could look back at my failed marriage, see how I had adapted that experience to align with my old belief systems and say, “no, that’s wrong,” and then turn around and develop a new belief system, one defined by the understanding that I had been the one that failed and not the one that had been failed. In both cases, I limit myself from being able to look back, with grace and compassion, and see an experience that informed me, but did not define me. My personal mythology is not indelibly scribed in an eternal manuscript beyond my reach, but it is rather more like a sketchbook that I keep in my back pocket, to mull over from time to time. When seen casually, divorced from its position of authority, it becomes a reflective device that can be incredibly insightful, but nothing more.
I saw an eagle in the evening light, in the city, when the rivers were still frozen and it made no sense for him to be there. I watched him fly over my head in a moment so surreal that I had to immediately abandon my prior understanding of the nature of eagles. Without doing this I could not really have accepted the experience. We have these moments that exist outside of our common experience of ourselves and of life. They are surreal, at times transcendent. They thrill us. Sometimes they devastate us. We are, for a moment, suspended in wonder, in the absence of belief, in the midst of infinite possibilities where we can, if only briefly, abandon our self-made myths and experience our truest selves, undefined. It’s in this moment of infinite wonder that we experience the divine.