Something that I’ve come to realise lately is that self-help in modern times is fluff. Quick solutions, tips for gaming the system and all “ten steps” for this and “three weeks” for that which are ultimately completely . The wisdom, earned through mistakes, struggles and experience seems to completely be lacking in the modern times.
Therefore, in those moments when it’s past midnight, and there is a chilly breeze blowing, and I feel down or in need of some perspective, I don’t turn to Tim Ferriss, Robin Sharma or Deepak Chopra.
I turn, instead, to wisdom from people further back in time. I turn to Kabir, to Rahim, or to Omar Khayyam.
Kabir’s Dohas have been long favourites of mine, and I’ve got a huge pdf file full of them, which I read from time to time. Unfortunately, Dohas, although in my mother tongue, are paradoxically harder to understand than the easily digested English of Edward Fitzgerald. And hence, its the Rubbaiyat I turn to more often.
And so it was that during my most recent reading of the Rubbaiyat that I had a minor epiphany, and I felt like I finally caught a glimpse of what Khayyam was trying to say:
Life is inherently meaningless.
Existential nihilism, of course, is about as old as Methuselah. But for me, this was something I’d subconsciously felt for a long time, which struck home only recently.
I’ve always enjoyed the “being-enraptured-by-it” part of astronomy. Imagining being suspended in some distant solar system, watching different planets go around a different sun and going “Wow”. Or wondering how the sunrise would look like from Mars.
And, as any amateur astronomer will tell you, mundane earthly things pale when compared with the vastness and the intrigue of the Universe.
Khayyam’s Rubaiyat is full of such kind of mystique and submission to fatalism. He advises that our time on this planet is too limited to spend sweating the small stuff. Instead, he says that we should treat life as a gift; to be enjoyed.
I’ve listed a few of my favourite ones, and decided to just let you read them, without too many of my comments, although there are a few sprinkled about.
Ok, so here we go!
The Worldly Hope men set their Hearts upon
Turns Ashes—or it prospers; and anon,
Like Snow upon the Desert's dusty Face
Lighting a little Hour or two—is gone.
Ah, make the most of what we yet may spend,
Before we too into the Dust Descend;
Dust into Dust, and under Dust, to lie,
Sans Wine, sans Song, sans Singer — sans End!
Lo! some we loved, the loveliest and the best
That Time and Fate of all their Vintage prest,
Have drunk their Cup a Round or two before,
And one by one crept silently to Rest.
This last one is a particular favourite of mine, because all of us look at at least a few other people, and imagine their life being at least a lot better than ours, if not perfect. But, the real question to ask is, so what? Isn’t it a better use of our limited time here, that we learn, build, experience? Learn about how things work, what stars are made of, why the human body is as it is, or about the life forms that burst forth from every crevice of this blue sphere?
Oh, come with old Khayyam, and leave the Wise
To talk; one thing is certain, that Life flies;
One thing is certain, and the Rest is Lies;
The Flower that once has blown for ever dies.
Then to this earthen Bowl did I adjourn
My Lip the secret Well of Life to learn:
And Lip to Lip it murmur'd—"While you live,
Drink!—for once dead you never shall return."
How long, how long, in infinite Pursuit
Of This and That endeavour and dispute?
Better be merry with the fruitful Grape
Than sadden after none, or bitter, Fruit.
But leave the Wise to wrangle, and with me
The Quarrel of the Universe let be:
And, in some corner of the Hubbub coucht,
Make Game of that which makes as much of Thee.
Another one of my favourites. Part of a long list, no doubt. And certainly adulterated by Fitzgerald’s loose, freewheeling translation. But despite all of this, “make game of that which makes as much of thee” is perhaps the single most stunning line in the history of poetry. And has a certain similarity to Robert Frost’s equally incredible line:“Forgive, O Lord! My little jokes on Thee, and I’ll forgive Thy great big joke on me”
Finally, I’ll leave you with a collection of quatrains on…. clay pots.
Listen again. One Evening at the Close
Of Ramazan, ere the better Moon arose,
In that old Potter's Shop I stood alone
With the clay population round in Rows.
And strange to tell, among that Earthen Lot
Some could articulate, while others not:
And suddenly one more impatient cried—
"Who is the Potter, pray, and who the Pot?"
Then said another—"Surely not in vain
My substance from the common Earth was ta'en,
That He who subtly wrought me into Shape
Should stamp me back to common Earth again."
Another said—"Why, ne'er a peevish Boy
Would break the Bowl from which he drank in Joy;
Shall He that made the Vessel in pure Love
And Fansy, in an after Rage destroy!"
None answer'd this; but after Silence spake
A Vessel of a more ungainly Make:
"They sneer at me for leaning all awry;
What? did the Hand then of the Potter shake?"
Said one—"Folks of a surly Tapster tell,
And daub his Visage with the Smoke of Hell;
They talk of some strict Testing of us—Pish!
He's a Good Fellow, and 'twill all be well."
Then said another with a long-drawn Sigh,
"My Clay with long oblivion is gone dry:
But, fill me with the old familiar Juice,
Methinks I might recover by-and-bye!"
So, while the Vessels one by one were speaking,
One spied the little Crescent all were seeking:
And then they jogg'd each other, "Brother! Brother!
Hark to the Porter's Shoulder-knot a-creaking!
The clay pots are, of course, beautifully analogous to humans, the “familiar juice” is wine, and the conversation is veiled reference to all the most profound questions that man grapples with.
As a last note, the quatrain at the beginning of this post is from Ahmad Saidi. I think it’s the perfect summary of Khayyam.