Sunday, November 11, 2018

Vayetze (Learning to Fly)

The true test of any transformative spiritual experience comes in its aftermath.  Revelatory moments are beautiful, but all too often evanescent; the real work of changing one’s life is long, slow, and unromantic.  As Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield notes, “We all know that after the honeymoon comes the marriage, after the election comes the hard task of governance.  In spiritual life it is the same: After the ecstasy comes the laundry.” 

Twenty years ago, climbers found the body of English mountaineer George Mallory buried beneath the ice on the north face of Mt. Everest.  A broken altimeter in his shirt pocket suggested that Mallory may have reached the summit before dying on the descent.  If so, he would have been the first man to stand atop the world’s highest peak, beating Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay to this feat by twenty-nine years.  So how did Hillary respond when he learned of this discovery?  Utterly unperturbed, he told a reporter:  “Coming down is also important.”

In this week’s Torah portion, Vayetze, Jacob has a lot to learn about coming down. 
The first night after leaving home, fleeing his (understandably) angry brother Esau, Jacob has a dream vision of the Divine: a ladder reaching to the heavens, complete with ascending and descending angels and a message directly from God: “I am with you and will keep you wherever you go.”  Jacob wakes full of awe and reverence, declaring: “Surely God is in this place, and I did not know it!”

Yet just a few moments later, Jacob is back to his usual self, bargaining, rather crassly, on his own behalf: “If You will be with me and give me bread and clothing and constant protection, then You will be my God.”  What follows is twenty years of hardship, working for his deceitful uncle, Laban, and living in a rather messy love triangle with his wives and handmaidens.    After the ecstasy, the laundry.

Tom Petty captures the essence of this experience—the jarring and frustrating return to ordinary life after the extraordinary moment has passed—in his song, “Learning to Fly.”  He begins, like Jacob, with a journey, leaving home as night falls:

Well it started out
Down a dirty road
Started out all alone

And the sun went down
As I crossed the hill
And the town lit up
And the world got still.

Then, the spiritual awakening:

I’m learning to fly

And immediately, without missing a beat, comes the realization that it’s hard, or even impossible, to sustain that exulted state:

But I ain’t got wings
Coming down
Is the hardest thing.

Like Jacob, Tom Petty tells us, we keep on keeping on.  Life wears us down.  The mountaintop moments fade.   Still, we endure and, with diligent effort, over months and  years, we find ways to transform ourselves by building upon those few and fleeting holy experiences.  What comes up must come down yet we, nonetheless, keep learning to fly. 

Well some say life
Will beat you down
And break your heart
Steal your crown.

So I started out
For God knows where
I guess I’ll know
When I get there.

I’m learning to fly
Around the clouds
What goes up
Must come down

I’m learning to fly

For a magical live performance of  Learning to Fly:


Unknown said...

Beautifully written -- poetic -- and it gives one something to ponder. Gayle Speizer

Daryl King said...

Beautiful blog post, and accompanying choice of song and meaning!