“People wish to be settled. Only as far as they are unsettled is there any hope for them.” — Emerson
MARCH 9—Five days ago, on a cold and sunny morning, I sat in quiet meditation observing the movement of my breath. Sitting in a chair—posture upright, feet in gentle contact with the floor—my body was still and relaxed.
As my mind slowed and slowly quieted, I became aware of a pervasive, painfully raw, and restless energy. The sensation—so I recollect it now—was of a tiny bird, long battered by fierce winds, frightened and exhausted, searching for a safe place to rest.
Even as I write this, I feel an unbearable ache in my heart. It is always there, in truth, even when buried beneath the turbulent surface of my thoughts. Tears, so close to spilling, are stopped only by this impossible effort now—this effort to capture a momentary experience and insight in words and to pull it into light.
I am that bird—you are that bird—and there is no place to settle.
Our lives are transient. We are nomads and vagabonds of one sort or another. Cosmic tramps. It is a truth Charlie Chaplin understood and turned into comedic cinematic art.
I am almost certain this is not, what I have thus far described, what Emerson meant when he praised the condition of unsettledness. And perhaps he intended several meanings. Wisdom, though, begins with clear sight, and I do believe that is what he had most in mind.
People may wish to be settled. I certainly do. But too much comfort lulls one into a kind of waking sleep. And in any case, however apparently settled one may be, it is fundamentally illusory. Being unsettled brings us much closer to the reality of our situation. Emerson, I think, would have us wake up, however uncomfortably, to things as they are.
* * *
On that morning, five days ago now, a surprising and surprisingly tender compassion arose unbidden in my mind. Like the water of a clear mountain stream, it flowed freely and swiftly. First, to my own parched heart, and then on and outward in all directions to everyone—all frightened birds everywhere. In clearly seeing my own suffering—experiencing it thoroughly and utterly nakedly—I could see as well that I was not alone.
Fleeting to be sure, that experience was also… settling. It calmed my heart, however briefly. Perhaps compassion is where we take refuge from the battering winds. And perhaps—Emerson must have understood this well—there is wisdom to be gained in being deeply unsettled.