Understanding Stories: Cat in the Rain by Ernest Hemingway

Cat in the Rain is a short story by Ernest Hemingway. First published in 1925, the 1,145-word story perfectly exemplifies the iceberg theory style of writing that Hemingway made famous. This writing style is a minimalistic style that focuses on surface-level elements without explicitly unpacking the underlining themes. The deeper meaning of the story isn’t overtly discussed but comes through the text, regardless.

The story starts by establishing an isolated atmosphere. 

There were only two Americans stopping at the hotel. They did not know any of the people they passed on the stairs on their way to and from their room.

Hemingway informs us that the two Americans aren’t just alone but they also don’t know anyone else in the hotel. We feel a sense of isolation from the start which is further unpacked by the rain, forcing everyone to stay inside. More isolated than they otherwise would have been. 

The motor cars were gone from the square by the war monument. Across the square in the doorway of the cafe a waiter stood looking out of the empty square.

The text then shifts to the wife, and immediately her wants are expressed. She sees a cat stuck out in the rain and she wants the cat. The main conflict of the story comes when the wife’s wants are met with disinterest by the husband. The husband doesn’t even bother to stop reading to address his wife’s wants.

“I’m. going down and get that kitty,” the American wife said.

“I’ll do it,” her husband offered from the bed.

“No, I’ll get it. The poor kitty out trying to keep dry under a table.”

The husband went on reading, lying propped up with the two pillows at the foot of the bed.

Now that the focus of the story has narrowed from saving a cat from the rain to an unsatisfied relationship, Hemingway provides us with further evidence for the latter point. The wife comes across the hotel keeper and notes the man’s dignity and the way he pays attention to her and how he wishes to serve her needs. Three things we assume her husband isn’t doing. 

The wife liked him. She liked the deadly serious way he received any complaints. She liked the way he wanted to serve her.

However, the wife’s want isn’t fulfilled. When she goes out to rescue the cat, it’s gone. So instead, the wife whines and for the first time, we see Hemingway refer to her as an ‘American girl’ perhaps suggesting her age. The story narrows in our mind and now we see the couple is young and perhaps the story is turning towards a loss of innocence. 

“Yes,” she said, “under the table.” Then, “Oh, I wanted it so much. I wanted a kitty.”

When she talked English the maid’s face tightened.

“Come, Signira,” she said. “We must get back inside. You will be wet.”

“I suppose so”, said the American girl.

Once more, the importance of the hotel keeper is highlighted as she goes back inside.

The padrone made her feel very small and at the same time really important. She had a momentary feeling of being of supreme importance. 

When the wife gets back to her room, she expresses her wants again but her husband continues to read, ignoring her requests and even telling her to be quiet. 

“And I want to eat at a table with my own silver and I want candles. And I want it to be spring and I want to brush my hair out in front of a mirror and I want a kitty and I want some new clothes.”

“Oh, shut up and get something to read.,” George said. He was reading again.

However, in the end, one of the wife’s wants is met. The hotel keeper sends her a cat. Here, Hemingway implies that another man can fulfill her wants instead of the husband. The fact that Hemingway hints at the hotel keeper being able to make her feel important we can infer something deeper is happening, underneath the surface of the text. Because the hotel keeper fulfills the wife’s wishes, we can take this as a symbolic gesture as to the hotel keeper fulfilling the wife’s physical or emotional needs. This may hint at an adulterous relationship to come or one that has happened already. Or perhaps, further acknowledging that this relationship between the husband and wife will not last as the wife realizes her dissatisfaction and understands that there are others who can make her happy. 

Lessons From Books: The Brutal Realism of Rabbit, Run

In Rabbit, Run, we follow Harry Angstrom, otherwise known as Rabbit. He is 26 years old former high school basketball star who now sells gadgets to make a living. His wife, Janice, is pregnant with their second child, and a 2-year-old son, Nelson. The Angstroms seem like a stereotypical family at first, but it is clear right away that Harry is disappointed with his life. It has not turned out as he wished and feels the need to escape, to find something worthwhile, to find new meaning. The pursuit to fill this hole in his life, he hits the road, abandoning his wife and kid in the process as he searches for purpose.

It is easy to say that Harry Angstrom is a despicable man. He is not a role model, however, he can be seen as a model of reality. How unforgiving life can be and the lack of care it has for your wants and needs. Harry had his own vision of life in which he had never imagined himself running away from his family and yet, he does because life rarely turns out the way we imagine. John Updike paints a brutally realistic image of what happens when a man is without meaning and the hurt that can cause to everyone around him.

Lessons:

Your Accomplishments Mean Nothing

Rabbit is a high school basketball star. Even has a clipping of the newspaper article that was printed after he set the country record for points. At that time of his life, when he was a high schooler, the world must have seemed like a pretty little thing on which he’ll leave his mark. However, the story starts off with these young kids who have no clue who he is. It has only been a handful of years since his high school days and his accomplishments are already forgotten. 

They’ve not forgotten him: worse, they never heard of him. Yet in his time Rabbit was famous through the county; in basketball in his junior year he set a B-league scoring record that in his senior year he broke with a record that was not broken until four years later, that is, four years ago.

At the moment, we may think what we accomplish is meaningful, but the meaning erodes with time. That accomplishment only mattered for that specific moment. It makes you think then: What do accomplishments really mean?

What makes us feel good, makes us feel special will become meaningless with time and you’ll be left to chase the memories of that thing or else, try to recreate it in the present, knowing well enough that it will be temporary.

What Should Have Happened, Won’t Happen

Somehow Rabbit can’t tear his attention from where the ball should have gone, the little ideal napkin of clipped green pinked with a pretty flag. His eyes can’t keep with where it did go.

This sums up Rabbit’s mindset. He is always focused on what should have happened, where he should have gone, how life should have turned out, and can’t see clearly what happened and, in turn, isn’t able to improve it.

Rabbit had dreamt of a better future for himself while he was in high school, but that future didn’t come true. Instead, it took a turn when he got his high school sweetheart pregnant. How much control do you really have over your life? Can you really will your life towards a specific future or are you just being pulled along with the tide of life, having to submit, submerge yourself, and fully accept whatever life brings you? Otherwise, you could live a life full of shame and regret. The two feelings permeate through Rabbit’s pores as he wishes for more. 

Two feelings that live in the heart of many people.

Your Life Is Not Yours

Sticking with the tide analogy, you have to be careful of who you give your obligation to. For who you take on responsibility. To who you commit yourself and your time to, otherwise, you might drown with the tides of life. 

I don’t know, it seemed like I was glued in with a lot of busted toys and empty glasses and television going and meals late and no way of getting out.

Rabbit lived his life passively. He went along with what happened and in doing so, found himself committed and obliged to things that he did not want. One of them being his wife. But he is tethered to her. Tethered in place through his son and his soon-to-be-born daughter. He tries several times to run away from that life, to start afresh, but he cannot do it. He comes crawling back each time.

He wants to go south, down, down the map into orange groves and smoking rivers and barefoot women. It seems simple enough, drive all night through the dawn through the morning through the noon park on a beach take off your shoes and fall asleep by the Gulf of Mexico. Wake up with stars above perfectly spaced in perfect health.

Your obligations can give you a sense of meaning in your life. If you are obligated to the things you don’t care about, then your meaning for life will be something you don’t care about, and that’s what happened to Harry. His passivity has led him to live a life which he doesn’t care about and so he cannot find peace.

External Change Doesn’t Bring Meaning 

The land refuses to change. The more he drives the more the region resembles the country around Mt. Judge. The scruff on the embankments, the same weathered billboards for the same products you wondered anybody would ever want to buy. At the upper edge of his headlight beams the make tree-twigs make the same net. Indeed the net seems thicker now.

Much of the novel is Rabbit’s search for meaning. He doesn’t find meaning in his job. Nor does he find meaning through the family. The only thing that really gave him self-worth is his basketball dreams and with those gone, he has nothing concrete he can hang his hat on and say to himself that he did something good. 

This blind search, mainly external, leads him to Ruth, with whom he starts a relationship. 

He was happy just hanging around her place at night, her reading mysteries and him running down to the delicatessen for dinner ale and some nights going to a movie but nothing like this.

At first, the relationship gives him pleasure. Makes him feel good, but the more he stays, the more guilt he feels. The external change did not help him because internally he was still the same man. A man who gets jealous, who is petty, who is dissatisfied.

His real happiness is a ladder from whose top rung he keeps trying to jump still higher, because he knows he should.

How Little Control You Have In Life

Lovely life eclipsed by lovey death.

The theme of control is evident throughout the novel, but there is a singular moment that encapsulates it at the end. The death of his infant daughter. There are things he could have done to prevent it from happening, but you have to wonder how far in his life he would have to go in order to change the cause-and-effect link that led to his daughter’s death. 

How much control do you really have over what happens around you? You may be able to control yourself, your habits, your emotions, and your feelings, but what can you do about the drunk driver that swerves and crashes into you? There is a level of absurdity to life because so much of it just happens. It’s random. Out of control. Chaotic. You can do your best to bring order, but you cannot control life.

She lifts the living thing into air and hugs it against her sopping chest. Water pours off them onto the bathroom tiles. The little weightless body flops against her neck and a quick look of relief at the baby’s face gives a fantastic clotted impression […] Her sense of the third person with them widens enormously, and she knows, knows, while knock sound at the door, that the worst thing that has ever happened to any woman in the world has happened to her.

Epiphanies Aren’t Real

After all that happens: leaving his wife, meeting Ruth, leaving her to go back to his wife, the understanding gained from the Pastor, the birth of his daughter, the death of his daughter, after these things, the book ends the same way it starts, with Rabbit running away from responsibility. 

He sees that among the heads even his own mother is horrified, a blank with shock, a wall against him; she asks him what have they done to him and then she does it too. A suffocating sense of injustice blinds him. He turns and runs.

Uphill exultantly. He doges among gravestones. Dandelions grow bright as butter among the graves. Behind him his name is called in Eccles’ voice: ‘Harry! Harry!’

Running away from his life. This strikes at the heart of human beings. It is difficult to change who we are. We can change our habits and routines, but it is difficult to change our nature. And Rabbit’s nature doesn’t change. He has not found peace.

His hand lift of their own and he feels the wind on his ears even before, his heels hitting heavily on the pavement at first but with an effortless gathering out of a kind of sweet panic growing lighter and quicker and quieter, he runs. Ah; runs. Runs.

Need To Have A Why

The whole novel Rabbit is searching for a reason. 

‘Well I don’t know all this about theology, but I’ll tell you, I do feel, I guess, that somewhere behind all of this’—he gestures outward at the scenery; they are passing the housing development this side of the golf course, half-wood half-brick one-and-a-half-stories in little flat bulldozed yards holding tricycles and spindly three-year-old tress, the un-grandest landscape in the world—‘there’s something that wants me to find it.’

A reason to live. A reason to accept life. A reason that makes sense of the world. A reason to justify his feelings and beliefs. 

Without meaning, your actions and beliefs seem bland, like a grey sky imprisoning the sunlight. There is no light in Harry’s life. He walks around in the dark, hoping for something to turn up that will improve his life. He doesn’t know what he wants, why he does the things he does, what will make him actually happy and so, we are left with a character who is ultimately dissatisfied with life which is slowly breaking him down and there is nothing he can do about it. 

That’s what you have, Harry: life. It’s a strange gift and I don’t know how we’re supposed to use it but I know it’s the only gift we get and it’s a good one.

Finding the ‘Why’ for your life then becomes the meaning for life.

Lessons From Stories: Hemingway’s A Clean, Well-Lighted Place

Ernest Hemingway captured an essential understanding of human nature in just 1,465 words. The understanding is: We need order when we’re lost in life.

Chaos and order are the bases of many stories, so it is not unique per se that Hemingway explores this issue, but the way he does it is unique. In A Clean, Well-Lighted Place, the cafe represents order because cleanliness and light are often associated with orderliness. The cafe is an attractive place that shelters those in need, like the old man who is lost in life. The old man regularly gets drunk at the cafe and later on, we are told that his wife recently passed away and he tried to commit suicide. The old man has lost his sense of purpose, his meaning for life and so he clings to the cafe because he doesn’t want to be alone.

Solitude represents chaos in this story. The old man doesn’t want to be alone at home. The older waiter, whose perspective we see the story from, can’t sleep until the sun rises. This is because when your mental state is not correct, one of the worst places you can be is in your own head, alone with your thoughts. That is a dangerous place. A chaotic place. 

The opening scene of the story has two waiters. The older one and the younger one. The two are different in one main way; the younger waiter has a sense of purpose and meaning, hence, he has order in his life.

“You have youth, confidence, and a job,” the older waiter said.

“You have everything.”

“And what do you lack?”

“Everything but work.”

“You have everything I have.”

“No. I have never had confidence and I am not young.”

This is why the younger waiter has a tough time emphasizing with the old man. He can’t see the old man is lost. He passes judgment on the old man and even says the old man has nothing to be sad about because he’s rich.

“Last week he tried to commit suicide,” (young) waiter said.

“Why?”

“He was in despair.”

“What about?”

“Nothing.”

“How do you know it was nothing?”

“He has plenty of money.”

This raises an interesting question. Can someone who has order or meaning in their life relate to someone who doesn’t? Someone who is in a chaotic state? Often when we have meaning in our life, we are focused on it and that can cause us to put blinders on and not see others who are trying to find their own way. Trying to find order. 

The older waiter suffers from chaos. He can’t be alone with his thoughts. He has trouble finding meaning in anything. This is shown in perhaps the most famous passage of this story.

It was all a nothing and a man was a nothing too. It was only that and light was all it needed and a certain cleanness and order. Some lived in it and never felt it but he knew it all was nada y pues nada y nada y pues nada. Our nada who art in nada, nada be thy name thy kingdom nada thy will be nada in nada as it is in nada. Give us this nada our daily nada and nada us our nada as we nada our nadas and nada us not into nada but deliver us from nada; pues nada. Hail nothing full of nothing, nothing is with thee. He smiled and stood before a bar with a shining steam pressure coffee machine.

Nothing matters to the waiter.

But because the waiter has no meaning in his life, he can relate to the old man, and feel empathy towards him. The older waiter is even willing to keep the light on in the cafe for a while longer to give the old man more time to drink.

“We are of two different kinds,” the older waiter said. He was now dressed to go home. “It is not only a question of youth and confidence although those things are very beautiful. Each night I am reluctant to close up because there may be some one who needs the cafe.”

“Hombre, there are bodegas open all night long.”

“You do not understand. This is a clean and pleasant cafe. It is well lighted. The light is very good and also, now, there are shadows of the leaves.”

Hemingway was famous for capturing a moment in time, a slice of life. The story ends without an answer. The old waiter blames his state of mind on insomnia, which could be seen as a scapegoat instead of confronting the reality of the meaninglessness of life.

But what could be a solution to this chaos?

Lost souls need order as evidenced by the old man’s desire to stay in the cafe. Order is then an essential need for those who are without meaning. Perhaps this suggests that when we are lost and lack meaning, we need to find things that bring order into our lives. Routines, habits, people, places, etc. Whatever helps us positively deal with our mental state.

In the story, it is implied that the old man lost his meaning after his wife passed. While the old waiter is seen trying to find meaning through religion but fails to do so. Even the young waiter finds his meaning through his work and his wife, both are liable to change.

What then?

Perhaps the meaning of our life has to be intrinsic. Something that can survive the ups and down of life. Perhaps that is the meaning. How well can you navigate what life throws at you? To constantly find the meaning behind your suffering. To search for the light in the darkness.

Maybe that is how meaning is created, and our mind becomes a place of solitude. 

Lessons From Stories: Kafka On The Shore

Kafka On The Shore is a novel by Haruki Murakami. The narrative follows two central characters, Kafka and Nakata, as they interact with other humans, cats, spirits, and even figures like Colonel Sanders and Johnnie Walker. Murakami uses aspects of magical realism in order to explore concepts such as fate and past trauma. It’s in this exploration of life that we can find valuable lessons.

Lessons:

Embrace The Storm

Sometimes fate is like a small sandstorm that keeps changing directions. You change direction but the sandstorm chases you. You turn again, but the storm adjusts. Over and over you play this out, like some ominous dance with death just before dawn. Why? Because this storm isn’t something that blew in from far away, something that has nothing to do with you. This storm is you. Something inside of you. So all you can do is give in to it, step right inside the storm, closing your eyes and plugging up your ears so the sand doesn’t get in, and walk through it, step by step.

[…]

And once the storm is over you won’t remember how you made it through, how you managed to survive. You won’t even be sure, in fact, whether the storm is really over. But one thing is certain. When you come out of the storm you won’t be the same person who walked in. That’s what this storm’s all about.

Fate is at the core of Murakami’s novel. Kafka’s fate is to confront his mother, who abandoned him at a young age. All his actions lead him towards this fate. He tries to run away from it, to hide from it, but he is constantly driven towards his fate. He eventually relents to the inevitable and faces his fate/storm in order to grow.

Such storms are always present in our life. We can view them as fate or perhaps challenges and obstacles life has set in front of us. Trials for us to complete and mature or to ignore and hide from and remain the same person. These storms can involve our career choices, relationships, habits, or ideologies. The very thing that causes us discomfort is what we need.

Of course, real life is not like a story. Our life isn’t a plot that will cause us to confront the uncomfortable aspects. Here is where the story of Kafka can influence us. If Kafka never confronted his mother, then he would always be a prisoner to his past feelings. But because he was able to come to terms with his abandonment issues, he was freed.

The story urges us to face our storm or fate, so we can gain a better understanding of who we are and move forward in life freely.

Take Responsibility

It’s all a question of imagination. Our responsibility begins with the power to imagine. It’s just like Yeats said: In dreams begin responsibilities. Flip this around and you could say that where there’s no power to imagine, no responsibility can arise.

This is significant in two ways. First, the more practical approach. Taking responsibility for our lives and our actions. We have to imagine that we have some control over our circumstances, whether good or bad. Our actions matter. Our choices matter and so, through our imagination, we can then develop ownership of our actions and thus create order.

Second, the potentials that imagination opens up also require our responsibility. If we imagine ourselves running a marathon, then it becomes a responsibility to work towards that imagination. This is true with creating art, traveling, setting goals, and so on. We have to imagine it first and then bring it to life.

Be Open

“If I had to say anything it’d be this: Whatever it is you’re seeking won’t come in the form you’re expecting.”

Nothing ever comes exactly the way we expect. There has to be a sense of letting go when we seek whatever it is that we want. To give up control and accept whatever it is that life thinks is best suited for us.

Otherwise, with a close mind, we can overlook the blessings presented to us.

Have Empathy Towards Others

“Miss Saeki’s life basically stopped at age twenty, when her lover died. No, maybe not age twenty, maybe much earlier…I don’t know the details, but you need to be aware of this. The hands of the clock buried inside her soul ground to a halt then. Time outside, of course, flows on as always, but she isn’t affected by it. For her, what we consider normal time is essentially meaningless.”

[…]

“Kafka, in everybody’s life there’s a point of no return. And in a very few cases, a point where you can’t go forward anymore. And when we reach that point, all we can do is quietly accept the fact. That’s how we survive.”

The character of Miss Saeki is portrayed as a shell of a human being. Her essence, her spirit, is stuck in a time when she was happily in love. However, a traumatic incident caused her to be severed from the present and to live in the past.

Miss Saeki is a fictional character, but her portrayal is very much real. From an outsider’s point of view, Miss Saeki appears perfectly normal. Just as we may think of the people we encounter in our daily life. We cannot know what is going on inside the person’s head. We don’t know what past events still haunt them. This is why empathy and kindness need to be at the forefront of our actions.

These two qualities can be viewed as a luxury, for we may not receive them from others. However, we all have the capability of showing these qualities and it becomes an obligation to do so, regardless of whether others show it to us.

As long as there’s such a thing as time, everybody’s damaged in the end, changed into something else. It always happens, sooner or later.

Too Much Of A Good Thing

“Man doesn’t choose fate. Fate chooses man. That’s the basic worldview of Greek drama. And the sense of tragedy—according to Aristotle—comes, ironically enough, not from the protagonist’s weak points but from his good qualities. Do you know what I’m getting at? People are drawn deeper into tragedy not by their defects but by their virtues.”

Too much unselfishness can breed greed, as others can take advantage of the unselfish nature. Too much love can breed resentment, as the person can be viewed as overbearing. We can have a boundless work ethic in order to improve our life or our family’s life but can end up with a broken home because of overworking.

In themselves, no virtue is good or bad, but when the human element is added to the mix, then there needs to be some kind of boundary. Otherwise, what we imagine being a good thing can cause negativity.

The Ebb and Flow of Life

“Picture a bird perched on a thin branch,” she says. “The branch sways in the wind, and each time this happens the bird’s field of vision shifts. You know what I mean?”

[…]

“It bobs its head up and down, making up for the sway of the branch. Take a good look at birds the next time it’s windy. I spend a lot of time looking out that window. Don’t you think that kind of life would be tiring? Always shifting your head every time the branch you’re on sways?

“I do.”

“Birds are used to it. It comes naturally to them. They don’t have to think about it, they just do it. So it’s not as tiring as we imagine. But I’m a human being, not a bird, so sometimes it does get tiring.”

“You’re on a branch somewhere?”

“In a manner of speaking,” she says. “And sometimes the wind blows pretty hard.”

We can see the natural rhythm of life as the individual trying to remain stable as events outside of their control create disorder. The actions of other people, chance events, unlucky instances, absurd misfortunes are to us what the wind is to a bird. Knocking us about, disrupting our flow, causing us to readjust. So, there is a constant ebb and flow, push and pull, as we adjust to the new rhythm of life and just as we master the new, another challenge arises.

The cycle is endless, and it is by accepting this cycle that can gain some peace of mind. So that when we are knocked off balance, we don’t view it as some grave misfortune but as the natural rhythm of life. And perhaps we can even be prepared for the next gust of wind.

True Inner Strength

“The strength I’m looking for isn’t the kind where you win or lose. I’m not after a wall that’ll repel power coming from outside. What I want is the kind of strength to be able to absorb that outside power, to stand up to it. The strength to quietly endure things—unfairness, misfortune, sadness, mistakes, misunderstandings.”

Too often we wish that nothing bad happens to us. But that just isn’t realistic. Hoping gets us nowhere. What we need is to cultivate certain characteristics so that when misfortune strikes, we can manage them in a calm and orderly manner. One practice is to meditate on the worst possible scenario, as the Stoics advised. So when bad things happen, we aren’t surprised by them.

Another way to cultivate inner strength is by purposely exposing ourselves to suffering. Whether it be physical training, which can help with mental endurance, or by constantly trying new things and failing, and trying again. Both of these tactics can bring us insight into how to endure. How to be patient. How to deal with that inner voice which wants comfort and ease. How to dust ourselves off and keep going.

This type of thinking puts the control in our hands. Gives us an understanding of how to behave when faced with difficult challenges.

Overcome Yourself

“You have to overcome the fear and anger inside you,” the boy named Crow says. “Let a bright light shine in and melt the coldness in your heart. That’s what being tough is all about.”

We all have our defects. No individual is perfect. Part of living is about finding the pieces of yourself which are broken or maybe even missing and mending them and creating them anew.

“Even though she loved you, she had to abandon you. You need to understand how she felt then, and learn to accept it. Understand the overpowering fear and anger she experienced, and feel it as your own—so you won’t inherit it and repeat it. The main thing is this: You have to forgive her. That’s not going to be easy, I know, but you have to do it. That’s the only way you can be saved. There’s no other way!”

“Mother, you say, I forgive you. And with those words, audibly, the frozen part of your heart crumbles.”

The core of the novel is Kafka coming to terms with the abandonment by his mother. He gets angry; he lashes out; he runs away from home but wherever he goes; he carries with him this burden that his mother left him. Until he can come to terms with that, he’ll never truly evolve and grow. Once more, this requires Kafka to overcome himself. To forgive someone requires us to subdue our own feelings and our ego. Kafka is able to do so and move on with his life. But many people get stuck in the past. They harbor a singular event or person and let the past dictate their present. To be free in the present, we have to face the past and deal with it and in turn, deal with our own issues. This is what Kafka’s journey is all about.

Great Lines

“Mr. Nakata, this world is a terribly violent place. And nobody can escape the violence. Please keep that in mind. You can’t be too cautious. The same holds true for cats and human beings.”

“There’s only one kind of happiness, but misfortune comes in all shapes and sizes. It’s like Tolstoy said. Happiness is an allegory, unhappiness is a story.”

“But what disgusts me even more are people who have no imagination. The kind T. S. Eliot calls hollow men. People who fill up that lack of imagination with heartless bits of straw, not even aware of what they’re doing. Callous people who throw a lot of empty words at you, trying to force you to do what you don’t want to.”

He lived in a world circumscribed by a very limited vocabulary.

“Having an object that symbolizes freedom might make a person happier than actually getting the freedom it represents.”

“Memories warm you up from the inside. But they also tear you apart.”

Lessons From Stories: Siddhartha

Siddhartha had a goal, a single one: to become empty—empty of thirst, empty of desire, empty of dreams, empty of joy and sorrow. To die away from himself, no longer be self, to find peace with an emptied heart, to be open to miracles in unselfed thinking: that was his goal.

The story Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse, deals with the human ego, desires, needs, vices, and the attempt to overcome all of it. In this journey of self-discovery, Siddhartha learns the important lesson that to find himself, he has to go his own way. To make his own path through personal experiences. All the good and bad that comes along with it is his own, as is the wisdom he achieves.

Lessons

There Is No Permanence

He killed his senses, he killed his memory, he slipped from his ego into a thousand different formations. He was animal, was carcass, was rock, was wood, was water, and he always found himself again upon awakening. Sun was shining or moon, he was self again, swinging in the cycle, felt thirst, overcame thirst, felt new thirst.[…]Bu though the paths led away from the ego, in the end they always led back to the ego. Though Siddhartha fled his ego a thousand times, dwelling in nothingness, in animal, in rock, the return was inevitable since he found himself again, in sunlight or in moonlight, in shade or in rain, and again was ego and Siddhartha, and again felt the torment of the onerous cycle.

There is no permanent solution to the problem of human ego. Neither is there a simple solution to desires. The ego will always return and new desires will rise. We cannot truly be egoless or live without desires. We can only overcome these things in the present moment and then prepare ourselves for the next time ego or the cravings for desires show themselves.

This can overwhelm us in one sense because we know that by overcoming the ego once, we haven’t truly won. But there is also freedom in this notion because by losing one time doesn’t mean we are completely lost.

You Have To Find Your Own Way

You (Buddha) found the deliverance from death. It came to you from your own seeking, on your own path, through thinking, through meditation, through knowledge, through illumination. It did not come through a teaching! And—this is my thought, O Sublime One—no one is granted deliverance through a teaching![…]But there is one thing that the so clear, so venerable Teaching does not contain: it does not contain the secret of what the Sublime One himself has experienced, he alone among the hundreds of thousands. That is what I thought and realized when I heard the Teaching. That is why I am resuming my wandering.

Buddha became Buddha by going his own way and finding his own path. So, just because we can recreate Buddha’s steps, it does not mean we will become him. Ideally, the point of seeking and self-reflection is to find ourselves, not to become someone else. There is a leap of faith involved in this by walking away from a set path that was successful for another individual and making our own way.

Slowly walking away, Siddhartha pondered. He realized he was no longer a youth, he had become a man. He realized that one thing had left him like the old skin that leaves the serpent, that one thing was no longer within him, a thing that had accompanied him throughout his youth and had belonged to him: the wish to have teachers and hear teachings.

The Importance Of Self Reflection

There is only one reason, a single one, why I know nothing about myself, why Siddhartha has remained so foreign to myself, so unknown. The reason is that I was afraid of myself, I was fleeing myself! I was seeking Atman, I was seeking Brahma. I was willing to dismember my ego and peel it apart in order to find the core of all peels in its unknown innermost essence: to find Atman, Life, the Divine, the Ultimate. But I myself was lost in the process.

We all have an inner voice that is always speaking if we listen. By following the directions of others, we can drown our inner voice. Too often we follow someone else’s instructions because it takes away self-responsibility and ownership and this comforts us.

If we listen to ourselves and then act upon that, then all the disappointments and failures of life result from our own actions. This possibility can overwhelm us, which causes us to go along with the herd instead. That way we aren’t alone in our mistakes. However, this also takes away our ability to live our own life.

Both thought and sense were pretty things; beyond them the ultimate meaning was concealed. Both had to be heard, both had to be played with, neither was to be scorned or overrated; and the secret voices of their innermost cores had to be listened to. He wished to strive for nothing but what the voice ordered him to strive for; stay with nothing but what the voice advised him to stay with. Why had Guatama once, in the hour of hours, sat down under the bo tree, where the illumination struck him? He had heard a voice, a voice in his own heart, which ordered him to seek rest under this tree, and he had not preferred castigation, sacrifice, bathing, or praying, eating or drinking, sleeping or dreaming; he had obeyed the voice. Obeying like that, not external orders, but only the voice, to be ready like that—that was good, that was necessary, nothing else was necessary.

By listening to others, we are molded. By listening to ourselves, we are created. Individualism is at the heart of Siddhartha’s decision. He believed in it so much that he was willing to turn his back on Buddha’s teachings and find his own way.

I will learn from me, from myself, I will be my own pupil: I will get to know myself, the secret that is Siddhartha.

Life Is In The Sensation

But, I, who wanted to read the book of the world and the book of my being, I, for the sake of a presumed meaning, scorned the signs and the letters, I called the world of appearances deception, called my eyes and my tongue random and worthless. No, that is past, I have awakened, I am truly awake, and today is the day of my birth.

By trusting our own senses, we can strip away old values and find what we truly like and dislike. We cannot understand ourselves or the world through the teachings of others. We cannot teach the deepest understandings. We have to feel and experience them in our own unique way.

A Practice In Living in the Moment

But now his liberated eyes remained on this side, he saw and acknowledged visibility, he sought his home in this world, did not seek reality, did not aim at any beyond. Beautiful was the world if you contemplated it like this, with no seeking, so simple, so childlike. Beautiful were moon and stars, beautiful were brook and bank, forest and rock, goat and rose beetle, flower and butterfly. It was beautiful and delightful to go through the world like this, so childlike, so awake, so open to what was near, so without distrust.

Do These Three Things: Think, Wait, and Fast

I can think, I can wait. I can fast.

These are the three things Siddhartha can do. They may not seem like much. But, if we look deeper into the statement, we can see the value in these three disciplines. Thinking allows Siddhartha to find the best course of action. Instead of following the first thing that comes to his mind, he can dissect, poke holes in that line of action and come up with a better alternative.

Waiting is akin to patience. To gain the skill of patience is essential in navigating life. Patience plays a key role in attaining any goal that we set out for ourselves.

While fasting is summed up by Siddhartha in the following passage:

It is very good, sir. If a person has nothing to eat, then fasting is the wisest thing he can do. If, for instance, Siddhartha had not learned how to fast, he would have to accept any service today, whether with you or someone else, for hunger would force him to do so. But now Siddhartha can calmly wait, he knows no impatience, he knows no plight. He can stave off hunger for a long time and he can laugh at it. That, sir, is what fasting is good for.

And all three of these virtues come together and allow Siddhartha to be committed and disciplined towards his goals.

If you toss a stone into water, it takes the swiftest way to the bottom. And Siddhartha is like that when he has a goal, make a resolve. Siddhartha does nothing, he waits, he thinks, he fasts, but he passes through the things of the world like the stone through the water, never acting, never stirring. He is drawn. He lets himself drop. His goal draws him, for he lets nothing into his soul that could go against his goal. That is what Siddhartha learned among the samanas. It is what fools call magic and what they think is worked by demons. Nothing is worked by demons, there are no demons. Anyone can work magic, anyone can reach his goals if he can think, if he can wait, if he can fast.

A Mindset To Practice

Certainly, I traveled for my pleasure. For what else? I became acquainted with people and places, I enjoyed trust and friendliness, I found friendship. Now, dear friend, if I were Kamaswami, then the instant I saw that my purchase was thwarted, I would have angrily hastened back, and time and money would indeed have been lost. But instead I had good days, I learned things, I experienced joy, I harmed neither myself nor others with anger or haste. And if ever I go there again, perhaps to buy a later harvest or for whatever purpose, friendly people will give me a friendly and cheerful welcome, and I will pat myself on the back for not having shown haste or anger.

This mindset comes down to perspective. We can look at a loss as a loss and allow it to have an influence over our feelings and emotions or we can look at a loss as a lesson and become a better person thanks to it. We can force ourselves to look at the positives of a failed action and discover the successes. In this way, we remain in control of our attitude.

Importance Of Experiencing The Good And The Bad

Slowly, the way moisture creep into the dying tree stump, slowly filling it and rotting it, worldliness and slothfulness had crept into Siddhartha’s soul; slowly they filled his soul, made it heavy, made it weary, lulled it to sleep. By contrast, his sense had come alive; they had learned a lot, experienced a lot.”It is good,” he thought, “to taste everything that one needs to know. As a child I learned that wealth and wordly pleasure are not good. I know it for a long time, but I experienced it only now. And now I know it, know it not only with memory, but also with my eyes, with my heart, with my stomach. Good for me that I know it!

As a child, Siddhartha attempted to overcome worldly desires and his own ego without actually having experienced these things. This is one reason he struggled with practicing and following Buddha’s teachings. How can he overcome something he has never experienced before?

True enlightenment comes through our own experiences. So, Siddhartha had to experience for himself vices such as greed, lust, and sloth before he could find a way to overcome them. And when he did, those lessons then became imprinted in his mind.

You Can Start Over Again

Well,” he thought, “since all these so ephemeral things have slipped away from me again, I am now standing again under the sun, under which I once stood as a little child. I have nothing, I know nothing, I can do nothing, I have learned nothing. How wondrous this is! Now that I am no longer young, now that my hair is already half grey, now that my energy is ebbing—-I am starting all over again, like a child! I had to go through so much stupidity, so much vice, so much error, so much disgust and disillusion and distress, merely in order to become a child again and begin afresh.

As we grow older, we become set into a form of thinking and acting. We come to believe that the person we are and the life we are living is how it will be. However, there is always an alternative. To start fresh again. This may require a great deal of humility as Siddhartha expresses. Siddhartha has to come to terms with the reality that he has gone the wrong way in life. Also, that he had given into vices which he had laughed at when he was younger. Acceptance is the root of all change. Siddhartha had to accept his failures and missteps in order to start all over again.

How To View Others

He now saw people in a different light, less cleverly, less proudly, but also more warmly, more curiously, more sympathetically.[…]He understood them, he understood and shared their lives, which were led not by thoughts and insights, but solely by drives and wishes.[..]Their greed, their vanity, their silliness had lost their silliness for him, became understandable, became lovable, became even venerable for him.

Everyone is just trying to make it through life with their own demons and insecurities. Some try to overcome them through overcompensating, which can cause friction with other people. Other’s project a certain image of themselves in order to satisfy their ego and pride.

In reality, we should look at these moments as reminders to check our own bad behaviours and actions instead of condemning others. We are all alike. We share the same basic emotions, desires and needs. So, it is easy to see why someone gives into their vices because we all have at some point in our lives. This is why Siddhartha leads with sympathy after coming to the understanding that all humans are one.

Slowly blossomed, slowly ripened in Siddhartha the insight, the knowledge of what wisdom actually is, what the goal of his long seeking was. It was nothing but a readiness of the soul, an ability, a secret art, to think the thought of oneness, to feel and breathe the oneness at every moment, in the midst of life.

Perspective On Life

The sinner, which I am and which you are, is a sinner, but in times to come he will be Brahma again, he will reach the Nirvana, will be Buddha–and now see: these “times to come” are a deception, are only a parable! The sinner is not on his way to become a Buddha, he is not in the process of developing, though our capacity for thinking does not know how else to picture these things. No, within the sinner is now and today already the future Buddha, his future is already all there, you have to worship in him, in you, in everyone the Buddha which is coming into being, the possible, the hidden Buddha. The world, my friend Govinda, is not imperfect, or on a slow path towards perfection: no, it is perfect in every moment, all sin already carries the divine forgiveness in itself, all small children already have the old person in themselves, all infants already have death, all dying people the eternal life.

[…]

Therefore, I see whatever exists as good, death is to me like life, sin like holiness, wisdom like foolishness, everything has to be as it is, everything only requires my consent, only my willingness, my loving agreement, to be good for me, to do nothing but work for my benefit, to be unable to ever harm me. I have experienced on my body and on my soul that I needed sin very much, I needed lust, the desire for possessions, vanity, and needed the most shameful despair, in order to learn how to give up all resistance, in order to learn how to love the world, in order to stop comparing it to some world I wished, I imagined, some kind of perfection I had made up, but to leave it as it is and to love it and to enjoy being a part of it.

Great Lines or Quotes:

But be warned, you who thirst for knowledge, be warned about the thicket of opinions and the fight over words. Whether beautiful or ugly, wise or foolish, opinions are unimportant, anyone can follow them or reject them.

For, it seemed to him, thinking is recognizing causes, and that is the only way in which sensations become insights: they are not lost, they become substance and begin to radiate what is within them.

Everything not fully suffered, not fully resolved came again: the same sorrows were suffered over and over.

“Each person gives what he has. The warrior gives strength, the merchant gives merchandise, the teacher teaching, the farmer rice, the fisherman fish.”

“Writing is good, thinking is better. Cleverness is good, patience is better.”

“Most people, Kamala, are like a falling leaf, that wafts and drifts through the air, and twists and tumbles to the ground. Others, however, few, are like stars: they have a fixed course, no wind reaches them, they have their law and their course inside of them.”

“And now, Siddhartha, what are you now? I do not know, I know it as little as you. I am on the move. I was a rich man, and am no longer; and I do not know what I will be tomorrow.”

“Ah, Siddhartha, I see you suffering, but you are suffering pains that others would laugh at, that you will soon laugh at yourself.”

“Wisdom cannot be communicated. Wisdom that a wise man tries to communicate always sounds foolish.”

“I see his greatness not in speaking, not in thinking, but only in doing, in living.”

“I am Siddhartha! And there is nothing in the world I know less about than myself, than Siddhartha!”