The oldest piece of literature in existence, The Epic of Gilgamesh, is around 4,000 years old. In terms of human existence, I don’t think that’s very old, but still, it’s been a while. Although there are things in the poem that can seem foreign to a modern reader, there are many things in this short epic that illustrate basic human feelings, things we can identify with: desire for power, anger, fear of death, sexual lust, boastfulness, love of friends, perplexity about life.
One of the elements of the poem with dramatic consequences is love that is not fulfilled. The goddess Ishtar falls in love with Gilgamesh, who rejects her. Unwisely, he does not do this gently. An angry rejected lover can be a problem. An angry rejected goddess can be a Huge Problem.
In some ways this episode with Ishtar is symbolic of a common human experience, the bitter disappointment of rejection by someone who we love. It’s a common motif in literature, as is falling in love, being in love, celebrating the wonders of the loved one, anguish that love is being lost, suspicion that the loved one is not faithful—it’s quite a list.
From looking at art, we see that romantic love is a major human obsession. We find it in the Odyssey, early Beatles songs, nearly every Shakespeare play, Victorian novels like Jane Eyre, all soap operas, most regular operas, 99% of pop songs (even Metallica, a little bit), poems by the Roman writer Catullus, recent popular novels like The Help, or the 800-year-old Japanese novel The Tale of Genji. It’s an ocean full of longing and celebration, and if you haven’t been there, you’re a robot. I’m adding one of my drops to that ocean, in this case a poem about longing.
But of course I’m overly optimistic
to think I might say goodbye to the cycle of suffering,
the Buddhist samsara.
Are we really born and reborn
according to our thoughtlessness or kindness in a previous life?
And if so,
do we really make progress?
Am I making progress?
Maybe a thousand years ago
I was a warrior with the soul of a wild animal,
setting huts on fire with people inside,
and as punishment
I was reborn a slave.
That was to teach me humility.
Perhaps then I made progress
and I was merely a man who beat his wife and children.
For that, I may have been reborn a blind beggar.
That was to teach me empathy.
I must have been rather good in recent lives.
I’m not a slave,
I’m not destitute,
I’m not physically afflicted.
Now I only suffer from an unfulfillable desire to be loved.
Once I get past that
it ought to be smooth sailing.
You are my test.
To stop loving you,
to stop wishing you loved me,
this is my spiritual quest,
my application of Buddhist practice.
“But if she knew how much—”
Breathe in, focus on your breathing.
“Surely I make her happy—”
Your suffering is the path to liberation.
Yes, perhaps I am overly optimistic.
Even 2,600 years does not seem like enough time
to create a religion
that can relieve me of the burden of pointlessly loving you.
I breathe in,
and focus on my breathing.