Oct/Nov 2000 Salon

Get High, Stay High, Go Fast

by Paul J. Sampson

Not long after I soloed a glider for the first time, I talked to an old friend about it. She is "in recovery," like every fifth or sixth person you talk to these days. This influences her choice of words.

"This glider flying," she said. "So tell me: what's the rush?" I had to laugh: I hadn't heard this speed-freak's meaning for that word since—when? The seventies, surely, back when knowing our friends included knowing what they were using to get through the night. I keep tamer company now.

I had a hard time answering her; I hadn't stopped to analyze the sensation. "It's not a rush, exactly," I said. "It's very calm, in fact." Then I remembered her commitment to recovery, and supplied the right buzzword. "It's serenity."

That is an important word among the legions of recoverers, who cherish this sweet and modest little prayer: "God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference." (It's called the Serenity Prayer; its author is Reinhold Niebuhr. We don't usually think of prayers as having authors, with the notable exception of the Our Father; is Dr. Niebuhr entitled to royalties? If so, from whom?)

So we settled on "serenity" as the right word for the sensation of piloting a glider. It may not be precisely right—it sounds too passive, for one thing—but it's certainly better than "rush," that hectic, drug-fueled neurological rocket-ride I remember from my two encounters with amphetamines: once to aid in cramming for a college exam, the second and last to keep me awake on an all-night cross-country drive. I passed the exam and didn't wreck the car, but in the ensuing thirty-some years I have never wanted any more speed.

Still, her use of "rush" made me think about those years, the late sixties and part of the seventies, when drugs were part of everyone's mental furniture in a way that now strikes me as relatively benign and absolutely impossible to resurrect.

No one could now confuse drug-taking with spiritual development. Then, a fairly considerable number of people convinced themselves that they were refitting their brains as vessels of exploration, navigating the undiscovered headwaters of the soul, so many Cousteaus aboard their chemical Calypsos, psychic Magellans setting sail to circumnavigate the skull.

The gentle counterculture that supported this belief was for the most part overwhelmed and extinguished. For all the media attention it received, it was always outnumbered, and before long it was turned into a commercial enterprise, a marketing scheme. Unsurprisingly, the drug scene turned from exploration to exploitation. Those who had celebrated psychotropic sacraments went on to other modes of knowledge. Those who were in it for the kicks went on to stronger kicks. Nobody who smokes crack cocaine claims to see God.

Anyway, my friend's use of the druggie slang word "rush" reminded me of that now-obsolete idea of drugs as a vehicle for self-knowledge. We have, in fact, come a little way further since then. Never mind all the New-Age merchandising crap; there really are some attractive ideas afloat in the cultural seas just now.

Take "bliss," for instance. Joseph Campbell talks about the heroic drive to "follow your bliss" toward your destiny. I hope the large audience he attracts, even posthumously, remembers what he meant by bliss, and especially what he didn't mean. He is emphatically not speaking of a shallow, self-gratifying hedonism. He is deliberately speaking of a passionate commitment to one's vocation. Following one's bliss is a task for heroes.

The idea that bliss might be hard work should not surprise us. Think of whatever has made you happiest. My guess is that it is an activity, something you did, not something done for you. Even young children are most delighted not in getting playthings but in playing with them.

In fact, I go so far as to say that merely getting and keeping things is pathological. It is incomplete. By all means collect things, if you wish; but use them. If you really want to use them blissfully, use them with or for other people. Following one's bliss is a part of the human communion.

A friend of mine is a wonderful aviator. He owns a little single-seat aerobatic plane. He can (and does) take it off to an uncrowded bit of sky and dance with it, all alone. But he can (and bless him, does) bring it out to our glider club, and after the last glider is hangared and the chores are done, he gives us a little air show. I'm sure he's following his bliss.

Several pilots I know are racers. They fly in national races that bring out the fiercest kind of competitive behavior. This, too, is part of the human dialog. All the racers need each other. You can't really race alone, even against the clock. These people are surely following their bliss, and they are surely helping one another to do it.

Following one's bliss involves doing things passionately. If that sounds erotic, it is, at least in the sense of life-embracing. And surely our erotic life partakes of bliss: it's our vocation as it relates to our partner and our life together.

The idea of vocation is a familiar one to me, but I wonder how many people are at home with it. I grew up a Catholic, in Catholic schools, in a neighborhood where Protestants were exotics. Not a week went by without something from the nuns in school or the priest in the pulpit about our vocations. We were taught that each of us is literally called—vocatus, in Latin, the root of "vocation"—to some particular role in life. It might be the priesthood or the convent, it might be marriage and life in the world. Whatever it was, true happiness lay in recognizing and following this call.

Joseph Campbell, good ex-Catholic that he was, had this in mind when he spoke of following one's bliss.

Do I believe that we are called to some specific mission? I think we are drawn powerfully to do whatever expresses our best self. I believe that this self is a gem with many facets, many ways of speaking to us and to the world, but that it is unique to each of us.

Our task—our bliss—is to enact that self. We must listen attentively to determine which of our many possibilities best engages us with the others in our world.

This meditation has meandered from glider flying to the psychedelic subculture to the idea of bliss as an expression of vocation. We can end it with a slogan that sounds like some drug claptrap from about 1967 but is actually an innocent statement of the winning strategy in glider racing: get high, stay high, go fast.

For some of us, that's bliss indeed.


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