A Sentient Being
“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” — Mark Twain
“Never forget that life can only be nobly inspired and rightly lived if you take it bravely and gallantly, as a splendid adventure in which you are setting out into an unknown country, to face many a danger, to meet many a joy, to find many a comrade, to win and lose many a battle.” — Annie Besant
“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach. And not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.— Henry David Thoreau
As a writer, I have a passion for words, those which have the ability to spark a flicker of creativity, paint a canvas in the mind’s eye, or capture the essence of the human experience. I can point to certain words that have inspired new pieces of writing for me. Take for example, “chiaroscuro,” a term from art history that describes the play of light and shadows. Thanks to chiaroscuro I have the first sentence to a new story. But I’m not naive. Words, like poisoned arrows, have the power to pierce the flesh of the heart. The old saying, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me,” is dangerously misleading. Words can drop a soul to their knees faster than a good kick in the rump. But, let’s return to the glory words—-Words that illumine great truths about the human experience.
Recently, I discovered the word sentient in an Op Ed essay in the Sunday New York Times. The author was the well-known neurologist and author Oliver Sachs. He was writing about learning that he had a terminal illness.
“I cannot pretend I am without fear. But my predominant feeling is one of gratitude. I have loved and been loved; I have given much and I have given something in return; I have read and traveled and thought and written. I have had intercourse with the world, the special intercourse of writers and readers. Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.”
I was thunderstruck by the phrase, “Above all, I have been a sentient being.” Clearly, Mr. Sachs had carefully hand-picked the word, “sentient,” to describe himself. I immediately googled the word. What one finds is that the word is somewhat mysterious and elusive. 18th century philosophers would make the distinction between a person who is controlled by reason (rational) versus a person who is guided by their intuitive heart (sentient). Another definition described a sentient being as one who lives the conscious life. They fully embody and engage their humanity from the flesh, bone, and spirit (in a Divine kind of way). It’s as if they’ve been told the great secret that there’s only so much sand in the hourglass and so they plunge headlong, like a tenacious bulldog, determined to smell, taste, see, explore, hurt, feel, and love until that final grain of sand.
I believe a sentient being lives life from the marrow. All lived experience, the brutal and the beautiful, are regarded as sacred.
You know a sentient being when they cross your path. They are curious, view the world with eyes of wonder, and are refreshingly daring. They bear a disposition of hope that is almost child-like. Sentient beings are much less interested in themselves and wholly fascinated by other people and their stories. They are alight in nature and intrigued by the spiritual path. The sentient being has wept his or her fair share of tears. Heartbreak, disappointment, and loss are part of the experience. Instead of resentment for their misfortunes, they are grateful for the earned wisdom and the chance to participate again. A sentient being is not afraid to be vulnerable because they have discovered it’s the fastest way to experience the “sweet spot” of living. A sentient being approaches the human endeavor as an honor, one that cannot be taken for granted. It would be sacrilege to become complacent, feel entitled, give up, or fritter away a single breath.
I worry we live in a culture that has become fearful of fully living into our humanity. We experience life from a guarded distance as to protect ourselves from ever feeling rejection or hurt. We hide behind alcohol and prescription medication, and allow ourselves to be sucked into the artificial thrills of technology, social media, and perverse reality TV. We have become obsessed with money, social recognition, and material success. And any talk of the Divine, or the value of our souls, and we shamelessly blush.
How many times do we have to be told that this is not the rehearsal, but the one and only FINAL performance?
Sentience begins from the heart. Reading Oliver Sachs obituary, you see why he regarded himself as a sentient being. He invested, lifted up, and loved people. He enjoyed music, reading and writing—-all pleasure of the human experience. He made mistakes, lost his way, experienced heartbreak, and life-affirming love. You could say he wore out his costume of flesh and bone to the threads.
The time is now to start relishing this crazy beautiful adventure called life!
Live in Hope,