Missouri is often referred to as The Cave State for its many caves and grottoes formed by groundwater percolating through the limestone bluffs and hillsides. As such, in my youth I came to be a bit of a spelunker – not as much as was my friend, Mike, mind you, who seemed to have some special inside knowledge with respect to cavern whereabouts, but close. I’ll never forget the last excursion we went on together. Yes, it was the last one because, to tell you the truth, I don’t much like being stuck.
We were actually in a very well-known cavern, one known for having a “back door” up amongst the rolling hills far beyond the yawning main entrance. This time, however, we were off in a side passageway that we were hoping might have a similar, but as-yet-undiscovered, back entrance – perhaps a sinkhole at the bottom of a nondescript hollow or something. For some reason that I can no longer recall, I led the way. Maybe we flipped a coin, or maybe I was the stockier of the two of us and we figured it best to determine right away our ease of passage. At any rate, I got down on all fours and headed in, soon to transition to an elbow crawl, and then to an inch-by-inch, worm-like slither, with one arm reaching out in front and the other pushing off of whatever it could push off of behind – moving only as far as the combined effort of my clawing toes, and wriggling midsection, and pushing and pulling hands could muster over the course of a single exhalation. And then I’d have to stop and rest…, and breathe.
This continued for a good twenty-five meters, as I recall, reason enough to make us think that we might be successful. Dead end passages, in our experience anyway, usually petered out pretty quickly. And after a time I even began to see raccoon tracks in the silt up ahead of me! And maybe the passageway would get wider in just a little bit...
Now, unlike one might think, the realization that such a passageway has become too tight is not something that gradually arises as the struggle to move forward becomes more and more labored. No, it arrives like a flash of lightning coursing through your dimly lit consciousness the very first time you come to realize that the need for your lungs to expand as you inhale indeed surpasses the available space in which to do so. Mind you, the space deficit need not be much – in fact, it could be infinitesimal – but as long as it exists at all, the specter of getting stuck will hover over every misty breath you take thereafter.
And so we labored onward. Exhaling and wriggling, then resting…, exhaling and wriggling, then resting…, we hoped upon hope that we were getting near the end. But then there came a point at which my flashlight no longer disappeared into darkness. No, it shone its light right back to me, reflected off of a solid wall of mud sealing closed the passageway – washed there, no doubt, through the very sinkhole entrance that we had hoped to find. Yes, those raccoon tracks could have been a thousand years old for all I knew.
“Mike?” My voice sounded strange. For ages his struggles behind me had been a wordless echo of my own.
“Yeah?” All was silent now, save for our breathing.
“We’re gonna have to turn back,” I said as calmly as I could.
“You’re shittin’ me,” he replied after pausing long enough for the nature of our predicament to sink in.
“Well…, I’m looking at a wall of mud,” I replied. “I mean…, I could try to dig it out, but who knows how deep it is. And, anyway, there’s nowhere to put it if I do.”
“Shit,” I heard him mutter, which, of course, is what I’d already been thinking.
“So…, can you back up?”
Mike was quiet for a moment, and in that moment I breathed as deeply as I could – feeling my shoulders and my abdomen push tighter and tighter against the cave walls until I’d taken in as close as I could get to a full inhalation. It was a moment filled with umpteen what-ifs: What if he says that he can’t? What if somewhere along the long crawl back he finds that he can’t maneuver backwards in the same way that he could maneuver forward? What if he panics and passes out, or dies? What if I panic? And so it was that I began to panic; and it was as if the very beating of my heart squeezed tightly against the cave walls. “Easy…, easy…, easy…,” I said to myself. “Don’t even begin to go down that road. Don’t even start to freak out.”
“Well, I guess I don’t have any choice,” Mike finally said.
No, we didn’t have any choice.
Sometimes we don’t have any choice but to keep on living, do we? No…, as soon as I write these words, I realize that they aren’t true. All too often people choose not to go on living; and I’m pretty sure that when they do the feeling of being stuck is first and foremost in their minds. We can become stuck in a body that only causes more and more pain as time goes on, or stuck with a mind that will never again work with the lightness, the agility, and the memories with which it once worked. We can become stuck in a world of grades and achievement in which our best never seems to be good enough, or stuck in a violent world in which life is as cheap as a bag of potato chips that someone else wants to take from us. We can become stuck in a world of abuse or shame or loneliness, or stuck in a world in which the very substance that makes everything bearable makes everything even more unbearable in the end. Or maybe we’re just stuck in a world that is devoid of any real feeling whatsoever – a world that is cold and gray, dead and distant, and ringing with the incessantly hollow ring of meaninglessness. But even when circumstances are not as dire as these we can still feel stuck – in a career, a relationship, a financial situation, a place…
There exists an oft-quoted truism: Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional. What this means is that life itself will inevitably unfold with some measure of the pain of existence itself: birth, sickness, aging, and death. How we react to this pain, on the other hand, will determine the extent to which we suffer. Consider the Buddhist teachings pertaining to dukkha, for instance (various sources, 2010).
Now consider again the stuckness that we so often experience in life – that panicky, trapped feeling filled with dread and foreboding, and seemingly devoid of options. This stuckness can feel as real as being trapped twenty-five meters down a dark passageway so suffocatingly tight that we can almost scream with whatever breath might be available to us. And yet these walls that confine us are not walls of stone at all. This tightness in our chest and in our mind is merely the cavern of our own delusion. Breathe… Watch what is happening… Sift that which is untrue from that which is true… Sift what “should be” from that which simply is… Our stuckness is only as real as we allow it to be… Crawl in the direction of truth and as you do the light will shine brighter and brighter until at last there is nothing at all to confine you.
Various Sources (2010) Dukkha. (Access to Insight, Ed.). Access to Insight.
Devil’s Cave passageway by Pudelek (Marcin Szala) via:
Copyright 2013 by Mark Frank