Infinitely Free and Undefeatable?


 Just prior to the outbreak of World War in 1914, a British officer was quoted as saying that “nearly all my brother-officers of my own age had been, two or three months earlier in the year, to see a celebrated palmist of the period.” (Colin Wilson, The Occult, p. 8) 

 His fellow officers were, of course, in search of great prophecies about their futures - assurances that they would prosper in this way or that. 

 They wanted to know, for example, who they would marry. And to know the direction that their later careers would take.

 But the palm reader was unable to fulfill the young men’s hopes for alas, as she read their palms, she was bewildered by what she discovered.

 'I don't understand it!’ she exclaimed. 'It's the same thing again! After two or three months, the line of life stops short, and I can read nothing…'

 What of course, the cleiromant was picking up was the outbreak of war and the deaths of the brother officers - "whose life-lines came to an end three months after consulting the palmist."

 Concerning which, Colin Wilson comments: "I am certainly not suggesting that we should spend our lives worrying about dreams and premonitions, or patronise fortune-tellers”.  

 But cautious as he is, Wilson, nevertheless goes on to write that dreams and premonitions should not be dismissed out of hand. For in ways beyond explaining, there can be, in his estimate - after a lifetime of studying this sort of thing - a correspondence between premonitions and reality.

 At least it could be said that a premonition may point towards one particular absolute truth, the truth that no matter how happily you're sailing along, just around the corner, or after the next bend - is your death. Even your sudden death.

 It’s how it goes. There is life, then death. There's something and then nothing. Here today, gone tomorrow. 

 One hears about such eruptions all the time. Some life was going along smoothly (as it seemed!) and then ends suddenly.  

 In our death denying culture, however, it continues to be the case that many are shocked to hear of a sudden death, as if such an event has never been anticipated or contemplated. 

 It’s how we tend to live - to live as if we will never die. And consequently not to think much about death, or to prepare for what comes afterwards.

 We keep busy - keep our protective barriers up - and scurry around, lost in  many diversions and distractions. 

 Not pausing to reflect, we go from one adventure to adventure. There’s another cruise to go on. Another mountain to climb. A marathon to run. An affair to lose oneself in. 

 We go on as if we will always go on and imagine that it's only others whose hopes are dashed and whose worlds come crashing down.

 Others may be losing, but we go on winning.

 For us, the pattern is success after success, even glory after glory. It’s one adventure after another.

 It was this way for George Armstrong Custer, the famous General of mid-19th century America.

 Custer’s pattern was to go from glory to glory. 

 His way to glory was to charge and to win, against all odds.

 He held on to an unwavering certainty of continual success. (a feature of every fool who has ever lived.)

 But it worked for Custer… for a while.

 Custer had become a hero of the Civil War at the Battle of Gettysburg, by charging and then charging again.

 At Gettysburg, Custer led a counterattack against the Confederates with the 7th Michigan

 Personally leading the regiment, Custer, shouted: "Come on, you Wolverines!”.

 "Waves of horsemen collided in furious fighting along the fence line on Rummel's farm."

  "Seven hundred men fought at point-blank range across the fence with carbines, pistols and sabers."

   "Custer's horse was shot out from under him, and he commandeered a bugler's horse." 

    "Eventually enough of Custer's men were amassed to break down the fence, and they caused the Virginians to retreat." 

 A while later, Custer charged a second time: "Come on you Wolverines!” And once again lost his horse from under him.” (Battle of Gettysburg, Third Day Cavalry Battles, Wikipedia)

 As it turned out, with almost no chance of success, Custer had not only saved the day, but turned the tide of the Civil War in the Union’s favour. 

 Custer, characteristically, had charged and won. It was his life pattern. And was bored and restless otherwise.

 He couldn’t live with himself, unless he was either charging, or preparing to charge.

 So he kept charging his way to victory after victory, to become after the civil war, "a virtuosos fighter in the Indian wars.” 

 Custer kept charging and winning until that is, the battle of the Little Big Horn, commonly called Custer’s Last Stand.

 On that fateful day, Custer had again charged, but this time, against overwhelming numbers of Indians, he and his troops were swarmed and massacred.

 It took only 8 to 10 minutes for the Indians to slaughter Custer and all his men.

 The soldiers - all 261 of them - were found several hours later - their bodies strewn about - their limbs cut off - their eyes gouged out - their genitals stuffed into their mouths. 

 Custer, used to charging and winning, had charged and lost. And the nation was in shock.

 What was the charging all about? 

 Well I don’t know how many are Custer-like, that is, to be to some degree, a Type A personality.  

 It’s not, however, an uncommon pattern to see - someone often restless - armed to the teeth - anxious for a fight or argument - inclined to charge at even the slightest provocation. 

 The thrill of the charge can be like an addiction that one cannot live without. For nothing quite compares with charging - the rest of life too tedious in contrast.

 When in charging mode, what is the human being (probably unconsciously!) looking for?

 Colin Wilson suggests that ultimately what we’re searching for is a particular feeling. It is to feel 'infinitely free and undefeatable.

 An experience - it is thought - to be gained by charging towards something, as if invincible. 

 Or similarly, suggests Wilson, to find that experience of 'infinitely free and undefeatable' by being "violently in love!”

 Thus engaged, a man can feel that "if he could possess the girl, his freedom would be infinite; the delight of union would make him undefeatable.

 Wilson explains: "When violently in love I have a sense of infinite freedom. The sense of union makes me feel undefeatable.” 

 So whether it's charging on some battlefield, or engaged in a love conquest, the search may be about something similar, that is, one wishes to feel 'infinitely free and undefeatable,' and may take desperate measures to achieve that inner state. 

 And Custer was not alone in his singular quest for adventure and glory. He shared it with his wife, Libbie. (pictured above) 

 Her name was Libby Bacon, the only child of Judge Daniel Bacon’s to live to adulthood. 

 She's been described as "headstrong, high-spirited, by turns frivolous and serious, a pretty girl used to getting her way."

 And smart. She topped her class upon graduating.

 High spirited, she had been looking for the same in a man, and found it in George Armstrong Custer at a Thanksgiving party in 1862.

 Their pairing was one soaring spirit connecting with another. Two spirits in search of adventure. 

 Yet as the story goes, as in the above case of the British soldiers with the palm reader, there was for Libbie, after only 12 years of marriage, a terrible day when, as her husband marched off to war, she had an unshakable premonition of doom.

 In one of the three books she wrote after her husband’s death - Boots and Saddles - she describes the troops marching off as the band played, The Girl I Left Behind Me - Custer’s favourite send-off song.

 Reading Libbie’s account of that final send-off arrested my attention. I’ve been reading about George and Libbie since:

 "A mirage formed in which the procession appeared in air halfway between Heaven and Earth until it disappeared into the morning mists.

   "From the hour of breaking camp, before the sun was up, a mist had enveloped everything." 

     "Soon the bright sun began to penetrate this veil and dispel the haze, and a scene of wonder and beauty appeared.” 

       "The future of the heroic band seemed to be revealed, and already there seemed a premonition in the supernatural translation as forms were reflected from the opaque mist of the  early dawn.” 

          "A premonition I had never known before weighed me down.

 Libbie somehow knew that she was seeing her husband for the last time. 

 And was right, for there were to be no more adventures and no more glory. 

 After her husband’s death, Libbie would live for another 57 years, never to marry again. 

 She died just shy of her 90th birthday, on April the 4th, 1933.

 To study the lives of George and Libbie is for me both intriguing and disturbing. Intriguing, for example, to learn that their correspondence has been regarded as on a par with the quality of letter writing that John and Abigail Adams engaged in.

 The tragic part is to read about a man who never found any peace of soul, who was forever restlessly looking for action.

 He either couldn’t, or wouldn’t slow down. He was always dashing off somewhere in search of glory. He never found any splendour in the ordinary.

 What I always hope to hear is that someone has found a greater vision of life than merely to be seeking one adventure after another.

 As Colin Wilson writes in The Philosopher’s Stone: "The will feeds on enormous vistas; deprived of them, it collapses."

 Our souls, I agree, need enormous vistas, greater and deeper than a worldly pursuit of any kind.

 In his almost 200 books, Wilson always focused on the same theme - the ability of human beings to experience "that feeling of wide-awakeness that you get on a spring morning.

 Which he suggests can be found by a focused attention upon something simple like, for example, "a flicker of sunlight on a blank wall."

 A close attentiveness to some simple thing, suggests Wilson, can transport the human being into a state of promotion, or enlargement such that, "there’s a sudden significance and importance and inspiration that makes the breath stop with a gulp of certainty and happiness.

 For me, it’s a 20 year meditation practice that takes me there more than anything else. 

 The regular plunges into meditation save me from my own compulsiveness to charge, that is, to be restlessly driven.  

 So often (but not always) I will emerge from the practice affirming Proust’s words: “I had ceased to feel accidental, mediocre, mortal.” 

 It’s an incomparable feeling that it is well with my soul. And I wouldn’t trade that peace of soul for anything else.

 As we get older, (so I’ve heard!) there can be a creeping sense of self-alienation, and a sense of alienation from God.

 I hope never to live in such a dry and barren territory.

 I met a group of older men recently who were mocking and jeering about spiritual things. 

 I would like never to be in their cynical state. 

 In every generation, says Wilson, it is announced that God is dead: "The death of God is as eternal as God is.” (C.W.)

 When you say that God is dead - as these older guys did - you are saying that God has died within you. 

 Which actually means that God has died because you have. You’ve become dead while still alive, like the older jeering men.

 Well it’s meditation that keeps the inner fire burning - a  holy addiction that will cure all your other ones. 

 So today, I sit and repeat the holy words, coordinating them with my breath.

 And experience an inner ascent to the heart, to springs of living water at the core of my being. 

 I intend to do this until my last breath.

 If the deepest search is to feel infinitely free and undefeatable, our best chance of getting there is to find the still point in the midst of our turning worlds.


                                         The Premonition

              The Girl I Left Behind Me