The myth of the Garden of Eden is so brilliant and powerful because it expresses our sense of having profoundly lost something essential and elemental from our lives, something we need.
We long to return to the peace and beauty of the garden. It’s a place we feel we once knew but from which we’ve been exiled, and we imagine there’s something we can do to get back so that everything can be alright once again. When we return we will at last stop feeling so separate from the world, so alienated from it. It will be a place where we’re fully welcomed and loved, where we don’t need to strive any more, where the resources of the world will effortlessly meet our needs, and where we no longer need to feel afraid or ashamed. And in this way the myth of the garden promises to fill an enormous hole that we don’t otherwise know how to address.
Perhaps we’ll meet the right person, a friend or lover or saviour whose acceptance and care for us will be our return (maybe it’s this sense that draws us towards particular people in our lives in the first place). Or perhaps it will come through fame, a big enough bank balance, or through attaining a certain status or prominence in our work or our wider culture. We can become convinced we’ll be readmitted to the garden by following a spiritual path, by being kind, or by cultivating depth, integrity, knowledge, power, courage, or equanimity. Maybe receiving the right email in our inbox will do it (is this why we check so often?).
We wonder if we haven’t found our way back because we didn’t try hard enough. So we keep on with the same strategies, despairing that they don’t seem to work out.
Our suffering is magnified by our finding that nothing and no-one we encounter is able to return us as we’d hoped. We are terrified that it’s our own failing, and if not that then the unfairness of the world towards us, that keeps us away.
The story rings true because we all know Adam and Eve’s loss at loss first-hand. We began our lives in the wondrous and cushioned embrace of the womb, deeply connected to the being of another inside whose body we floated, totally and unquestioningly cared for. And now we find ourselves thrown into the messy physical world where nothing ever quite goes our way, where we don’t feel held, where we feel anguish as well as joy, and where we have to take responsibility for ourselves. The pain of leaving the garden is nothing less than the pain of living in the world with the memory of a once simpler time when we experienced only our oneness with all of it.
The Eden story’s brilliance is not only that it so perfectly describes our deep longing, but that it also calls into question our wish to return. Adam and Eve are children – barely aware of themselves, barely able to know anything, unable to distinguish between this and that, between actions that bring wholeness to the world and actions that destroy. They can remain in the garden only as long as this remains the case. Once they eat of the fruit of the tree of knowledge, once they develop the capacity to engage with the world in its fullness of both dark and light, once they grow up, the spell of the garden is broken and they have to face the world as it is. A return to the garden would not be the idyll we imagine because it would mean giving up the capacities and faculties that make us adults, most notably the capacity to discern, and the capacity to choose.
So, how should we live in the light of this? One path, for sure, is the path of nihilism, the certainty that all is lost and that, faced with the prospect that nothing ever works out apart from death, nothing is of meaning. The other path, which seems much more life giving to me, is one in which we simultaneously turn towards that of the garden which is already present in the world (beauty, love, compassion, the wonders of nature are just a few) and towards doing what we can to reduce the suffering that we know cannot be avoided completely. This second path also means learning to live with the hole-like feeling of incompleteness – perhaps to be human is always in some way to feel incomplete – and yet continuing to bring as much of our capacity for goodness and integrity as we can. The second path means giving up the idyllic myth of Eden for the much more grown up task of living with dignity and compassion with the world as it is and us as we are. And in order to do this, we have to give up on our fantasy of returning to the garden, a fantasy that adds difficulty to difficulty and so readily has us hold back what we could bring.
And, as well as this, there is another possibility, which is to look deeper into life than we are yet accustomed to doing. The separateness of our bodies so convinces us we are separate from everything and from one another – and it’s the very compelling feeling of distance that has us long so urgently to return. The anguish of this, and the longing of it, is very familiar to me as I write this today. But from another perspective, which I glimpse now and then, we all arise from a wholeness from which we have never been apart – call it the universe, ‘the one’, emptiness, God, life itself – there are many names. In those moments when we get to see that we’re all together an expression of something which has always been our home, perhaps we get to relax our desperation a little, and this in turn allows us to contribute without trying all the time to grasp too tightly something that is already here.