“Is this all there is?”

The first time I remember hearing that question in a conversation that wasn’t an ironic reference to the Peggy Lee song, I was a freshman in college. Walking back to my dorm very late on a windy, chilly, lamp-lit fall evening, I ran into a friend from Spanish class. I was alone, and he fell in step beside me, walking me back to my dorm before he continued on to meet his friends. He very nicely (and not all that accurately) declared it was “on the way” for him. He was quiet, and so I asked him if something was wrong. He hesitated a long time and then said he could never put a finger on it when he started to feel a certain way. It wasn’t about anything, it was just that sometimes he looked around and wondered, “Is this all there is?” He asked me if I ever felt that way. I hesitated, fumbled, finally settled on, “We all feel blue sometimes. Of course we all do.” I could tell he thought I didn’t get it, but that he appreciated the kind words, as I appreciated the company walking home on a blustery night, already tired and with a couple more hours of studying to do.

The thing is, I did get it, even at that young and impossibly earnest age. I knew my friend wasn’t talking about feeling blue. It’s just that I was so very grateful to be there. For a poor girl from rural Ohio, the first in her family to go to college and one of only a few from my high school class ever to move out of state, being at that Ivy League school was of incalculable value. It was a chance to be where it all is. Joyce Carol Oates was in the English department—you know, just that building, right over there. Joyce Carol Oates! Not to mention the world-changing research in physics and biochemistry, the Woodrow Wilson School where James Baker got his degree, the senator’s son who had just invited me up to New York for the weekend (assuring me, “It’s okay, my parents will be there!”), the woman who had survived the Holocaust who was now a visiting professor of German language and literature. . . If there was an “it,” it was definitely there, and I was part of it, just by being there! (Did I mention I was very young?)

I also knew that being there gave me a chance to have a life of comfort and sufficiency, something I never took for granted. How could I? I was reminded of it in countless ways, all the time—just a few days before, in fact, when I had I eyeballed my checking account balance, projected forward, and wondered if I could buy books for my second-semester classes. (Just in case, I had signed up for extra shifts in the dining hall.)

There was also the opportunity to find a vocation and the freedom to follow it—to figure out what mattered to me and find work that involved doing that, for the rest of my life. No one I knew growing up got to do that, something my friend, the son of a Philadelphia physician, probably couldn’t have understood. Or at least I thought so at the time, perhaps selling him short.

In any case, I didn’t know how to explain all that, at that moment all jumbled up in my mind, inchoate. I didn’t want to be unkind, so I opted for the “feeling blue” comment.

Much later, in graduate school, I circled back to that conversation again. This time, I wondered if it was possible that my friend really was feeling the same things we all felt—feeling tired, feeling blue, feeling discouraged. Maybe he hadn’t been asking a philosophical or spiritual question, as I assumed at the time. Maybe he was just tired, and things weren’t going well, and he wasn’t sure what to do about that. Maybe it was privilege that made him believe his own private sorrows meant that the whole world was disenchanted. Was his disillusionment a response to frustrated hubris? I can’t right all the wrongs, I can’t have all the toys, I can’t be happy all the time, so there must be something askew in the universe? If that was the case, I wondered if I would become jaded at some point, too. With age, would I lose my idealism—and my gratitude? Would I merge a sense of personal disappointment with a sense that the spiritual had receded beyond reach, that the mundane was all that was left?

It has been years since graduate school, and I had not thought about that particular conversation for a long time, not until I was asked to write this essay. But I have thought about these general issues many times. “Is this all there is?” can evoke a sense of longing for mystery, for a reality-behind-the-reality, that motivates much of spiritual practice and religious commitment. In that sense, it can be generative, directing our attention to an ideal that can motivate sacrifice and devotion in the service of making this world, the here-and-now, a better place. The question can also stem from a sense of powerlessness (I want more, but it’s out of reach) or from being unable to experience a kind of real and vital response to the moment at hand and the context in which one finds oneself. Often, it seems to me, these things are all going on at the same time, and this may explain the pervasive sense of nostalgia and loss in both popular and scholarly discourse on disenchantment.

As a result, over the years I have developed a very cautious approach to the question itself, and an impatience with the nostalgia it can evoke, especially the implication that at some time in the (soft-focus) past things were “fuller” somehow. It is very difficult not to interpret nostalgia for a simpler, moral, and more vital time as a wall constructed to hold at bay not only the complexity of late-modern life, but also the calls for justice by those whose oppression built the social order the decline of which the privileged now lament.

At this point in my life, I can’t help but contrast the spirit of the question, “Is this all there is?,” with a different sensibility, one both radically experiential and ruthlessly pragmatic. One that answers the question with a resounding “Yes.” This is always, in all cases, all there is. It’s all right here. The people we love, and who love us. The commitments we make, and those who depend on us. The urgent challenges we face that call us to act to increase fairness, promote justice, uphold the truth, work cooperatively, imagine a better path, promote healing, and increase joy. If one were religious, this would, I suppose, also be a radically immanent perspective. If one were secular, it might be Nietzschean.

Perhaps the best illumination of this perspective that I have found is the poetry of Mary Oliver. The power and the beauty of her work is that one can approach it from either a deeply spiritual or a committedly secular perspective and still find an affirmation of something more. Oliver believes that there is always, right here, a call to something larger than the self, something that matters for its own sake, something that others have called the “really real.” As she says in “Wild Geese,” “the world offers itself to your imagination, / calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting— / over and over announcing your place / in the family of things.”

Answer the call, and you answer the question. This is all there is, and it is enough.