My truth has been a long time refining. I've explored and drilled for it with hope and intuition, filtered and condensed it the best I could with reflection, then run it through my engines, wary at first, to see what would happen.
There have been a few backfires, all right, an explosion or two on the racetrack when I learned how volatile any home-mixed philosophy must be. Sooty but wiser, I blinked a while ago to realize I've been running my mind on this peculiar fuel much of my life. Even today, cautiously reckless, drop by drop, I'm gradually raising the octane.
I didn't choose to brew my own facts for the fun of it, however, or because I never filled up on regular. Passionate to discover reasons to be and themes to live by, I surveyed religions as a teenager, studied Aristotle and Descartes and Kant in night-school colleges while I was yet a line pilot in the Air Force.
Last course finished, steps heavy and slow on the sidewalk, I was gripped in strange depression. As best I could understand from classrooms, these gentlemen knew less about who we are and why we're here than I did, and I barely had a glimmer.
Heavy intellects, they were, cruising stratospheres above the ceiling of my government fighter planes. I was willing to borrow shamelessly from their insight to build my own, yet it was all I could do, listening in class, to keep from screaming, "Who cares?"
Practical Socrates I admired for his choice to die for principle when escape would have been easy. Others were not so compelling. All those tight-packed pages, microscopic letters, and at last their wise conclusion: You're on your own, Richard. How can we know what works for you?
Studies finished, I walked aimless down the night, footsteps echoing to an empty campus, no place in mind to go.
I took this course for guidance, I thought, I needed a compass to take me through jungles. Organized religions for me were teetery bridges, weak-tied twigs that snapped at the first pressure, a child's question turning impossible mystery. Why do religions cling to Unanswerable Questions? Don't they know That's unanswerable is
Over and again I'd meet a new theology, and every time would come the test: Do I take this belief to become my life?
Each time I asked, tried my weight on it, the spiderstick jackstraws trembled and creaked, then all at once collapsed in front of me, steps tearing off, tumbling down out of sight.
I'd grab the world, cringe back from the edge thankful not to have been killed in the fall. How would it feel, to give one's heart to a religion that guarantees the planet will dissolve in fire come December 31, then wake up New Year's Day to songs of snowbirds? Sheepish, is how it would feel.
From behind me as I walked, a woman's footsteps in the night. I angled right, to let her pass.
Now I've finished my course in twenty philosophies, I thought, history's brightest stars, and every one has failed. All I asked was that they show me a way of thinking about the universe to guide me in daily life--not too hard a task for Thomas Aquinas or Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, you'd think. Their answers worked for them, but their daily life was on a different moon from mine.
"Was your study for nothing?" she said. "They've just taught you what you've been hoping to find all these years, and you don't even know it?"
A flash of vexation...the woman wasn't passing me by, she was listening to my mind!
"Excuse me?" I said, cold as could be.
Dark hair with a bold streak of blond, twenty years older than I, plain, not so well dressed, unaware of what I do to people who demolish my quiet-times.
"They gave you what you came to learn!" she said. "Your life is turning tonight, can't you feel it?"
I looked back along the sidewalk, no one else in sight. She's got the wrong person, I knew. She wasn't from philosophy class, she was no one I had ever seen before.
"I don't believe we've met," I told her.
Instead of freezing, she laughed. "'I don't believe we've met.'" She waved her hand in front of my eyes. "They've taught you they don't have answers! Don't you get it? Nobody has answers for you except one!"
Heaven help, I thought. She's going to tell me Jesus Christ is my Redeemer and she's going to wash me in the blood of the Lamb. Must I hurl Bible quotes to drive her off?
I sighed. "When Jesus said No one comes to the Father but by me
he did not mean me the ex-journeyman carpenter but me the quest to know spirit in..."
"Richard!" she said. "Please!"
I stopped and faced her, waiting. Her smile was undiminished, her eyes sparkled starlight. She's a lot more pretty than plain, I thought, why didn't I notice? Does my annoyance turn others drab?
As I watched, the streetlights must have changed...she was not just pretty, she was beautiful.
She waited, then, till she had my complete attention. Was she changing, I wondered, and not the light? What was going on?
"Jesus doesn't have the truth you're looking for," she said. "Neither does Lao-tzu or Henry James. What you'd discover tonight, if you'd open your eyes to more than a pretty face, is...what?"
"I know you, don't I?" I said.
For the first time that night she frowned.
"You're goddamn right you do!"
* * *
It's been that way for as long as I can remember. Somebody's ever following me, crashing into me when I swing around corners, showing up in subways or airplane cockpits to tell me what the lesson's been for every strange event.
At first I thought these folks were phantoms, constructs of my own imagination, and at first they were. What a surprise, when the next several of these teaching souls turned out to be mortals as firmly three-dimensional as I, as startled to find me in the middle of their adventures as I was to find them in mine.
After a while I couldn't tell whether the person at watch over me and my lessons was mortal or not, and nowadays I assume they're people until they disappear in the middle of a sentence or whisk me off to alternate worlds to illustrate some fine point of metaphysics.
In the end, of course, it doesn't matter who they are. Some folks are angels without so much as the courtesy of introduction. Others I've known for years before I've seen their feathers, others still I've thought were living gospel till the minute I found they were bad news. This book is the story of one of these encounters in my little refinery of thought, what I learned from it and how the learning changed my life.
Do my lessons match yours? Am I a fire-singed fellow angel from a racetrack you're driving too, or am I one more odd stranger muttering in the street? Some answers I'll never know.
But hurry now, or we'll be late for Chapter One.
Excerpted from Running from Safety by Richard Bach. Copyright © 1995 by Richard Bach. Excerpted by permission of Delta, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.