The Story of a Fifty-Year Vision Quest

by Daniel Quinn

Excerpts from the book; notes by JFR

A mostly autobiographical ramble that attempts to explain how the author’s other book, Ishmael, came about; yet it is much more about philosophy than history.

In the intro, a quote from Hans Erich Nossack:

Only slaves love being powerful.


Neither [of my parents] could see things from the other’s point of view – but I could. This was evident. I understood what Father wanted from life. If I’d been my mother, I would have had the housework done by five o’clock without fail. I would have had dinner ready by six. On the other hand, I also understood what Mother wanted from life, and if I’d been my father I wouldn’t have expected her to have dinner on the table at six or seven. I wouldn’t have gotten angry if she’d gone on working till nine or ten or even midnight. No way. If I’d been my father, I would have been a perfect husband, seeing everything from [my mother’s] point of view, and if I’d been my mother, I would have been a perfect wife, seeing everything from [my father’s] point of view.

But of course I couldn’t be them or force them to behave the way I wanted them to. I was in the same relation to them as the ancient rainmaker was to the elements. All I could do was produce in myself the effects I wanted my parents to manifest. All I could do was make myself perfect, the way I wanted them to be.

That then was my magic, to be perfect. It didn’t work, of course, but no one in the whole history of the world ever quit on magic just because it didn’t work. Nobody in the whole history of the world ever quit on anything just because it didn’t work – magic, science, politics, love, religion. But especially magic. To give up on magic because it doesn’t work would be silly. If it doesn’t work, that just means you didn’t do it right. That’s how you tell you didn’t do it right – when it doesn’t work.

Anyone knows that.


This is a poem I wrote a few months before I left for the monastery. It’s called “The Old Acolyte’s Easter.”

They found me hidden in a dark corner.
The candles had dissolved to pools, and they,
Finding themselves in darkness, looked for me,
I being the candle-lighter. And so they found
My bones hidden in this dark corner, and they
Rejoiced with me that I had been discovered–
And not only I, but my bones. They gathered me up
Easily, for, hiding there, I had becomes a web,
Clinging to the walls as I petrified, and when
They touched me I gave no resistance but loosened
Even this mild grip and fell into their hands.


One day while I was out weeding a tomato patch, an old horse-drawn manure cart went lumbering by. The younger of the two novice-priests was standing on top of the load and throwing out magnificent two-handed kisses to the world, just the way the pope does in St. Peter’s Square. He was clowning, of course, but for whom? Not for us–I doubt if he knew anyone was watching and he certainly didn’t care. He was clowning for God, displaying his thanks and his joy at being alive.


Readers of Ishmael often assume that I must be a great lover of nature. Nothing could be further from the truth. I’m a great lover of the world, which is something quite different. Nature is a figment of the Romantic imagination, and a very insidious figment at that. There simply is no such thing as nature–in the sense of a realm of being from which humans can distinguish themselves. It just doesn’t exist.

[…] Where would you draw the line between the human and nonhuman worlds?


So the situation wasn’t so desperate after all. If things didn’t work out here at Gethsemani, I had an immediate alternative. In fact, a very attractive alternative. Of course, I had to give the Trappist life a fair trial, another month at least. It wouldn’t be so bad. In fact, it couldn’t be so bad, because as I went along I would know that I was leaving myself a way out.

It was at this point that I caught myself. What in the world was I doing? Because of a little disappointment–a very bitter disappointment, it’s true–I was going to start living a lie. I was going to be behaving the same way as before, but now with an all-important interior difference: From moment to moment I was going to be holding out for myself the possibility of leaving. From now on I was going to spend every waking moment holding open my options: Well, if I can’t stand this food, I can always leave. If I can’t stand the way this teacher treats me, I can always leave. If I can’t stand this kind of work, I can always leave. If I can’t stand never having any time to myself, I can always leave. From this moment on it wasn’t I who was going to be on trial, it was the monastic life!

No, I said to myself. You’ve got to choose, once and for all. Once and for all, finally, and forever. Or get out right now, today. Shut down those options absolutely or walk away. You came here to put your life in the hands of God without reservation, and what you’re doing right now is establishing your reservations: I will live in the hands of God if everyone is nice to me. I will live in the hands of God if things go my way. I will live in the hands of God if people don’t come around and tell me, “No, you thought you were going outside, but you’re not.” I will live in the hands of God so long as I receive no crushing blows to my sense of dignity and self-determination.

You know what it means to live in the hands of God, I said to myself. It means abandoning your will utterly. It means letting him direct the course of your life–even in this trivial matter of going outside–without reservation.


I released my will, and it flowed away, leaving me as limp as a drowned man.


Here is how [the Church’s mythological vision of itself and of its function to the world] came to be understood: God has made two covenants with man during man’s lifetime. The first he made with the Jews, and the results were decidedly unsatisfactory. As a Chosen People, the Jews were a washout. They flouted the laws he gave them, they much preferred to worship their neighbors’ gods, they scorned the prophets he sent them, and generally ignored the whole thing. Nevertheless, though they didn’t keep up their end of the bargain, God kept up his: He sent them the messiah he’d promised, and the only thing they could think to do with him was to have him put to death. (Once again, you understand that I’m not expressing my own views here but rather the Church’s.)

The New Covenant was designed to avoid the errors of the Old. The Old Covenant was based on the notion that God could deal with a few selected individuals who would transmit his directives to the Jews at large, and the Jews in turn would pass these directives on to their children. It made perfect sense in theory but didn’t work out well in practice.

[Examples given.]

[…] Under the New Covenant, religion would no longer be a family affair or an ethnic affair, it would be a corporate affair, an institutional affair. There was going to be something wholly new in the history of the world, something never even heard of before: a church. Jesus said to Simon, son of Jonah, “I’m going to give you a new name. I’m going to call you rock – peter – and on this rock I’m going to build a strange new thing called a church.” Then he added this: “And the power of death shall never conquer it.” This was very significant, of course. […] Under the New Covenant, death would no longer have the power to interrupt the continuity of God’s contact with mankind. This thing called a church would not be build on prophets or families or peoples. It would be built on a rock, on a foundation that would hold things together. Here is how it would hold things together: To Peter Jesus next said, “I’m going to give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven itself. What you forbid on earth will be forbidden in heaven and what you permit on earth will be permitted in heaven.” Obviously the keys weren’t meant to be buried with Peter when he died; there’d be no continuity in that. The keys were meant to be passed along to Peter’s successor, who would pass them along to his. Otherwise there’d be no rock, and the church would pass away after a single generation.

This can’t be stressed too strongly: The rock on which Jesus founded his church was not a text, it was a deputy, a stand-in for Christ himself, who would speak for Christ and wield a power that had never existed on earth before. It was a whole new concept, a whole new dispensation. In the old dispensation, God would pick out someone and say, “Tell everyone that this is what is permitted and this is what is forbidden.” Never again would it be done this way. In the new dispensation, his permanently established deputy–one of us, a human living right in our midst–was going to decide what’s permitted and what’s forbidden, and we had the word of Christ that his deputy’s decisions would be ratified in heaven!

The New Convenant put mankind and God in an entirely new relation. […] This was going to be an organization. People weren’t going to be put on their own, they were going to be watched over and guarded like a flock of sheep. And they were going to be given extraordinary new means of participation in their own salvation. Entirely new institutions called sacraments opened channels to divine grace that had never been available before. The human race and God–earth and heaven–were to be joined in a new mystical intimacy: Holy Mother Church was the bride of Christ, forever yearning to be united with him.

[No great emphasis was placed on reading the bible; instead, a series of executive officers exists going on up to the Pope who speaks “with precisely the same authority as the apostle.”]

[…the] Protestant Reformation cleared away all this rich mythology […] [so that nothing] needed to stand between the individual and his or her God. As it was now understood, the keys to the kingdom were in Everyman’s hand.


It wasn’t that I’d found a collection of virtues that made me lovable. In the course of writing out my list [of virtues], I’d stumbled upon the key insight: What makes people lovable isn’t being perfect, it’s simply being human and, reading that list, I saw that that’s what I was. I was within the range. Just as [my therapist] Madame Saichy had said, there wasn’t much wrong with me. I wasn’t a saint (which is what I’d hoped to be when I was trying to be perfect), but I also wasn’t a monster (which is how I’d come to view myself in the past two years). I was human. I was ordinary. I was like other people, and if other people are worth of love, then so was I! Why on earth shouldn’t people love me?

And suddenly I saw that, just as I was like other people, other people were like me. Even women were like me, because they too were human. I was waiting for them to love me–and, being just like me, they were also waiting for me to love them. They wanted my love! And why the hell not?

[…] I was literally a changed man. I was a foot taller. I was ready to embrace everyone in my path. At last I understood the obvious truth. no one wanted me to be perfect. Everyone wanted me to be like them–and I was. I was one of them. At the age of thirty-seven, I had at last joined the human race. I no longer had to guard against spontaneity. People wanted me to be spontaneous. Nobdy cared if I made mistakes. Nobody was watching to see if I made mistakes. I was free of all that.


The needy are insatiable. I know that because I was once one of them. I was like hundreds of millions of men in our culture. The hollowness inside of me was so vast that the love of one woman was not nearly enough to fill it. Who’s the basketball player who boasts of having had ten thousand women? Men typically regard this as a tremendous, enviable success. They wish they could have ten thousand women–a million women! This isn’t a measure of their virility (as they like to imagine); it’s a measure of their incalculable neediness.

Now, for the first time in my life, I had left the ranks of the needy. I was no longer insatiable. I no longer needed every woman in the world. One would be enough. I no longer had to make a try for every single woman who crossed my path. This meant that genuine friendship with women was possible. From that point on, I no longer had to pretend to be liberated. From the moment we met, women knew I was following no hidden agenda with regard to them. They knew I wasn’t just feeding them a line, wasn’t scheming for a way to get something from them they weren’t prepared to give.


Imagine our ancestors enacting a different story from ours. Not a story about man mastering his environment. Not a story about man’s conquest of the world. Not a story in which products and productivity figured at all.

Stretch yourself. Imagine that the story our ancestors were enacting shaped their lives. The way the story we’re enacting shapes our lives.

Different stories: different lives.

Imagine that their lives had a different shape from ours because they were enacting a different story from ours.

Go further. Imagine that enacting their story made their lives meaningful to them. The way that enacting our story makes our lives meaningful to us.

Different stories: different meanings.

Imagine that enacting their story, generation after generation, gave their history its shape. The way that enacting our story, generation after generation, has given our history its shape.

Different stories: different histories.

Imagine that their history had a different shape from ours because they were enacting a different story from ours.

It’s hard, I know, to imagine such things. It’d be like asking an eighteenth-century slave-ship captain to imagine that the wretches chained up in his hold were actually human beings like himself, like his wife, like his parents. He’d have thought you were pulling his leg.


Imagine a different story entirely. A story for tens of millions of years. For hundreds of millions of years.


Imagine that during the first three million years of human life people were enacting a story. And that it was man’s destiny to enact that story. Not for three million years. For thirty million years. For three hundred million years. For the lifetime of our planet, perhaps. Billions of years.

It was that good a story. Good enough for the lifetime of a genus. But it was not a story about power–about conquest and mastery and ruling. Enacting it didn’t make people powerful. Enacting it, people didn’t need to be powerful. Because, enacting it, people didn’t need to rule the world.

Imagine that ruling the world was something they thought they didn’t need to do. Because it was already being done. As it had always been done. As it had been done from the beginning.

Imagine that they had a different supposition about the world and man’s place in it. Imagine that they didn’t suppose, as Homo magister does, that the world belongs to man, that it is his to conquer and rule. Imagine that, in their ignorance, they supposed something else entirely.

Be outrageous.

Imagine that they supposed something completely absurd. That man belongs to the world.

It was never hidden. It was only hidden from Homo magister because he was sure that what had shaped their lives was nothing–an absence of knowledge, ignorance.

Not something. Not a different supposition about the world and man’s place in it.

Man belongs to the world.

Actually, it’s plainly written in their lives. It’s plainly written in the general community to which they belonged: the community of life on this planet. Anyone can read it. You just have to look.

Every creature born in the biological community of the earth belongs to that community. Nothing lives in isolation from the rest. Nothing lives only in itself, needing nothing from the community. Nothing lives only for itself, owing nothing to the community. Nothing is untouchable or untouched. Every life in the community is owed to the community–and is paid back to the community in death. The community is a web of life, and every strand of the web is a path to all the other strands. Nothing is exempt. Nothing is special. Nothing lives on a strand by itself, unconnected to the rest.

Nothing is wasted.

Everything that lives is food for another. And everything that feeds is ultimately itself fed upon or in death returns its substance to the community. And in belonging to the community, each species is shaped. By belonging.


[Animism, spirit worship, is considered to be a “pre-religion.”]

A spirit in a tree is a what? It doesn’t have a name, you can’t talk to it or expect it to talk back to you. It’s just there. Gods have personality, just like us. Gods have personal lives, just like us. Gods have gender, sex lives, and even babies, just like us. They visit the earth and talk to people (who else would they talk to?), get involved in our lives. They listen to our troubles, take sides in our quarrels, look after us on our journeys, see that our enterprises get a little help, and so on. I speak here of the Olympian gods, the gods of pagan Greece and Rome.

Of course, having just a single god is considered to be even more advanced. The bad part about having just one god, however, is that it can only be one sex or the other, which puts it in the middle of the war of the sexes. If it’s a he, it tends to see things from the male point of view, and if it’s a she it tends to see things from the female point of view. The current controversy over God’s sex doesn’t strike anyone as being the least bit primitive. If God is going to be like us, then there must be sexual equipment of one kind or the other, even though it presumably doesn’t get much use.

In his own way, the god of the Abrahamic tradition is even more antropomorphic than the Olympian gods. He loves us, talks to us, listens to us, gives us gifts, takes them back, frames laws for our conduct, gets angry when we fail to obey them, punishes us, forgives us, keeps track of our every thought throughout our lives, and at death rewards us with everlasting bliss or damnation. (He isn’t as big on damnation as he used to be; in some of the more advanced religions, he has quietly closed down hell and boarded it up like a decrepit amusement park.) All these things are clear indicators that one is dealing with an advanced religion, a religion worthy of the name. It is not thought to be the least superstitious to believe that God has an especially keen interest in what people get up to in their bedrooms.

As I say, the religion of the [Animist] Leavers is “pre[-religion]” because it doesn’t involve the worship of anthropomorphic gods like these. You’ll find plenty of gods in their mythologies, of course, but these are only local deities–not objects of universal worship or even of local worship, as we use the term. [There is no primacy of gods, no conflict between cultures because of different beliefs.]


[…] I am never disappointed with God (or as I prefer to say, the gods). This is because I never expect the gods to take my side against others. If I come down with the flu, I don’t expect the gods to take my side against the virus that is pursuing its life in my body. If I travel to Africa, I don’t expect the gods to strike dead a mosquito that is about to have lunch on my neck (and incidentally give me a case of malaria). If a wildcat attacks me in the hills of New Mexico, I don’t expect the gods to help me kill it. If I’m swimming in the ocean, I don’t expect the gods to chase away the sharks. I have no illusion that the gods favor me (or any other human) over viruses, sharks, wildcats, mosquitos, or any other life form. And if they don’t favor me over a june bug or a mushroom, why would they favor me over another human being? If a friend of mine is killed in a random act of terrorist violence, I’m not going to blame the gods for this. To me, this would be nonsense. And I certainly don’t expect the gods to suspend the laws of physics to protect me from landslides, lightning bolts, or burning buildings.

Don’t misunderstand me. The fact that the gods don’t take our side against others doesn’t imply that we have to do the same. […]

[…] “What can I do about the spiders that invade my house? May I kill them or do I just have to put up with them?” […] Ask your dog what he does with the fleas that invade his coat, and he’ll show you: He does his best to rid himself of them. You can do the same, without apology. The gods will not take your side against the rest of the world just because you’re human, but they will also not take the side of the rest of the world against you just because you’re human.


People who live in close contact with the community of life also live in close contact with death. [… They] see very clearly, every single day, that the life that flows through them is taken from the creatures around them; it comes from nowhere else.


The neediness of the Takers is so immense that many people imagine that this neediness is itself the problem that is threatening the world. I’ve actually had heated arguments with people who insist that one or another or some combination of the above [list of spiritual practices] is all that is needed to save the world or that saving the world can only be accomplished by one or another or some combination of the above or that one or another or some combination of the above is an absolutely essential prerequisite to saving the world.


If nothing else, I hope you’ll carry this idea away with you: Attend to your needs, but don’t confuse attending to your needs with saving the world.


We belong to the world, and that is why we’re needed. No species can set itself apart from all the rest or make itself the ruler of all the rest. That won’t work. All must belong.

That’s what we’ve got to work on.