Book Review – Ten Eternal Questions

Ten Eternal Questions
Wisdom, Insight, and Reflection for Life’s Journey
By Zoe Sallis
2005 Chronicle Books, San Francisco

An actor and a political leader. A journalist and a sculptor. A world-famous rock star and an Oxford professor. An empress and a filmmaker. These are not the titles or occupations typically associated with spiritual wisdom. Yet Zoe Sallis has composed a book of responses from nearly 40 individuals – leaders and achievers in their respective fields –to ten powerful questions that will challenge, inspire, and surprise.

Sallis, an actress and long-time partner of the renowned actor/director, the late John Huston, spent five years arranging interviews with figures in the public eye. She did not solely seek out individuals with a spiritual background or agenda, although there are certainly some impressive spiritual and religious figures included. Rather, she approached her subject from the Socratic maxim that “the unexamined life is not worth living.” What she ultimately presents is a sometimes moving, sometimes funny, and always fascinating reflection of lives examined.

Some might question (as I initially did with this book) why anyone would care to know Jack Nicholson’s views on God, or whether director David Lynch believes in an afterlife. I share a great appreciation for the work of these individuals with millions of others, yet I have certainly not felt compelled to consult their wisdom in matters of spiritual development. But there can be no doubt that individuals like Nicholson, Sophia Loren, Bono, and Gore Vidal (all included in the book) do influence societal, and yes, occasionally even spiritual, attitudes. In fact, these people sometimes exercise a more direct avenue to the human mind and heart than do some religious leaders. They are not necessarily experts in the realm of personal development and spirituality, but as human beings with a distinctly unique set of life experiences to draw from, they are certainly compelling voices.

Sallis does provide ample time to those more commonly associated with spiritual wisdom. Besides individuals from the entertainment industry, Sallis asks HH The Dalai Lama, Professor Richard Dawkins, Dr. Una M Kroll, and Shimon Peres questions like: What is your moral code in relation to right and wrong? Who do you admire in this world, historical or living? How do you find peace within yourself? And more.

What makes this book unique in my view is that Sallis so effectively steers clear of what could have been a hackneyed and stale “feel-good” book filled with new age platitudes and banal bumper-sticker philosophy. Instead, she has compiled a readable, thought-provoking collection of ideas that wonderfully mirror not only the optimism and open-mindedness of spirituality, but also the sometimes cynical, doubting, and even uncomfortable aspects that come with contemplating some of life’s more vexing spiritual questions. Distinctively frank and open, I found the book to effectively reflect a wide range of voices, from the scholarly to the sentimental.

Many of the answers provided by the contributors to Sallis’ book are provocative and unexpected:

Jack Nicholson on karma:

“My concept of karma is that it is constant and present. It is a first cousin to existentialism. I mean you are what you do. It’s always been there, and people of little faith like myself might be more inclined to being slothful except for the idea that everything you do has effects, everything counts.”

Steve Vai, guitarist, on destiny:

“Yes, I do believe we all have destinies and that you can’t fool fate. There are those who believe that time, in its sequential linear form, is really an illusion and that all things coexist in the here and now. Oddly enough, this concept seems to make crystal-clear sense to me.”

Emma Sergeant, artist, on a moral code:

“This is a tricky question for me because I have done things that are strictly speaking wrong. (They felt quite right at the time). So I’m not one to start talking about high values and morals here. I’ve always ended up hurting people. I’ve tried not to, but I have.”

And consider these rather juxtaposed comments from author Gore Vidal and director David Lynch on the question “What has life taught you so far?”

Vidal: “Life’s taught me nothing I didn’t know going in. It is unjust and that’s to be expected. Most people collapse under injustice or conform. I was born to be a fighter, a very Gore characteristic, so I have been fulfilled by life. Life has given me so much injustice, not only personal but also in the world around me. So I always have adrenaline flowing; I always have a sharp knife.”

Lynch: “Somewhere along the line, life taught me that there is quite a beautiful future for us, every human being. They say we are sparks of the divine flame. Having the potential to see the big picture and to live the big picture is in every person.”

“Ten Eternal Questions” is a highly readable gem rich in wit and wisdom to ponder from some of the most intriguing personalities of our time.

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