By Jenna Burton
It is a strange time to be living in, a sequence of events like those lived by the characters in a novel, a movie or a video game. Each of these formats is a story, and there is a reason we love reading, watching and playing other people. It is because we are living our own story, and it feels good to be someone else for a little while, to learn something from being in the mind of another. But eventually it is important to return to our own thoughts and to our own minds, and there is no better time than right now. It was Pascal who said that man’s miseries arise from his inability to sit alone in a quiet room. I have managed to spend a certain degree of time to myself during lockdown, without completely losing the plot, so here are some thoughts that I wish to share.
Every moment dawns upon us, like the day itself. There is light that rises from the darkness of that which has passed, and new opportunity is born. It isn’t that we remain trapped in the same moment, though it often feels that way, because that can never be. We are constantly moving, the world is always turning, whether we want to notice these things or not. A new chance is brought into being with every breath we take.
Throughout the process of coming to terms with this, I have been afraid. To acknowledge the infinite potential of our existence is painful, because it is analogous with the realisation of our mortality. We are all going to die. And, relatively speaking, in no time at all. Our time is finite, and yet time itself seems infinite. If, upon reading this, you don’t recall ever having found yourself in the same existential condition, remember the feeling you got when you last looked up at the stars. It is this feeling of being utterly small that is at once both fearful and wonderful. There is too much in the world to know or understand, too much to do, too much to see, too much to say, and too much to think about. With a certain reluctance, I admit to myself that all of this amounts to what it means to be human. To grapple with this is what we are made for, it is why we are conscious in the first place. Though we cannot comprehend the universe, we partake of it, and in that sense, we too are infinite.
And yet often I am stuck, as though in mud, and I cannot move. Something holds me in a cage, while I wish to be free. I wonder how often everyone else feels that way, I’m sure it is moreso the case than I have allowed myself to believe. I think that we cage ourselves because we are afraid. We want to feel safe in our own minds, as though the psyche were a small and familiar place. The truth is, that your mind is as vast as the cosmos. More importantly, it is your own. A whole universe at your command. In it we are as free as we allow ourselves to be. To paraphrase Benjamin Franklin, those who would give up their liberty for safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety. He spoke of the nation, of society, of the collective mind, but I speak to myself, and to you, of the individual psyche. If you find yourself to be trapped, ask why that is. Are you in a cage that you could open? Perhaps the key is locked in your palm, but you haven’t yet unfurled your fingers. Look at yourself, look at who you are, and think about who you could be. It is terrifying, because we will never be perfect. But that does not mean we should not have an ideal for which to strive. Look for the light that burns inside you, and follow it. It’s leading you in the right direction, and every moment is a step closer to that which you value, or a step away from it. Perhaps you are following what you value and still you feel unfulfilled; if this is so, it might be time to re-evaluate what is guiding you. Some lights are artificial, they are fuelled by the ego and they are called pride, anger, resentment, jealousy and deceit. These are the lights that I have found were guiding me, in more situations than I would like to admit. The purpose of me writing this is twofold: I wish to articulate what the past few weeks have taught me so that I might better understand it, and I wish to speak to you, one person to another, of my soul. Whoever you are, I wish to tell you, of my own experience, that it is no good to live in fear. Fear encases you, it is the cage that I speak of, and if you spend enough time in it, even a cage becomes comfortable. If you find yourself trapped in restraints of your own design, it is important to remember that humans, like birds, have but one purpose, and that is to fly. A baby bird must step out from its mother’s nest and face the prospect of falling to its death. Step out from the nest you have built around yourself, and face your own psychological death. Be prepared to let the parts of yourself die that are keeping you from being who you could be. It is only by risking the fall that we can feel the wind beneath our wings, and soar through the sky. Lastly, I wish to say that it is the acknowledgement of death, in all its forms, that allows us to live.