Do you ever find yourself feeling that the world was better, simpler, purer and somehow less messed up in the past than it is now?
That could be your childhood or your grandparents time or even further in the past. Does it ever occur to you that every generation throughout history has felt this way?
Any earnest reading of history will see that pretty much any era of the near or distant past was as chaotic, messy, imperfect, unjust and wicked – just often in slightly different ways.
Since every generation feels the future is both exciting [utopia] or daunting [dystopia], that the present is messy and wicked and that the past was somehow balanced, integrated and had a harmony or wisdom that made it better – perhaps it is because memory and emotion form a doppler effect?
This doppler effect causes the future, the present and the past to each take a different impression, a hue, a note. Just as a racing car will sound shrill upon approach and more resonant as it passes, so our emotions about the future and present and past will bend experience and memory as time passes.
The truth is there is ALWAYS a chaotic present, an uncertain but exciting future and the past becomes a story. The ONLY real time is the present! Make it great
The much celebrated 2014 film Birdman, gives an insightful review of human (in)significance in one key scene between Sam [Emma Stone] and Riggan [Michael Keaton].
Riggan, an ageing actor and artist who is suffering an identity crisis, is counselled by his daughter as to how her recent stint in rehab helped her come to peace with her own anxieties. She methodically draws small dashes onto squares of toilet paper, 150 dashes per square, until she fills and entire roll.
Then she unfurls the paper roll and points out that one meagre square of tissue represents the entire span of human existence. One dash alone equals a million years and the roll entire, the 6 billion odd years of space and time. In so doing, her own and Riggan’s agonies over life significance are put into perspective.
The illustration questions any worries about life achievements, fame, or success. Indeed, there seems little difference between doing ‘something’ and doing ‘nothing’ with ones life, little difference between becoming a trillionaire even, and becoming a subsistence farmer.
Any sense of achievement then is simply won in comparison to our peers, those whose admiration we might crave or whose love or fear we might seek. Ultimately, however, we remain a small fleck within an infinite sea of darkness, a darkness within which giant stars burn for millions of years and even they remain dwarfed by galaxies, in turn dwarfed by the magnitude of space and time.
Is such an epiphany calming? or more anxiety inducing? Why in fact should we make any effort? and for what ultimately, is any effort of value?
What indeed then, is the difference between committing mass murder verses committing ones life to charity and community service? If ultimately, we are atoms afloat in an infinite sea of nothing, then nothing indeed is of meaning, is it not?!
The story explores the primal questions that existentialist philosophers have asked for millennia. It brings us back to the ground of being which is in our feelings, our hearts, our emotions and our soul. The difference between committing one’s life to harm verses help, lies in the significance of the human experience, in our feelings, our heart and soul. We draw our being from love, not from our achievements, our wealth, our power, fame or grandeur.
We don’t draw our significance from our stature amidst infinite space and time, for it renders us ridiculously finite; we draw our significance from the face of love, which is the face of God.
The question still stands, to what do we commit our little life to then, the hours we have, the time in our hands? The biblical story of the ‘talents’ [Matt 25:14-30] expounds on this very point. If you have one talent, double it; if you have five talents, make them ten. Whatever you have, work with it, double it, increase it.
It is a lovely thing to be an adult and have a strong relationship with one’s parents and know them more as friends. Growing to adulthood is a lot about gaining agency and objectivity. One is less the subject of your parents, and more the object of your own life.
Yet in family, there forever exists a dynamic that one can never escape – the reality that you are forever their child, and they are forever your parents.
I recently enjoyed a holiday with my parents. When living far away, any quality time together, forming happy memories is a good investment. However, when returning to extended time together this family dynamic is reinforced in curious ways.
Is it being placed in a single bed again? Is it the conversation about a different generation of friends, their health challenges, their grandchildren which makes you realise you’re not with your peers? And that you are uncomfortably, the object of much of their worry, analysis and discussion.
We recently chose a holiday venue for the over 65+ which only compounded my feeling. I was definitely outnumbered and cultural differences did abound some of which I did not object to, including the early nights and afternoon naps, the schedule of coffee, cakes, scenic locations and group photos.
Around my parents’ friends, I find that in open dialogue they will bemoan unmarried children, talk of their welfare and concerns. I find myself patted and prodded, gently sized up, commented upon.
I realise that here I’m not the object of my life, the agent of decisions. I’m the subject of someone else’s life, their worries, decisions, their social standing with their peers. I am the object of devotion and love, but also of anxiety, surprise, disappointment and stress.
I am reminded that we are always tied into the fabric of a large community quilt. We are our parents’ children. We are the subject of their conversation the way they are the subject of ours with our friends. We will always be subject to care, commentary, criticism, gossip, humour, anxiety and love. As they are subject to ours.
But this makes us part of community, loved and well as loving. We are object and we are subject. We belong.
In Victor Frankl’s work ‘Man’s Search For Meaning‘, he explores the question of what is the ‘meaning’ of life. Frankl explains, that life, like the game of chess, has no perfect move, only the perfect move for a specific player in a specific situation. Life has no ‘meaning‘ other than meaning derived from responding to one’s life in any given circumstances.
He correlates then, ‘responsibility‘ with the essence of human existence. To live meaningfully, one is to imagine one is living for a second time and that the first time we lived, we made every mistake possible. This imagining, confronts us with all of life’s limitations and the finality of what we make of our life and of ourselves, pushing us to be responsible.
He continues. The question of ‘responsibility‘ calls into question whether we are truly free or not. If we are indeed victims of life, we have no responsibility for the consequences of our existence. However as victims, we are not truly free. If we are however, to claim to be truly free beings and to have agency over our existence, we cannot then fall back upon the comfort of claiming ‘victimhood’. We must face the reality that our life, and the consequences or our existence, and indeed our total responsibility.
Frankl, as a psychiatrist, saw his role in therapy much the way an eye-surgeon would when dealing with a patient. He worked on the faculty of sight to restore a patient’s ability to see the whole spectrum of his or her potential and the meaning of their life. By helping a patient to become ‘responsible’, he would help them become empowered to actualise the potential meaning of their existence.
And in doing so, no matter the circumstance of his or her life, to become truly free.