The Ultimate Continuum

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.

And more than anything, do all you do, with love.

On Being an Adult Child

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.

Why Fear is Like Hot Sauce

I have recently sought coaching and counselling for personal challenges and blockages.

In exploring my own issues I have identified far beneath, buried deep down in my sub-conscious, a far more complex and insidious root of life struggles.

FEAR.

Fear of conflict, fear of failure, fear of what others think, fear of condemnation, fear of disappointing those I love, fear of not being enough.

Procrastination? FEAR.

Low achievement? FEAR.

Conflict avoidance. FEAR.

Broken relationships? FEAR.

Friends chastise me for seeming calm and peaceful, and yet on occasion raising grievances of issues from years ago. I had been hurt at the time and instead of raising the issue then, sat with the pain for years before finally airing it.

I realise that FEAR is like a hot sauce. It eclipses all flavour and sense, disallowing nuance of other food in the dish. When I am stressed or face conflict, I cannot feel anything except confusion driven by fear.

I cannot tell how I feel, what I think, what I want or process how the other person has hurt me. The hot sauce eclipses all others and I feel paralysed. It is only much later that I am able to process my feeling and raise the concerns with my friends and loved ones. They understandably are confused as this issue has long passed and they had no idea.

Coaching has established the need to rebuild identity that can stand up against fear. This entails responsibility for actions which have caused the issue to perpetuate and grow.

Healing occurs through receiving love and rebuilding trust. Trust of self, trust of others, trust of the divine. A kindness given to myself is like water, which dilutes the hot sauce. As the hot sauce strength subsides, the flavour returns. The ability to feel a range of feelings returns.

I am able to be present with my emotions and know what I want. I am less inclined to flee, shut down, avoid or stonewall situations that require vulnerability and presence.

I’m more inclined to try hard at things that make me afraid or risk my feelings. And slowly, slowly I am able to hope that the future might be different.