“Humankind cannot bear very much reality”
(I wrote the following article at a very low point in my life, Christmas Eve 2010. Following an operation that went somewhat wrong, I was more seriously ill than I realised with post-operative infections and blood loss. I was also subject to the slowly dawning realisation that certain things I thought to be fixed were in fact illusions. So I wrote this in a fit of crying so unlike me that I never had the courage to share it here, and I wrote a less painful version a week or so later. A few people have read this, but until Monday I thought I would never post this entire article here. It was my birthday and the sight of some trampled daffodils on my walk into work triggered a powerful reaction apparently disproportionate to the visible reality. I was suddenly unable to contain the feelings and thoughts that lie beneath my surface and they all came surging up to overwhelm me. I’m off work now.
The title comes from Burnt Norton, the first poem in T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets. “Go, go, go, said the bird: humankind cannot bear very much reality. Time past and time future what might have been and what has been point to one end which is always present”)
One of the gifts that pain brings is fact that it destroys illusions. Everything is stripped back, naked in its light. You can’t ignore pain for long. Pain killers themselves seem to work by distancing you somehow from the experience of that pain.
The last week or so I have experienced so much physical pain it has even sneaked through morphine to make me sleepless and uneasy. They offered me ketamine at one point and I refused it, based on an account a friend gave me of how it works. She likened the experience of it to being in a long corridor with doors off it and one by one, the ketamine slams shut all those doors and you are just left watching and unable to participate in life.
The problem was this was more than tempting; it was almost compelling in its appeal. I’d like to be mindless for a while but I suspect it might be addictive.
Being ill over the Christmas period is also a gift, though no one kept the receipt and I can’t take it back and exchange it for underwear at M+S instead. I’ve been too ill to participate in the process, to shop for groceries amid the manic throngs of anxious people, or to agonise over cranberry sauce over redcurrant. So I have been able to stand a little to one side and observe and what I have observed has made me very sad. The frenetic activity is a distraction from the reality of much of human life. The obsessive need to create a perfect Christmas is about fortifying the illusions that keep most of us going forward most of the time.
Our illusions are sometimes what keep us from collapsing into a useless heap. There is a world of ‘literature’ about following our dreams and believing in them and in ourselves.
I woke up in the middle of the night last night, realising that the state of being that is covered by the term depression is neither an illness nor an imbalance but something quite different. As Aha moments go, it was a terrible one. It also covered quite why there has been an almost unprecedented growth in depressive states and why there has been a corresponding rise in rampant consumerism.
Depression is a state of being when your most cherished illusions about life, and about your part in it are ripped away and you see things as they truly are: naked unvarnished truth. Cold, hard painful truth. It’s enough to send people insane. It does send them insane; it sends them into fugue states and into wars.
It’s hard to explain without giving examples and the only examples I can give really are from my own experience. That, in the end, is all I have. Even what we call objective reality is only ever experienced subjectively.
I had my first experience of what we call depression when I was six. I don’t recall what triggered it but I remember the feeling too well; I felt lost, alone, abandoned and infinitely tiny. Remember that word; it’s important. Tiny. For the years that followed it was a familiar experience and analysing it now it always followed an experience of having the veil between what I wanted the world or my life to be and what it actually was ripped to shreds. Failures, disappointments, self-revelations, all were followed by a long period of extreme lowness. Sometimes the lowness seemed to come out of nowhere, but it really came from a deeper sense of existential failure.
I’ve never been able to manage the whole suspension of disbelief thing for more than a few seconds; it’s probably why I found Disneyland a trial. (“It’s not Mickey Mouse, it’s a man in a suit; Mickey Mouse is an animated character!”) Perhaps it’s a genetic thing, this ability to believe in something you know logically isn’t real; whatever it is, I lack it. All the supposedly key moments in my life, the ones that others dream about for years, have been marred by this. There’s always the me in the background that knows that it’s only a stage set, that what I see is an illusion and isn’t real. Oh I have gone along with things to make it all right for others, but the other night, sleepless again with pain, I mulled through various things and felt such bitterness that others seem to be able to hang on to their illusions, and never even know they are just that. And I wanted, briefly, to smash their veils for them and hold their faces in reality for a few moments.
To bring it to something specific now. Most of my life, I have written. It’s a passion and an obsession for me and I’m good. This I know. But not good enough to get through the lottery that is the Publishing Sweepstakes. To win that particular game, you need to be not merely good, but lucky too. You need to be outstandingly good, and you need luck and contacts and determination and did I mention luck?
Let’s bring it down to numbers. I am one of around 7 billion people on this planet. Of that number, I have no clue how many speak or write English as their first language but a pretty high number. Of that number there are hundreds of thousands (possibly millions) who consider themselves as writers. There are certainly millions of blogs. Of those, I come across a large number via social media as well as blogs, and a fairly large number of those say almost exactly the same about themselves as writers as I do about me. I look at their stuff; some of it is good, some is rubbish and some is amazing. These are essentially the same people whom I was unconsciously competing against when I was submitting to publishers and agents.
That’s a sobering thought. I had no idea back then of the sheer scale of numbers trying to squeeze into a tiny gate, or yet of the talent that was and is out there. What on earth made me think I had even the tiniest chance of ever making it through?
That’s what. The illusion that I am someone special. Someone talented and someone who deserved success and that the simple deserving of something meant that I would get it. And to be fair to myself, in case I seem unusually slow on the uptake, I had a lot of feedback from publishers and agents telling me I was good and to keep going. I had an agent, I had books at publishers being discussed by committees of readers and editors; so I had evidence that I had at least some chance of making it through. It was not merely on self-belief, something I have always lacked but which seems to fuel a lot of people. Those are the ones whose faces I wanted to hold in the stream of reality till the bubbles stopped.
It’s this illusion that means phenomena like The Secret and the plethora of products and workshops and so on can thrive, because it is something virtually every human being on this planet wants to believe. It’s the periodic thinning of the veil between our illusions and reality that sends every increasing numbers of people into cycles of despair and depression and spending sprees and violence.
I shall say it again. I am one of 7 billion people on this planet. And I am not important. I will never be important. All that I have done in my life is try to bring into reality a belief that somehow I am important and special. I am TINY. Insignificant and without value. Even if I achieved my dreams, sold a million books, became an overnight success, this would change NOTHING at all. I would still be me, and tiny.
Right now I feel as though I am standing at the summit of a very high mountain and the air is cold and thin and I am finding it hard to breathe. Because this is the point at which I have a number of choices of what to do with these revelations. I can try and claw back my illusions; friends and family usually help with this one, because while in the grand scheme of things, I am unimportant, I am also to some degree important to them. That’s natural and human but while to some degree I want more than anything to have some reassurance, to be told that one day I will “make it” and succeed in my dreams, right now, that’s not what I need. This would simply prolong the pain of this revelation. I would have to revisit it, as I have done so often, through depressive episodes. The dreams are no more than that: dreams. That’s all they ever were and all they ever will be. Even if I achieve them, they remain dreams. Once you step outside of time, you realise that what has been achieved, what may be achieved and what never will be, mean more or less the same thing- “what might have been and what has been point to one end, which is always present.”
My second choice is in effect to leap from the mountain top where I stand right now. In terms of reality, this means stopping dead. Stop writing, stop thinking, stop hoping, stop trying. Not necessarily to die but to go into suspended animation, a living death of the soul. This is tempting. I’ve done it before. A numbness descends, and while pain exists, it’s muffled. But joy too is absent and many other things that make life worth living.
The third choice is a stranger one yet.
Many years ago, when I was being prepared for confirmation, the vicar who was doing the confirmation lessons touched on the state of being where loss of faith occurs and what to do when it happens. I am sure he said WHEN and not IF. The advice he passed on, which was given to a clergy wife of his acquaintance (I am sure it was actually his own) was to carry on acting as if everything was the same, even though you know it is not. At first this seems hypocritical. More pretending. But it’s not. Everything inside is different; you know, even if no one outside your head does, that nothing is the same.
So the third choice is to carry on, knowing that all I do and try and dream about is simply made up of illusions.
The irony of all this is that even as I write, illusions come flooding back, trying to take over and with them, the knowledge that they are illusions and the pain this brings in its wake. I am aware that this is probably one of the most important things I have ever written and that despite this, and the feeling that this is something people need to read, only dozens or maybe hundreds of people at best will ever read it and the whole sense of me being important comes crashing back down again. I’d laugh, if I weren’t already crying.
I am tiny and insignificant and without importance. And yet, something in me will not lie down and accept this. This has been my story, over and over and over since I was six. I don’t know right now how this story will end.