‘Go, go, go, said the bird: human kind
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.’
(The Four Quartets – Burnt Norton)
I first discovered T.S. Eliot’s poetry when I was fourteen. It was the beginning of a lifelong attachment to his writing, which I have often quoted and used as inspiration. I was never one of the in crowd at school. While my more popular peers were obsessing about the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, makeup, boys and the all important debate about whether to relinquish one’s virginity, I was reflecting on death, futility and meaninglessness, and writing introspective poetry.
When I read T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land I immediately recognised a kindred spirit. In my adolescent ennui I had already ‘measured out my life in coffee spoons’ (The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock) and wondered daily whether life would end with a bang or a whimper. It was the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis, and seemed probable that the end of the world would arrive imminently with a devastating bang. However, only a very few likeminded friends seemed to worry about that as much as I did.
But the ultimate nuclear holocaust didn’t happen, and life went on. How naive we were. We still hoped that the Berlin Wall would come down (which of course it eventually did) and that our nineteen sixties optimism would truly usher in the Age of Aquarius. I was a hippie manqué, and by then had already become adept at avoiding as much reality as possible. There seemed to be an awful lot more of it than I could stomach, and writing had proved a useful escape route. It allowed me to view life’s large and little dramas from a relatively detached ringside seat where observation and commentary made it rather more containable.
I persisted in writing my poems and then branched out into short stories, developing a dark, often cynical sense of humour, the nuances of which were often apparently lost on other people. Although perhaps not. By the age of twenty my stories were being regularly published and continued to be for the next twenty years. The novels came later, and by then I’d had plenty more raw material on which to base my fiction. Rather too much, if I’m honest. It was a trend that didn’t abate.
That particular line about human kind not being able to bear very much reality kept on resonating over the years. You can have too much of a good thing, and you can definitely have too much of the things that aren’t so good. Life forces you into a version of reality unique to you, which is compelling enough, in the way of all good soap operas, to keep you focused outward and fascinated much of the time. The Story of Me is one that keeps each of us gripped to a greater or lesser degree throughout our life. We have to keep paying attention to it, in case we lose the thread. It’s taken me these many decades on to really begin to reach the truth of how unimportant that story is. As a psychotherapist I heard many people’s stories, and listened to their pain. We are more similar to one another than we realise, and it’s important to acknowledge that. Developing our capacity for empathy is the kindest gift we can offer to ourselves and others.
Genuine deep compassion for ourselves is often the last place we learn to put it. It isn’t being selfish to honour our needs and recognise our limits. For years I’ve been saying: “I’ve had enough now” about a number of things, and last year I really upped my game. Saying I’ve had enough has often been the catalyst for necessary change, but not every situation can be changed. I began long ago to practice cultivating tolerance and hope, even though tolerance is probably still the hardest pill for me to swallow. I have impatience with wilful incompetence, and find the bullshit and hypocrisy that oils the social wheels unpalatable. That makes me a loyal and trustworthy friend but a challenging opponent when it comes to integrity. I have learned to pick my battles very carefully.
When it comes to certain circumstances I’ve observed that whether or not I feel I’ve had enough, life hasn’t had enough of teaching me. I believe passionately in the power of choice, but not everything is within our gift to choose. As I get older I realise how increasingly little is actually in my control, beyond my options of how to react and respond. And even that isn’t always in my remit. Knees still jerk when hit in the place designed to elicit a reaction. But at least I notice. I’ve come to the conclusion now that the deal I’ve struck with life is to learn how to face the unbearable with as much grace and acceptance as possible. It’s still work in progress.
All of this is enigmatic twaddle for anyone seeking the story behind my ramblings. But the story isn’t really my point. It’s more to do with how we manage the ‘reality’ with which we are presented, whether or not it feels too much. I’m not an advocate either of ‘escape’ (which doesn’t equate with freedom, whatever the temporary distraction it provides) or martyred stoicism. Nor am I someone who can cheerfully recommend that when life gives you lemons you just make lemonade, or whistle happily as you sling a few broken eggs together to make an omelette.
But I have put together a few reminders for myself, which in no way sets me up as the fount of all wisdom. Far from it. My way is just my way, and my conclusions are not original. I am, after all, simply another human being, figuring out how to survive through all the changes in a lifetime and take responsibility for managing my pain. We aren’t born with a guide book. We have to work it out or make it up as we go along. Anyway, these are a few of my own evolving rules for life:
I’m no cleverer than anyone else when it comes to understanding. Watch, listen and learn is the best I can do. And other people can be an honest or a warped mirror to facilitate me knowing myself. Their projections might be flattering or overly critical, but I need to remember their opinions say more about them than they do about me, and not be swayed.
“Everything passes” is a cliché that used to make me smile when I heard my father repeat it so often. Thanks, dad, for your wisdom. As in so many things, you were right.
3. “Keep your heart open, even in hell”
I heard this advice many, many years ago. And finally, it really makes sense. Without an open heart there can be no healing. An open heart is not mushy, sentimental or unprotected, but unclenches the fist of resistance and allows things to just be. Hell is just another place to go through.
This deserves a whole blog post all to itself. In my experience it’s not ever what you expect. And it has a lot to do with the nature of the relationship you’ve lost. Ranting, meltdown, despair and rage are every bit as valid as weeping. Storming the walls of who you thought you were seems to be the journey. And it hurts.
Life often sucks. Judgements about what constitutes unfairness are subjective. It helps to let go of expectations that it should be or even could be another way. Expectations are sneaky things, however, and creep in stealthily even when you think you’ve barred the door against them. So don’t expect not to have expectations. This is how it is. It’s as good as it gets and you might as well forgive life its ‘imperfections’. If it’s broken, whatever it is, don’t get hung up on believing it has to be mended. You can love broken things too. We are all broken.
6. “Be positive”
No, seriously, don’t. Not unless you genuinely happen to be feeling positive when you’re reading this. Be however you damn well are. That’s positive in its own liberating way. There is something energising and empowering about giving yourself permission not always to look on the bright side. The dark side has a lot to teach us too. Society seems to encourage us to smile even when our heart is breaking. Sometimes we do that to protect other people from our pain. Which is ok, of course, but don’t make it too much of a habit and allow it to morph into denial. Let me refer you to 2 above. Everything passes, eventually your time on the planet itself. Be real. Be here. Let it be. Let it flow. And when you can’t bear too much reality don’t feel bad about it. Jump off the wheel for a while and land wherever it takes you. It might be the most creative move you ever made.
You can find out more of my fascinating thoughts on my website The Lesley Hayes Website where there are links to all my novels on Amazon