Following the Yellow Brick Road…
Recently, the biggest & most avid reader of my blog musings (who also happens to be my mum) said that she thought my post were filled with too much regret. I re-read my posts and can honestly say that they did take a bit of a turn down a darkened path, even if that wasn’t my intention. So Today I wanted to try and affirm some positivity. It has been a dark few months – a real struggle against my own behemoth, rising purely from my own volition and tendency to think myself into spirals. Ever since exploring the ideas in Charles Dicken’s A Christmas Carol I have been thinking more about gratitude. One of the reasons I find it so hard to be grateful for the present, to express the gratitude that I do feel is because at some point I feel that I learnt to suppressed the value I attach to it. In our day and age, it is difficult to be genuinely grateful of the here and now.
I recently visited Rome – somewhere I have longed to visit since I first began learning about the Romans at school and was eagerly dragged around the baths (in the rather originally named city of Bath). Even my time in Spain, I visited Tarragona many times, and walked through the ruins of what was once strong and mighty. There was always something so inspiring about the Romans, what they achieved, what they built – and ultimately – what they lost. While I will save the best pictures for a later post, whilst I was wondering around the coliseum and I did happen across a book that caught my eye. I bought it instantly and have been reading it ever since. Meditations by Marcus Aurelius, the very same that – spoiler alert – dies at the beginning of the Ridley Scott classic Gladiator. This man was one of the five great emperors, and his writings have touched me so beautifully. I was never one to make a mark on a book, something about the purity of the pages always refrained me from ever really etching on the pages, but there is something about his musings that have inspired me to begin doing so. Even though it is a slime volume I have now filled it with pencil scrawling and multi-coloured post it notes picking out my favourite quotes. The book hardly shuts now. Given that this man was the head of the largest empire the world had seen at the time, the man was incredibly grounded and it is amazing how much his words permeate and echo to my life today. It could have been written by Eckhart Tolle or any other self-help author but it is the timelessness that really struck me. I began to see that things I had written before had echos of his teaches, and I guess it struck me as an inevitability that I would find an affinity to it. As much as I hark on about Charles Dicken´s A Christmas Carol it is odd how this particular emperor had the same message to say all that time ago. Remember, that in a very short time – both he [the person who has upset you] and you will soon be dead, and your names forgotten. I know I said this post would be a positive one, and I understand that may come across as incredibly nihilistic but to me it is a liberating thought. The musings of Marcus Aurelius has sent me on a journey into the philosophy of the Stoics, a journey which I am finding incredible practical and useful in my day-to-day life.
In my post Time Travel & Regrets I talked about the writings of St Augustine who powerfully observed that the only moment that exists for us is the present. The fact that I spend a lot of that time remunerating on the past, or imaging how much better a future could be if only I had X makes being grateful for the now difficult. I can’t even put a number to the amount of times I have sort out a kind of new age technique borrowed from some eastern tradition about living for the moment; being in the here and now explained as simply as “breathing in, and breathing out; counting to ten”. When that fails to give me the solace I was seeking it is very easy to feel dejected by that, assume that, the problem was with me and my abilities – that most things I turn my hand to and fail at is a reflection of my abilities as a person – nay, worse than abilities – my whole intrinsic moral value. When I use this frame all my failures seem amplified; I struggle to maintain an interest in most jobs after a certain threshold, I have hundreds of books that I probably will never bother to find out how they ended after reading two-thirds & I am not compatible with complacency. Does the fact that I crave novelty, that my mind wonders and I like to explore ideas when the initially arrive instead of dogmatically pursuing them make my value any less?
Why then, I wonder, do I feel like it does. I was looking for a word today to describe something, and I still haven’t arrived at it, but I guess the closest thing I can find to it would be “normality”. Growing up in a certain town, in a particular country, ascribing to a given set of values that stem more from culture than from me lays out a path for you. A path that seems like the right thing to do – a path that aligns you with everyone else on that same path. I have been watching Oz lately, despite the intention to give up watching TV, and I was thinking about why solitary confinement is the worst punishment that can be administered. Why is it that man struggles to spend time alone with a person they should know inside & out? I first thought perhaps it was the consequences of boredom, but I arrived at the decision that perhaps it is a biological thing. In the hunter gatherer times – to be excommunicated (a well-chosen word here, if I do say so myself, as this was a punishment in medieval times for anyone who dared to digress from the hegemony of Christianity) from your group would probably mean certain death. Will Storr talks about anxiety & social conformity as being a biological reaction to the fear of being left out, that to be ostracized was to face psychological death, to call into question your whole self-worth. The desire to fit in, to be accepted by society operates on a deeper level, than a conscious decision.
The yellow brick road, immortalized in L. Frank Baum’s books not to mention the classic movie, could provide a good analogy of this path. Dorothy arrives in Oz after a terrible storm; she arrives in the safety of a village and there appears a sinister character. She must then follow the yellow brick road (because because because BECAUSEEEE!) and along the way she meets her best friends and together they defeat the evil witch and to an extend if you don’t read (or watch on) after they live happily ever after. To some extent I feel that “normality” is like that. That the path is laid before you, and that path is constructed out of expectations of what life you should be living and as such – to deviate from it causes you pain because it at least biologically on a mental level it could mean leaving the group, seperating from the pack. There most, after all, be a evolutionary reason fro being a social being -exposing yourself to uncertainty, and the potential pitfalls of being outside the group, leads to conflict. (Ironically enough when Dorothy returns to Oz – the yellow brick road is destroyed and her best friend has become king and a prisoner. She makes a friend of a pumpkin and with a walking, talking version of windows 95). That road is very much like life in general, it is a path that leads somewhere. No one told her who made the path, why it was there, what she would find along the way, only to follow the path and Dorothy followed it, hoping to get some resolution at the end.
Sometimes I think I feel that I should be on this path in my life. The path that any man aged 30 should be on, and I am not. I should have the things that society expects me to have. I should be that person. Who that person is exactly I could not tell you, I think on reflection – nobody could. That person doesn’t really exist just a lot of people trying to become them. The Buddha said that living is suffering and that suffering comes from desire. I think as I get older I can understand that finding. That my desire for possessions or to be a certain way, despite that fact that, at my core, I am not that person is where a lot of my conflict come from. A lot of my regrets stem from the fact that I imagine other lives that I could have had if I had made different decisions. Why would that life be better? I used to do this thought experiment when I was working in a factory – soul well and truly destroyed as I cleaned shower head, one after another, a cog in a machine which paid rather well. Inspired by the Aladdin’s genie power of 3 wishes, the thoughts went like this – If you could redesign your life – how would it be? In my mind it played out like a game of The Sims as I chose physical attributes I would change first then they slowly expanded. Sometimes I would imagine being an American, or being in the military, or some innate talent I had as a child would be fully realised. Other times, when I was feeling particularly bad – it would be as a victim fleeing a war zone, always with some heroic twist at the end in which I was very much a hero of my own story. I had the thought the other day – what if this life I am living now, a different me designed. That everything about the way I am (except the anxiety I suppose) has been thought up and perfected by some other Jordan in his imagination where also discontented he imagined that what I have and hold dear was the best possible life I could have. There really is no reason why I shouldn’t think the same.
I am beginning to think though, that perhaps I am not compatible with this path I judge myself for deviating from. That the kind of lifestyle I need to live, is one that I don’t have laid out before me, but is something I must discover through trial and error. My past failings were not that but instead were expressions of when the path wasn’t for me unattached from my moral value, two sizes too big. With this perspective it is hard to take regrets too seriously if I think of them of ill-suited routes. What then is the path I should be on, where does it start and where does it lead? Not knowing it should fill me with anxiety but lately it has been filling me with a sense of freedom, that I am not destined to follow a pre-determined route but instead have the liberty to find it for myself, and I am grateful that I have tried many routes with timid toes. Looking for direction with a Goldilocks mentally of finding the perfect one right before me was never going to work, so perhaps it is in my failings that I should be most grateful, that they are showing me the best way to my “just right!”.
I have been walking around the countryside of late, and sometimes I get overwhelmed with such feelings of beauty and awe. Listening to the crashing waves, the joyous birds, the slow therapeutic sounds of silence when noises suddenly jump out of you from some nameless direction. The endless creativity of nature, the display of colours that you never noticed, the differing feelings of sand or grass on my bare feet, toes curling absorbing the difference tasting through touch. The beauty of my family and friends when I picture their smiles in my mind’s eye, imagining their laughter recreated from memory fills me with such a warm sense of love. Thinking about things that I have seen, learnt, tested, felt all magnified in their beauty that I have experienced them. Sunsets, forever passed from some beach, never to happen in exactly the same again, immortalized in my brain. The knowledge that my place in the grand scheme of things is so transitory that there will never be someone who has my thoughts, my feelings, or my subjective experience as I have lived them ever again feels me with gratitude that it wasn’t robbed of me earlier nor that I lived my life ignorantly of my pains because it allows me to see the joy with much more clarity. I am grateful to be here bashing this keyboard as my enthusiasm spews forth, I am grateful that I can feel inspired that the path I have been on lately has not drained me of any hope. That at my worst my nihilistic thoughts have always been tempered by the fact that everything, and please excuse my language, is so fucking beautiful even at its darkest.
L Frank Baum – The Wizard of Oz & the Return to Oz (and the movies too)
Marcus Aurelius – Meditations
Will Storr – How the West became self-obsessed
Oz – HBO TV series