Blowing things out of all proportion and adopting the out-of-balance perspective – haven’t we all had our fair share of practice at it? I went to get into my car the other day and noticed a ding at the rear right hand side, just above the reverse light. Bodywork dented and scraped, paint gouged and the bumper injured. A heart sink moment. No note to say who had inflicted it; the assailant had fled. Perhaps ‘to flee’ is a harsh choice of verb; maybe the driver didn’t know what they had done. Unlikely. I dismissed my fleeting, charitable thought and instead called forth all the names of the day to bestow upon the idiot who thought s/he was riding the bumper cars at a funfair. This only served to make me feel worse – until I remembered S.. Just the week before, S. exacted very similar damage to her own car, the difference being that she was in her car when it happened. She was calm and measured. Certainly, she wished it hadn’t happened, but she quickly and quietly dropped the wishing – for it wasn’t getting her anywhere – and she turned to acceptance. I know, having your car pranged is relatively minor in the whole gamut of life’s bum deals, but it’s still a bummer and it takes some reminding not to over-react. Inspired by S., I gave myself a quick, snap-out-of-it, sure-isn’t-it-only-a-car, team talk. Except I found it very hard to stay in that realm and every so often I snapped right back into the well-worn bad habit of giving it more woe-is-me weight that it deserved.
Weeks before the car prang I recounted a particular problem to M.. ‘Not to worry,’ she said brightly, ‘in fifty years you and I will be dust.’ Besides me thinking that it will probably be more like forty years, her point, nonetheless, is a good one (if a little bluntly put). We all know it; that certainty that our corporeal bodies shall be returned to dust, yet we live as though it’s not true and, for me, there is something profoundly soothing about being reminded of our mortality. Thoughts of oneself as dust will either tip you into the abyss of full-scale despondency (which is not what I am aiming for) or pull you back from the edge and give you a broader perspective on your problems in the style of, ‘What does it really matter in the whole scheme of things?’ For there is a balance to strike, a tightrope to walk so that we remain upright and poised, secure in knowing what matters (everything matters) and what doesn’t matter (nothing matters). And that is life’s great contradiction: to take life seriously, but to live it lightly and with a sense of humour; to give it your all and seek to win, but to shrug and smile when you lose; to care, but not too much. The thing is, I don’t know how to do that; I don’t know how to gracefully walk the tightrope of a life that is one huge paradox. I feel bewildered by the conundrum that everything matters and nothing really matters; that I am as important as the next person but that I am completely insignificant. I think the key might be to remember where we have come from, and to what we will return: dust.
The late Harold Pinter wrote a poem for his wife, Antonia Fraser, from the point of view of him being dead. When he read it aloud to her she burst into tears, but she recalls Pinter not being particularly bothered by her reaction, as he was too busy – as she put it – ‘being pleased with himself for the concept of the dead missing the living.’ I found it interesting that he was divorced from the sadness of the words, so immersed was he in the act of writing. Although he was thinking about returning to dust, he was alive to the ‘now’ and propelled forward to write, to live.
To A.,by Harold Pinter
I shall miss you so much when I’m dead,
The loveliness of your smiles,
The softness of your body in our bed.
My everlasting bride,
Remember that when I am dead,
You are forever alive in my heart and my head.
How strange that a dent in my car should send me on a quest for the meaning of life. Enough of that, it’s time to go and fret over some small things.