Last year I spent a lovely weekend in the forest at Pench. It was a forest bathed in brown dust and a searing landscape with the sun beating down on the sunscreen and sliding it across the curve of my head and into the corners of my eye. Roaming around the forest and watching animals quietly go about their lives had a calming influence on me.
During the trip I read an engaging book about the way money has grown from a utility for trade into a monstrous cult that dictates large parts of our lives. There was a striking quote in the book that caught my attention, it was an extract from a commencement address to the class of 89 at Dartmouth College by the Russian American writer & poet Joseph Brodsky, which drew an arc across how consumerism exploited deep seated human anxieties and changes in society.
“You will be bored with your work, your spouses, your lovers, the view from your window, the furniture or wallpaper in your rooms, your thoughts, yourselves …. You’ll try to devise ways of escape. Apart from … self-gratifying gadgets … you may take up changing jobs, residence, company, country, climate, you may take up promiscuity, alcohol, travel, cooking lessons, drugs, psychoanalysis … you may lump them together … for a while that may work. Until the day .. when you wake up … with a heap of bills from your travel agent and your shrink, yet with the same stale feeling toward the light of day pouring through your window.”
The words are stark and have a seductive and haunting appeal of their own and they capture our varied responses to the fleeting nature of time. Anybody who has lived long enough with some degree of existential doubt would at some point probably hit this realization – that the world as described to us and as experienced by us are two different things.
Given that Brodsky spoke to young and eager college students, he did try and provide some sage advice – though shorn of the candy floss optimism and helpless hope with which the strangeness of life in the modern world is often collectively confronted and shared. The gist of the 6 pieces of advice is summarized below:
- Be precise with your language
- Be kind to your parents
- Try to not expect too much from Politicians
- Be modest and don’t try to stand out
- Avoid granting yourself the status of the victim
- Try not to pay attention to those that will make life miserable for you
More details on this speech are available on https://www.brainpickings.org/2013/12/18/joseph-brodsky-speech-at-the-stadium-commencement/. Not advice I would readily endorse, since most of what is said and shared arises from our inability to understand who we are and all the errors that arise as a consequence. But even half-truths have their relevance until the truth is discovered, particularly when shared by a poet.
At times, delving deep into the experience of one’s own life – allows us to break out of the cages of our own false expectations and impressions of who we are and what life is. It could be any of the ordinary things that we all do, that briefly make room for us to have an authentic experience of who we are – through an immersion into our bonds with people or contradictions within ourselves, through the way we prepare ourselves to eat, the way we weave oceans of detail into cogency and the joy on the rare moments when that spurs action, the way we fold our clothes and place them in the cupboard shelf or sit quietly and listen to another person share the story of their hopes and fears.
Until at some point, what Brodsky refers to as an interminable ennui sets in. But I assume this experience, which he cynically views as a barren boredom, can also fork away into an abiding stillness. When we have enough life experience behind us to occasionally watch our life drama unfold without too much thought or agitation, when we are less caught up by who we are and more present towards what is, quietly aware of the flow of life around us.
The stale feeling toward the light pouring through your window, can be a powerful moment of truth. But as we silently watch, the staleness fades away and the moment remains around the light pouring through the window. Thoughts and silence both coexist within us, but it’s the small silences that energise us, remove the adjectives from our lives and fill it with an embracing calmness.
When I drive through the forest, I am processing the naturalist’s words as he names each tree and bird that we see. And then I just watch and enjoy taking in the sights and smells of the forest and it’s a totally different experience.