‘Well there’s Sartre and Camus, Nietzsche and Hesse
If you dig deep enough
You gonna end up in distress
And no-one escapes having to live life under duress
And no-one escapes the meaning of loneliness’
These lyrics come from Van Morrison’s song: ‘The Meaning of Loneliness’. I was trying to think of them after they came to me in fragments this morning. And I was pretty certain there was the phrase: existential angst. But that’s not here it seems and rhyming ‘angst’ with these ‘ess’ sounds would be pushing it poetically. A futile pursuit, perhaps.
The night previously I’d had a strange dream, well aren’t they all? But in this one I had entered a room where spirits were at play and I could feel their force pulling and pushing me about. As with any dream my recollection is hazy — but it did wake me up. Lying in bed, alone (my wife works away), and waking into blackness left me feeling uncomfortable to say the least. I felt a glow rush over my body — maybe all the tiny hairs were standing on end and rushing over my skin like a ‘Mexican Wave’. That seems an odd analogy but it fits. I was somewhat ill at ease. And then another ‘Mexican Wave’ rushed across my neurons. Too much activity. It was a struggle to return to sleep.
In the morning I was still feeling uneasy…the dream had come back to me. So I thought I’d read before getting up. Picking up my book I noticed I must only have read two pages, at the most, before falling asleep. It’s a really interesting read (‘God’s Undertaker: Has Science Buried God?’ — John C. Lennox) and the part I had reached was looking at evolution and the arguments for and against God based on biology. But I kept reading the same sentence over and over. No matter how much I wanted to read, my neurons were flushing with — well, a kind of existential angst.
You might think with such a book that ‘existential angst’ is inevitable. But it’s uplifting (thus far) and very stimulating. No the reason was far more prosaic. In April of next year I will drum on a Big Band workshop followed by another on Funk and Soul. It’s really good fun and challenging. I play drums and have had to learn how to read Big Band charts (an art I continue to learn). This time away is very important to me. But I have also been asked to play in England (I’m in France) at a gig the preceding week. And I have begun to panic about getting back from the gig to be able to play on the workshops. There’s no reason for this panic as I have been reassured that I will get back in time. But those neurons began waving as if telling me they were drowning. That I was drowning. Drowning in a kind of self-doubt.
And if love is the seventh wave (cue Sting’s lyric) this second one began overwhelming me with the futility of everything — neurons’ spume flecking my mind and ideas crashing about my consciousness. I was freaking out. Losing confidence. And it all seemed so damn futile. That’s a potent combination — fear and futility. I was fearful about travelling (!); fearful about making deadlines; fearful of everything and anything. And this fear left me addressing the futility of life. Despite all my beliefs I was left stranded. The wave had washed over and had now receded — having done its work. It was all quite odd. Was this a kind of panic attack? I had to put the book away. But I continued to lie there.
What if I were faced with a REAL concrete fear — like a terminal illness? Would my faith stand-up? (I have a kind of mystical belief system, brought into focus through the writings of Emanuel Swedenborg — a man born in Sweden in the late seventeenth century who had decades of interacting with the world of spirits and how, being a renowned scientist, meticulously detailed his experiences and lessons.) What or who am I that I could react so badly at the idea of doing a simple enough thing such as flying somewhere and flying back?! I’m not afraid of flying — I love it…I am (or was) afraid of participating: Participating in life being a kind of futility in itself. Participation. Being amongst others. Feeling healthy and secure amongst others. Feeling unafraid.
Now I don’t like these kinds of feelings (who would?) and tried to think my way out. What was the opposite of ‘futility’?
And it came to me — EXPANSIVENESS. This is my opposite. Futility is a driving (or diving) inwards.
We are communal beings. With the dark afternoons/evenings, the coming cold and the isolation within another culture and language I think it all got to me. I mean I love where I live and I love the dense colours of autumn and winter. The brooding skies…a hint at mysteries beyond the mundane. I love having a fire with its flames, its embers, its cracking and spitting, its smell. I love how building a fire and having its comfort and warmth unites human beings through the ages. We are taken back to a time of unity under the stars. The light of a television is the exact opposite of a fire’s. But this is a time of closing in. Of going in. Perhaps of retreating.
Not only does this time of year draw us in but I also call it the ‘clear season’ — as the trees shed leaves and what was hidden becomes seen again. Revealing truth? I LOVE the inward moving of the mind and reflection upon life. And you’ll be glad to know that I am moving towards that state once again. It is EXPANSIVENESS that gets us out from the drenching quality of futility. To creep inside and curl up inside our mind would only soak us. But to embrace life — in whichever fashion — brings hope. It is dark and cold but also magical with a feeling of being close to eternity.
I made the decision to LEARN and — as usual — I played drums (I play other instruments too but drums and flute are my main ones). Learning is not new (I relish it) but in my frame of mind might not have been easy. Sitting at the drums I just let myself go to explore whichever rhythm came. This was and is uplifting and liberating. There was a very natural feeling and ease of playing too. So then I decided I would study a piece of Big Band music and play-along with faceless but superb musicians (audio files!). The chart was challenging but it inspired me. My recent practising regime was paying off. Things came easier than I expected. My mind was expanding not contracting. I had an aim. In fact I have a number of instruments to practice and songs to write and essays to write for MEDIUM! And thoughts to put down. I was looking at life again in an expansive manner; I certainly could participate. It was a virtual participation but it was REAL!
This might sound as if the feelings of futility were easily transformed. In a way that’s true. But they were profound and I sense that they will be back. They CAN be countered with ‘opening out’. Taking thoughts that, like in my dream of spirits, want to throw me about, pushing and pulling, making a helpless puppet of me; scaring me with doubt and — yes — angst. And then wilfully re-directing them outwards to things that I can do that will be constructive and purposeful. Yes I will continue to contemplate and go deep within — it is rather the MANNER that is important. In fact I will go DEEPER!
‘If you dig deep enough
You gonna end up in distress’
But you might dig in a manner that brings self-realisation. Profundity. Awareness. Knowledge. And change.
Futility is remaining on that island after the wave has drenched and receded — expansiveness is rejoicing in the sky and the horizon and getting a raft together and no matter the outcome — setting forth. It is self-belief. It is FAITH. It is allowing one’s destiny to become manifest. It is trusting in life and life’s decisions.
You know — this simple (but not necessarily easy) act of writing down my thoughts and experiences has given purpose in itself and connexion with whomever reads. Maybe just connexion with myself.
‘…no-one escapes the meaning of loneliness.’
That’s an odd way for Van to express himself, don’t you think? We can’t escape the ‘meaning’. Maybe not. But understanding helps. And meaning and understanding might counter loneliness itself.
Life is futile if you give it that meaning. And you can at times understand its futility. But life is to be lived. For that you have to step forward. Meet it. Expand your consciousness into it. Trust yourself. Trust life. To push the raft out and to head for the horizon could be seen as futile. Or it could be seen as the very essence of living.
I mentioned Mr Swedenborg earlier and a part of his message is that we are to be ‘of service’. A while ago I looked up some synonyms and antonyms of ‘futility’. Two antonyms were: fruitfulness and usefulness. Be fruitful in whatever manner you can be and be useful to your fellows. Be of service. And in that way you get to participate too.
Tim is the author of ‘Lyrics to Live by: Keys to Self-Help; Notes for a Better Life’