glimpsing the void
There are moments in life that are like doors opening before you. Moments when you suddenly glimpse a whole different way of understanding something, a whole different world, a whole new perspective.
Sometimes those moments are moments of intense darkness. Like when you realise some of the bitter truths of human life and experience that on a day to day basis we manage to leave behind firmly closed doors. When those doors fly open we often rush to close them again, if we are able, in order to go back to living a more bearable life, to free our joy from the chains of sorrows. We shy away from others who hover close to those doorways, we look away when we can.
But sometimes closing the door isn’t possible. When someone we love very dearly dies, or is diagnosed with a life threatening illness, when things we once believed to be essential to our survival are taken from us, when we have been hurt deeply. These are times when what we understand to be living is shifted and a lot just falls away and something bare and essential emerges.
I remember the first such moment I had. I was young, perhaps six or seven. I had been swimming on a warm summer day and I was having fun and laughing. I was utterly carefree. I don't know what triggered it, but it suddenly came over me that one day I would die. And that when I died not only would I stop having experiences, stop interacting with people, stop being, but my consciousness, the knowledge that I had ever lived would be erased too.
I recall being filled with the most terrible dread. Like a yawning chasm opening up inside me into which fell all the meaning and joy I attached to life. I was incredulous, speechless, paralysed by fear and grief. Within a half hour I was back playing after being soothed by promises that it would not be for a long, long time, that I would be ready for it when it happened. But I still remember that day so clearly all this time later.
I have revisited that existential void a number more times in my life with varying degrees of fear and for varying lengths of stay. Sometimes a split second when I see Amy run onto the road and imagine the worst, sometimes for days on end when things happen you can't digest. What strikes me each time is how effectively we manage to suppress the knowledge of it in order to function the rest of the time. How thin the veneer of life can get and yet still hold fast. Everyday the papers are filled with stories that should make us weep, but rarely do. War, global ecological and environmental disaster, child abuse, poverty, death notices, people who leave their homes to go to work and school and never come back.
What happens to us when we not only stand before that open door, but actually pass through it? How do those who are not able to ignore that they are living on borrowed time cope?
I think motherhood has given these questions a very different slant for me, and I think that's a common experience. When I interviewed women about motherhood for a documentary I was making I was surprised how many of them talked about their own mortality, about fears for their health and longevity now that they had a child to anchor them to this world.
But also I think the act of creating life is inextricably linked to the loss of life too. Certainly for me I never felt closer to that line between life and no life than when I was giving birth and in the days leading up to it and receding from it. I wonder too if that isn't why so many of us find it hard to remember that terrain with absolute clarity.
Still there are moments when I look at my girl, when I lie with her at bedtime, when I kiss her goodbye or wait for her to return from somewhere out in the world where the preciousness of her life to me is almost unbearable. And it seems such a perversely human trait that we can be simultaneously aware of that preciousness and need to bury it to be able to do the daily things we need to do. To love her and honour her I must let her be free in the world, help her develop the strength to be independent and brave, to experience as much as she can, but sometimes I want to hold her close to me and away from life.And if that could somehow keep us safe then perhaps I would contemplate it. But the awful truth is that there are as many dangers within as without. To be human is to be vulnerable, to be transient, to face suffering. It is natural to run from it, from both the suffering and the realisation that suffering is inevitable, but those times we rub up against it also offer us something valuable. They are reminders to not take things for granted, a visceral reminder, beyond platitudes and sentiments.