Saturday, 5 June 2021

The oscillating universe

When we are born, we are co-extensive with the universe.  The light, the food, the warmth, everything that happens is part of us, a manifestation of our being.  Although we cannot formulate what it is, we know without self-consciousness or mediation, that the sun is at one with us, and that its rising is as much our natural and unwilled movement as our breathing or the beating of our heart.

Gradually, though, through small and larger pains, through encountering strange obstacles which do not bend to our will, we learn that there is an Other out there, a Not-us.  With time and a honing of the treacherous senses, that Otherness grows like a black balloon, filling all the space around us, until the darkness seems infinite, and we, small and frightened children now, an insignificant speck within it.

As during childhood our mind begins to understand this vastness, to order it through intelligence, we start to re-claim our lost natal heritage.  First our immediate surroundings are rendered safe, moulded into an integral part of our world, a daily given; then more and more is added until as an adolescent we feel that the universe may still be vast, a worrying and threatening place, but that our powers too are vast.

This is the glorious overconfidence of youth.  Just as those who have never fallen deeply ill, crashed a car or been robbed secretly feel that they really are immune to troubles, so at this age we employ a false induction: since we have never failed, we can do anything.  This is the time of magnificent idealism, when we feel that we have a responsibility for the world, that we can - indeed must - change it for the better.  We embrace mankind and the globe like a benevolent giant.

We forget how infancy taught us the world wanted none of our hugs and kisses.  Slowly and with hurt, we re-learn this lesson.  Checked now physically, now mentally, now in work, now in love, we realise that we cannot storm the citadels of heaven; that we are mortal, that we will die, and probably without achievements.  So we begin to turn our glance away from the wider horizons; we turn inward to marriage, to a family.

In mature adulthood, our domain has shrunk to the confines of the home.  We have responsibilities enough without taking on the troubles of the world.  Perhaps we ought to care passionately about starving millions; but what with yet another pair of new shoes for little Joey, and the house needing a fresh coat of paint, it all seems so far away.  The older we get, the tireder we get, the more vulnerable we feel to the random and pointless ravages of fate.  We do not want to fight; we want a quiet life.

Finally, as old age asserts its dominion, we want even less.  All desires are past, incomprehensible memories.  Friends and family are dead or distant; nobody claims us out there.  Now, we are the world: our bodies become our pre-occupation - that ache, that stiffness, that weakness.  Our days become the measured and self-observed inhalation and exhalation of breath.  As our heartbeats slow, and the oblivion of sleep flees us, we become a silent watcher of our own being; nothing else exists.

(1989)

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