We brought nothing into this world …

River Eden at Langwathby

River Eden at Langwathby

… and it is certain we can carry nothing out. I was 63 a few days ago and I have a funeral today, so here’s a contemplative ramble.

At Maryborough school recently we sat in silence for a while, maybe 90 seconds or so. I asked how many felt comfortable in the silence. Very few hands went up. I asked the ‘uncomfortables’ why they felt uncomfortable, and a 7 year old said ‘it’s a waste of time’. I guess that’s a pretty common feeling about silence.

SWMBO and I increasingly sit in silence. My vision and hearing are such that the TV is less and less an option. Even when the words are on, I can’t see them clearly enough. I refuse to get one of them huge screens. I like silence. I suppose you could say that it’s not silence in my head. It’s reading or thinking. It’s still noise, you might say, that distracts me from being conscious of the here-and-now moment. It is true that we spend a great deal of time avoiding solitude and having to confront our inner selves. But sooner or later we must. As we get older and deafer and blinder, and as our friends start to shuffle off this mortal coil, we are increasingly silent and increasingly alone. (I’ve blogged about this before.)

A blissful childhood does not prepare one for life. It makes hardship difficult to come to terms with (for an interesting take on hardship, read this). An unhappy childhood, they say, enables a child to develop psychological resources to cope with the vicissitudes of life and the solitude of advancing years. My happiest memories of my first ten years are of being alone: playing in the sandpit, playing streams and dams in the mud by the river Eden at the bottom of the garden, and reading. I liked being 6: fun without responsibility. I still feel 6 quite often. Does anyone remember a four volume set The World of the Children? Wonderfully politically incorrect (hooray) by today’s standards, but utterly redolent of childhood for me (I got another set from abebooks; they’re by the bed). I remember trying to match the pictures of wildflowers with the ones growing on the slope down to the river.

Is this enjoyment of solitude the beginning of second childhood? Maybe. But it also allows me to recognize the disguises, the onion skins that have collected around me over the years. I begin to see that I don’t need them, they have outlived their purpose—if indeed they had one. I’m rather enjoying confronting myself, warts and all. As the masks fall away, I’m not sure if there is anything inside. The central absence. Schopenhauer wrote of ‘a certain trace of silent sadness … a consciousness that results from knowledge of the vanity of all achievements and of the suffering of all life, not merely one’s own’, and while I understand utterly the point about vanity—yes, all is vanity—I don’t today feel that the central absence is sad. Rather it’s an occasion for delight. Life, the divine joke.

As onion skins are discarded, the view from the eye of the soul in the midst of the central absence becomes clearer and clearer. With fewer onion skins, fewer personae, fewer masks, I see out more clearly. Clairvoyance. Not only that, but others looking from outside can see me more clearly. That’s how it seems to me today. I’m not sure I know who I am any more. This is not in the least frightening or distressing—it’s liberating.

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