You’re a process, not an outcome (or: small rebirths)

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One evening a couple of autumns ago, after a couple of weeks of paralysing despair which shrank the world to a cramped box with just me in it, I sprang back into shape, abruptly aware of everything going on around me. I was in the kitchen, pivoting between cooker and sink and equipment rack and full larder, making a chilli which was filling the air with the eye-watering smoke of aerosolising spices. It was making the cat sneeze. So I opened the glass door to the conservatory and the open air beyond it to let some of the smoke out. The air moving through the red-tiled kitchen connected me back into the rest of the house, where people were soldering and tinkering and sleeping, and on out into the big dark space of Bonfire Night in London and the rattle and boom of fireworks. The music I had on, new to me, was a big dark space too, like glimpses of tall echoing vaults through a porthole. There’s still all this music that I don’t know, I thought, and the whole thing felt in a small way like being reborn.

And then I was getting off the train a few weeks later with just-dyed dark purple-blue hair like a splatter of spilt ink, with an almost iridescent sheen in the sickly yellow light of the station concourse. Walking along on spring-loaded legs, I felt new, changed, then suddenly embarrassed: what, new and changed again?

Intro posts are hard. This was going to be one, then it got way out of hand, rambling through mental health and religion and stuff about the arrow of time and the apocalypse and gods only know what until I backed away from it in horror and it sat in my drafts file for like a year and a half – while I started writing various other intro posts and deleted or buried them all, because no matter what their content, I was embarrassed to post them.

I thought the embarrassment was because I’d started so many things and not kept them up. That seemed to have a pretty straightforward solution – just write something, anything, don’t obsess about it, just start writing and try not to stop – but it turned out there was a more complicated embarrassment underneath. Starting a project in public also feels like a rebirth, especially after years of inability to say anything much on the internet, and I’m prone to feeling reborn at the drop of a hat. I think it’s because I oscillate back and forth between feeling depressed and feeling OK, and between brainfog and clarity, so there are a lot of moments that feel like waking up or coming back to life, and then I have a weakness for framing that within some kind of epic spiritual narrative. Geoffrey Chaucer tweeted that it was weird being on a road trip with Dante because he tried to interpret every fast food menu allegorically. I thought, that sounds great, Dante and I ought to hang out.

This is a pretty harmless thing to do so long as your narrative doesn’t start overwriting information coming in from outside (that’s something I hope to post about another time). But then I realised why I was embarrassed by it – speak, Jerkbrain: you have all this supposed renewal but nothing really changes.

This sounded like the sober voice of adult realism until I looked at that assumption that nothing changes, and it fell apart, in the memorable words of Bernard Black, ‘like a wet cake’. My life has changed out of all recognition in the last five years. Sure, I’m still broke and I still have brainweasels, but nearly everything else has changed dramatically. It seems what I mean by nothing changes is some things haven’t changed, and thus none of the change is real.

***

I was brought up very religious on a windswept hill in Ireland. We were so Catholic we went to Mass once a day and sometimes twice a day in Lent, with a side-order of ecstatic, apocalyptic sect – the sort where people prayed in tongues and routinely fainted in church, which we called ‘being slain in the Spirit’. You would frequently hear people talking about the end of the world, which was scheduled for 1992, then ’94, then ’98. It had something to do with the Third Secret of Fatima and, in some of the pamphlets, was called ‘The Chastisement,’ because there would be three days of darkness during which 90% of the world’s population would die. These 90% were the sinners. (I secretly thought this was almost certain to include me.) After that, the Kingdom of God would reign forever. This kind of thing can have quite an impact on your worldview.

Christmas was a big deal. On Christmas Night time would collapse: it seemed as if each one was the Christmas Night. Getting out of the car on the hill after church, my mother would look up at the stars and say shh, you can almost hear the angels singing. It did seem to me like everything was holding its breath, waiting for the thing that was about to happen: the thing that would change the world forever. All the Christmas music was about that: the birth of Jesus as a watershed in time, that changed everything and made everything OK; that had, contrary to appearances, brought about Peace on Earth and Goodwill to All Men. And of course we were waiting for the next watershed, any day now, at which the world as we knew it (Star Trek, Judy Blume, Smash Hits, Top of the Pops, I would think with a guilty pang) would cease to be, and everything would change again. Why such a Chastisement was necessary given that the first Christmas had made everything OK was something no one seemed to consider.

Now when I go home for Christmas my mum still wakes me up with the same Christmas music. It’s sung by faded Christian country music stars and people who used to be in musical theatre, like Michael Crawford (yes, the Phantom of the Opera), then orchestrated to within an inch of its life. It plays through a speaker in the spare room like holiday-camp reveille. It’s a horrific sticky layer cake of surging strings and tender piano and triumphant fanfares, with the vocalists emoting like their dinners depend on it (and maybe they do). Just when you think it can’t get any worse, in comes the children’s choir and there’s a key change. Jesus is born, the world is saved, everything is OK now, hallelujah! Lying there one morning, a bit hung over from drinking brandy with my brother till the wee hours, I was jumped unawares by a burst of nostalgia for a belief system which admitted of such moments, points at which everything was irrevocably made new. Though hopefully without nine out of ten humans dying.

Change in the real world is a pain in the ass. It’s piecemeal and wearisome and full of backsliding and it’s never unambiguously clear which direction you or anyone else ought to be changing in, or whether any of the changes will stick. It’s also, barring asteroids and grey goo and the Singularity, the only kind of change that actually happens. But sometimes I think that the Christian teleological way of looking at time – the arrow of time towards salvation (Before Christ, Anno Domini – there’s your watershed) and onward towards the Second Coming – is still deeply stamped into how Westerners think about change and progress. In our resolutions, our relationships, our health, we seem to expect these big, dramatic, clean, irreversible step changes after which we are Never The Same Again – and don’t think smaller changes count as change at all.

It’s possible that some of this is typical mind fallacy – it’s not as though everyone was brought up expecting the apocalypse at any moment – but I think it is ingrained in our unspoken assumptions about life even if we weren’t brought up religious, built into the cultural foundations along with Protestant work ethic, the Calvinist doctrine of the elect, and good old original sin. We all feel we are inadequate; we’re all trying to improve. If we succeed, it will prove that God loves us (or, in its updated version, that we are worthy, worthwhile humans). But almost anything can disqualify a change from being sufficiently all-consuming, thus rendering it void. Eating a biscuit makes a dieter think ‘well, I’ve screwed the pooch now’ and eat everything in sight, because that one biscuit has ruined everything and there’s no point in continuing. A recurring trope about Westerners who go on various kinds of spiritual retreat can be summed up as ‘look at them, back home, still working at their job – this means it changed nothing about them, they must just have been looking for culturally appropriative cheap thrills’, as though all the people for whom the retreat was transformative had the means and freedom to ditch their jobs because of it, but couldn’t be arsed. Not everything about that person’s life changed, ergo there was no change. If we actually backslide, the temptation to despair is enormous. It must mean that the transformation was illusory and we will now be stuck the way we were forever. Rather than, you know, making slow steady progress with some setbacks.

This makes it weird to begin things. Not just projects and diets but relationships; jobs; families; everything. They must change everything forever, or be retroactively and entirely invalidated when something goes wrong. The weight of that, as you set out, is something to stagger under.

***

Here are some things I’d like to carry with me instead:

You’re a process, not an outcome.

It’s OK to move in cycles. It’s OK to backslide. It doesn’t mean all is lost.

The big step changes do happen. I’ve been lucky enough to have a few. But they are few.

While we’re waiting around for them, let’s celebrate the small rebirths.

The thing is, let’s say your diligent self-work does arrive, at some point, at Everything Is OK Now. But life is long, and the space between the place you started from and the point at which you are completely happy and fulfilled and doing your best work is huge. It’s full of dramatic scenery and winding roads and plateaus and vantage points. You can travel it for a very long time, steadily getting closer to fine. You will probably still be broke and your back will ache and there will be the occasional black pit of a day. But also there will keep on being moments that feel like renewal, like everything’s changed. I suspect now that there always will. And life goes on and on and on.

One thought on “You’re a process, not an outcome (or: small rebirths)

  1. As it happens, I felt a sense of rebirth about half an hour after I saw you last 🙂 Crying and all, and grinning from time to time sporadically since. And hopefully not subject to tumbling back down at the first sign that it’s not all-consuming.

    I’m glad you’re back writing, and glad I know you.

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