Sometimes, when things are annoying or overwhelming or depressing or infuriating and it’s building to a frisson of impotent fury and you feel like stomping your foot at the universe, the worst thing about it is that you’ve been here before. The worst thing is that this is so you. You’re the common element. You’re the one who always ends up standing in the middle of the world in a hot fury at yourself for not being better at life. It’s your fault. You’re too flaky, too bossy, too much of a dork, too messy, too lazy, too hopeless to get it together and be a real life human like everybody else.
Here’s the thing though. Public Service Announcement: some scientists say that we don’t even have selves. That the self is a just a feeling. The ego is merely a neurological accident and that we tell ourselves these adorable little narratives as an organising principal, to help us make sense of things. I understand that this may not be immediately comforting, but in some ways at least, it’s a helpful idea. Yes, you might be standing in the centre of the supermarket with raw egg running down your sleeve because you didn’t get a basket because you NEVER get a basket and now you are holding TOO MANY THINGS and an EGG EXPLODED because you are SO INFURIATING like that but no! It’s actually not me! There is no me! Not really. This is all just a cultural narrative being imposed onto a series of random events in a universe of which I am a small part. Just a series of cells, bouncing around.
This is a Public Service Announcement. Forget the self. Lose the narrative. Observe the small elements that make up the fabric of the universe.
Observe the way crowds move like they’re one entity, crossing the road from a football stadium like an arrow, dancing in the dying light at a music festival like one mass rising and falling with the beat. Riding bikes in a pack that narrows and thickens according to the corners. Behold the majestic tomfoolery of a Mexican wave.
Notice how the unremarkable swallows and starlings of the daytime are transformed in the evening into lithe and showy circus clowns, dipping, weaving, backflipping and swooping through the clouds of insects as the sun disappears and the air is cool and still.
Notice the special kind of tired your feet get after running or walking on sand.
Stare at the night sky. Try and unlearn everything you know about it. Lose the narrative. Forget trying to figure out where the pan handle is. Forget the milky way and the science and the religion and just stand there and look at what happens to the sky when the lights go out.
Think about how amazing it is that air is constantly moving through you and also through everyone else and nobody ever talks about it and we can totally multitask and do it while doing almost every other thing in the world.
Think about the human desire for narrative and metaphor. How we use it to make sense of things, to figure each other out, to learn about who we are. We write and we read and we tell stores and we fantasise. We use storytelling in marketing and psychology and architecture and politics and cinema and even in maths and science. It’s comforting and helpful and manipulative and lovely and maybe if you need to be reminded of it, it’s a good time to read a book.
Think of the fact that if it’s true that the self doesn’t exist, then neither do other people. That is to say, they exist, but only as stories. Stories you tell each other, by way of having a relationship. That means that when they’re gone, they’re not actually gone, they’re part of the story you’ve internalised.
Too much? Causing existential angst? Fine. Think of cheese and chocolate and cups of tea and eating a really nice sandwich with a water view and new socks on. Think of holding hands. Think of crying in a movie. Think of clean sheets and watermelons and your favourite person’s hair shampoo and the feeling of discovering you are being watched by a solitary cockatoo.
Maybe we don’t exist in precisely the self-centred way we like to imagine. Maybe we do. Either way, pulling back the focus on the narrative can be helpful. This has been a Public Service Announcement.
This first appeared in The Big Issue. Please support your local vendor.