The Oblivion of Being

This piece originally appeared in The Voice, KU Leuven student magazine. 

Thoughts on climbing an abandoned tower

pigeon

Do you hear that? That’s the world around you. Right now, as you read this, life is.

There are moments, perhaps you can relate, when looking up at the spring sky and noticing the warmth of the sun gently falling in the chill of the air, that I feel okay. Things are okay. Amidst the confusion and pain, the love lost, the quiet forgetfulness of friendships, despite all of it, I am me, here, now.

Heidegger writes about Dasein, a “being-there”. For him, to be is not some esoteric concept but is the flesh and blood reality of being in this world, this life, right now; Part of a whole.

fisheye

Interestingly, it is often when we are alone that we encounter these sorts of moments. Our solitude reminds us of our finitude and, in turn, of our Dasein. In some sense, to flourish is to acknowledge our smallness, to look into oblivion and be okay with it, because whether you appreciate it or not, the fact that you are, in the immensity of all things, is, in itself, remarkable.

Recently I explored an abandoned building in the Vaartkom, which is in the north of Leuven. I think it was an old Stella factory. I climbed in through a broken window, over a rusted handrail and into the eerie, dusty silence of a place long forgotten. Cautiously, at first, I clambered my way up creaky staircases, through corridors with leering holes in the floor. I climbed over machinery that had long since lost its purpose and up rickety ladders, under the curious gaze of roosting pigeons who cooed gently as I disturbed their rest. It doesn’t take long for our own constructions to turn against us, for shelters to become inhospitable and alien. Bushes had found cracks to grow in, moss had engulfed walls and ceilings, and slowly, nature had reclaimed its right to be there. It was precisely the abandoned emptiness of this old building that had enabled life to flourish once more.

I emerged from a small hatch in the roof, after forcing myself to climb a wrought iron ladder which, had its fastenings failed, would have sent me plummeting to my death. I had reached the top and, around me Leuven lived. A strange surprise greeted me here: my name, spray painted onto the side of the wall. It was as if I had encountered myself in that broken and wasted place, as if I had been waiting for me. It was a surreal moment. But it was also a moment that gives me hope; for life, for the world. In our daily battles, life is there, we are there but we forget this. We enter into the constructs and concepts that surround us but if we were to abandon them, even if just for a moment, we would find that we are larger than the systems that we follow and the roles we assume. We’ll find we were there all along, waiting for ourselves to brave the climb, to face our own smallness in the immensity of everything that is and be.

holeinwall

 

To Be Remembered

And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
Ozymandias – Percy Bysshe Shelley

Taizé, France - Sebastian TemlettIt’s saddening and humbling that all things are transitory. All our human endeavours: Architectural masterpieces, great works of art, cultures, beliefs – all of these things pass away.

Being in Europe this year has in some ways emphasised this reality to me. The beauty of medieval castles, an ancient monument or Roman ruins – They inspire a sense of awe at what has been.
But they will be gone one day. As will everything else. We see it in our modern cities now: things needing a lick of paint, cracks in the side walk, once grand office buildings of the 80’s now derelict and run down, rusty hand rails and sign posts; All things decay.

Is this something to lament? It strikes me that nature also decays but it does it in a way that replenishes itself. How is it that human beings, although a part of nature, cannot do this effectively?
In the building of monuments and amazing structures, ancient civilizations were trying to establish their primacy at the time but also, I suppose, they wanted to leave a legacy – to be remembered. And as I find inspiration in those amazing structures and breath taking pieces of art, perhaps that is the replenishment I’m talking about.

Notre Dame, Paris - Sebastian Temlett

This desire to be immortalised, is it good or bad? If we detached ourselves from it, we’d be able to be present to the now and enjoy the time we have. But in some sense, in doing that we would lose much of what drives us to create. To create is, to a certain extent, to put a piece of your soul into the world and leave it there for others to see. The desire is for people to be affected by your work, and for that to happen you want to be good at what you do in order to be recognised. And “recognition” comes from the Latin root recognoscere ‘know again, recall to mind’ – To be remembered. You gain a small sliver of immortality.

We want to be remembered, to feel as though our life was worth something; the implication being that if it was worth something, we’d have had an effect on many people in a positive way. But perhaps “to be remembered” is not what we should strive for but rather to be a force for good. It would be better, in my mind, for no one to ever know who you were but to have made a positive change in the world. In a way that is true heroism, true selflessness.

All of these thoughts spawned from a rusted handrail and cracked staircase baking in the midday sun. That decay was compost for my creativity. So perhaps it is good that all things fade; It means there is always call for something new, for creativity to continue, growing from the sediment of old ideas.

And one thing is certain, although all things fade, our very presence on earth has in some way altered the outcome of the future. Every person you encounter, even for a moment, has been changed in some way, however small that change may be, it is irreversible!
Which is a little scary… and a little awesome.

Finding Ourselves

Unfocused

Perfect love casts out fear

– Ancient Middle Eastern Spiritual Text

I used to be afraid.

Who am I kidding? I am still afraid.

I am afraid of death. Less so recently. But sometimes I get panic attacks thinking about the fact that I will be dead one day. And what if there is nothing?
I am afraid of turning 50 and looking back, realising I’ve wasted my life. That scares me a lot.

I am afraid of commitment. This idea that somehow committing to something will mean losing time… Time, why this obsession with time? The fear of not spending time in the right way, to the point that I resent it when I have to give it up for something I don’t enjoy.

Fear can be a driver, and a reckless one at that. I am running out of time… On repeat.

It makes me think of an Anne Dillard quotation:

How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives

Because sometimes clichéd advice is a cliché for a reason. It’s true.

You can’t find happiness by chasing after it. Being so worried about losing time will in fact cause you to be miserable all of the time and lose it all.

Do you remember those songs? Those wannabe punk rock songs that talk about how we’re all forced to go to school, then go to university and get a real job and then have a family and grow old and die? Yeah, whoever wrote those songs was an idiot.

Recently I had to give up. You see, I’ve been running; For a long time I’ve been running from my fears. Running from responsibility. Running from growing up.

But in light of recent events, I had to stop running and let the wave catch me.

But something strange happened. When the waters engulfed me, I hung in space, still and quiet. And I could breathe.

Sunset in Kwa-Zulu Natal

I have always been terrified of working 9 to 5. I envisioned sitting behind a desk, miserable and longing for adventure. Motivational posters on Facebook scream at me this idea that if your life isn’t maniacally exciting, then you are missing out big time buddy!

“Follow your dreams!”
“The only thing standing in your way is you!”
“Don’t let anyone tell you, ‘You can’t do it’”

You know what Facebook motivational posters? Shut the front door.

I recently started a new job. My first real job actually. Before this I was a “freelancer” aka. Unemployed.

I wake up in the morning. I have breakfast. I go to the office. I sit in front of my computer, surfing Facebook and doing a bit of work in between. And you know what? I am loving it.

When I was “free”, doing as I pleased, waking up at 10am and living off takeaways despite not having the money for it, I hardly had time to do anything I enjoyed. Because every moment spent doing something I enjoyed like reading, or playing guitar or writing was accompanied by an underlying sense of guilt that I wasn’t trying to find work.

Now at 5pm I close my laptop, walk out the door and leave work at work. I get home, I kick back, play some guitar, write a blog and climb into bed and do it all again the next day.

I have more freedom since I have succumbed to what I envisioned as the worst, most restricting fate imaginable. Life, I see what you did there.

And perhaps this is premature but I feel the trickle of a fresh stream in my soul, bringing the coolness of peace.
There is still pain, and fear but I don’t want to run anymore. I can’t live if I run from life.
And trying to pursue a fantasy of what my life should be will only lead me to self-destruction.

The Thames, LondonLife is a river and sometimes you need to let it sweep you away. How could I have known when I landed at Heathrow Airport on the 8th of August 2013, believing I was living the dream, that I would be back in Cape Town 7 months later working a desk job? I would have laughed in your face if you told me that. But to be honest, right now, I feel I am where I am meant to be.

When the time is right my adventure will come, once I stop pursuing it. It’s not about putting up with my day to day life until I finally get that opportunity to travel or get my dream job, it’s about learning to savour where I am now.

And as for perfect love, perhaps it has something to do with trust. Relinquishing control. Because you can only love if you can trust. And God is the only Being who cannot let you down. But God will never force you to trust Him, or even to do what He wants you to do.

Sometimes you have to fall down so that He can pick you up again and put you where He wants you. True freedom comes through surrender and so perhaps we find ourselves where we thought we would be most lost.

You just have to stop running.

 

On My Way!

Image Credit: Alan Shelley