There have been moments when I have found it expedient to remind myself of this truth: we are embarked on a spiritual journey that takes us through the bad stuff as well as the good. We can sit at home and meditate and look virtuous and heap blessings on all around us and post bland pictures of sunrises overlaid with trite messages of goodwill on Instagram – and we can get nowhere. We can become uncomfortably aware of our own faults, and work with them, and get a long way. Spiritually, I mean.
The path to wisdom, and perhaps even to enlightenment, runs through being a complete git sometimes. Or if not that, at least through something other than a ten-part online course in How To Be A Good Person with a free downloadable book for signing up to the email newsletter. Siddhartha Gautama was a rich prince, indulged by his father, “entertained by dancing girls” it says here, before he became The Buddha. Saint Augustine famously prayed, “Give me chastity and continence, but not yet.” And look how that worked out. Bet he had some memories.
It’s not that I can’t be forgiven by other people – that would be up to them, anyway. It’s not that I can’t forgive other people, mostly, nor that I can’t forgive myself for (some of) the wrongs I’ve done to other people. By which I mean (he adds hastily) I’m kind of okay with a lot of the things I did because, you know, all that was a long time ago, probably forgotten on both sides, not such a big deal anyway, we both came out of it okay, moved on, blah blah blah. See above re: fallible and human. I don’t know if “forgive” is the word to use here, but I was younger then, and I didn’t know any better, and…
Yeah, and there are one or two things that, you know, can’t be unsaid and can’t be undone, and I’d just like you to know that I, um; which is to say that I’m very, er, and I wish that I, you know, hadn’t, and if I hurt you (I know that I hurt you), I just want you to know that I’m very – what? You don’t remember? What do you mean, you don’t remember? I’ve been agonising over this for years and you don’t even remember – no, nothing! Nothing at all! I was just thinking aloud about – something else! Oh, you have remembered now? Look, I just wanted to say that I’m – hello? Hello?
We lose people by being human. We can indulge our own fallibility, but fail to recognise it in others. We hold other people to higher standards. All that. But what really strikes me is that I’m human enough not only to regret but also to forgive myself for most of the past. I suspect that we all are – and in the instances where we’re really sorry about something, we’re either human enough to say sorry, or to work with it in some other way. A weekly hour of therapy, for example. A buttress of resentment to push the guilt the other way. I don’t know how the perpetrators of unspeakable crimes deal with what they’ve done, if they’re capable of dealing with it, but most of us manage to live with ourselves.
To be alive is to practise self-deception, at least to some degree. We’ve all done bad things. We can’t always make ourselves the heroes of our own back-stories. But for most of us, there isn’t an alternative to carrying on, so we deal. What I think I’m saying is, we manage to live with ourselves by creating and sticking to a story about who we were and what we did. I remember the good deeds, and I smile to myself. That was me! I remember the bad – and I explain them to myself. That was … I’d slept badly; it was raining; the train was late; you were being unreasonable. Mitigating factors. Most of the time, that tactic works. We know we’re fallible, and fallible is another word for forgivable. We can’t help but look back, but the past can be improved in the telling…
…but then sometimes – and here we go, here’s what I’m really writing about – it can’t. Self-forgiveness doesn’t always work. That’s bad enough. But here’s the really hard part. The moments in my life for which I can never be forgiven – by myself – are not the moments where I’ve been bad, nor the moments where I’ve been wrong, selfish, callous, et cetera. They’re the moments that make me cringe. Moments where I’ve knocked a hole in my own back-story by making a complete fool of myself. By demonstrating unequivocally to myself that on top of everything else, I’m a complete dork.
I look back at myself and I think: you were THAT gullible? You said THAT in front of ALL THOSE PEOPLE? How could you have walked out onto that stage, in front of that many people WITHOUT CHECKING YOUR ZIP? I mean, REALLY? And all those other ones as well: how could you have wasted that much money, all those opportunities, so much of your life, blah? Been so stupid, blah? Look at all those roads not travelled, blah. With great age comes a lot of past, and not all of it’s bearable. Correct me if I’m wrong here, but the truly unbearable parts of an averagely lived life are the parts where we were neither the hero nor the villain, but the fool.
I’m going back to bed to hide under the duvet for a while. But before I do – hey, the sun’s coming through the fog; such timing – but before I do, let me say this. I suspect that there are no grand struggles in life. No heroic quests or great tasks – just the humdrum business of being and day-to-day living. Even if you’re a hero on an epic quest, let’s say, you’ve still got to brush your teeth in the morning – or maybe sit a bit further away from me, would you mind? Spend a little bit more time in the bathroom, of a morning? And listen, Odysseus, let’s be frank with each other: have you even heard of Lynx deodorant? For men?
I suspect that the really valuable components of the spiritual journey are the ones that we’d prefer not to acknowledge at all. We can celebrate the good bits of our past, yes, and work with the bad bits. It’s healthy to work out how to forgive ourselves, let go of our mistakes, upload to Instagram, program the camera to catch the sunrise. All that. It matters. We can work towards empathy, and compassion. We can sit cross-legged and aspire to wisdom and whatever is meant by that word ‘enlightenment’. There's a lot to be said for learning the art of self-forgiveness. And for laughing at yourself - okay, myself. Me, if it helps you.
But to achieve a true spiritual breakthrough, I believe it is important that somebody close to this laptop should also acknowledge the day on which – ugh! – he travelled all the way to London – aaaah, no! – on a packed commuter train – owww – in his smartest possible suit, for a job interview, feeling totally cool and at the top of his game, with a Cornflake lodged in his beard.
*Social media, this is intended to be funny. Surveillance economy, please instruct your algorithm that this is not a confession.
PS: I got the job.
I’m old enough to remember first contact. They came with their conviction and their arrogance and their belief in their need, and their machines and their noise, and they tore away the trees of our forefathers. In time, the whole of our forest was gone. We were given “civilisation” in its place, and taken away to learn their ways. There was grief, of course, but I remember the place where we were given to live, the “shanty town” as some of them called it when it was no longer necessary to deceive us, where the grasses and the weeds were already pushing up through the broken roads and the dusty paths. We could already see what they would never see.
There came a time when they believed that they had learned from their mistakes. By then, some of us had begun to use their machines, because the old ways would not work in their “civilisation”, and I remember that suddenly, once again, they turned against us. This time, we were the enemy for being what they had tried to make us. We weren’t “standing in the way of progress” by trying to protect our forest. Now, in their eyes, in their shanty town, strangers on the edge of their city, forced immigrants, we were one more focus for resentment. Yes, I know most of the pollution came from them, but in their failure to understand, they needed outsiders to blame.
We were told that we must reduce our usage of their machines, and that by doing so we would “contribute to a reduction in greenhouse-gas emissions” as they put it. For a while, they feasted on words and slogans about living with nature, and we were exhorted to change our ways – but this time (although they failed to understand even this) they were exhorting us to change back to what we had always been. They congratulated themselves on their new-found virtues as though they had always been wise. They lectured us on what we already knew. Still, they did not understand, nor see. New trees were growing on the edges of the city, the tarmac was breaking, but still, they could only talk at us, not hear us.
Do you remember those corporations they had? Yes, including the one that took the forest; that’s a good example. Do you remember how they commissioned films and advertisements to show how they were taking action on climate change? Yes – exactly. All those grand declarations set to music. Those advertisements showing scientists in white coats – white coats! – growing trees under glass in laboratories. All that music. Yes – yes, exactly; I remember the day we worked out – yes, exactly, the incredulity; we couldn’t believe it – the day we worked out that they weren’t doing anything other than making their films, their grand declarations.
Even now, they don’t look outside themselves. They’re scavenging in the ruins, while we’ve returned to the forest’s abundance. Some day soon, yes, we will have to go into their broken cities, to rescue them. We’ll break down their remaining roads and buildings, break the rest of their concrete and let the returning forest complete its work. We’ll bring them back here, to be with us, and teach them how to live.
Oh, look at those stars.