Via Elephant Journal
Some things never die.
Whether it is a painting, a musical piece or a book, some works of art resist the test of time and humanity will forever cherish the unfortunate or fortunate circumstances that gave birth to such works.
This is exactly how I feel about Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Communism has come and gone since the book was written, but The Unbearable is still there, standing its ground and illustrating the human condition of difficulty, resilience and real happiness.
After reading The Unbearable I became one of those people who more often than not associates the word ‘lightness’ with the book. Although time has passed since I read it, I remember vividly when I realized that I understood what he was talking about. Kundera said it just, oh, so well!
I naturally became hooked on Kundera and his ideas of lightness and heaviness for a few reasons.
First, because like Kundera I, too, hail from close to the formerly communist Eastern Europe, and although I only saw communism, or rather its brainchild socialism, gasp for air on its deathbed, I still consider it part of my life experience. And second, because such life experiences of ‘lightness’ and ‘heaviness’ cannot be confined to political and social systems alone.
Interestingly, what lightness meant to Kundera’s characters (who were reduced by the communist system of their time to live a life void of realizing their own self, thus leading to an unbearable lightness of being), was a familiar fact to me as well since lightness persisted mostly in the realm of heaviness. That’s why Kundera’s metaphor is brilliant!
He shows how a heavy life—one in which you are deprived of opportunities or confronted with imposing circumstances that make getting in touch with your own self difficult—is not too far from being light. Life is like that: full of intersections of lightness and heaviness, love and hate, peace and rage.
Similarly to Kundera’s characters, I experienced heaviness so intense that at one point I simply floated.
Indeed, the lightness or heaviness of being cannot be invoked by socio-political systems alone. Our values, fears, worries and dreams create a whole new set of systems that either support or fail us day after day, year after year. It is through our ability to both recognize and guide our thoughts, fears, and ideas that we define our state of being both in present and future.
For years I couldn’t even bring myself to imagine these words as a state of being. Those were the times when I was venturing on the heavy side of things. Not of my choice, that is. People die, move on and break hearts, get sick or stuck where they are for years or a lifetime at a time. Lightness is not the name of the game there. Heaviness is.
What does it even mean to live a light life? I have always wondered. Still do. Does it mean to be happy and happy only? The connection between lightness and happiness seems to be quite significant throughout our society.
There is no blueprint for living life in any particular way. We live it as it comes: sometimes lightly and sometimes heavily. Don’t we? Don’t you?
Yet, the question hits like a merciless hammer on our heads: what about happiness? Am I happy? Am I happier than yesterday or a year ago? Have I ever been? The more I ask these questions to myself the more tormented I feel by them. They steal my present like a villain, a con artist without scruples.
If happiness is the most important goal of life then by way of what do we reach it: happy thoughts all the time, amazing sex, superb food, a house or two, wonderful vacations—forever and ever?
And the rest? Where does it all fit in?
What about the days on which we can’t even breathe because someone has hurt or left us—a boyfriend, a girlfriend, a parent, a loved one, or a stranger even? Don’t these moments belong to us? More importantly, what do we make of them? What about the death of a dear one, loss, rejection or the inexplicable sweet pain that sometimes mysteriously pours down on us (on me) as we gently gaze at a starless night?
What about the times we fall face flat on the floor with tears streaming down our faces with no one close to help us? You know the times I’m talking about – the ones we feel confused, and silently ask, “Why me?” The times we feel alone and forgotten. By the world. And God. What do we do with these experiences? Bury them alive six feet under? Or banish them like haunted witches?
I challenge someone to hold their hand over fire and tell me unflinchingly: life is only supposed to be about happiness!
How unfair we are to life, to ourselves! How partial that is. Isn’t it?
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mean to glorify pain and its friends, and I certainly don’t wish to be perpetually miserable in order to appreciate happiness. But sooner or later we all find ourselves in trouble—a trouble that is usually bigger than us. We rationalize it and throw punches at it, yet there it is—still sitting in the middle of our lives like an unwanted and loathed guest who doesn’t move or go anywhere.
We finally realize that it is not rage or hate that will make it go away. We start watching its moves and plan our own wisely and Mindfully. We admit that we don’t want to change this thing, this trouble. We just want to change our relationship to it, so that it no longer scares or frightens us.
We decide to thaw its heart with love and compassion.
No, I don’t want to glorify pain. I have seen its scars, like cigarette burns, that remain permanently. Yet, I can’t vilify it either. I don’t want to put mine under the desk, in a storage room, basement or under the carpet.
With time, you will decide what to do with yours, but I want my pain in clear sight. I want to see it hang like an old map so I can keep an eye on its forests of hope, lakes of sadness, mountains of despair and oceans of love. I like it hanging out there in an orchard of peaches and apples, on a tree, in daylight or under the moon. Somewhere I can see it and make sure it is all right and bearable.
Could it even be that what we need more than happiness is mindfulness? I honestly don’t know. What I do know is that I can benefit from a mindful state of being—one that starts with simple things like mindful eating for example, or acknowledging my own emotions and feelings without judging the heck out of myself as I engage with others and the world.
Perhaps we should collectively decide to stop paying attention to such urban myths that lead us to believe happiness is a 24/7 affair for all 365 days a year. I know people in all four corners of the world who don’t have running water or electricity. Can you guess what their idea of happiness may be? Let’s not reduce it to that level, you may say, but why not?
Let’s make it bearable on ourselves as we learn how to live life. I learn each day. Sometimes I make mistakes, and others I succeed. Can you tell me which of those times brings me closer to happiness or God? I can’t.
Let’s collectively redefine the meaning of happiness and success. Let’s be brave and mindful.
We have to stop putting so much pressure on ourselves to feel happy all the time. I don’t. Most of the time I am simply in the present. And when I am, I notice the sun on my face, or the symphony of rain, the fragile and yet fearless leaves moving in the wind, little birds roaming the endless sky, a baby’s laughter, or the heartbreaking homeless woman in front of a church on Fifth Avenue, who cries as we all rush by and pretend not to see her.
What do we call all of this: the mindful pain of happiness? Or the happy pain of mindfulness?
Perhaps it is the bearable lightness of being.
Assistant Editor: Claire Weber / Editor: Cat Beekmans
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