Where the birds always sing

Death is so common and yet it manages to startle me every single time. Do you ever get used to the natural process of things? Do you ever get used to the pain one’s absence leaves you with? And if you could, would you want to?

These last days all I hear about is people dying or people getting serious issues - physical or mental. It’s that disruption of the normal-ness that annoys me, too. But what is ever normal? We’re lucky to have normal days. However, this is totally dissonant with our experience as human beings (and with the presentation I have to give on Sunday about stress - talk about irony!). We think we’ll be there tomorrow to finish our conversation with that particular someone, we think we’ll get to hug our partner the next time we’ll see each other, we get really anxious about our future and how this future will turn out to be. Am I gonna make the right choices? Am I gonna marry the right person, am I gonna do the right job, will I ever be happy? Of course we need this potential future to be there, how else would we do anything again otherwise?

But it’s not just that we need it. We’re totally immersed in this safety bubble. We literally forget that our time here is brief. So, so brief. And we can cry all we want to, but it ain’t gonna change a thing (trust me, I’ve tried). Today, a person I value deeply came really close to death, without having any serious health issues before. Death can be so intrusive, so disruptive, so violent. Life after death, too.

I’m afraid to lose the people I love. But I’m afraid I’ll have to, sooner or later. Yalom says the idea of death can save us, but can it save the people we love, too? Ok I know that’s not what Yalom meant, but having lived an unlived life is one thing, having to survive without the ones you love is totally another. And it’s that life that can be scarier for me, than anything else.

I think The Cure have very well articulated what I’m trying to say, in their song “where the birds always sing”.

But the world is neither just nor unjust It's just us trying to feel that there's some sense in it No, the world is neither just nor unjust And though going young So much undone Is a tragedy for everyone It doesn't speak a plan or any secret thing No unseen sign or untold truth in anything... But living on in others, in memories and dreams Is not enough You want everything Another world where the sun always shines And the birds always sing Always sing…

Yes, living on in memories is really, truly not ever going to be enough.


image from "the Guardian"

Lena Dunham on death

I recently read Lena Dunham’s book Not That Kind of Girl: A Young Woman Tells You What She’s “Learned”. I love Lena Dunham for a million different reasons and as the book shows, we share a mutual death anxiety from a very young age.

Yet another time, I’m writing about death! This blog isn’t much fun, is it?

She writes:

As a little kid, an unnamed fear would often overtake me. It wasn't a fear of anything tangible – tigers, burglars, homelessness – and it couldn't be solved by usual means like hugging my mother or turning on Nickelodeon shows. The feeling was cold and resided just below my stomach. It made everything around me seem unreal and unsafe."

Yes, death can do that. It’s a cruel thing to think upon, even more when you’re a little child.

She also writes that she used to have a serious sleep problem (just like I've had) and that for her,

...sleep equaled death. How was closing your eyes and losing consciousness any different from death? What separated temporary loss of consciousness from permanent obliteration?”

Good question, Lena. And not one to dismiss easily, I’m afraid. She keeps writing:

I think a fair amount about the fact that we’re all going to die. It occurs to me at incredibly inopportune moments — I’ll be standing in a bar, having managed to get an attractive guy to laugh, and I’ll be laughing, too, and maybe dancing a little bit, and then everything goes slo-mo for a second and I’ll think: Are these people aware that we’re all going to the same place in the end? I can slip back into conversation and tell myself that the flash of mortality awareness has enriched my experience, reminded me to just go for it in the giggling and hair-flipping and speaking-my-mind departments because . . . why the hell not? But occasionally the feeling stays with me, and it reminds me of being a child — feeling full of fear but lacking the language to calm yourself down. I guess, when it comes to death, none of us really has the words.

I wish I could be one of those young people who seems totally unaware of the fact that her gleaming nubile body is, in fact, fallible. (Maybe you have to have a gleaming nubile body to feel that way.) Beautiful self-delusion: Isn’t that what being young is all about? You think you’re immortal until one day when you’re around sixty, it hits you: you see an Ingmar Bergman-y specter of death and you do some soul searching and possibly adopt a kid in need. You resolve to live the rest of your life in a way you can be proud of. But I am not one of those young people. I’ve been obsessed with death since I was born. […]

The fact is I had been circling the topic of death, subconsciously, for some time. Growing up in Soho in the late 1980s and early 1990s, I was aware of AIDS and the toll it was taking on the creative community. Illness, loss, who would handle the art and the real estate and the medical bills — these topics hovered over every dinner party. As many of my parents’ friends became sick, I learned to recognize the look of someone suffering — sunken cheeks, odd facial spotting, a sweater that no longer fit. And I knew what it meant: that person would soon become a memorial, the name on a prize given to visiting students, a distant memory.”

When it comes to death, age doesn’t matter. Death has such an ugly face. But it’s the idea of death, as Yalom has said so many times, that can save us, can awaken us to lead a life more conscious. Lena Dunham has also expressed this in her own words:

I thought about all the things I hoped to get done in my life and realised: I'd better get cracking. I can never spend a whole afternoon watching a Singled Out marathon again if this is what's going to happen.”

And here I am, having spent a whole afternoon watching a “Mystery Jets” live on youtube and looking at photos of Northern France.

image from here.

A Spark of Existential Therapy in Greece

"In the beginning of October, I was lucky enough to participate in a two-day workshop with Dr. Kirk Schneider, here in Athens, Greece! It was organized by “gignesthai,” the Hellenic association for Existential Psychology. I’ll write to you about this experience, with my own little words and from where I stand today. Maybe if I wrote this post some days later, I would focus on totally different things. I couldn’t possibly bring to you all of what happened there, or all of the wonderful things Dr. Schneider said to us, but I’ll share with you my personal experience (along with a lot of quotes), hoping that I’ll do it justice (and if he ever reads this piece he won’t feel disappointed; oh, the angst!).

The workshop started with Dr. Schneider asking a girl from the group this simple (?) question: “How are you?” She answered, and he posed the question again for a few more times, saying there are many layers of asking, and he could keep asking her, but he actually had to stop for the sake of the workshop’s purpose! What amazed me was his stance during his asking that question. He was so relaxed, tranquil even, so open to what he was going to hear. I can’t imagine myself asking this (or any question for that matter) repeatedly, with such kindness and eagerness in my face and body. I suppose I would feel anxious about what the other person would answer, but then again maybe that’s my personal burden, this anxiety that’s hugging me like a super cute but also asphyxiating little bear."

Read the rest of my post for the New Existentialists blog here.

2551 Saturdays

"There’s a website called 4000Saturdays and, among other things on the site, it contains a life calculator. You enter your birth date, and it calculates how many Saturdays you have lived and how many more you will live (if we take as given that 4000 Saturdays is the average number of Saturdays in a person’s life).

The website tells me I have about 2551 more Saturdays left to enjoy. Oh my God! Today, the day I chose to do this little calculation, is indeed, a Saturday, and a very dull one. I can’t live any more Saturdays like this! Life’s too short, 2551 Saturdays are not that much! I have to do something! So what do I do? I panic."

This is a guest post I did for the New Existentialists blog. Read the rest of it here.

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Happiness is overrated

Everyone wants to be happy. Emmy van Deurzen asks

Is happiness possible? Or even, is happiness desirable?

For most people, it is. Every magazine I know, has at least one article about “how to be happy”. But what is happiness?

According to wikipedia, “Happiness is a mental or emotional state of well-being characterized by positive or pleasant emotions ranging from contentment to intense joy”. It is also mentioned, that “happiness is a fuzzy concept and can mean many different things to many people.” True, that. It could be having what I want, feeling good, having a good time, a state of bliss etc.

Whatever happiness is, we have made it such a big deal. Happiness is a nasty goal, for happiness only lasts for no more than a couple of hours. No one is happy all the time (and if you know one, maybe he’s on something). Aim for happiness and you’ll probably be disappointed.

Happiness, for me, is something internal. Like a state of mind which you either have or haven’t. And it comes from having a purpose in life, doing things that have a deeper meaning for you. Because meaning lasts, happiness doesn’t, as recent research shows. Of course, van Deurzen is right when she says to have little goals that you can achieve in a rather short amount of time, or you may be lost on the way. It’s crucial that you can meet up the challenges life throws your way.

To get back to what I was saying about every magazine I know (and their 10 do-this-and-you’ll-be-happier lists), they seem to imply that happiness is the basic step and everything else will follow. If I am happier, things will be better. Isn’t that a bit off? Of course our stances and moods colour our worldviews, but you can’t just start being happy. Lists tell you to exercise, to meditate, to cut down on your facebook time, to laugh. Well, shouldn’t these behaviours derive from being happy rather than be the prerequisite of happiness? This has always been very confusing for me.

Sure, there’s biology and endorphins and getting out of your house to jog, will, eventually, bring you some highs. But lows are around the corner if you’re not pre-happy. Pre-happy, meaning being in a state of a somewhat internal bliss. But even that, is not always possible. Life’s full of difficulties and agony and happy-go-lucky lists tend to forget that. It’s like you have to ignore the hardships, but how is that doable? And why would we want that? Our lives are full of conflicts and loss and pain. And getting through these hard steps makes us grow. So, it seems more important to build resilience, than happiness. At least it seems more important to me, because the hards are always there and wishing to just be happy is like wishing for the weather to always be sunny. Impossible.

Being cured of all difficulties is the death of possibility and creativity

says van Deurzen and I couldn’t agree more. If nothing changes, nothing new is born.

You can’t eliminate problems, but you can learn how to thrive upon them”

(to quote Emmy van Deurzen yet again), and that what’s therapy is all about.

I hope you know I don’t have something against happiness, I, too, want to be happy. But I don’t want happiness to be my only goal. I want to love the life I’m living, I want meaning, I want to have a life with a sense of fulfillment at the very end. And you can only achieve this by finding what really is important for you, what matters to you and then find a way to live by this. Of course it’s not always easy, but it actually worths the try.

Apart from my “I’ve had it with happiness talk”, this post is hugely inspired by and based on Emmy van Deurzen’s book “Psychotherapy and the Quest for Happiness”. You can find a relative slideshow here.

photo from six nights project, by Katerina Paspaliari

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