Meaning in Life ~ light, dark and the conflict between them

Is Light hurt by Darkness? ~ searching for meaning in life

 (first published at my main blog http://zenandtheartoftightropewalking.wordpress.com )

I’ve been haunted lately by images and semi-visions of shadows, dreams of living darkness that consumes everything in its path. I had a vivid nightmare some weeks back where patches of shadow were sentient and hungry, and swallowed up both light and life. Darker than darkness, voids that reflect no light and absorb everything.

Last night I finally read Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. I’d hesitated first about buying it, then about reading it, simply because of associations with a person no longer part of my life, but realised that was idiotic. A book that has had a hundred or more printings and sold over nine million copies cannot really be tainted by one person’s opinion of it. So I read it and am still thinking about it. I suspect I will read it again many times before finally writing about the book itself; I am writing here about some thoughts that have been sparked by it.

One of the central premises of Frankl’s book and indeed of the psychotherapy Frankl founded, Logotherapy, is that to live, people need to find meaning in their lives.

 

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Logotherapy

Life has meaning under all circumstances, even the most miserable ones. Our main motivation for living is our will to find meaning in life. We have freedom to find meaning in what we do, and what we experience, or at least in the stand we take when faced with a situation of unchangeable suffering.

 

“We can discover this meaning in life in three different ways: (1) by creating a work or doing a deed; (2) by experiencing something or encountering someone; and (3) by the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering” and that “everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances”.

 

Now, Frankl survived concentration camps and therefore has in my opinion the crown when it comes to suffering and finding meaning in suffering. Anything I have experienced is nothing to what he survived. However, my old friend the Mad Priest has said on a number of occasions that comparing one person’s sufferings with that of another is both ludicrous and insulting: suffering is suffering.

 

This is what dear old Wiki says about Frankl’s views on depression:

 

Depression

Viktor Frankl believed depression occurred at the psychological, physiological, and spiritual levels. At the psychological level, he believed that feelings of inadequacy stem from undertaking tasks beyond our abilities. At the physiological level, he recognized a “vital low”, which he defined as a “diminishment of physical energy” Finally, Frankl believed that at the spiritual level, the depressed man faces tension between who he actually is in relation to what he should be. Frankl refers to this as the gaping abyss (Frankl; page 202). Finally Frankl suggests that if goals seem unreachable, an individual loses a sense of future and thus meaning resulting in depression. Thus logotherapy aims “to change the patient’s attitude toward her disease as well as toward her life as a task” (Frankl, page 200)

 

Reading this, I had a strong sense of this chiming with my own experiences and beliefs. I am not what I should be. But what should I be?

Lying in the bath this morning, I let my mind wander off by itself. It never goes very far but this time it came back with a few curious thoughts. I mused on my own name. I have two Christian names that both derive from Latin, and translated mean Living Light. It set me wondering whether light is harmed by darkness. The nightmares about the consuming shadows have shaken me rather a lot, and while I know that Light is merely a form of energy if you use purely physics, I started to wonder if in some sense darkness is something more sentient, more aggressive, an entity rather than simply the absence of light. Scientists among you might be tutting at this point. But metaphysicians and mystics have asked this question for millennia, about this apparent war between light and darkness.

Then I started musing about the word Logos. In Greek it means a number of things, and while it is often translated as WORD, it can also be translated as MEANING, hence Dr Frankl using the term logotherapy (literally, healing through meaning). In John’s Gospel, the term Logos is used as Word and refers to Jesus (probably):

 

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was with God in the beginning. 3 Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. 4 In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”

 

So we are back to the struggle between light and dark, between life and death and between meaning and void.

My initial question, (Is light hurt by darkness) takes on a more personal meaning when aligned with this struggle. Are my efforts to exist in a meaningful way damaged by the rising tide of darkness that emerges both from within my own psyche and from the world beyond me? Can I integrate, indeed, should I integrate, my own darkness? Is life about keeping the dark at bay or is it about understanding that darkness is not evil but rather a different state of being essential to survival? Is not only my life but life on earth meaningless or meaningful?

In some of the most harrowing parts of the book, Frankl wrote of those who gave up their hold on life, those whose struggle to find meaning in their sufferings proved too much for them, and who lay down and became unresponsive to stimuli and died, even when their health was not as compromised as many. Often they would smoke a cigarette long hoarded as collateral for barter, clearly accepting that they might as well just enjoy that one simple pleasure and let go of their grip on life. I cannot help wondering now whether our collective consumerism and cultural hedonism is not somehow akin to this.

My own search for meaning in my life is a struggle right now. I had for a while thought that my writing, (which I pretentiously call My Work) might be a strong contender, but since I’ve hardly written anything worthwhile(fiction anyway) in over a year, I am not convinced this hits the spot. Perhaps my meaning still awaits my discovery of it. I can only hope so.  

 

Why daffodils became the last straw ~ metaphors that strike to the heart

Why daffodils became the last straw ~ metaphors that strike to the heart

Say the word “daffodils” and any literate person will probably reply with “I wandered lonely as a cloud,” and any poor fool who grew up with Not The Nine O’ Clock News will probably put on a funny voice and say, “He does eat daffodils, you know.” My friend Kate will probably tell you of the time her clergyman grandfather ate a daffodil as a part of an Easter Day sermon. They’re generally not the sort of flowers to reduce someone to a flood of tears like rain from a blue sky. Genial, gleaming golden trumpets with a faint scent of spring sunshine and pollen, they herald the real arrival of spring with silent songs and waving yellow heads.

There are hundreds planted along the roadside on my route to work, massed brilliance of almost neon yellow, paler shades of lemon and deeper orange of the narcisssi varieties. They’re there for everyone who walks, cycles or drives past to enjoy for a few brief weeks each year.

Last Monday was my birthday. I’m not big on birthdays, I don’t like to make a fuss about them, so working that day was not a big deal. I decided to walk rather than cycle as I’d asked my husband to collect me from work in the evening so we could go and have a meal somewhere. The plan was a picnic on a beach somewhere, if the weather stayed fine enough.

I got a little under half way when I saw the daffodils. Rank upon rank of them, blooming in the sunshine. Then I saw the other ones. Someone had thoughtlessly picked a dozen or so, then thrown them down onto the path and left them, perhaps trampling them as they did so. I don’t know who picked them or who trampled them. It doesn’t matter, now. They were smushed into the path, withering where they had not been flattened.

I tripped in my stride and felt as if the world had suddenly become shadowed. I’d not been precisely cheerful that morning but not a lot different to usual. Tears prickled my eyes, then began to fall, uncontrollable and hot. Flowers have such a brief life, why did someone destroy those ones so wantonly? I sobbed as I walked, unable to understand why a handful of blowsy smashed-up  flowers had bypassed all my controls and hit me so hard. By the time I got to work, I had to come home again.

Now I’d finally spoken to my doctor about the insomnia and the depression and he’d given me some sleeping pills as an interim aide, and I’d been taking half a tablet cautiously every other night. Reading through the leaflet, one of the side effects is “unmasking of existing depression.” Bang on, that is. Unmasking. Yes, indeed. And I found I couldn’t put that mask back on this time.

Those daffodils were a powerful message, a metaphor from the world that flashed directly into my being. We’ve trashed a beautiful world without a thought for the fragile beauty and wonder therein. Oh you could say, it was just a few flowers and there are plenty more. You could say, well they’re bulbs, they’ll get another chance to bloom next Spring.

You could.

But those flowers were cut down and destroyed before they had a chance to finish their short blooming. Cut flowers in vases don’t bother me, because the time they bloom their beauty is being shared, seen and appreciated. Each flower matters, each bee, each bird, each bacteria, each living being, each rock, each bug that creeps you out, each one matters immensely because while there might be millions or even trillions like it, it is the only one in it’s existence.

Ascribing consciousness to inanimate things or creatures might sound mad, but surely recognising the right for things to have existence is better than wiping out things on a whim?

What I am and what I am not

What I am and what I am not

I’m not a teacher, as such, and I have nothing to teach you. But we might learn together.
I don’t have any answers, not the definitive big answers to the big questions. I just have more questions. But my new questions might inspire you to ask some of your own.
I’m not enlightened; I can make no claim to such a thing being sometimes so lost in my own internal darkness that I extinguish my own small light while thrashing around. But sometimes that tiny pearl of light might be enough to guide a soul home.
I’m not awakened; I live in that shadowy penumbra of the world between worlds, caught in the trailing edge of dreams. But sometimes we may be dreaming the same dream and can compare notes.
I’m not a guru and I don’t want disciples or followers. But I would like friends and fellow travellers. I will carry your load for you while you build your muscles to full strength and I hope you will sometimes carry mine for me while I am weak.
For I am not strong. I stagger and fall and break into a million shining fragments. I can be brittle, like untempered steel. You may see the shine of polished metal but it’s only through repeated forging that true strength comes. Being beaten on an anvil is painful and I try to avoid it, and yet, again and again, I land in the furnace and the forge. One day I may be a worthwhile tool but not yet.
I’m not a saint but I may yet be a martyr, for the drive to perfect integrity takes us to strange and dangerous places where the choices we make under pressure are not always ones that are good for us as individuals. But those choices may be of greater worth for mankind than for the poor soul who makes them.
I am just an imperfect human being trying to understand who I am in this world. I make mistakes, I get things horribly wrong, and for this I ask patience and forgiveness from those I may have hurt on my journey. I have gifts but I am flawed and broken and sometimes I do not use those gifts as well as I might in a perfect world.
I’m no angel, but I may be a messenger. I stand with one foot in either world, amphibious, between the world of the soul and the world of the body, never quite sure from one moment to the next where the messages are coming from.
I’m an empty vessel, being filled by the living words of my soul, and letting them pour out and flow onto parched lands. If they water your soul garden, I am glad; if they swamp your first shoots then I am sorry and will try and channel the flow elsewhere till they have grown taller and stronger.
I am a child, looking at the world with tired eyes and sometimes a heart that is coated in jade, that is so easily broken. For all my childishness, I am older than you know and in my ancientness I see further and deeper than I should and for that I will avert my eyes if you wish me to.
I’m not a leader. No one should follow me where I am going, but I would welcome the company if anyone is going the same way. Sometimes we all need a hand to hold in the darkness.

Guest post ~ the grit at the heart of the pearl

If you have ever wondered how a book came to be written, this is my account of how one of mine did:

http://theaatkinson.wordpress.com/2011/05/16/mid-may-guest-blogger-at-gonzoink-vivienne-tuffnell/

What am I worth?

 

 

What am I worth?
 
What am I worth?
Five K a kidney?
A snip, if you’ll pardon a pun.
Bargain bin good looks,
Reduced due to store damage
And some slight fading.
A cheap sense of humour,
Tending towards blackness
But not quite sick, not yet.
That must be worth a bit.
A Lucky Dip of hidden talents;
Go on, have a gamble.
Even I don’t have a clue
What’s hidden deep inside.
That bland tub of sawdust
May hold mysterious gifts
Awaiting your longer reach.
Go on, I dare you:
Make me an offer.
How much? You’re joking!
No way, no sale, pal!
I’m worth more than that, I think.

Snag

 

Snag

By Vivienne Tuffnell

 

There was thunder in the air and a scent of coming rain, and as he went down the steps into the cool of the cellar bar, he had an odd sense of expectation, though he couldn’t have said why. It was just the usual post-work drink on a Friday, a couple of glasses of something cold before going home to shower and change ready for the night ahead, a demarcation point between the world of work and the real one. So he didn’t know quite why he had the feeling he might have had if he had been expecting to meet someone, when the chances were at this time, the bar would be deserted.

It wasn’t quite deserted. In the corner to one side of the door two women lurked, chatting in bored tones over white wine. He knew one of them slightly. They had history, but not the earth-shattering or even earth-moving sort, so he nodded to her curtly so she didn’t think he was ignoring her.

He was about to order a drink from the languid and damp-looking barman when the door swung open again and in a sweep of rain-scented air a woman walked in. A girl really, though as he glanced at her he realised he really couldn’t guess her age. She had the freshness of skin only the under twenties usually have but her eyes had a kind of self-aware intelligence he’d rarely seen in anyone under fifty. She was oddly dressed, and as she entered the bar, the woman in the corner said in a deliberately audible stage whisper,

“God, I hardly think wearing a sack is exactly the height of fashion.”

The girl paused, her arm nearly touching the bar. The dress was a bit odd, true enough; the fabric did indeed have the open irregular texture of hessian but as he looked at it he saw that the cloth had a shimmer and a gleam and a softness that could never come from sackcloth. Raw silk, or linen and silk mix maybe, cinched in with a wide, worn leather belt of burnished brown with a plain buckle of some dull metal.

He saw her brow contract and the girl bite her lip with hurt and on impulse he leaned over and said in an equally loud stage whisper,

“Ignore her, it’s a lovely dress.”

She gave him an uncertain smile.

“Do you think so?” she said, her voice soft and musical. “I made it myself. Excuse me, I should have a word with her.”

She turned away from him and went unhurriedly to where the other woman had now turned her back on her.

“A word?” said the girl, touching the woman’s shoulder gently.

“Well?” she demanded, staring up at her with undisguised contempt.

There was a definite pause and even the barman stopped polishing glasses to see if a fight was about to erupt. Then the girl leaned down and spoke directly into the woman’s ear. The woman’s face froze as she listened, and then went very red and finally so pale her blusher stood out on her face like the imprints of a slap. She seemed to gasp and then got unsteadily to her feet and rushed out. Her friend stayed still for a second or two and then rushed after her, shouting,

“What did she say? What did she say?”

The girl gave a small secret smile and walked back to the bar.

“What did you say to her?” he asked, impressed.

She smiled again, a pleased smile.

“I only tell people their own secrets,” she said and ordered a drink.

His curiosity was piqued.

“OK,” he said. “Tell me one of my secrets then.”

She sipped at her wine and shook her head.

“You won’t like it,” she said.

“You don’t know any,” he said, disappointed.

“Oh, I do,” she said. “But as you saw from the lady over there, usually people don’t like what I tell them.”

He was a little stung.

“How do you know these things anyway?” he asked. “Are you some sort of private detective or something?”

She shook her head.

“I just have a gift for it,” she said. “An instinct for knowing things if you like.”

“Bet you don’t know anything about me,” he said, a little galled.

“I know you’re getting married in a month,” she said.

“Anyone here might have told you that,” he said unconvinced. “She could have told you that.”

“I’ve never been here before,” she said. “And I don’t even know your name.”

If it was a pick-up line, he wasn’t going to fall for it by telling her.

“But I do know you’re having serious doubts about it,” she went on and his certainty began to waver.

“Oh yeah, why is that then?” he asked, a touch aggressively now.

“That’s for you to know, not me,” she said.

“Lots of people have doubts. You’re not much cop as a psychic, you know. Bit of guesswork, that’s all that was, and maybe some local knowledge,” he said.

She shrugged unconcernedly and took another sip of her drink.

“As you say,” she agreed and it annoyed him that she wasn’t arguing. Then she raised her eyes to his and he saw for the first time that she wasn’t wearing any makeup. He’d so seldom seen a woman without makeup that her face seemed indecently naked and he found himself blushing at that thought. Her eyes were fringed with long thick fairish lashes and he found himself thinking how much nicer it looked than being caked with so much mascara raising the lids must be aerobic exercise. Despite virtually living with his fiancée he was certain he’d never seen her without makeup.

“You keep a photo of your dog from when you were a child in your wallet, under the one of your fiancée,” she said, her eyes looking deeply into his. “She hates dogs, most animals in fact. That’s one of the reasons you’re having second thoughts. You know the others.”

He was shaken, badly shaken but he tried to hide it.

“I take it back,” he said. “You are pretty good as a psychic. Nice trick. How’d you do it?”

“As I said,” she said. “I have a gift.”

There was an awkward silence.

“What did you tell her?” he asked.

She shook her head.

“That’s not for you to know,” she said. “I was going to remind her to get her Lottery ticket tomorrow, because her numbers will probably come up, but when she was so nasty, I thought, no. It’s not her time.”

“So you reckon her numbers will come up?”

Again she shrugged.

“Nothing is certain you know,” she said. “But when I came in here and saw her, the chances were those numbers would be coming up.”

“What numbers were they?”

She laughed out loud.

“Come on now!” she said. “I’m not telling you that. It’s not for you. You aren’t the one who dreams about leaving her highflying, highly paid and hardworking career to live a life of decadent luxury where she need never wear the same pair of knickers twice.”

This time he was shocked.

“How do you know about that?” he demanded. “There was no one else there.”

She smiled.

“I told you,” she said. “I have a gift.”

He was beginning to feel very unnerved now. He had had a fling with the woman who had left. It had been some years ago and it had ended almost as soon as it began. The evening had begun with a lot of drinks then back to her place for more drinks, leading to various confessions of their dreams and ambitions and finally to bed. Languishing in post coital bliss he had made the mistake of asking her how it had been for her.

“Not too bad,” she’d said. “But maybe next time I’ll draw you a map and a set of instructions.”

Understandably from his point of view, there had been no next time. But he had always thought bitterly of her every time he saw the Lottery draw on television. He’d never so much as bought a ticket himself. He’d almost decided to stop coming here on a Friday until he told himself sternly that he would not let her ruin something that he enjoyed. He enjoyed the few quiet drinks here in the dull quiet hiatus between Friday afternoon and the start of the weekend. He enjoyed them so much it was a real effort to go out again properly later in the evening.

“So what are my dreams then if you know hers?” he asked, feigning indifference by finishing his beer and signalling for another.

“You want to make a difference but you don’t know how,” she said and he found himself blushing again as if she had revealed his intimate dimensions to the world. “You worry that if you marry your fiancée you never will get the chance to make a difference anywhere, anytime, except maybe to the prosperity of the shoe and dress industry.”

He was speechless with shock. These were not things she could have found out from anywhere; these were thoughts he had never so much as given voice to. Even in that drunken game of truth or dare he had not revealed his true dreams and ambitions and he had never so much a breathed a whisper of concern about his intended’s taste for expensive shoes and designer clothes.

She finished her drink and set the glass down.

“I must be off,” she said. “I’m supposed to be meeting my sisters. We work together.”

“What do you do then?” he asked and she frowned slightly.

“It’s a bit difficult to explain,” she said. “You might call it human resources, I suppose. We have our own company.”

“Are you any good then?” he said. “I could put some work your way if you like.”

“We are good,” she said without any false modesty. “The best. We have sufficient business currently though, thank you. It was kind of you to offer though.”

She started to move away from the bar. The sleeve of the dress caught on something, a nail or a splinter and a tiny shred of fabric ripped away and hung on the edge of the bar. She grinned at his distraught face ruefully. He was clearly expecting the kind of tantrum most women were likely to throw at ripping their dress.

“It’s all right,” she said. “I’m pretty good with threads. And you’ll be all right too. Just listen to what your heart is really telling you and you can’t go far wrong. You’re a kind man, you know. Go make a difference.”

She walked away from the bar, her worn Greek sandals slapping softly on the smooth floor and her strange dress shimmering around her as she walked. He unfastened the shred of fabric from the nail it had caught on and held it up to the light. It felt like silk, so soft he could almost not feel it at all and through the oatmeal coloured fabric he could see finer threads of what looked like gold woven into the material. A faint and agreeable herbal scent seemed to cling to the scrap, a fragrance of bay and thyme so very unlike any of the power perfumes popular with city women but which really gave him a headache. He tucked the shred into his wallet with the picture of his dog and went home.

A week later he found himself in the bar again, listening to the music of rain and traffic outside and contemplating his coffee. He’d half hoped the girl would be there again, but inside he knew she wouldn’t be. Even so, when the door opened, his heart lifted. It was the woman he’d had the fling with years back. He got up and went over to join her, motivated by some curiosity he’d not have given in to before. Her face looked jaded and sour and her perfume had gone sour too with too hot a day and too little fresh air.

“Bad week?” he asked lightly.

She looked at him with the amused half contempt a woman reserves for an inadequate lover who still tries to be friends in the hope of a second try.

“Yes, actually,” she said acerbically. “First of all, I split up from Paul. He expected me to forgive him his little slip but when I told him about mine he blew up and dumped me. Then I was so upset I forgot to buy my Lottery ticket. And of course, guess what?”

“Your numbers came up,” he said quietly.

“Four and a half million quid lost just because that little bitch last week told me that if I didn’t tell Paul someone else would,” she said bitterly. “And you? Bad week?”

“No, actually,” he said. “I split up with Michelle.”

She looked at him with some interest.

“So that makes it a good week then does it?” she said sarcastically.

“Better that now than later,” he said.

“Why did you split up?”

“We want different things from life,” he said simply.

She gazed at her wine for a minute.

“Well, an ill wind and all that,” she said. “How about coming back to mine then and consoling each other? I bet after two years with her you won’t need a map any more, not with her experience after all.”

It might have stung once but not now.

“No thanks,” he said. “I’m going out shortly.”

“You don’t hang around,” she said sharply. “Plenty more fish in the sea after all.”

He smiled.

“Not exactly,” he said, finishing his coffee. “I’ve got my first shift as a volunteer at the Night Shelter.”

He went out into the evening, sunshine showing through the grey clouds like gold thread through raw silk, and smiled at his second chance.