Thursday, May 14, 2015

Finding Insignificance

I have mentioned before that I’ve become a bit obsessed with prehistory, particularly ancient Britain, since I had to leave my job almost a year ago. I’ve watched every documentary I can find and have been accumulating more and more books (the last thing I really need). If there is only one benefit to not being able to work and having to stop teaching, it is that I have time to finally indulge interests I’ve had for a long time. My husband has always been obsessed with prehistory so he is over the moon that I’ve finally come around.

As an academic and a teacher, I used to view every piece of knowledge I came across as an object to exploit and claim at some point. Everything I read, even just articles in magazines, I would think “how can I use this? What purpose can I find for this?” I focused so much of my energy on very small spans of history and the minutiae of over-specialization, always with the intention of using any knowledge I gained either in writing or in the classroom. 

I find it ironic that I only came to understand what “the life of the mind” really was when I got a break from the academic world. Now I know that this knowledge I’ve gained about prehistory will likely not have any purpose  except for feeding my curiosity, but having the time to fill my brain with information so far afield of what I usually invested my energies in has been a true gift. My body may be kind of broken but I at least still have my brain, well mostly at least.

This knowledge also gave me something else completely unexpected, and I think deep down this is at least partly what really draws me to understanding the narrative of human history we rarely read about and has no written record. It has helped me understand the long arc of time and the expansive human story—and ultimately the insignificance of my own experience. 

Suffering is an essential part of that human story, so my life and my suffering can be placed in a long chain of human stories that stretches back further than can be really be fathomed. I am not religious by any means but maybe a little spiritual. I have come to understand the draw of religion in some sense because of its ability to diminish personal suffering and offer comfort that there is somehow purpose to it. 

I never expected this knowledge to not just make my brain spin in curiosity but also to help me see my own experience of illness in a different light.

Here is a passage from Neil Oliver’s A History of Ancient Britain that discusses time as more infinite than we are equipped to perceive:

“In the life of planet Earth, the actions of individuals—warlords, politicians, farmers and the like
—are the twitches of ticks on an elephant’s back … Beneath everything is inertia, the tendency for nothing to happen. Above that is a motion so slow its currents and rhythms could be sensed only by an immortal with all the time in the universe. These the rhythms of geological time that move tectonic plates, raise mountains and transform mud into stone by the use only of pressure and time.

Fernand Braudel, leader of the Annales School after the Second World War developed this concept of the longue durĂ©e.—the long term. He imagined time like an ocean. On the surface are bubbles and flecks of foam that come and go in the blinking of an eye. These are the moments we humans can perceive, the actions of individuals and the stuff of years. The bubbles and flecks ride on waves that are like the lifespans of nations and empires, and the substance of centuries at least. Finally down in the dark are the great, impossibly slow ripples within the deep that support, and occasionally move, everything above.”

Ultimately, the human story is only a minor, forgettable side plot in the long, complex narrative of our planet and the universe. Now that is truly comforting in itself. Thinking about time and suffering in this infinite sense has helped me be mindful of not letting myself be consumed by the frustration and disappointment moment to moment and day to day. Suffering, struggle, chaos, and perseverance are fundamental to life. We persist and then we perish. This is our story.

It sounds strange that realizing the insignificance of your own experience is comforting, but when illness rips your worldview and identity from you, maybe it’s essential. I think the isolation of illness can really magnify a sense that you are alone in what you are experiencing; it definitely has for me. It's easy to feel that no one understands what you are going through. I have grasped at things to make meaning from this experience and to understand it, and somehow thinking about my life and this human story as a single note in a melody that has been building and playing indefinitely has helped and been a source of strength. Our experiences are insignificant and universal at the same time.

In some weird way it has worked for me. I guess you have to find meaning wherever you can. 

So if you ever want to discuss the latest theories about Stonehenge, watch Spinal Tap, swoon over BBC documentaries (which are miles ahead of American documentaries), I’m your girl. Someday I’m going to be well enough to travel and make a pilgrimage to the UK and finally cross it off my bucket list.

I am curious to know if any of you have also found knowledge, ideas, or hobbies that unexpectedly helped you cope with illness in some way. What has helped you?

1 comment:

  1. Being with friends and teaching my 4th graders help me immensely. Don't know what I'd do if I ever had to stop teaching. Thank you for your perspective here!


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