Hovering over no man's land


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Category: Reflections Date: 01 Oct 00

To stay or to go. Purgatory on earth. The agonising wrenching indecision, the continual weighing up that goes on every day in peopleís lives.


It applies to marriages, jobs, love affairs, homes, careers, immigrants, roommates, business partners. It is a recurring theme in literature. Dick Whittington found his city paved with gold when he went. Anna Karenina ended up dead under train tracks when she went. Some like Beauty stayed with the Beast because the flame was around them all the time, except she hadnít seen it. Itís about rolling the dice, taking risks. About going, about staying. Itís about VS Naipaul, who had to go to keep it alive. About Derek Walcott, who has to keep coming back to our islands. About Earl Lovelace, who needs to be here to keep his flame alight.  When the question of going or staying isnít an option, people live in limbo all their lives, their body in one place, their heads in another, their minds in turmoil.


Why does she stay? We ask of a woman in an unhappy marriage. Why doesnít he quit? We ask of a man in a dead-end job. Why doesnít she go home? We ask of a homesick foreign student. As we all learned the hard way, life is not lived in sharp blacks and whites, but within the confines of that dull grey world of compromise. And within that world of acceptable respected stereotypes, a multitude of hearts beat with rebellion.


A devoted wife and mother may, even as she serves the evening meal, feel pangs of resentment that not a moment in the day belongs to her; an honourable husband, who fulfills his role as a good provider and father, may long for days untrammelled by responsibilities and a demanding wife; a businessman may hanker once more for the independence he had before he was forced to bring in a partner. A well-placed executive may long to shed his suit and sail around the world. Behind the acceptable stereotypes, close beneath the thin skin of our everyday masks - of the diligent employee, of the perfect wife, are the real untold stories where imagination and yearning join together like two pieces of flint that may prove to be dangerous, if it turns into a flame.


But nothing is black and white. The flame - call it the dream, call it intuitive human impulses for pleasure, call it selfish longings that have nothing to do with responsibility, call it a life force which keeps drudgery and the prospect of death at bay, is mercurial - it dims, goes out, flares up again. Some are lucky enough to live the dream, flame turned high into a flambeau. But the nature of life and the elusive nature of the high flame of life is similar to that of passion - too much of it and it can burn you out.


Look how Madame Bovary died after giving in to it. See how Romeo and Juliet died feeding on it. The bewildering thing about this flame, this yearning and longing we all have - (Bernard Shaw called it the Life Force, Nietzsche called it the affirming the Superman) for people, for things, for lives, is that it sustains us - more than that, gives us that unexplained exuberance over life: at a dawn drawn out by a chorus of birds, at the curve of a childís cheek, at the way music can make you remember a precise emotion way back in the past, at walking into a room and feeling your heart leap at the sight of a beloved face, at unrestrained laughter or dancing.


By our very nature, we human beings always are balancing this flame, doing just enough to keep it alive, while keeping an eye out in case it is in danger of burning us. So here we are, presenting ourselves as this or this but really complex beings with opposed desires. We waver between a longing for security, and adventure, between passionate love and the lower fever of enduring love, between digging down our roots and need to flee and see new worlds, between stability and the adrenalin of the unknown, between the womb of small phlegmatic warm islands and cold climates with sharply glinting edges. We watch our flame, heaping fuel on it if it runs low with activity, hiding if it gets too bright with the instinctive knowledge that it is this flame that separates us from the run-down dogs on the highway; it is this flame that allows us to celebrate our lives as human beings.


Our biggest crime then is not paying heed to a flame run down with despair, drudgery, sorrow, bitterness, rage. It always is within us to get it going. With little gestures like doing something we never have before, pushing ourselves to achieve a goal we always have considered a little beyond us, or grand gestures, like leaving or deciding once and for all, that you are going to stay, and be happy staying.


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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur