When you’re trying to explain to a friend your stance on the issue of the necessity of plot in feature films while hollering over the sound of car horns and street sweepers, clutching an overpriced coffee in one hand and batting away junkies with the other, city life stops feeling worthwhile. Sure you feel more connected to society, to people. But when those same people are walking achingly slowly three abreast on a narrow footpath, while cars pass by on the road in dangerous proximity and with the ferocity of the chariots in Ben-Hur, it’s hard to ignore the furious expletives that dominate your mind; it’s time to get out of here.
That’s fine, until you end up back in the countryside and remember why you left it to begin with. If it rains you are stranded, and all those years spent hugging concrete have left you carless – provisional licenses operate on a “use it or lose it” basis apparently – and without any imagination on how to entertain yourself. Your only recourse is the bottomless pit of broadcast television, but by then the depression is so palpable that you would rather put your head through the screen like a postmodern Alice sacrificing yourself through the black looking glass than spend another minute watching Dr. Phil condescend to some traumatised mother who’s problems you can’t help feeling will not be solved by that free trip to Costa Rica.
The indecisiveness here is a classic conflict between Romanticism and Cynicism. In the countryside you can be one with nature. You can stretch out on tree branches and sing ballads to the squirrels and blackbirds, or stroll the grassy banks of some quiet stream while picking apples and reflecting on the majesty of the natural world. But in the city there are stories, drama, places where people come together to argue about big ideas; politics! the arts! In the city you don’t need to worry about the state of your soul – or your mental health as it’s been rebranded – there are more pressing issues to concern yourself with. Drama is more immediate, and when that feeling of emptiness creeps over you, you’re never more than a few metres away from a drink, pill or powder that’ll help you pave over that black hole for another couple of hours.
“From whence this crippling dissatisfaction,” I ask, “that discourages us from even trying to better our situations? Don’t we all believe on some level – unlike, say, those of the American class – that our situation is unchanging? That money problems and cold winters will plague us our entire lives? That our human relationships are ephemeral, based on nothing concrete, and could easily vanish over the course of a week?”
“Cheer up,” I hear as I snap back to the magazine stand, “it might never happen.” A face, lit up by a toothless grin, points at me, grey and unkempt. Poor fool. Hiding his insecurities behind cynical clichés and acquired wit. He’ll never know the bliss of enlightenment afforded by the pursuit of honest and original self-expression of one’s emotion. At this point I return the €4 magazine I was ogling to the shelf, remembering that I would like a hot meal today.
“But why is it that misery and dissatisfaction feels like the norm,” I demand, “while moments of transcendent bliss are the exception, like there is some rare, nigh-on unattainable nirvana towards which we vainly aspire, entirely unsure we’ll ever get there again, or indeed that we were ever there to begin with?” But the stream babbles on oblivious to my discourse, carrying some mysterious foam through the farmlands and into the bellies of the cows that will one day end up on our dinner plates. I discard my makeshift walking stick and watch as it drifts towards the river, and ultimately the ocean, where it will probably stick in the throat of some whale and cause great discomfort to the creature for the remainder of its life.
The thing about it is that that feeling of dissatisfaction feels like it’s all contained in one dense little nub somewhere inside you. The attention it demands seems wildly out of proportion to the size of it in relation to your entire being. It’s like that person at a silent film screening who laughs her whole way through it because of the dramatic and expressive style of acting (the cynical encroaching on the romantic). Surely it shouldn’t be hard to just turn around to tell her to shut the hell up!
But we never do. We just keep on tolerating it, focusing on it pathologically, hoping it’ll stop on it’s own, or some unforseeable twist of fate will occur and shut it up for you so you don’t have to. Maybe the ceiling will collapse directly over her and crush her into a horrible mess of brains and buttery popcorn. That’d do it.
Things are always happening. You always need more money to pay bills or cover your rent. And you always have to organise something or be somewhere if you have any sort of active participation in society or goals for your own life.
So when I get caught in a torrential downpour fifteen minutes from my house without my umbrella, my thoughts shift from the standard irritation and incoherent fuckshitbastardwhymeballs, to a kind of accepting calm. A flash of nostalgia through my mind: The dead don’t get to feel the rain on their faces. And the sun comes out with poetic timing.
Make no mistake, the Buddhists had it right all along. You can’t change your situation, only your reaction to it. In the world of hectic modern living, where we flit from one experience to the next as fast as our fingers can carry our boredom and convert it into energy, it’s difficult to remember that the dissatisfaction is not inherent, but conditioned into us. Consume media, feel angry, buy products and experiences, be unhappy with your figure or skin or friends, ostracise your family, waste your life.
The beautiful thing about writing is you can evoke the moment of acceptance at being caught in the rainstorm and stick an exclamation point at the end of it. Stick your flag in it, claim it as your conclusion in the name of whatever philosophy you wish you really lived by and pretend that feeling gets to sustain indefinitely. It’s hugely empowering to take an indescribable anxiety and transform it by putting words to it.
Surely that’s why we write!