I have a brother who writes (another who does not and many more “brothers” who are engaged in doing good things in the world). People who know me know how much I admire this writer-brother of mine. Over the years I have tried to organize his poetry (he has a collection out), collect his hundreds of articles, and in other ways attempted to corral his words into one place so that everybody can access them. He has resisted all of it. I keep trying. He’s a Libra, I’m a half-Virgo. End of story. The following is a feature piece that appeared recently in The Daily News in Sri Lanka, one of the papers for which he writes alongside all the other newspapers that also carry his work. It spoke to me for all the reasons his writing speaks to me, but particularly, in this case, because life has been difficult lately for me and I have often found myself posing the question, “when will it end?” to myself. Not as I should – it will end, all life does – but more in the sense of “when will this particular hardship end?” Which is, as he points out, a fairly meaningless question in the scheme of things.
My older daughter, Mithsandi, is a dreamer. In fact years ago I named her ‘Made of Dreams’. Her little sister Dayadi came into this world saying ‘Cuddle Me’. I called her ‘Made of Love’ and when I informed her of this name-change, she said ‘Appachchi mama made of love nemei, mama bird of love’ (I am not ‘Made of Love’, I am ‘Bird of Love’). She would have been three at the time.
She’s seven now. Her sister, 10 now, is still a dreamer, lives in another universe and a different time zone or in a world of timelessness. She is usually the last out of class and keeps me waiting 10-15 minutes after school is over. A couple of days ago I told her that it would be good if she can hurry up a little since I had to take her sister somewhere and there was very little ‘breathing space’ for pick-up, lunch and dropping her off.
‘Today is Wednesday, I can hurry,’ she replied. Then she explained, ‘I can’t wait for school to finish on Wednesdays because I don’t like E.N.V.’. I didn’t know what ‘ENV’ was. ‘Environment!’ she educated me. Reminded me of an octogenarian bikkhu in Katnoruwa (Mahaweli ‘H’, if I remember right) who way back in the year 1992 told me that there is no such thing as parisaraya (environment); there is only svabhava dharmaya (a natural order or set of natural principles). We were in a hurry and I didn’t tell her this story. I am in a hurry now, so that story will have to wait.
What’s pertinent here is the fact that she really wanted to get out of that class. Strange, since she’s quite the hands-on naturalist, ever willing to muddy her clothes and feet, very observant about the creatures around the house including butterflies, worms, birds, porcupines, gerandiyas, hothambuwas, monitor lizards etc. She wanted out and I ought to find out why. Not now.
She reminded me of my school days. There were subjects I didn’t like. There were periods I didn’t like. Teachers too. Especially when it so happened that I had not done my homework. That was quite frequent, actually, from Grade Seven to Grade 10. I dreaded such periods and hoped that the teacher would be absent. That wasn’t frequent enough, unfortunately. I had a coping-device back then. I told myself that torture (yes, that’s what it seemed to be) would at worst last an hour.
End of period meant ‘liberation’, unless of course the next was seen as ‘torture’ too. True liberation came when school was over. Even if the last period was the worst, there was something to anticipate that made it possible to endure torture. The next 18 hours were made for breathing.
I became a better student, by and by, but never forgot the worth of my coping device. Life is made of the ata lo dahama, the eight vicissitudes of life (gain and loss, good repute and ill repute, praise and censure, and joy and sorrow). I’ve learnt over the years to appreciate our Budun Wahanse’s recommendation that these are treated with equanimity. Easy to understand but hard to practice. They say that in the long run, we’ll all be dead. There are short (i.e. ‘this-side-of-death’) ‘long runs’ too. I’ve read somewhere about how to handle torture. Everything, even the most excruciating, has peaks. This means there is an ‘off-peak’ to look forward to.
The ‘negatives’ of the four opposites contained in the above eight vicissitudes are not suffered without anguish of course, but when one comprehends that in the end, there is an end, there is a ‘worst outcome’ out there which is not impossible to grapple with (or caress away, in submitting to the equanimity-recommendation), nothing is insufferable.
Back then, as a schoolboy, all I knew was that school has to end at 1.30. The hands of the clock will not stop, I knew. That was ‘end point’ enough. It gets more complicated later in life of course. Two things helped me. First, a better understanding of my relevance (in terms of work, relationships, life) and its miniscule dimensions (physical and otherwise, such as ‘impact’ for example) compared to the vast universe of social and physical realities. What this means is simply, ‘I am nothing’. In the vast span of human history, for instance, my life is like the time taken to blink.
Secondly, ‘I’ is an untenable proposition. I can lose it all. I can be vilified. I can be called ‘notorious’ and other such names and can suffer immense pain. Not too long after now I will be dust. The ‘I’ that invites all these things and in which all these things find residence, will disappear. The life-school bell will ring, sooner or later.
There is, I admit, a certain arrogance that this kind of thinking gives licence to. It is empowering too. The worst of times, in my experience, have passed me by or passed through me without too much scarring because I knew they came with expiry date/hour.
If I was able to persuade the worst of times to avoid me, it is because I was able (in those times, at least) to convince myself of the ridiculous proposition called ‘Self’.
It’s 2.03 pm (June 9, 2011) right now. It’s 18 minutes after the bell. My older daughter might have some vague idea that school is over, but I am sure she’s thinking of something more important. It’s not a Wednesday. It’s a good day, nevertheless, and even if it is not, there’s reason to smile. It will all be over, pretty soon.
Malinda Seneviratne may be reached at: email@example.com