Authenticity often means making mistakes.
Grayson Perry, The Guardian, 16 June 2012.
Last weekend, I sent a tweet: “Hopefully at some point this summer I will manage to get out of my own head. Intact. That’d be nice.” It feels like it’s been a summer of questioning, of “Who am I, what’s my purpose in life?”-ing: of getting lost going round and around in my own head without getting any further towards working a way out. It’s frustrating, feeling like you’re continuously getting it wrong, being cranky with yourself and the poor unfortunates around you who you trust enough to think out-loud at, and then that feels like you’re getting it even more wrong, and it just becomes a spiral of getting-it-wrong-ness until you really wish that ‘cognative recalibration’ was a real thing and that Natasha Romanoff would come and kick you upside the head to knock you out of it.
I came across the above quotation in my notebook soon after. I can’t remember what the piece was about, but it connects in my mind with Perry’s Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman exhibition at the British Museum, which was partially about an exploration of what makes us tick and acknowledging that the ‘frivolous now’ is as much a part of our authenticity as our ‘great pasts’. The phrase, ‘Wear your beliefs lightly,’ echoed through that exhibition, not requesting fickleness but requiring a lack of rigidity and the willingness to question.
It’s a good thought. We’re obsessed with failure - or with not failing - in the UK (at least). We talk a lot of talk about how failing makes you strong, because you can learn from it, but we don’t talk about how you learn from it and how you live with it and through it. Frankly, it’s amazing we’re not all drunk all of the time trying to forget all our screw-ups.
I’ve just finished reading David Shields’ work, Reality Hunger (of which, maybe more at a later date - it has produced all sorts of thoughts in my brain), and he has two passages that echo this:
Conventional fiction teaches the reader that life is a coherent, fathomable whole... Life, though - standing on a street corner, channel surging, trying to navigate the web or a declining relationship, hearing that a close friend died last night - flies at us in bright splinters (§ 319)
Life isn't about saying the right thing, life is about failing. It's about letting the tape play out. (§ 154)
So I know this in my head (I know a lot of things in my head. A lot of it is basically only useful for pub quizzes), and I work head-first - but how do I actually let this breathe as a part of how I do life? How do I live with the fact that trying to live fully, truly in my character and my beliefs, entails making mistakes as I work it out. And how do I live with those mistakes - without simply brushing them off as irrelevant or not-me-being-mistaken? I mean, beyond re-writing these lines in my notebook every time I feel like I’ve frakked up?
I’m not sure - but there’s another line that has echoed through this summer in the UK, and I think that spending some time with it and the lines that follow might help. At least the more we remind ourselves of all of this, the more likely it is to become a part of how we approach life, right? Even if it takes a long time.
"Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises,
Sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears; and sometime voices
That, if I then had waked after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again; and then in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open, and show riches
Ready to drop upon me, that when I waked
I cried to dream again."
- Caliban, The Tempest, III.ii.130-138
I spent sometime thinking about this last week, when I was away at a festival. I feel like these noises: the tensions, the mistakes and the pain are the signs of authenticity - of trying to live a real and honest life. Of someone willing to keep being vulnerable and trying to be part of something bigger than just themselves; willing to let the ‘insubstantial pageant’ fade, the temples and the globe dissolve as they change and we move onwards; willing to be Caliban, to be vulnerable, raw, hurt and confused, rather than seeking to be Prospero, the ruler and manipulator. The noises and the voices provide the dreams that we have to work out how to live with and make real out of the confusion - and sometimes the difficulty and pain of that, and our failures, make us weep and rage - like Caliban.
I was thinking about it at a Christian festival - and I ended up at a further reflection. In The Tempest Prospero doesn’t give either Caliban or Ariel the freedom to find their way through their isle of noises themselves. He is the god of the island. They get it when he leaves - but he is either a controlling presence or a total absence. I believe that God isn’t like that. I believes He gives us the freedom to find our way in our isle of noises, offering guidance, but not control. Although sometimes picking that guidance up out of all the other noises is as frustrating as anything else.
A slight jump, to get to something that might help with making sense of the noises.
Neil Armstrong died today. It saddened me in a way many ‘famous’ deaths don’t, and the world feels a little smaller - like it’s lost a really specific view of itself in him. Anyway, I watched The Dish. If you’ve not seen it, do, it is a delight and a joy that captures the awe and the humanity of the moon-landings. It has this exchange in it:
Cliff: Do you know what I thought when this first came up?
Glenn: What, your pipe?
Cliff: No. The moon mission.
Glenn: You beauty?
Cliff: I thought, imagine stuffing that up. Isn't that odd?
Glenn Latham: What?
Cliff: Well, that I was more scared than excited.
Glenn: I don't think that's odd, I feel like that all the time. (beat) How come you changed?
Cliff: My wife said something. She said, "Failure is never quite so frightening as regret."
Maybe that should be tattooed on the underside of our eyelids.
Life flies at us in bright splinters. Sometimes they stab. Sometimes they sparkle.