Tag Archives: enlightenment

My Sadness Tantrum

“All sadness is a tantrum” – I’ve seen this thought on facebook, the author has several hundred thousand page likes, so a lot of people got this message recently. Welcome to my sadness tantrum, feel free to lie on the floor beside me, thrash about and howl if you need to. I’m not ‘enlightened’ enough to have stopped feeling pain, and I’m enough of a blasphemer against this position to think that sadness is a good thing.

I have my personal sadness around loss, setback, frustration and physical pain. Things that scare me make me sad. I see these as aspects of my being human and I am not ashamed of them. Empathy makes me grieve for the suffering of friends and share in their sadness. It makes me cry over the things I cannot fix or undo. I believe that sorrow teaches us compassion. Then there is the place beyond sadness. The rage and anguish caused by images of war, and fracking; the horrors we inflict on each other and on this world. I weep over those. I invite you to weep too, because our salvation may lie in the spur to action that comes from our broken and bleeding hearts. Howling is magic. Grief harnessed begets transformation. This is where powerful, positive change starts – when we can no longer bear things as they are.

I have not achieved enlightenment, I’m not expecting to any decade soon. I’m so far from that state, I haven’t a clue what it means, and whether getting there means you dispense with human emotion. I rather hope not. I think our emotions are often our saving grace as a species; grief and joy are twins that inspire and enable us. If enlightenment means losing that, I guess I’m opting out of the spiritual race. So, I know nothing about this stuff. I do however know a bit about tantrums.

“Tantrum” is the word we use to describe a perception of disproportionate emotional outbreaks – usually from children, or from people we wish to ridicule and undermine by likening them to undisciplined infants. To class something as a ‘tantrum’ is to belittle and dismiss it. If something is “just a tantrum” it lacks worth, and relevance – it can be ignored.

Small children are prone to disproportionate emotional outbreaks, from an adult perspective. I’ve raised a child, I’ve hung out with parents, this territory I do know. Your toddler knows nothing of torture, murder, war and crime. A tiny setback and a minor pain can be the worst horrors they have ever endured. The frustration of being thwarted is unbearable because it is quite literally the worst experience they have ever had and it totally challenges their sense of self and their place in the world. Ideally as a parent you have to do two things with this, and they are equally important. You have to help your child gain enough perspective to cope with life, without traumatising them about the state of the world they have joined. This is a process. It takes years. You have to do this, ideally, whilst not undermining their sense of self. That means not entirely invalidating their emotional responses, not making them feel stupid or worthless because they cried when you thought they shouldn’t. It is a bloody difficult job.

You don’t get to fast track on this one. You don’t get to be an emotionally mature adult without first being a shrieking toddler and doing whatever you do with the chaos of adolescence. There are no shortcuts, so I’m prepared to bet that if enlightenment is available, there are no shortcuts there either. I also suspect that knocking someone back doesn’t help them grow. We are where we are – however flawed that is, however far from where we think we ought to be. You have to start from where you are, but if you start out ashamed of your point of departure, that isn’t a lot of help. More the opposite.

I don’t know what enlightenment looks like, but my gut says it should not be smug and toxic, invalidating the struggles of people who are ‘less advanced’.

A surfeit of light

One of the features of the modern age is our mastery of light. I’ve talked before about the suggestion that pre-industrial sleep patterns were very different, with two separate ‘sleeps’ and a time of wakefulness in the dark between them. I’m currently reading Lee Morgan’s fascinating book on witchcraft – Deed without a name. The author has flagged up another contribution to ideas around sleep and darkness. Our ancestors used to spend a lot more of their time in gloom, twilight, candlelight, firelight.

If we are awake, we tend to have bright light (romantic diners and dingy pub gigs aside).  Illumination has become normal, and goes interestingly alongside enlightenment. We live in an age that aspires to know everything and that tends to view everything as potentially comprehensible. If we don’t understand a thing, its because we’ve not yet got the right maths to measure it with, the right technology to observe it, the right theory to rationalise it. We bring everything into the light, where we can clearly see the edges.

Twilight is a place of uncertainty where a crouching man merges with the plant life and you can’t tell whether its mice or spirits making the noises in the undergrowth. Candle light and firelight fill the corners with dancing shadows, reinvent the world as mysterious and turn the familiar into the uncertain. Our ancestors had this as part of their normal, every day reality. Not all things could be brought into the light, and light was not available at the touch of a button to dispel all confusion. To a mind that encounters shadows, gloom and twilight on daily basis, the unknown is inevitable. The unknowable is a daily feature. To the person who lives with light levels they can immediately control, the sharp edges of the world are always visible.

We assume, I think, that the sharp edges and boundaries made apparent by our reliable light sources are real, and that the uncertainties of twilight are illusions brought on by an insufficiency of light. To our ancestors, those uncertainties were real. But here’s a thing. Our light is artificial. The gloom of twilight, the strange partial light of a full moon – these are real conditions. Darkness and shadow are real. Times of warped perception are real. What we have chosen to irradiate is a real and potentially meaningful state.

We throw light on things. We push away the shadows of superstition. We illuminate the issue. We cast it in a new light. We throw the spotlight on it. We put it under the spotlight. Darkness is ignorance. Darkness is superstition. Our man-made light is the really real reality and we believe in it. The light tells us that everything has edges, everything can be known. Yet the further the science goes, the more we see the dark spaces filled with something we cannot illuminate. The more physics I read, the less I feel I know and understand. Perhaps what the turning on of light must inevitably show us, is the sheer extent of the darkness.

Twilight is my favourite time of day. I love the way the light and shadows create a different kind of reality, one with softer edges and less certainty. I love spending time in firelight and candle light, and I wonder what would happen to my perceptions if I gave up electrical illumination entirely, and accepted either the darkness, or the candle. Would I think and feel differently? I’m inclined to suspect I would. In the twilight, mystery is natural, uncertainty is natural, doubt is natural. Perhaps we need a bit more of that to balance up what we’ve learned from switching the lights on.