The Terror of Freedom and the Illusion of Permanence

I did something emo recently. I posted a vague, ever so irritatingly melancholy status on Facebook without referencing what the hell it was about. I don’t know if anyone read it, but I felt I owed it to anyone who did to elaborate a little. And to myself, as a reminder to never be One of Those People again.

Of course it’s a Neil Gaiman quote. When I die, I really hope I can be a ghost that can not only move through walls but also through all the barriers of human anatomy, through the great divide between the physical and the intangible, and haunt the inside of that man’s brilliant head. I want to live inside his imagination, but I’d be content just to be a passenger for a day or two, and observe what comes out of his mouth. He’s just so damn quotable.

The instant I read this, I was transported back to an early conversation I’d had with a boyfriend when we’d first started dating. I’d ended up in tears through being unable to unlearn something that has completely stolen a lifelong hope. We’d been discussing ghosts and the supernatural. A bit of religion was probably thrown in there too, but that’s definitely a topic for another day, and conversation had moved to the idea of existence after death.

For my entire life, I’ve clung to the hope that this isn’t all there is. My mum went through all sorts of spiritual journeys growing up, and I remember learning about everything from chakras to the Dalai Lama, but one thing that captivated me as a child was the idea of reincarnation. I didn’t know if I necessarily believed it was actually possible, but I hoped desperately that it was. She taught me that we’re all reincarnated in groups of about fifty, I think she said, and that the people who have the biggest parts in your life are because their souls have always been incarnated with yours, just in a different form. She taught me things like  that maybe in a previous life, I’d been her mother, and the idea always fascinated me when it came to love, relationships, best friendships… Did this mean that it was possible to always find your way back to these people over and over again throughout all of eternity? That no matter what happened in life, somehow true love, whether for family, friends, or someone else, would triumph across all of time and space, even death? The idea wasn’t just reassuring. The thought of every relationship with someone you care so deeply about ending after a handful of years on Earth seems such an incredible waste. For friendships and love and bonds to burn so brightly for such a short time, only to be extinguished by life’s ephemerality. I couldn’t bear it.

But over the last year, my beliefs have come to rely more and more on empirical fact than on hope – I realised that one reason a lot of people hold on to religion not because it’s real, but because it gives them hope. A crutch, a lifeboat upon which to sail through stormy seas. But just believing in something because it made life more bearable kind of goes against what I value. I value proof, questioning, searching for evidence, and discovering the truth before simply accepting someone else’s. And the notion of human connection’s immortality beyond death cannot ever be proven. And that makes me incredibly sad. I think logically, I’ve come to accept that in all likelihood, this really is it. But there’s a tiny sliver somewhere in my heart that holds onto the hope that these infinitely unlikely bursts of brilliance will happen all over again. I guess it’s a sliver that not just inhabits my heart: part of my newest tattoo includes the words of Emily Dickinson, who believed that “love is life, and life hath immortality.” More updates on the ink later.

That took a bit longer than I thought to explain, but I guess I’ve just been feeling a little sad lately. The past has been weighing heavily on my heart, I suppose triggered by continual reminders of what used to be. People I was once incredibly close with cut me out of their lives, largely as a result of who I am. I have baggage. I worry. I get overwhelmed by emotion, and I am subsequently too much to deal with. Over the last couple of months I’ve seen photos of parties, celebrations, and weddings I always imagined to be sharing with people who instead turned their backs. I’m not blaming them. My insecurities, anxiety, emotional extremity and pent-up esteem issues made me a pretty shitty person to be around. It just sucks that I’ve put so much work into dealing with it, managing it, and being a better human being, and it’s still not good enough. People would rather move on or actively tell me, as was the case a couple of weeks ago, that they’d rather keep their distance. I feel lost and torn: I desperately wanted to get my issues in check so I could be a better person to be around, and so I could reign in my tendencies and alleviate some of the worry and heartache – but I don’t know how much is something that can be fixed, and how much is simply how I was made. I want to be true to who I am, to wear my heart on my sleeve and to see the good in how much I feel – even if it does mean bursting into tears after reading a news story about a local tiger cub dying at the zoo, or getting myself into a teary-eyed panic while waiting for a loved one’s test results – I’ve battled with my emotional tendencies my whole life and hated who I was because of it, but lately I’ve tried to embrace it – not see it as such a bad thing because it’s not usual, but see the good in it, that it’s because I care so damn much. But then if I think of things in those terms, I set myself up for failure – people left my life because of who I was. So I don’t know which way to turn.

“But the lonely are such delicate things, the wind from a wasp could blow them into the sea with stones on their feet, lost to the light and the loving they need…” – The Shins

The lives I watched continue without me on Facebook have made me feel very lonely lately, so I did delete a large chunk of people from Facebook. I was confident it would make me feel better if I didn’t see it all the damn time. And I suppose, in a way, it did – but it also served as a huge reminder that I have lots and lots of free time now. I used to be terrified of coming home and not having plans. I figured it meant that nobody wanted to do anything with me, and that I was always last on other people’s priority list. Since I started seeing a counsellor and taking medication to get the anxiety under control, I really have learned to switch how I see free time, and in most cases I’m now able to see it as a luxury with which I can enjoy a good book, make photo albums, catch up on EastEnders or crank out another few hundred words for the book. But with all these reminders lately, I’m starting to get scared again. Evenings alone are spent suchly because everyone else has other people to be with. The freedom of time alone isn’t something to cherish any more. It’s a terrifying place in which your mind can go into overdrive, reminding you of all the people who once wanted you around, of all the plans you’d had, of all the doubts you have about yourself. Time alone allows your thoughts to take control. And when those thoughts start in a place that feels a little lonely, the destination can leave you feeling completely abnormal and thoroughly abandoned.

‎”Isn’t it funny how some thoughts and cherished memories can become your worst enemies? The ones you loved to think about, the memories you wanted to hold up to the light and view from every angle–it suddenly seems a lot safer to lock them in a box, far from the light of day and throw away the key. It’s not an act of bitterness. It’s an act of self-preservation. It’s not always a bad idea to stay behind the window and look out at life instead, is it?”

As down as I’ve felt lately, the universe has made a pretty huge effort to let me know I’m not alone. Literally seconds after I received one text confirming someone’s decision to cut contact, I received two more – one from a wonderful new friend I made through Fringe Festival this summer, with whom I instantly clicked and spent several hours telling our entire life stories to each other, and one I hadn’t seen in years, who’d just found my blog and wanted to reconnect, and to let me know that if I ever needed a friend, I had one. I really do believe that one door closing generally allows another, better one to open, and honestly, that very much has been the case this summer. The people who’ve come into – and the people who’ve continued to be – in my life are people with whom I never have to worry about hiding my emotions, or how long they’re going to stick around. They know everything, and they still want to be here. And that means more than I could ever express.

I’ve been listening to this song a lot lately. Yes, it gets stuck in there for days and days, and it does sound like some sort of bizarre fusion of country, The Lion King and Cecilia (you’re breaking my heart), but for some reason I love it. And it seems kind of fitting for right now.

Some nights, I stay up cashing in my bad luck
Some nights, I call it a draw
Some nights, I wish that my lips could build a castle
Some nights, I wish they’d just fall off

But I still wake up, I still see your ghost
Oh I’m still not sure what I stand for, oh
What do I stand for? What do I stand for?
Most nights, I don’t know any more…

This is it, boys, this is war – what are we waiting for?
Why don’t we break the rules already?
I was never one to believe the hype – save that for the black and white
I try twice as hard and I’m half as liked

Well, some nights, I wish that this all would end
‘Cause I could use some friends for a change
And some nights, I’m scared you’ll forget me again
Some nights, I always win

But I still wake up, I still see your ghost
Oh, I’m still not sure what I stand for most
What do I stand for? What do I stand for?
Most nights, I don’t know…

Ten years of this, I’m not sure if anybody understands
This is not one for the folks at home; I’m sorry to leave, I had to go
Who wants to die alone all dried up in the desert sun?
But man, you wouldn’t believe the most amazing things
That can come from some terrible nights…

I’m a little down, but not a moment goes by where I’m not incredibly grateful for the people I have. I guess by writing it out, I just needed to remind myself of that again. I’ll be back to positivity again soon.

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15 comments

  1. I honestly think you’ll find a liar in the person who says they are never ever lonely. We honestly ALL go through this. From the outside it may seem like others are “easier” to be around, but that’s just not true. This is because humans are too complicated. We attempt to seem easy, breezy fun people all time. That’s just not real life!

    1. Yeah… it just hurts when people turn their backs when you start to show that you’re not always going to be easy and breezy. But at the same time, it makes you appreciate those who stick around through everything so much more.

  2. Hey em,

    I tried to send u a message somewhere on here but I fear it’s lost amongst ur many thoughts.. Just wanted to say best wishes and apologize for my absence.
    Always,
    Darren

  3. What if, after death, we go to a place that we all belong? (Don’t think of heaven. Forget all those constructs that you think about that.) What if we transcend to a state where we are nothing and everything, all together? Where we are free from worry, doubt, abandonment. Where we just belong to everyone and everything, eternally, and with undying love? That is my creative response to the fear, but regardless of whether or not any of this is “true”, everything in my path ultimately teaches me to let go of this need-to-know about what comes after death and just to reside with what is true and here. It’s a daily practice, and will require my work–just like maintaining a beautiful garden—but that is my salvation. I think learning to smile at the unknown in this way is important. It’s a “what if”, but at the end, nobody knows 🙂 It’s the same way we free ourselves from all anxiety. In this way, I think death can be an amazing liberation. In fact, I think it will be the most beautiful moment of my life! (You should watch Lost.)

    “The notion of love’s immortality beyond death cannot ever be proven.” The thing is Emily, you don’t need to prove it. It’s nothing to make sense of. You will always fail if you try. Instead, this whole seeking mindset is what’s worth looking at, and what’s worth dissolving. Free yourself from the need-to-know. That is the liberation that every spiritual path ultimately points to, I think. Practicing letting go in this way, we can open up to life and the beauty of the immaculate world, just as it is now, without any notion of getting somewhere else, without squeezing something more out of what is not there. All of these longings of the past, and uncertainties of the future, will come to the surface, and with right practice, they naturally dissolve as we gradually awaken more and more to freedom until these burdens no longer affect us.
    “But, but… THIS!! and THAT!! But-But-But…”
    Shhhh…. just rest 🙂

    I think this same practice also applies to your social anxiety. Instead of trying to appear a certain way to people, or “fearing” these “obstacles” that lie in your way of opening up to people, you practice letting go of these illusions as they arise by residing with what is and responding with warmth. I don’t think you ever have to burdened by your past, but I also think you don’t ever have to be burdened by what people think or don’t think of you. People will still think whatever they will—that will not change!—but how it affects you will be a different story.

    I’m also really glad you talked about impermanence. That is a hallmark of my personal faith; one of the three characteristics of reality, according to the Buddha. Perhaps a better word, to describe the feeling in the heart, is uncertainty. Everything changes, and always will. No two moments are ever the same. We close our eyes, and the world shuts off. Open it up, another one pours in. Even on a grander scale, we move to different cities. Start new lives. Get different jobs. Friends leave. Relatives die. We’re always aging, and our skin is slowly getting more wrinkly by the minute. Change is incessant.

    I think this is important to know because it leads to another important characteristic of reality—unsatisfactoriness. That quality of always wanting more, to make permanent what is not permanent—it is a characteristic of reality. Know, Emily, that nothing in this world can ever derive permanent satisfaction—keyword permanent—because, as the first characteristic said, nothing is permanent. The misunderstanding of this is what creates unsatisfactoriness in the first place. It is the root of all suffering (the Second Noble Truth!) Instead, realize that all states are subject to pass, and refrain from the clinging to positive states when they pass, and the stressful aversion to negative states when they arise. Practicing in this way, and not setting any joy upon a certain condition or state, sorrow and anguish subside, and equanimity arises. Joy is everlasting, but ironically, it is in the transitoriness and the miracle of life as it unfolds, moment to moment. (The third characteristic of reality is that of non-self; that nothing can truly said to be ours, or who and what we are. What an illusion, it is then, to build a story about “who” we are, and try and show it all to others!) The thing is, I can espouse these tenets of my faith all day long, but they are nothing to you if you have not learned them from your direct experience. If these do not resonate with you now, let them go. If it does, examine it further. It is your path, and yours alone.

    And the last thing I want to say, as I write this tome of a comment, and probably repeat myself lol… I think the fact that silence scares you is not a problem, but an opportunity. I think those are the moments where your demons and burdens—which are always with you, apart from the silence—become fleshed out and full because you’re no longer distracted in commotion, people, and TV. Remember that nothing happens in that silence that doesn’t happen elsewhere. Realizing this, the silence becomes your opportunity to respond to the demons. The trick is, in that silence, to refrain from craving and aversion, and letting it in (psst, this is called mediation). Work with it, not against it. Working against everything that is arising in your immediate reality is what brought those demons up in the first place, and the denial that comes with—through craving another state that is not here–kept them cycling. Instead, listen to it. See what it teaches you about yourself and your mind, and look for the illusionary black-and-white statements that are just pure silliness. Come back to the mere sensation of your breath if you get lost, and trust it as the anchor to the reality to which you are awakening. And always, respond to those demons with a new voice, a new warmth and reassurance devised from the creative love of your own heart. In this way, peace can be with you wherever you go, and you tap into the purest spring of love in your heart 🙂

    I hope some of these wisdoms, which I have found for myself, may enrich you in some way.

    Please be well Emily!
    Much love,
    Jon Michael

    1. My goodness, thank you for putting so much time into offering me your thoughts on this! ❤ The thing is, I know that everything changes. I know I have no control over what other people think, and I know that there is no way of proving the immortality of anything. I know that acceptance of it all is key. But I don't know what to do with the discomfort that results from acceptance. Why must bad things happen, why must people leave, why must there be such horrors in this world, and why can't something so incredibly rare and beautiful last forever? It's alarming, and the lack of being able to do anything about any of it is what I struggle with so much.

      1. Oh, stop that. There you go again! But this… and this…. Don’t be so silly 🙂

        Firstly, I think if you genuinely do accept change, discomfort doesn’t arise. Equanimity does. Knowing that we don’t have to fix everything, that everything will pass, and that there is no use in clinging to it, equanimity arises. We let go, and our armor loosens. We can breathe better. “Why can’t something beautiful last forever”= for as long as that desire for permanence remains, you will suffer. And strangely, if you truly look at things, the joy in life lies in the transitoriness. Things go yes, but that’s why life is an adventure. There are places to go, journeys to begin, stories to be heard, new ones to begin. When one is over, don’t be sad that ended. Be excited that you can start another. Change is incessant, but it’s actually a really amazing thing. And at the end of life, when we have to let go of it all, it’s not an end. Just like when every adventure begins: It’s a surrender, a letting go, and a moving on to a Great Unknown. Learn to smile at that adventure, just like you do all of them. That’s where joy comes from 🙂

        You also mention that there are bad things in this world, and horrors all over the globe. Yes this is true. People die. Injustices occur to ourselves and our friends. This is the first Noble Truth: the truth of suffering. That is why there is work to be done in the name of compassion and generosity—and that giving is actually the place where we are meant to be. So view these tragedies, not as a draining state of affairs, but view it as as a call to action, a renewal of your purpose. Spreading love in this way is what gives our lives meaning. There is suffering to alleviate in this world; not suffering that just sucks, and that’s it. It can end (the Third Noble Truth) and there is a way out of it (the Fourth Noble Truth.) Let these desires be motivated by compassion and generosity that stirs in your heart. Do not be motivated by the anger or hatred of injustice, or else you will not truly be a light to this world. I will also tell you this Em, for your own path and your own sake: you will never be able to alleviate the suffering in another person until you are able to alleviate your own. Remember that whenever you start being hard on yourself, or resisting what’s unfolding in your life. Find the way to return to equanimity, and I promise you, it is a golden lit path that is limitless and unending, travelled by many who can give you beacons when you need it.

        Find the nearest insight meditation community near you! Or maybe check out this book that changed my life so wonderfully 2 years ago: “Mindfulness in Plain English” by Bhante Gunaratana.

  4. Hi Emily,

    We all struggle with ourselves in our own ways. What is admirable is the positive steps you have taken to deal with it.

    Everyone who has ever lived has lost friends and gained new ones. Some friends stay by your side for years, others don’t. We cannot please everyone and not all our friends can or will come with us on the path that we choose. It is a little sad, but that is the way things are. If friends have to leave, part on good terms and cherish the memories.

    Still, the most important thing is to be true to yourself. If this means you have to walk your chosen path alone, so be it. It is more natural and fulfilling to walk your chosen path than to follow the path that others want you to take. We all have our own unique purpose to fulfill in this world whatever that may be. Some people will not understand it, so they leave us. But those who stay by our side and support us, we can call them friends.

    I remember having very poor emotional control over myself when I was younger. I suppose this is what being INFJ is like. But over time I have learned to be more self-reliant and am still able to let my feelings flow as it should without overwhelming people. You’re right. We should embrace our emotions because it is the most natural thing for us to do, but as far as we can, we should learn to channel it properly.

    When it comes to friends I am selective. While I would like to be liked by all, I know this is not possible. So having a few good friends whom I can depend on is important. When this is balanced with self-reliance and purpose, there isn’t much that can upset me.

    We all have our down days. This is natural and we shouldn’t fight it. When I feel down, I play games and get lost in fantasy worlds. Lately, I have started playing Skyrim again which I knew was a bad idea since it is so highly addictive. But in a way it helps me to heal. It is also funny how I selected a nice base to operate out of and would return there repeatedly to store my items and treasures haha!

    Am glad to see that you know how to manage your emotions. It is something everyone with intense emotions needs to be able to do. Always being grateful for what we have and not what we have lost is important.

    Irving the Vizier

    1. Thank you so much for putting so much effort into that and being so open. Looking back over the last few years, I’ve definitely learned that is is better to walk the path alone than to walk a path not being true to who you are. From one of my favourite musicals: “and if I’m flying solo, at least I’m flying free”. I suppose learning to see the value of quality and substance over quantity is some form of growth, and I suppose that’s something I should probably acknowledge in all my confusion and uncertainty. And you’re absolutely right – even if it is uncomfortable, the fact that there are a select few who are still here, who still want me around, no matter what I may be or what I may have done in the past – that’s something to be infinitely grateful for. And I really am.

  5. Dearest Emily,

    I’m not sure how far you are in your therapeutic sessions. I’m also not aware what type you are using. However, through my own struggles I have learned something very important about the mind. And it’s very good news. It kind of shocked me to the core when I thought about it. But the verifiable truth is that we are most definitely not our thoughts. And we are especially not the cognitive distortions that we tend to project at ourselves. So if we are not our thoughts then what does that make the thoughts that others have about us?

    I do have deeper thoughts on the nature of empirical evidence. But I’ll save that for another comment. As you know, giving someone with anxiety issues re-assurance is like giving a junkie heroin so that is not my aim here. My only aim is to attempt to help you to realize that what you are feeling is an illusion and not your consciousness. And in my opinion Tolle might be worth look into at this point.

    Much Love,
    Corey

  6. “I’ve battled with my emotional tendencies my whole life and hated who I was because of it”

    this.

    i am in tears, em. i’m so sorry for your struggles, but you continue to amaze me with your strength. your thoughts on reincarnation give me hope. this is exactly what i needed to read this morning. thank you

    xx e

  7. The worst part of growing up is learning that not all friendships survive, even ones you were 110% certain would. It’s tough, but as I always tell myself: the ones who leave make room for the great ones who follow. Stay strong, lady.

  8. I’m not a fan of loneliness, and when you’re in that head space being by yourself can be not so fun. I’ve been there, and I only just realised that, when reading your post, that I’m *not* there anymore. Right now I’m finding being by myself and doing what I wish is pure luxury, and I revel in it. Thanks for the perspective, hey. I hope that one day soon you find comfort in alone time, as much as you do being with others. Happy thoughts, hey x

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