In the opening song on Ulver’s Bergtatt there’s a section near the end where the maiden says
«Aa, eismal i ein uggin Skog / Eg kjenn at i Kveld / I Kveld tenkjer ingen paa meg»
“Alas! Alone in a fearsome forest / I feel that tonight / Tonight no one thinks about me”
According to iTunes I’ve listened to it 147 times, but I’m pretty sure that’s only on my desktop. If one were to count my phone the number would easily go up fivefold. And every time I am struck by the way they sing the word eismal, “alone”. They are among the rarer sort of bands where lyrics and orchestration are inextricably bound: each serves and defines the other. And at precisely that moment in the song we feel the maiden’s helplessness and fear as the dark forest swallows her up. I imagine to myself that at that moment the old Norwegian is clearer to me than English, that I am connected to her plight, pulled down by her despair.
I turned 45 a little over a week ago, and now find myself seriously looking at my life, perhaps for the first time. Of course, in one sense, I’ve been introspective for as long as I can remember. But I’ve also been a dreamer and idealist, with a peculiar gift for never quite seeing things as they are.
My observation of life makes no sense at all. I suppose that an evil spirit has put a pair of glasses on my nose, one lens of which magnifies on an immense scale and the other reduces on the same scale.
Nevertheless, it is all I have to work with, and if Joan Didion is right, it would be foolish to dismiss even my most tenuous memories of who I was.
I think we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not. Otherwise they turn up unannounced and surprise us, come hammering on the mind’s door at 4 a.m. of a bad night and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, who is going to make amends. We forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget….I have already lost touch with a couple of the people I used to be…
Joan Didion, “On Keeping a Notebook”
And now I must try to reconcile these ideals, these memories, these past selves with a stark reality that calls into question the very foundations upon which I’ve built my life. Failure has unique way of disabusing us of our falsehoods, even our most cherished ones. I seem to be cursed with a deadly combination of profound confidence and naiveté, in equal measure. I am always sure of the way to go, without ever having a firm grasp on whether or not it will actually get me there, or if the destination is even what I think it will be, were I ever to arrive. Reality, however, is resolute, and must win in the end. Our foolish choices eventually catch up to us, and we find there is no way to rebuild the bridges we burnt down on our mad pursuit of delusion. We sit wondering as much where we are as how we seem to have lost everyone we loved along the way. The old ways of comfort no longer dull the pain. Thoughts of our great, as yet untapped, potential now serve to nauseate more than nourish. I find myself surrounded by my impotent dreams. I find myself alone.
§ To take for granted
It would be foolish to try to isolate the root of my problems, but this must certainly be near the top of the list. I can’t recall a single time in my life that I ever stopped to look at something I had or someone I loved and asked what would happen if I lost it? It’s as if I just assumed these things and people were simply there because they should be, without regard to the degree to which I appreciated or cared for them. It feels so embarrassing to admit this. Surely most people don’t make this mistake? It’s not to say I didn’t value them or was unthankful, quite the opposite. But I made the mistake of unconsciously assigning a kind of permanence to them, along with an equally unreflective sense of entitlement. Too often they were the backdrop to my dreams of what lay ahead, as if they would be drawn along in my wake toward new lands on the horizon—a horizon that could never be reached. And the things and people that were lost along the way? I just assumed new ones would come along, that life would provide for all my needs as it always appeared to. What I didn’t see was the foundation chipping away, battered by exposure and neglect, the lives of those who had to watch in perplexity, frustration and eventually despair as I rushed headlong toward nothing at all, confident every step of the way, blind to what everyone else could see.
Ironically behind that confidence lay an insidious fear, one that grew over the years and that I did everything I could to suppress. What if I was wrong? What if there was no panacea? What if my life was not climbing from strength to strength, but slowly sinking beneath the weight of my folly? I have only now come to learn that such fear is far more powerful than all our rationalizations and pipe dreams combined. Not only is it powerful, but when denied is absolutely destructive. You find yourself bewildered not only by contrary circumstances, but by the seeming failure of those around you to understand. You stop listening, and eventually those nearest to you stop trying.
When everything is taken away, by your own doing, you are left with nothing to hide behind. I was unhappy with my job and walked away. I took my friendships for granted and they slowly drifted beyond my reach. I became the same minimally involved father to my children that my own was with me. I gave up on the woman I loved because I couldn’t figure out how to get out of my own way, couldn’t allow myself to trust her and let her into my deepest fears.
Intelligence and wisdom are not the same. The former involves having a certain conceptual mastery of things, the latter is simply about making good decisions. I have always excelled at the former and failed at the latter. Both are ways of seeing, and each has its respective blindness. For too long I’ve made the mistake of thinking wisdom was a natural offshoot of intelligence. Nothing could be further from the truth.
I have much work to do.