We are deeply engrossed in the stories of our lives. We talk vociferously at parties about our ideologies, our experiences, our journeys. What kind of family we grew up in, who helped shape our dreams, what sport we revelled in. We romanticize our childhood, so much so that while showing the city of our birth to visiting friends and relatives, we point out, without being asked, the schools we studied at or gardens we played in. The subjects we master, the careers we pick, the persona we assume; all contribute to this story and make it real. We even hold on to our memories as though they are boxed in a treasure chest, whereas they are fluid, sometimes fanciful feelings.
It is terrifying to exist without a reason so we form relationships to anchor us. Some of us become artists to convey our experiences by creating immortal works. We have drawn imaginary lines across the globe and then shed blood to defend these. Our presence in the world is a saga, a magnum opus, an opera, and we love it. We are told, ever since we can remember, to be disciplined and structured, and to build solid foundations. It is not surprising then that we remain engaged in frantic activity and forget the truth that inevitable oblivion lies at the end of it. The end and what happens beyond it is one of the most abstract of concepts that we have to deal with.
This quandary is best described by Khalil Gibran in his metaphorical poem ‘The River Cannot Go Back,’ where he says, ‘It is said that before entering the sea, a river trembles with fear. She looks back at the path she has travelled, from the peaks of the mountains, the long winding road crossing forests and villages. And in front of her, she sees an ocean so vast, that to enter there seems nothing more than to disappear forever.’ Most of us harbour this fear but not all of us are as articulate as Khalil Gibran to express it. He says it for us, ‘But there is no other way. The river cannot go back. Nobody can go back. To go back is impossible in existence.’ We must admit that it is difficult to live with the fear that our individual narrative is not as important as we would like to believe. That is why we cling to the idea of heaven and hell or the theory of reincarnation. We want to carry our personal journey further, as far as it can go despite the loss of our physical bodies.
Does it really matter if I lived in New York or New Delhi, or married once or twice or not at all? Or if I chose to have children or not have them? Or if I mastered a skill to become famous? Or discovered that my life’s work came to an abrupt halt? The good and the bad always take turns and nothing lasts forever. If it were not for the words of poets and philosophers, we may forget to pause and consider the alluring prospect of infinity. The poem’s concluding lines say, ‘The river needs to take the risk of entering the ocean because only then will fear disappear, because that’s where the river will know it’s not about disappearing into the ocean but of becoming the ocean.’ There it is; the promise of something greater that will carry us away so that we may reconsider the disproportionate pride or despair we take in our personal stories. The ocean is vast and deep and although every drop of water contributes to the volume, we can’t distinguish it from the greater whole.
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