Press Pause Once in a While

The meaning of life is to be alive but we constantly look for meaning within it. The reason we nurture relationships is because they bring purpose to our lives. Yet, every once in a while, we want to kick off our shoes, plonk ourselves on the sofa and mutter ‘to hell with them.’ People, especially those close to us, infuriate us with alarming regularity. Somehow, a bowl of spicy noodles and television characters in improbable situations manage to soothe us. As long as we remember to get up from that self-indulgent position on the sofa, switch off the television set and go back to working towards our relationships, which we almost invariably do. After all, life would not be the same if we sat alone with a cappuccino in a coffee shop. We need to tell someone that we were bullied in school or wax eloquent about a new hobby we’ve discovered. Or those thoughts would rattle around in our minds like ghosts in a haunted house.

There is yet another dimension to our personalities that gives meaning to life. The social one. The all-important persona we create. The careful fashion choices, the diction, the language, the etiquette we display. It becomes us. We may be dropping soup on our shirt at home or scratching our heads unbecomingly when we wake up but we try to look distinguished in public. We like to make small talk with people less privileged than us because it makes us look good and we like to share big ideas with people more privileged than us because that makes us look good too. We thrive in groups and painstakingly cultivate them. Housewives find meaning through the display of well-starched white table linen, working people in their growing bank balances and children in their games. It helps to be known as a great hostess, a successful entrepreneur, a football star. The portrayal of an image, a tad artificial though it may be, ought not to be criticized because everyone has a right to flaunt their best side to others. After all, we all have a ‘photo face’ when we pose for the camera.

Even so, many of us are aware of a sub-conscious undercurrent that brings deeper meaning to our lives. It often feels like something’s missing until we make time to pursue it. We give it different names; raison d’etre, a calling, a purpose, a goal or passion. There are days when it feels infinitely better to get on the knees and tend to a rose bush than to supervise a child’s homework assignment or to paint instead of attending another soiree. It could be a business that infuses one with a sense of being alive or the singing of a raag at dawn that makes the rest of the day bearable. It is this pursuit that saves us from ruin when people break our hearts. Yet, try though we do, sometimes none of the above satisfy us; neither family, nor our social roles or our personal goals. The news of death and war makes us want to sit by the sea-side and mull over the illusive nature of the world.

The phrase that ‘the world is but an illusion’ came to my mind a few months ago when I happened to visit an office which overlooked a dilapidated building. It had one of those old-fashioned tiled roofs with all sorts of debris and dirt scattered over it. Lying there, along with pigeon droppings, broken pieces of glass, dirt, dust and a discarded shoe was a yellowing black and white photograph of an aristocratic looking couple. It was set in (what must have once been) a beautiful photo frame. Clearly this piece of memorabilia had no claimants. The couple, stoic as per the culture of their era stared back at me unperturbed. It had gone, their time, their era, their lives that must have been so carefully constructed for each other when they were alive. The horse-drawn carriages on that street had vanished, the political ideology of their youth had long been replaced and their memories had been left to decay on the roof of their home by overworked daily wage earners. I realized then the futility of looking for more from life than life can offer. It doesn’t matter if our photographs lie on a rotting roof, a stately home or a history book. I don’t know a famous person who hasn’t been equally loathed as they are loved. Ultimately what matters is the time we have. We constantly seek immortality through our work or children, often setting ourselves up for disappointment when life doesn’t go according to plan. Like the rest of the creatures in the world, we need to get it right. The only thing that matters is being alive and enjoying that time. It’s perfectly acceptable to take breaks from the pursuit of meaningful activities, in fact it’s necessary. Life feels good when we sun-bathe like cats, cackle like hens and languish in the water like hippopotamuses. They are protecting their hides, as we must ours.

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