Sometimes the modern world can feel pretty overwhelming. Perhaps it was ever so, but the intermingling of social media, streaming, 24 hour news media, commercialism and consumerism have pushed the volume up to sometimes ear-splitting levels and the colour palette to seldom less than garish.
Where to find sense and meaning – and peace – in amongst it all?
I’m not going to try to digest two-and-a-half-thousand years of philosophy into a 900 word blog (and in any event, I’m less than half-way through the excellent Philosophize This! podcast, so can’t (yet) claim to be an expert). But it seems to me that we all want not just to live, but also to feel like we’re living.
Of course, if you’re of a particular mindset, you can get this sensation in the mayhem of modern life. For example, I’m never happier than in a busy London street: things are happening and you’re surrounded by humanity in all its incredible diversity. Dr. Johnson, making his second appearance in successive blogs, famously captured this sentiment when he said ‘when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life’. Not everyone will agree, but London certainly heightens my own sense of being alive.
And I’m a fan of other big gestures: a Mahler symphony; the architectural splendour of the Pantheon; a League One Play Off Final at Wembley. The sheer intensity and breadth of experiences like these shake you into a sense of being.
But there are other times when you need to scale back, to turn down the volume and find those spaces in which you get a different sense of being alive.
We sought to create such a space last year by building a summer house and creating a small nature pond at the end of the garden. So up went a timber and ply structure, followed by a coat of light blue paint, a few seashells on the roof trim and a small deck with wooden posts to give the impression of a pier going out to sea. A small corner of SE London had become forever Key West. The ‘beach shack’ theme also meant that I was able to pass off much of my shoddy workmanship as intentional.
We didn’t know what to expect of the pond. How well would the plants take? When could we expect to see wildlife appearing? I think we assumed it would take a few months, or maybe a year, before anything happened. But that was the point – it wasn’t something that we could rush. The modern curse of instant gratification had no role to play.
But it wasn’t long before we had our first damselfly visitation, and later, dragonflies. Shortly after this, I joined the British Dragonfly Society, partly because of my fascination with these beautiful creatures, and partly because I think it’s just wonderful that there is such an organisation. Then came the dolichopodids, or ‘semaphore flies’, demonstrating in their agitated mating rituals, and to my surprise, how fascinating such superficially unappealing organisms can be. The first, pink water lily flowers appeared.
Then this year, our first newt. No frogs or toads, but a single (I think female common) newt. She disappears for days at a time, but then she’s there again, hanging in the water, or exploring the provenance of a splash. Then the other day a blue tit appeared in the forsythia next to the pond. From my vantage point in the summer house, I watched at close quarters as this tiny creature flitted from branch to branch, its beak energetically exploring between the bright yellow flowers, chirruping madly as it went. It only lasted a few seconds, but time was stretched by the intensity and clarity of the moment.
In contrast, a little later, a fat wood pigeon leaned precariously over the edge of the pond to take a sip of water. It’s a bird we take for granted, and even regard with some disdain, but for me it was an experience that couldn’t have been much more exciting had an iguanodon turned up for a drink.
These are little things, and there are many others to be enjoyed out there. They give me the most enormous pleasure, and a sense of living in the moment. I guess it’s a form of mindfulness.
But why do such experiences have this effect?
I’m not going to say that they ‘connect me to the Universe’ or anything like that. I simply don’t believe in such extrapolations of human sensory experience. But I do believe that some of their power comes from the fact that I’m experiencing something without artifice, human agency or amplification. I’m experiencing what is.
Once, on a holiday in the Lake District, I said to my wife that I needed to find time to sit next to a babbling brook. I had in mind the quietude I needed to unwind from the stresses of a working life, but I think I was also looking for some pivotal moment in which I could parcel up the cares of the past and venture out into a more carefree future. We went looking for such a babbling brook, but instead found a raging torrent. We sat next to it nonetheless for a while, and it had its own character, albeit not a restful one.
I guess if this illustrates anything, it’s that human existence on this third rock from the Sun is, to say the least, imperfect. In fact, it seems to me futile, even harmful, ever to seek perfection.
The blue tit in the forsythia, the dragonflies, the stolid pigeon – they’re just what they are. But in these little things, there’s a window into the closest thing to perfection that we’re ever likely to see in this world.
Unless, of course, I ever find that babbling brook.