I read a quote this morning, which immediately stuck with me:
Adversity is the state in which man most easily becomes acquainted with himself, being especially free of admirers then.
It seems very true, and apropos of much, I have thought about in the last 48 hours.
Adversity strips you back to the basics. When times are good and easy, it becomes customary to adorn yourself with accoutrements of good living and success. You become immersed in that persona, your true self buried beneath layers of extraneous and ultimately irrelevant luxuries. That’s not to say you can’t be an authentic person still, but it’s nearly impossible to be your basic self. When strife comes all that falls away, either because you can no longer afford to carry it, and because ultimately it is secondary to the person you are. Adversity, should you survive it, simplifies it.
What happens then when you survive and surpass the adversity? Hopefully, you’re left with a truer sense of self and a better perspective on what truly counts. I think that’s true of me, but it also has unexpected, even unintended consequences. This is what I’ve been pondering.
I took the decision earlier this year to open myself up. I chose to let go of the shame and the dark secrets that haunted me. That process is incomplete but is making good progress. One of my hopes was from that I would become more approachable. For many years – even before my slice of adversity – I could be charming, but also seen as generally enigmatic by many, and intimidating to some. That never worried me too much, and to be honest, doesn’t concern me too much now in principle. It’s what it means that I wonder at.
Since I made that decision, I’ve succeeded in broadening the group of friendly people around me. I can still be a grouch, but I’m also often light-hearted, witty, generous. I hope and expect that most people within that enclave see me as kind-hearted and true.
Beyond that, darkness still reigns. I’m still enigmatic at best, occasionally intimidating, and sometimes arrogant.
There are two sides to this. The first is that I don’t know it does me much favours. The second is that I’m not sure if I care if it favours me or not.
Having survived my hardships, I find myself looking back at the time before with a different perspective. By and large, life was pretty good, even happy, and in general, I was a success. I took pride in being my own man and doing my own thing. I sought experience over promotion, though ultimately experience served promotion. I travelled broadly, read widely, and considered myself an urbane intellect. I was supremely confident.
Then it comes tumbling down. Rome burns. Slowly I inch my way back over an extended period until I have some semblance of a normal life, though it’s been a torturous process – and it’s but a fraction of what I had before. What I have is a mindset.
I like the man I was before. I think he was a sincere character. He meant well. All the same, looking back, I realise what I see are the delusions of the man of comfort. I convinced myself that I was leading an unconventional life, and so doing that made my life worthy. If only it were that simple! And only if it were true!
I’ve come out of that with few illusions. I’m subject to the same conceits as most people, but then I deal with them more harshly than most. I feel no need for admirers having survived what I have. I believe the true essence is being authentic to yourself. I miss some of the fripperies and still have an indulgent, sensual streak, but I see them now for what they are, pure adornment.
Above all, I don’t want to delude myself that I am more than what I am. I want to be in myself, and in these moments.
I find myself unwilling to commit to the bill of sale presented to me. It’s like I’ve become more aware of the precious self inside and refuse to compromise it – I have one life, my life. Having experienced such hardship much that passes for misfortune appears trivial. Given I have limited time remaining to me, and hence, limited opportunities, I want to make them count, and to be sincerely true throughout. I refuse categorically to allow myself to be stamped by conventional expectation, and that informs behaviour. If I seem impatient, it’s because I don’t want to waste time, and if I’m outspoken, it’s because I refuse to be silenced just because that’s how people behave. Life is a vital thing – don’t muddle through it!
There was always time before, so I would tell myself. I was content in being a quirky character. Now I realise that time shrinks, and there’s no excuse to put things off. I have an urgency now that I only ever applied selectively before. I see life in its pure essence, feel it pushing me forward, urging me to live it now, be myself now. That’s one reason I’m now writing the books that I might never have if not for my troubles.
Whether my life ends up being conventional or unconventional or something between doesn’t really matter as long as what I choose to do and be is true to my self. Ultimately the only arbiter is me, and I’m glad of that.
With that said, I realise I have a way to go. I could be softer. I could be less judgemental. Being honest doesn’t always make for a gentle personality – though I believe I am essentially both kind and gentle. I can be true to my principles, but in a more user-friendly way – and no-one would benefit from it more than me.
That’s the next stage for me, and in my mind, I see my next relationship as being central to that. I have someone in mind, but it could be someone else. I realise the person I am drawn to appeals to me because I think she has the qualities to counteract some of my excesses. Well, for other reasons too. And when I think about that, I wonder what it is she sees in me that resonates so in her? It’s such a cliché, but really the best relationships are based on complementary characters, not identical, like two pieces of a jigsaw that fit together perfectly. I need what she can give me; hopefully, I can give her what she needs in return.
Much of this I considered as I sat having a coffee in a cafe in Hampton. I looked out over the street, watching people walk their dogs, and my mind ticking over. At the end of it, as I began the walk home with my groceries hoisted on my shoulder, I wondered if I was more complex than most people, or just more aware of my complexities? That led to the obvious question: does self-awareness lead to greater complexity? I might easily have asked if self-awareness simplifies things. It probably does some things, but overall I expect the scales are tilted the other way.
Self-knowledge means looking beyond the surface and beholding the depth and detail beneath. I think it is inherent that with that comes understanding, but so to complexity. Either way, I wouldn’t want to be any different.