As a species we are entranced with stories about near-misses. We love nothing more than hearing about someone who narrowly skirted past disaster. When their subtle, nothing choices or a chance encounter rips them from the jaws of calamity. They miss the boat that later hits an iceberg. Or the plane takes off without them, only for all aboard to perish.
In my own inconsequential brush up with the Grim Reaper, I was sixteen and walking down Devils’ Tower Road in Gibraltar and I slowed my pace to untangle my headphones. I was suddenly startled by the roar of an engine and a car mounting the pavement right in front of me. Just a few steps away. On and off the pavement it swerved before finally finding its home under a toppled street light. I checked the driver was alright, called the police and my Dad. Then I continued on my way to buy a Pot Noodle, silently thanking the wires still knotted in my hands.
You can call it bad luck or good karma, or maybe it’s just god working in his famously mysterious ways. But whatever the vessel or entity, benevolent god or empty universe, we walk away from these near misses thankful for blessing of living just one more minute. Even if that minute is spent mundanely and unremarkably.
Once I stopped shaking, I felt sure I was floating. Leaning against a wall giving a statement to the police officer, looking over to my dad for a silent signal for what I should do. I was alive and not trapped under the wheels of an out of control car or fallen lamppost. “I suppose this living isn’t so bad,” we say. “I should learn to be more grateful while I have it.”
In one of Alan Watts’ most famous lectures, the Dream of Life, he talks about how if we were to lucid dream every night and spend entire lifetimes in these dreamscapes entirely in our control and containing every pleasure, after a while we’d say: “Surprise me. Let’s have a dream that isn’t under my control.” With every passing night, we’d slowly become more adventurous. Before long and within “the infinite multiplicity of choices”, we’d end up dreaming the life we’re living right now. We’d end up where we are, and we’d be all the happier for it.
Because where’s the fun in playing god? In always knowing what’s coming along next? People extract all kinds of lessons from Watts’ talk, but for me, away from all the talk of God and the Self, it really means that the joy of life comes from its unpredictability. All that delight wrapped up in a hurricane, happiness enveloped by despair. It is death and decay and all that horror that drives the engine in our chests and keeps us moving. We run just as fast from fear as we do towards love and desire and admiration, only we’re not nearly so obvious about it.
We ourselves may not be battling against drastic odds or facing down speeding cars, but sometimes what seems to be a fatal mistake or just plain bad luck is really an unseen blessing. The Rolling Stones once said (or rather sung): “you can’t always get what you want.” And honestly, sometimes there is really nothing better. In every seeming rejection there is a doorway, an invitation to self reflection or to embark on some private reckoning.
There’s a relief that sneaks in alongside the shame or guilt, because look — can you see how much space has cleared? And honestly, what’s more frightful to me is capturing and then suddenly needing to keep the desired thing. Worse still is when we dream of something for so long that by the time it appears in our hands we cannot recognise it. Maybe we’ve changed and grown past the need for it, or found its realities are far less romantic than we hoped.
So come join me in leaving all those almost good things, the should have been’s but then couldn’t be’s behind with the hopes of clearing space for what fits us better. To instead embrace disappointment as an opportunity to delve deeper. To ask the darkness a question and say a quiet prayer to whatever being or thought system it is we believe in, and then patiently await a response. It’s easy to dream and plan and exist in our brains, playing out silly fantasies of how things might one day be. What’s harder is accepting the world as is, not as how we’d rather it be.
Jessica Dore once wrote that what’s ours will “rise up to meet us.” It will “come without coercion, without convincing, without control.” And there’s a power that comes with walking away from good things that just aren’t quite good enough. In saying “yes, I hear you, but I choose myself.”
There’s a risk that in losing some of our badness, we may lose the singularities that make us ourselves. But over time it gets easier to trust that voice, that gut feeling. It becomes habit to inquire into what is we’re so afraid of, what we fear we’ll lose if we say no. What returns from the void might be uncomfortable, but it’s answer. It’s a starting point. And it’s from there that the real work begins.
Hi, I’m Lauren and I’m an artist. I write, paint and journal, and have found myself increasingly frustrated with the character count over on Instagram. So, I’ve decided to bring my extended existential ramblings over here in hopes they might find the right ears.