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Calm • Serenity

The Promise of an Unblemished Life

There continue to be few more tempting or natural aspirations than that of managing to lead an unblemished life; a life substantially free from regret, disaster and upset. We envisage putting our efforts into a meaningful job; marrying the right person; avoiding certain basic mistakes with our children; not wasting years on melodrama and madness and not ending up strange, misanthropic and furious on the other shore. The hopes are so forgivable and so touching, we are unlikely to have been spared their lure.

Photograph of minimalist spiral staircase

But the years are in the habit of inducting us into a succession of heartbreaking realities. Very few potential partners are without some gravely awkward dimensions; we ourselves may – remarkably – not at close quarters be quite the untroubled and easy people we always fervently imagined we must be. Once the marriage documents are sealed and a child or two are on the way, it takes only a little emotional distance, three or four failed sessions with a counsellor and a few temptations to unleash a disaster that can reverberate down the generations. We don’t – sadly – need to be monsters to do monstrous damage. Our minds are filled with wishes that threaten the settled order of society; our blind spots and impatience prevent us from identifying the traps before it is too late. An entire life may be destroyed by a misjudgement that the internet refuses to forget. Our childhoods are likely to have filled us with a host of hard-to-detect emotional conflicts that will wait for the most inopportune and fragile moments to make themselves fully known. Few careers care to answer – over a steady fifty year span – our varied longings for income, status and meaning. And few workplaces are without their share of deceptive and vengeful characters who are ready to ensure that we never have a better life than they do.

It would take a miracle – and they don’t exist – to reach the closing act unharmed. Something terrible will happen. We can’t know exactly what at the outset, but we can be assured that it will find its way to us. There are simply too many risk factors at play. We cannot learn everything we need to through books. We cannot understand the contents of our minds without colliding against certain very hard corners. Something is going to get us – and, however hard we study the lives of others, we won’t have seen it coming. A jealous friend, a casual exchange online, a little corner cut at work, a minor mistake with the tax authorities, just a few years when we didn’t put everything into home life – it takes hardly anything to undo us. In no time at all, a marriage can unravel, we may be fired, a scandal erupts, our minds give way. It’s different for everyone in the details but it’s in the end the same for all of us. We shouldn’t compound our eventual melancholy by assuming we might have done it any other way. We will run a cheese grater hard over the pristine surfaces of our lives.

From the chaos, two things can be pulled. Firstly, a profound commitment to kindness. Righteousness and coldness are luxuries reserved for those who haven’t yet suffered. For the rest of us, sympathy and warm humour are the consolation prizes we desperately need and more readily offer to whichever broken human crosses our path. In the wake of our reversals, we will know at last how properly to reassure and help our stricken companions. We’ll have duly fathomed our exposure to accident and surrendered our superficiality and pride.

Minimalist interior with four identical busts

And secondly, with luck, we’ll have come to richly appreciate whatever has managed not to go wrong as yet. We’ll sense the fragility of everything and look with renewed gratitude at what is still standing, what is still good and what we still love. We thought we might have an unblemished life; we learn – with the years – to be grateful for every unblemished day.

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