People often ask me how I keep finding ideas to write about for these regular articles and I tell them that most often they come from reading something, or seeing or hearing something, that interests or moves me in some way. Sometimes that something will translate quickly into an idea and I scurry off and write it down. Other times I will store that something in the back of my mind, maybe for months, before suddenly I know exactly what I want to say about it.
This week two of those somethings came together in an unexpected way. Be ready to be challenged!
The first source of stimulation came several months ago when a friend told me a story. She was coming to the end of a a degree course on art therapy, which she had loved. On the last morning she and her classmates filed into the classroom for a final lecture. The man taking the lecture was the director of the course, someone they had grown to respect and like over the two years. When he came to the end of the session, he said to them:
'There is one thing I want you all to promise me.'
The class inwardly groaned, as children do, thinking that he was going to lecture them on keeping studying, keeping reading, practising what they had learnt. But no, this is what he said:
'I want every one of you to promise me that you will have a big life.'
The second source came more recently. In preparation for my forthcoming trip to Burma, I have been reading a book entitled 'Finding George Orwell in Burma'. It's a travel memoir written by an American woman, Emma Larkin, who spent a year in Burma following the movements of George Orwell. Orwell spent four years there in the 1920s when it was a British colony. As a result of his experiences he wrote the novel 'Burmese Days', a bitter account of colonial brutality and the loneliness of a British police officer. It surprised me to learn that intellectual circles in Burma believe that Orwell went on to write the second and third parts of the history of Burma in his novels Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty Four. Burma's progression from colonial rule through military coup to totalitarian state is described in such frightening precision in these three novels that Orwell has come to be known in Burma as 'The Prophet'.
A particular paragraph caught my eye:
'A totalitarian government,' Orwell wrote, 'knows that its hold on power is not legitimate, and therefore can never allow the truth to be recorded. To maintain the status quo it depends on lies.'
Now you may be wondering how this paragraph could possibly relate to the story about having a big life. This is how it happened.
When I was jotting down some notes for this piece, I realized I'd omitted a letter in Big Life, the f.
It was just one letter, but what a difference it made.
A Big Lie. I want you all to promise me to have a big lie.
When reading about Burma I realized how incredibly fortunate we are, living in a country with a democracy, where you can speak what is true for you whenever you want; where you don't have to worry if your friend is an informer, or that on any day or night the army might arrive and arrest you whether you have done something wrong or not. I wondered what it would be like for the people of Burma if they suddenly had the freedom we have. Would they rejoice and expand into new Big Lives, would they use their freedom of speech and movement? Or would the decades of lies and restrictions
have such a hold that they wouldn't know what to do with it?
It also struck me how, despite our freedom, so few of us have lives that we would call 'big'. That we are constrained, not so much by government, but by all the pressures and expectations we put on ourselves, by our fears, by our need for safety and approval and yes, by the lies we tell ourselves. The tyrant, the regime, is in our heads.
Under any dictatorship, as Orwell says, the truth is submerged. It has to be. The ruling party tells you that everything is good, that anything different would be dangerous, that people who suggest otherwise need to be suppressed. The dreams you have, your potential, your feelings, your desires, your hopes, all these, they would say, are a threat to your welfare and safety. That is how lives are kept small.
The truth is that when someone says 'promise me you will have a big life', we don't really know what they mean, do we? What is a big life?
Nevertheless, something stirs within us.
1. What does 'a big life' mean to you? More success, more achievements, more fulfilment, more talents used, more money, more friends, more children, more travel? Or does it mean more love, more joy, more peace, more time? Or something completely different from any of these?
2. What keeps you from having a bigger life than you currently have? What rules do you have to have in place? What consequences do you threaten yourself with if you break them? What lies do you have to tell yourself? What frightens you and what do you not do in order to feel safe?
3. Imagine you were suddenly freed from these constraints, there is a new government in power that, instead of wanting to hold you back, wants you to have the biggest life you could possibly have. How would you feel and what would you do?
This is what one person would do....
"When I was little and running on the race track at school, I always stopped and waited for all the other kids so we could run together even though I knew (and everybody else knew) that I could run much faster than all of them! I pretended to read slowly so I could "wait" for everyone else who couldn't read as fast as I could! When my friends were short I pretended that I was short too and if my friend was sad I pretended to be unhappy. I could go on and on about all the ways I have limited myself, my whole life, by "waiting" for people. And the only thing that I've ever received in return is people thinking that they are faster than me, people thinking that they can make me feel bad about myself just because I let them and people thinking that I have to do whatever they say I should do. My mother used to teach me "Cinderella is a perfect example to be" but I have learned that Cinderella can go fuck herself, I'm not waiting for anybody, anymore! I'm going to run as fast as I can, fly as high as I can, I am going to soar and if you want you can come with me! But I'm not waiting for you anymore."
C. Joybell. C, Novelist and poet