I fell in love with the title of Milan Kundera’s novel “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” before I ever read the book. The phrase seemed to identify something I had long felt but never put into words—a sense of being lightly tethered to the “real.” While at first it was experienced as something negative, later it morphed into a much more positive feeling.
Even as a child, there always seemed to be some disconnect between “me” and the world around me. It was more than a sense of shyness, or not fitting in, or being different. It was more like a hyper awareness, or extreme self-consciousness—as if I stood outside myself, watching myself as I moved through the world and interacted with others. Other people seemed to live in the moment, embedded in experience. I always felt somewhat removed, disconnected, as if I floated above experience and not in it.
I don’t know now if this was a continuous feeling, or something that I felt so deeply and strangely at different times growing up that I identified with the feeling—of not being quite grounded in “reality,” the reality that others seemed to experience and take for granted.
I wrote about the experience in a short story called “Fine and Shimmering” which referred to the tenuous thread that tied Sheri (the main character) to the real and kept her grounded.
It was curious, this sense of separation she felt whenever she tried to blend in with a crowd, of always rising to the surface, alien and exposed, the way oil will when mixed with water. All her life Sheri had struggled with this lack of gravity and the need to be grounded in something more substantial than herself. Even in high school simple things eluded her, set her apart. How to walk, how to talk, how to laugh out loud.
Later she describes it this way:
[S]he felt unusually light-headed, as if she and her body, always out of sync, had reached some new height of disjunction. Once when Sheri had read a book on astral-projection she was startled to learn of that shimmering silver cord that supposedly tied the astral body to the solid one. What startled her was the awful realization that all her life she had been attached to reality by a similar, tenuous thread, let out so far that she seemed to float above experience, never in it. She had always to be so careful, to move so still, so as not to break that fine thread.
Like Sheri, I felt I was in the world but not of it, tied to it but floating above it. Like watching a film where I was a character in the story, so there was always two of us, the watcher (distant and removed—the “real” me) and the watched, the character I was playing as events unfolded (the actor, the role-player, the “pretend” me).
This could have evolved from being a quiet child who was a keen observer of life. As an observer, you are always once removed from the things observed. There is always a distance between you and those you are watching, or the events as they are unfolding. This experience is disconcerting, to say the least. It‘s like trying to carry on a phone conversation while hearing the echo of your own voice. Like living in an echo chamber. Or feedback loop.
I could never figure out if this was a characteristic peculiar to me, or if others felt the same way. Do we all live in this echo chamber, this constant feedback loop? Or only me and a few other odd ducks? I still don’t know. Either way, it was experienced as something undesirable, something that set me a part, and created a distance between me and the “immediate,” “the real,” an “authentic” self.
Looking back, in some ways, it’s not surprising I felt this way, disconnected from the world– it’s a wonder we all do not. After all, we come into this world understanding that our time here is brief and tentative—any moment we can be torn from it through a fatal accident or tragedy or disease or violent event. And even if we have the good fortune to live a very long time, when the end comes, we realize what a brief moment in time it actually was.
We also come to see that this “I” we identify with is constantly changing. We are not the same “I” as an infant as we are as a teen or a parent or an elder. And any manner of things can change us or warp us or shape us along the way. Our identity is tentative and temporary at best.
And where is this “I” located? In our personal history? The labels that identify us? The many hats and roles we play in life? Does it reside in our heads? Our hearts? Our bodies? Does this “I” stop where our skin ends? Or does it move within and without us, like our breath? Does what I see, hear, feel, become part of me in the act of holding them in my thoughts, becoming part of my mind, my brain, my experience, my memory? Do observer and observed become one? Two parts of one indivisible experience?
Is it a wonder I felt lightly tethered to the “real,” to this human experience where “I” am constantly changing and impossible to pin down or separate into a distinct entity?
Sheri experienced this “unbearable lightness of being” as something oppressive that she rebels against. In the end though she learns all that’s needed to be free is to let go:
To take that fine and shimmering thread between sharp teeth and snip it clean through. To drift aimlessly, like the merest wisp of cloud, a lingering trace of dawn, upon an otherwise immaculate sky. Awaiting that final dispersal, into the blue.
Sheri experienced “letting go” as drifting off into an unencumbered void. Mine was quite different.
When that wall of “otherness” disappeared, I felt deeply connected to this ephemeral world. I felt a lightness of being that is “unbearable” only in the sense of being too sweet, too rich, too beautiful “to bear.” And so I didn’t try to hold onto it. I just let it wash though me.
I’ll write more about this in another post.