It can be difficult, even impossible sometimes, to find meaning in the actions or behaviour of other people. Looking for reasons can be a frustratingly futile exercise, but perhaps it’s a way of keeping curiosity alive whilst wondering about the lives of others.
I find myself pondering what I’ve decided to call ‘everyday mysteries’ — three seemingly unconnected experiences which seem to provoke more questions than answers in my mind, and which I can’t seem to let go of. When I find myself doing this, it often means that I’m looking to attach some significance to the event or the idea, even if it’s not initially apparent what that significance might be. So far, I can find no answers for myself; I’d like to share my three ‘everyday mysteries’ with you and invite you to offer your own take on them.
Living for the Moment?
Last night on television, there was a trailer for a forthcoming documentary following a team of medical and nursing staff in a city hospital and their work with patients. So far, so familiar, you might say. Except that the patients with whom this medical team specialises are all young people between the ages of 12 and 24, most of whom seem breathtakingly nonchalant at the harm they’re inflicting on their bodies through excessive drinking, drug-taking and disregard (in the case of one diabetic teenager) of adequate self-care.
The camera frames a doctor and his patient sitting at a desk; the doctor is taking notes. ‘How many bottles a day?’ he asks the young man in front of him. ‘Two bottles a day’, comes the smiling reply. ‘Two bottles a day of vodka’, confirms the doctor in a tone that suggests he’s heard this and worse before, and his young patient nods, still smiling. The shot cuts to a close-up of the teenager with diabetes; she explains that she doesn’t let her condition get in the way of enjoying drunken nights out with her friends: ‘I’m just living for the moment’, she says, ‘taking each day as it comes’.
I find myself desperately sad for the wasted lives that these two young people (and the others in the film) seem to be leading: have they no greater aspirations than drinking themselves into oblivion night after night? Can they discern no possible future worth aiming for beyond tonight’s club or pub or drinking hole? Have they no concept of their bodies and selves as needing care and nurturing rather than punishment and self-neglect?
As a therapist, I spend a lot of time with clients who, far from living ‘in the moment’, are forever replaying ‘what if’ scenarios in their minds: ‘What if he leaves me?’, ‘What if she’s angry with me?’, ‘What if I fail?’, etc. They are so focused on what might happen in the indeterminate future that they are unable to participate fully in what is going on for them right here and now.
And in strange and ironic contrast, the young people in that film are doing the exact opposite; they are oblivious to the possible future consequences of their actions and are focused instead on enjoying the hedonistic pleasures of the present moment. If I could bring each group of people together, facing each other across a table, would there be any meeting point between them? Any common ground in the way each approaches living their lives? I don’t know how to make sense of it.
Inside and Outside
I met a friend for lunch the other day and we went to a cafe near her place of work. There’s a step to get in and a door on a spring which needs holding open. As a wheelchair-user, I find even small steps can make life difficult, and doors on springs are an added complication. My friend went ahead of me and looked for something with which to wedge the door open, while I waited outside feeling like a bit of a lemon. There were several people in the cafe, watching this everyday drama unfold before them — but no-one moved to help, despite our clear struggle with getting in. Finally, my friend wedged the door behind a chair and came back out to help me up the step. It was at this point, as we were finally taking our seats in the cafe, that someone asked if perhaps we needed a hand. I managed to stop myself saying anything too cutting, and simply muttered no, thank you, though mentally I was seething with frustration and embarrassment, and thinking ‘It would never have happened in Mexico!’ (in which friendly, helpful country I’ve just been on holiday).
Contrast this with what happened a day later as I was queuing in my car along a busy, congested road in the centre of the city and heard the whine of an emergency siren approaching from further down the road. It turned out to be an ambulance, blue lights and headlamps flashing and the siren on full-blast. At that moment, a bit like the parting of the Red Sea, every vehicle on both sides of the road began manoeuvring in the limited space available to give the ambulance room to pass. I found it quite moving — from being two lines of individual vehicles, their occupants unrelated to and uninterested in each other, they became a co-operative pack of fellow human beings, edging their way as close to the pavement as they could, giving way to others, flashing to signal ‘Go ahead there!’, waving hands in thanks, until the way was clear. The ambulance sped through, and like a slightly chaotic dance troupe, the vehicles stopped and started their way back onto the carriageway.
So, the question is, what made the difference between these two situations? In one, a few people looked on without stirring themselves to help; in the other, several dozen people did everything they could to help as quickly as possible (by getting out of the way). Why do human beings behave differently when confronted with someone’s need for assistance? I don’t have the answer; all I can tell you is how I felt as a participant in both these situations. In the first, I felt excluded, disregarded, unimportant and an object of other people’s curiosity; in the second, I felt moved at being part of a collective effort, equal, included, a part of something greater than myself.
I find myself thinking back over these two incidents, looking for meaning, and so far have found no answers.
The Mystery of History
This is a different kind of mystery but just as potent. As I mentioned earlier, I recently visited Mexico on holiday. One of the highlights of the trip was a visit to Chichén Itzá, proclaimed as one of the ‘new seven wonders of the world’, and truly a fascinating example of ancient Mayan culture and civilisation. The site is huge, and a massive tourist draw, but there in the middle of the vast central plaza, I felt the weight of the city’s long history, as if the trinket-sellers and tourist guides were barely there at all, and instead we were in fact the citizens and travellers of old — come to marvel at the architectural wonders.
Unlike Chichén Itzá, which remained in existence until the 16th century, the cities of the southern Mayan regions were abandoned before the turn of the first millennium AD. No-one is sure of the reasons why, though many theories — including over-population, disease, environmental change and political upheaval — have been put forward. The Maya were a sophisticated people, with skilled engineers and builders, a complex social hierarchy and a deep understanding of mathematics and astronomy. While there are several million Mayan people still living throughout much of Central and South America, the great Mayan civilisation has gone.
It fascinates me — pondering what catastrophic turn of events might have foiled these clever, adaptable people and led them to abandon their beautiful cities to the jungle. Perhaps we’ll never know. It’s another ‘everyday mystery’ that for some reason, like the other two I’ve written about today, stays with me.
Perhaps we all need an everyday mystery now and then to keep us curious about the ‘meanings of life’, both our own and other people’s.
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