Thanks to a dreadful Guardian interview I have discovered the incredible Arundhati Roy. I had vaguely filed her in my mind as a contemporary novelist. How wrong. She is an artist, feminist, social activist and genius for life. This is an excerpt from her essay The End of Imagination.
There are other worlds. Other kinds of dreams. Dreams in which failure is feasible. Honourable. Sometimes even worth striving for. Worlds in which recognition is not the only barometer of brilliance or human worth. There are plenty of warriors I know and love, people far more valuable than myself, who go to war each day, knowing advance that they will fail…. The only dream worth having… is to dream that you will live while you’re alive and die only when you’re dead.
Perhaps my time at Q magazine is to blame for my obsession with lists. Four years of “100 Greatest Albums”, “20 Worst Rock Haircuts” and so forth turned my brain into a list-generating machine. I like lists, though. They reduce life to neatly quantifiable parts. Black and white. “To do” and “done”. The problem is getting sucked into the mind-set that if something doesn’t fit on, or add to, an arbitrary list it isn’t worth doing. We spend far too much time actively striving to fit ourselves into lists. Ask any resume writer: the key to selling yourself is to look great in bullet-points.
Life doesn’t work like that, though. Meaningful achievements and valuable experiences alike tend to resist being whittled down to fit into tidy lists. Not that there is anything wrong with a little list-making. Sometimes it’s nice to look back at a resume, a journal, a series of (god help us) Facebook status updates, and remember what we’ve done. But we should never confuse who we are with what we put down on a piece of paper.
When I first read Hunter S Thompson’s remark that: “Freedom is a challenge. You decide who you are by what you,” I thought he was talking about one’s profession. I thought that freedom consists primarily of not getting up in the morning and going to work for someone else. So I extricated myself from the obvious indignities of wage slavery. But there is more to it than that. Life is not reducible to its component parts (job, family, relationships, hobbies, travel, etc.). I am the sum of all my choices and experiences. I can’t be free in one aspect of life if I am beholden to convention in others. It is axiomatic that freedom entails not behaving like a slave.
Paradoxically, bravery in one sphere tempts me to cowardice in other regards. Fear whispers that I must hoard courage like money, and spend it parsimoniously. A grinning goblin in my psyche tells me that if I resist convention by not having a nine-to-five job, a foot on the property ladder, or a ring on my finger I must appease it by other means. Deeper than logic lies the perverse notion that I have to prove my worth by conforming to a pre-packaged notion of success. I fret constantly about money, the lack of a permanent address, taxes, bills, debts, whether I’ll ever have a house, a car or a child, despite the fact none of these things figure in my personal definition of success. What I want is to be free to write, run, travel, lie in the sunshine, eat when I’m hungry, sleep when I’m tired, love who I want, and ignore irrelevant opinions. Yet instead of enjoying my freedom, I worry myself sick about not having things I don’t want.
It is increasingly obvious if I advance boldly in one direction while retreating fearfully in another I’ll pull myself apart. I’ve wasted too much time on compromise; on bad jobs, unsatisfying relationships and self-defeating behaviour. I’ve always used fear of failure as an excuse, but it is only an excuse. Failure is more honourable than not trying