Tuesday, 15 March 2011
I don’t believe in anything
Kenya, near Mithini, 70km from Nairobi
I’ve not been sleeping well recently. To those of you who know me this will come as no surprise given that I exhibit five out of the six scientifically recognised sleep disorders. Namely: sleep anger, sleep fear, sleep anxiety, sleep aggression, sleep copulation, and sleep eating. It’s only the last – sleep eating – that I have escaped from, leaving no wiggle room for flabby excuses. This fine physique is entirely of my own, fully sentient, making although I can’t categorically deny ever having done the truffle shuffle during the night.
These sleep disorders generally manifest themselves in sleep walking and talking. Well, except one, which I don’t think even the most optimistic reconstructive physio and speech therapists could describe as the acts of walking or talking. More like grunting and flailing. These night time shenanigans are, I think, a symptom of my brain which just never stops whirring. This is not an indicator of useful or productive brain activity, oh no, knocking around instead in my cranium is the most random, illogical, and ultimately pointless debating chamber ever called into session.
As a result, relaxation of the spa brochure description is elusive to me, premised as it is on the assumption that the body and the mind take a break. I feel more wound up after having a massage than before. Sometimes there’s a jolly good reason for this (a story for a later, adults only, posting), but mostly it’s just that an hour lying flat on my front with nothing to do but think is hard work. So when I go to bed it’s often as if the day is continuing, but with the daytime constraints of society, manners, and logic removed. Going to bed drunk is the same but to the power of 50. There’s a top five countdown at the foot of the post that reveals, somewhat embarrassingly, that my nocturnal activities are probably more interesting than my waking moments.
Anyway, this preamble is purely to provide some context as to why I sat bolt upright in bed last night and declared to myself, out loud, ‘I don’t believe in anything’. It’s rare that I remember my night time activities, but last night I remember having some crazy fever dreams that revolved around things disappearing, forever. Apocalyptic dreams are my assigned feverish state, and I believe that everyone has a recurring theme that dominates their mind when a fever takes hold. Rather than fluffy bunny rabbits and kittens mine is the apocalypse, ‘dem da breaks I suppose. What I remember from last night is feeling terrified but strangely calm, even liberated. The feeling was, I imagine, the one you’d get after you accepted that yes, this asteroid is indeed heading towards earth, and no, Bruce Willis isn’t really a drilling expert, and no again, Will Smith can’t take his place instead, this is an asteroid not a group of aliens, otherwise he’d be perfect. It was this mental cocktail, I think, that eventually transmogrified into the declaration that ‘I don’t believe in anything’.
Ordinarily I dismiss random outpourings from my subconscious (If I didn’t I’d be in prison for violently but methodically killing the next person who didn’t say thank you when I held a door open for them). But this time I’ve spent all day thinking about it, and what with it being a Sunday, and with me finally drawing a line in the sand and politely refusing to attend church with the children, it seems right to address the idea of belief. It’s a bit like string theory this one, tricky subject.
So I got to thinking – what really are the big things one can believe in? What are the anchors against the choppy waters of chaos? What can one cling on to that says ‘that’s me’, ‘that’s my identity, right there, with those folk (no, not them, they’re the Other folk)’? And when you limit it to the ‘big things’ only there’s only a couple, I think, worth considering: there’s religion obviously, and then there is its secular twin - political ideology. To be clear - I’m not talking about principles or ideals, but about belief – about something that one takes a Kierkegaardian leap of faith into, something that provides the basic skeleton of what it means to be ‘you’, and not ‘them’. I have principles and I have ideals, and I try to structure my life in a way that more or less adheres to them, but do I actually believe in anything greater, or more supra or super natural than these? I don’t think I do.
Religious belief is out for me. Whilst it sometimes confuses me, sometimes terrifies me, sometimes angers me, and always fascinates me, I very cogently chose to take the leap of faith in the opposite direction, into atheism. In some ways I’m jealous of those with religious belief – they have something that explains the often inexplicable human condition and a daily playbook for dealing with it, finding solace and fortitude in times of strife. And they have a community who help define who they are, and whether implicitly or explicitly, aggressively or peacefully, this definition sets boundaries by defining who the ‘other’ is – a ‘do you wanna be in my gang’ mentality that protects its own.
Right here, in this rural isolated spot in Kenya religious belief sits as the backbone behind acts of kindness towards children who need kindness in their life. It inspires, and it guides, and it comforts – it makes life bearable when it is hard, and joyous when it is not. Take this random, but illuminating, example: the bathing and latrine rooms at the orphanage adjoin each other in a single tin structure and one day it happened that they were both occupied simultaneously – the latrine by me, the bathing room by the deeply religious (and utterly selfless and lovely) Ziporah. Whilst I was throwing curses at the universe for my aforementioned lack of flexibility and temperamental constitution, she was belting out Amazing Grace. An alien surveying the scene would undoubtedly conclude that it was Ziporah they would abduct as it was she who demonstrates the qualities their planet needed (unless they were from the Planet of the Apes in which case I’d be returned as the new king). It is she who actively chooses joy over despondency in her own life. Their judgement would be absolutely right, of course, and off she’d go, leaving me to also clear up the goddamn marks from the tractor beam.
And yet despite all this, despite the often admirable and categorically ‘good’ approach to life a religious belief can engender, to me none of these things actually require religious belief – I don’t believe in God, and nor do I have any need to invent him. I can write my own playbook, thank you very much, and guess what – half of what’s in there is a copy and paste from yours, the common sense and decency bits. What it doesn’t have is a creed that spawns contradiction and conflict, that removes the need to think independently, and that at its core has, quite frankly, absolutely no basis in reality. I don’t believe in pixies or dragons either, even if lots of different people have written lots of different books about them, and I still wouldn’t believe in them if said books were compiled into an anthology over the next few hundred years.
Similarly, political ideology is a non-starter. We’ve already dealt with religious belief, so those political ideologies that are grounded in a religious conviction are off the agenda for me (aided in no small way by the fact that this ginger and brown tiger stripe beard I’ve been sporting looks, well, daft and would still look daft even if it was demanded by some religio-politic dogma). Equally, the other ‘isms’ – Marxism, communism, socialism et al hold no real appeal for me, dogged as they are with the kind of fundamental contradictions that has consigned them permanently to the trash can of political history. Man may have been born free and equal, but nobody said he wanted to stay equal. And whilst democracy may be used to occasionally justify wrong-headed wars, it is still the lesser of many evils, recognising as it does the fundamental conflict at the heart of the human condition, and providing a mechanism to mediate this conflict. But it is just that – a mechanism – not an ideology. So whilst I can admire democracy, and act democratically, I can’t really claim to have any fundamental belief in it.
So, where does this leave me? No beliefs, no stability, no anchor, no pre-written narrative for my life. Scary? Nihilistic? No, I don’t think so. Believe it or not, it sounds absolutely bloody marvellous to me.
Yeh, I know, that was a bit heavy. To lighten the mood here’s the top five run down of my night time adventures, taken from the top 40 (winks), the head-board 100, Top of the Cots.
5. Exit at 35,000 feet: At 12 I slept walked on a flight from the UK to Johannesburg attempting, twice, to open the door ‘so I could get out’. Much to the relief of the other passengers, I was intercepted by a kindly air hostess.
4. Sshh, spiders: a few years ago I awoke my then girlfriend by attempting to set light to our duvet using a zippo lighter, muttering ‘sshh, need to kill the spiders’. She still married me, the fool, although marital relations are more difficult wearing a full fire-resistant body suit.
3. Help! I’m trapped in a quarry! My teenage years were littered with sleepovers that took a disturbing nocturnal turn, not least the time I fell down a set of steep stairs from an attic room, getting wedged between the bottom stair and the door, dreaming I’d slipped into a quarry and screaming out for help. Awoken by my screams my friend’s mother opened the door, causing me to fall out, foetal like, onto the landing. I’m not quite sure how I explained that one, but still have the scar to prove it, and was later offered my first proper job by this wonderful, and understanding, woman.
2. You know Alex, in the bedroom upstairs, he just got out of prison, for murder! Ah, young love. Birmingham University, 1999, five boys sharing a house, the first night my new girlfriend agreed to sleep over (now my wife, she never learns), slumbering peacefully in the dead of night. That is until I sat bolt upright in bed, eyes open, and turned to her to urgently utter the words above. Before falling straight back to sleep. It took two weeks and, in retrospect, a strange dynamic between my girlfriend and one of my housemates, before she declared that she simply couldn’t believe that he could do such a thing. I thought she was properly mental, and was edging towards the door, until she explained the provenance of the rumour. ‘Ah’ I replied, ‘there’s something you probably need to know…’
1. Tie a knot in it or something! A simple tale. Me sharing a room during school holidays with my two female cousins, aged 7,8 and 9 respectively. I pissed on my cousin’s face, mistaking it for a urinal. Between hysterical laughter my auntie managed to suggest the above piece of advice to my mother as she battled to gain control, a la Charlie Chaplin and the fire hose.