When you find yourself living in two worlds, embrace the new world that is manifesting around you.
“It was the sort of early summer evening in New York when all you can think of is living… Everything was as it should be, except that it wasn’t. We were living in two worlds. The old one, which never seemed more beautiful, had not yet vanished; and the new one, about which we knew little except to fear it, had not yet arrived.”
This moving and beautiful passage was written by Carol Blue Hitchens, describing the evening of Monday 8 June 2010. Earlier that day, her husband Christopher Hitchens had received the cancer diagnosis that would usher in the final phase of his life. Over the ensuing months, Carol and Christopher would meet the challenges of the new world in which they found themselves face on.*
Living in two worlds. In a sense, these words might describe the situation each of us is in, always. Now – the present moment – can never be anything but the fleetingly beautiful instant between a past that is behind us and a future that is already manifesting around us.
Yet this idea of living in two worlds feels particularly timely, particularly current. A feeling of chaotic transition has characterised much of the past half-decade (at least in the US and the UK), reaching something of a sustained crescendo throughout 2020. So much of this period has felt like an impossible, endless suspension in ever worsening turmoil.
Learning to let go
“I feel like the last four years we’ve all been on drugs. Trump is a drug. For the people that love him and for the people that hate him. Their entire sense of reality is wrapped around this guy. He’s been a drug. Everybody’s been hopped up on Trump. And now, the party’s over, and people are still acting like the party’s on.”
This is American comedian Tim Dillon, from a recent episode of his podcast, entitled Sober up.** In this current moment in its political history, America is living in two worlds. A former addict himself, Dillon sees a parallel with the first steps on the long, hard path to recovery:
“I’ve been to rehab. I’ve sobered up off drugs. This is very similar to addict behaviour in early sobriety. Early sobriety is all about the idea that you’re learning to let go of the things and the people that you have built your life around as a drug addict, needing this drug. The rituals, the people, the places, all of that has to change. We’re in early sobriety right now. A lot of people are sobering up. The idea is that you’re learning to let go.”
Recovery is the most profound form of change. The addict needs to let go, even if they are not yet be able to admit that it’s over. The next phase is already starting. Nothing will bring the past back.
To be known for the next thing I did
There is nothing to be gained from living in the past, or from trying to put off the moment when you must finally acknowledge that the world as you knew it is over and done.
Here are some of the wisest and most inspiring words I have heard this year:
“I never cared to be known for the last thing I did. I wanted to be known for the next thing I did.”
I was listening to this podcast on an early summer’s morning walk. These words stopped in my tracks. They resonated with me. I am against nostalgia. The next thing should always be a more enticing prospect than things past.
Life happens in the moment. Life is forever fresh. Life is always capable of stopping you in your tracks. Life is forever changing.
I’ve always liked filmmaker Danny Boyle’s words about change. You have a choice to embrace change or to reject it. But opting for the latter won’t stop change happening. Boyle says:***
“You’ve got to go with it. And if you become unable to deal with it, that’s fine. Because it means your time is finished and it’s time for other people to take it on.”
The new world ahead of you may seem a fearful prospect. But fears do not always prove well-founded.
The ability to change is one of life’s greatest gifts. Learning to let go when the time is right is one of the most important lessons that life can teach you.
When you find yourself living in two worlds, open your eyes to the new world that is manifesting around you. The next phase is already starting. Meet it face on. Embrace it.
UPDATE (8 DECEMBER 2020): “…to be perfect is to have changed often”
“To live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.” I feel honoured that Professor Thomas Dixon was so kind as to tweet me these words from Saint John Henry Newman, in response to the above post. I must confess that until today I am reasonably certain that I had never even heard of Saint John Henry Newman. These words are so beautiful and describe so perfectly the ideas that I was attempting to explore in this post that I will certainly be investigating Newman’s words and works further. Thank you, Professor Dixon.
One superb quotation deserves another. I am delighted to report that Hardeep Sing Kohli chimed in to this Twitter chat with some further excellent words from Saint John Henry Newman:
“‘Lead kindly light amidst the encircling gloom, lead thou me on. The night is dark and I am far from home, lead thou me on…’ St. John Henry Newman”
Thank you, sirs. Your words have given me much to ponder today, providing, indeed, a kindly light amidst the encircling gloom of this freezing December day.
May today be nothing but kind to you and yours.
* The quotation from Carol Hitchens Blue is from her afterword to Christopher Hitchens’s book written during his experience with cancer, Mortality. Her words are also quoted in Martin Amis’s new book Inside Story, in which Amis writes about his long friendship with the Hitch, and about the latter’s dignified and stoic behaviour during his illness, all the way through to its tragic end. The pages in which he describes the final moments of Hitchens’s life are some of the most moving I have ever had the privilege to read.
** Here’s the full Sober up episode of The Tim Dillon Show. A note of caution for readers of a perhaps more sensitive disposition – Mr Dillon is not afraid of strong language. But what an intriguing, rapid-fire mind he has.
*** Boyle is here talking about the evolution from traditional to digital filmmaking that he’s seen during his career. This quotation comes from such an unlikely source. Gentle reader, did you know that Keanu Reeves not only made a documentary, but that it is also pretty good? The documentary is entitled Side By Side, and is well worth a watch.