There might seem no way out of the grey times when you are in them. But as long as you can draw a breath, the possibility is there that you can be happy again.
When you look back upon your life, are there times that you would rather never think of again? Times of which, if you were writing the story of your life, you might prefer to skip past the unwelcome memories?
Into every life, the grey times, grey days, even grey years will more than likely fall.
They are no fun to live through. They may have little or nothing of worth for you in the long run. But just making it through such times can be an achievement in itself.
If you are able to read these words, then either you have successfully made it through those times, or you are at least capable of surviving them, perhaps even of thriving. If you can learn something from the times you’d otherwise prefer to forget, then so much the better.
It is all too rare that we will talk about such times, own up to others that they ever happened, or are happening even now. It can take honesty, bravery and vulnerability to be open about those grey days.
My greatest challenge
I’ve been thinking a lot about this of late, prompted by a most unexpected source. Namely, Bob Mortimer’s gentle and surprisingly moving autobiography And Away…. Emotion is always close to the surface in this lovely book. Mortimer’s words somehow brought back memories of a time I would normally try to forget.
Mortimer writes with remarkable openness and vulnerability about his inherent shyness, and the difficulty shyness has caused him, particularly in his youth. I can relate. The difficulties resulting from his shyness come to a head when he attends university. Mortimer says:
“University is full of strangers. Strangers are my biggest fear and my greatest challenge – a challenge I’m afraid I’m not up to.”
Again, I can relate. Mortimer’s description of university life rings so many bells for me. He describes a feeling of shyness-induced awkwardness around his classmates that I remember all too well:
“All the other students seemed so confident and worldly. They all seemed so articulate, and nothing intimidates me more than articulate people. They always make me feel small and pathetic. It’s not their problem; it’s mine. It’s just not a game I was taught and I’m very unsure of the rules. At the end of each tutorial, off I would run back to my room, like a little rat to his nest.”
Mortimer’s university years were anything but happy. Yet somehow, he sticks with it and makes it through his time as an undergraduate. After just a few short pages of describing his student days, Mortimer effectively hits the literary fast-forward button. He says:
“There is nothing much more I can say about the next three years.”
A flotilla of butterflies
While I can relate to what Mortimer went through, there is no question that he had a worse time of it than me. My university years were not as singularly miserable as his sound to have been.* The toll that these times took on Mortimer was also much worse than anything I experienced.
During his student days, Mortimer comes to feel that he has lost his old self, mourning the passing of what he sees as “the old Robert”**, a Robert who could be happy. His doctor prescribes anti-depressants, which Mortimer continues to take for a further five years. As time rolls slowly on, he reaches an acceptance that the old Robert is gone for good, that happiness can never and will never return.
But then one day Mortimer’s happiness does return. Happiness is reborn in him during a moment of triumph and exultation at a football match of his beloved Middlesborough FC:
“When the noise died down, a flotilla of butterflies exploded in my stomach. I had experienced a rush of unbridled joy for the first time in years. Robert Mortimer was back. I could be happy again.”
So delightful is Mortimer’s description of resurgent happiness that I almost felt that same flotilla of butterflies while reading those words. The grey times, the grey days, the grey years can pass.
Mortimer’s subsequent years are of course not free of grey times. History almost feels like it is repeating itself years later, as he writes about his withdrawal from the world following life-saving open-heart surgery. But this time of retreat also passes. He recounts another “flotilla of butterflies” moment, as he returns to the stage with Vic Reeves just a few months after the surgery. The trepidation and dread at returning to the world melt away:
“The audience laugh and we are on our way. I owe a big thank you to that audience for being so enthusiastic and so generous. They helped me throw off the shackles of my heart disease. I had broken through the psychological barrier of heart fear and could now fully release myself from the cage of self-pity in which I had been trapped. It was time to start enjoying life again.”
You can be happy again
At the end of And Away…, Bob Mortimer offers up a few pages summarising the lessons he has taken from life. It includes his advice for we shy types:
“If you yourself are a shy one, then please try not to settle for living in your isolation cage. Take every opportunity a stranger or colleague or associate may offer and run with it to the moon. There is no need to be scared of people or believe that what you have to contribute is worthless. People are generally nice and most of them are extremely boring most of the time. Take a chance, get involved and slowly the cage will open.”
None of this is to denigrate shyness. It can be a quite lovely quality. It can be so deep-rooted that it forms a core part of a shy one’s personality. This is no bad thing.
None of this is to make light of the grey times. Every one of us will experience them at one point or another, and their intensity and duration can vary as widely as there are folks in this world.
Into every life, the grey times, the grey days, even the grey years might fall. There might seem no way out of the grey times when you are in them. But as long as you can draw a breath, the possibility is always there that you can be happy again. Never lose faith that happiness can come back to you, returning with the exuberant colour and joy of a flotilla of butterflies.***
* My time as an exchange student at an American university showed me another world and brought me out of myself to an extent I would never have thought possible. I still find it hard to believe that shy, retiring 19 year old me took that step onto that aeroplane to go and live in a new world. But I am so pleased he did.
** His times as Bob Mortimer lay firmly in the future. He didn’t become a Bob until he met and then started to work with Jim Moir, aka Vic Reeves.
*** If you are sufficiently interested or sufficiently pedantic, I looked up the collective noun for butterflies. Apparently there are a fair few contenders, with a “flight” or a “kaleidoscope” of butterflies proving particularly popular. If anyone knows the definitive collective noun – or would like to suggest their own – please tweet me, or post a comment below.
- Try butterfly john english.
- Close wing position of Delias hyparete Linnaeus, 1758 – Painted Jezebel on Alstonia scholaris via Wikimedia Commons.
- Exorcist/horror movie poster atmosphere from my early morning walk on Saturday 15 January 2022 (Photo by MJCarty).
- John Piper window, Nettlebed via Wikimedia Commons.