I just read some pretty damn good insight from Ted Hughes, writing to his son Nicholas back in the 1980s.
The central idea: our only real selves are the people we were as children, when we felt and processed everything without regard to how we presented ourselves to the outside world. And that since childhood, our lives are mostly a function of us creating and strengthening that outer shell – armor, he calls it – that is adulthood. Our public, professional and social personalities. The stuff that makes us grownups.
However, we still only truly feel things with our childish selves, and that’s where life happens:
That’s the paradox: the only time most people feel alive is when they’re suffering, when something overwhelms their ordinary, careful armour, and the naked child is flung out onto the world. That’s why the things that are worst to undergo are best to remember. But when that child gets buried away under their adaptive and protective shells—he becomes one of the walking dead, a monster. So when you realise you’ve gone a few weeks and haven’t felt that awful struggle of your childish self — struggling to lift itself out of its inadequacy and incompetence — you’ll know you’ve gone some weeks without meeting new challenge, and without growing, and that you’ve gone some weeks towards losing touch with yourself.
This resonates pretty strongly with me these days. It’s nothing I had considered consciously before reading that this morning, but it definitely explains my past year an awful lot. In some ways it was the worst year of my life. In other ways, however, it has been the best. Because whatever else has been happening, I’ve definitely been feeling and experiencing things this past year, after so many years in a superficially happy but ultimately numbing protective shell in which my job, my marriage and all of that armor defined me.
Now, obviously, one cannot only court suffering as a means of accessing and stimulating that true inner self. if you did, you’d probably end up like poor Nick Hughes and his mother. But there are other ways to do it.
Like letting yourself actually experience things – even the goofiest things imaginable – without forced ironic distance and too-cool-for-school posturing that is so common among people my age. Not assuming that your life has to go in the direction inertia sends it is another. Finding love and actually appreciating it as something new and something special is probably the most rewarding way.
Ultimately we need that armor to function in a world full of people who, understandably, prefer to deal with armor-clad adults and not emotional children. I mean, work has to get done and anyone who has kids knows that children are the greatest impediment to efficiency in the known universe.
But when you’re home? When you’re thinking about your life and processing all of the things going on around you? Do it naked. It’s the only way to truly live.