Sometimes it feels as though God Almighty messes with your perception of time just to humble you, doesn’t it? Just when you feel that you have a handle on it, that you have tasted enough of life to have a decent idea of what all of this could be about, that you are sufficiently old and wizened to understand the little chunks in which life is tossed at you – you know, those little portions, the seconds, minutes, hours, days, months, decades – and what it might all add up to, just when you feel you know how much is behind you and how much might be left, that is when your carefully curated edifice is sent flying into outer space. All orientation is lost, the hourglass has gone haywire, your complacency has collapsed. Nothing feels fixed anymore, not even Cartesian common sense.
Einstein already told us time was relative, but what about the time that exists in a more liminal space? Can we bend it, melt it, conquer it, so we won’t feel like it has been a day wasted followed by a day wasted and before you know it a life wasted, all your memories a graveyard of broken promises? Things become more precious the less of something you have left – think the toothpaste nearing its end, which you now squeeze out in small servings with great care. But it’s a cruel joke that it all goes even faster when less is left. Think back to your carefree childhood – summers, or tiffin break, or simply the pre-lunch morning hours on a Friday – didn’t they seem to stretch endlessly with no urgency? And life – life felt infinite. But now you can clearly see the finish line, with nothing worthwhile between here and there.
You bury yourself in the day to day. It’s the age of AI, and social media is the mandatory opium. Your history is now online – an old picture pops up on the screen, your tired eyes washed in its hellish glow. You ask: was that a year ago? Ten years? Yesterday, or a different lifetime? You can’t tell. You try to envision the future. What will things look like tomorrow? Two years from now? Five years? Ten? Your mind freezes and all goes dark. You push it out of your thoughts and try to escape into sleep. In the hour of the wolf, that most sinister of hours where night is darkest before dawn and nightmares are most vivid, you wake up, your heart racing, bathed in a cold terror, engulfed in loneliness. And you think: what even was this life? Was it really a long, long time filled with family, school, jobs, books, love, or was it all an intoxicating illusion fed to your perception, all in the blink of an eye – an illusion that is about to end? You grasp your bedsheets for dear life until sleep comes again, and then sunrise, and then a new day. And now here’s you – again: last night’s episode wiped from your memory, crying in the shower before work, bewildered at the cause of your tears, because by all accounts it’s a beautiful day, and another neatly packaged eight-hour slot of work-related challenges beckons. The profound questions which gnaw at your heart – they will have to wait. The mundane always takes priority.
But that droning of doubt doesn’t really go away, does it? You feel that you were meant for something else, something more. Perhaps your creator, like a disappointed coach on a soccer pitch, is yelling at you – telling you to move in the direction of your calling. At least get your act together before the half-time whistle, you dolt! But still, you are clueless, zigzagging through the field like an overgrown child. Then the attack of doubt zaps you straight between the eyes, and alternate universes cascade in your mind’s eye. Are you even you, and if you are not you, who the hell are you?
At blinding speed, the sins of the world become you. The distinction between you and them melts, as you feel the original sin in its totality. Here is you: you are Oppenheimer and you have just had the lightbulb moment about what the H bomb can do. Here is you: you are Netanyahu and your conscience has just now comprehended what it means to kill a child every ten minutes in the name of self-defense. You are every dishonest piece of writing that you did – every editorial, every op-ed, every little caption that flew against your conscience and only served the powers that be. You try to pull yourself out of this labyrinth, firmly grab on to your own ethics. You know you can evolve, you can be better. Knowledge will be your savior – you mutter this to yourself like a mantra, and now here is you: you are Socrates, and after this long hard life of the mind, all you know is that you know nothing.
You are closer to death, but no closer to answers. Where oh where, you ask, did the time go.
Put your thoughts down, that’s your solution – the good, the bad, the unspeakably traumatic. Just put them down, you say. Writing is the cure, writing is catharsis, writing is life itself. But … also, writing is your job. The task at hand can be as sublime as flying past Jupiter and watching the world being born or as tedious as washing your underwear, and you never know which the roll of the dice will bring. And there it is, creeping out from the shadow, the time tyrant, whispering the word deadline. Deadline. Dead. Line. The line of death. Life therefore you write. Deadline therefore you are. Gaze into the abyss if you have to, scream into the void if you have to, but meet the deadline straight up with no fear, steady eye-contact, and a firm handshake. Tick tick boom, says the tyrant, but by now your heart is steady, the words are calm, and they flow.
At first you thought it would all be about yourself. A masterclass in navel-gazing perhaps? But no. The temptation to tear out a piece of your soul and splash your anxieties on to the page would be too much to bear. So this will be about something else – well within the assigned parameters, gentle, playful, entertaining, relatable even. It won’t be about you at all, it will all be about the other one. You know, that other one! The shadow jester, the dark comedian, the one that pulled itself out of you and hovered just a few inches away, so close but untouchable. You have, after all, mastered that most useful of the mental arts: Dissociation.
Abak Hussain is Contributing Editor at MW Bangladesh.