Once, more than half my life ago, a friend’s character entered a realm of contentment. My own, his best friend, and whose name I still bear in certain places, went after him to bring him back despite the risk, for it seemed that without question that place was a nightmare.
Why? Because our first friend, let us call him Fel, was not content because he had all that he needed, but rather because all that he wished for had been stripped away. And our second, who we shall call Breeze because that was his name once, years and years before he was given the one he now bears, went to that place after him.
Can you imagine the horror of it? To look into your dearest friend’s eyes, and see that he recognised you, and that you meant nothing to him? For that is what Breeze saw: recognition without emotion, without anything. They had risked death together countless times, fought side by side, journeyed between worlds – for this was in the framework of the Void – become closer than brothers, their bonds forged in fire and tested against all the worlds could throw at them, enduring to the point that Breeze would and did chase his friend beyond the bounds of death itself.
He spoke to him, pleaded with him. Fel’s memory was intact, but his mind was not. He could think and reason, but his emotion was replaced by an imposed contentment, his wishes not fulfilled but rather replaced. There was a way out of that realm, but its inhabitants would not take it simply because they were unable to wish to. To wish is to desire, to make an active choice is to desire: they were ghosts following ghost paths, hollow echoes of lives once lived. Breeze recounted their stories, and Fel was able to recall them with equal clarity, but he spoke of them with a sort of faintly fond disinterest, an unbelievable detachment. Even Breeze was beginning to feel it pressing down upon him, a smothering blanket making his memories worth less than they once had been, pressing him to surrender all that was of value and enter a state of no desire. He clung to his determination, but he could feel it eroding as each desperate minute passed. If he stayed too long, he, too, would be worn away.
Breeze took his friend to see the portal that would lead out of the realm. Fel came, perhaps because there was still some faint spark of loyalty in him that had not yet been extinguished, perhaps simply because refusal would have required him to desire to refuse. They stood on its edge and gazed in. Breeze asked him to come with him, begged him, called on every last memory of everything they had ever shared. The faintest light of emotion flickered for bare moments in Fel’s eyes, but I can’t remember now whether he was able even then to take a single step, or whether in the end Breeze pulled him in and fled that place forever with his friend, despite what he’d been told that meant.
Not half so long ago – but still three years now – I got, as one does, a leaflet through my door from the Jehovah’s Witnesses. They’re quite sweet, really: anyone who’s trying to help a stranger gets good marks in my books, even if I don’t think they’re actually helping. They’re trying to do what they think is right, as I understand it, and I can appreciate that without having to agree that it is right. This particular leaflet I kept, unusually, because it both amazed and in some measure horrified me.
Let me explain, for at first glance, it was merely a promise of heaven, as so often held out. In pretty pastel colours, it asked if I wanted to awaken each morning with happy, positive thoughts (for a second, I actually thought it was from the local hypnotist!). Unfortunately, I don’t know where it is, because I’d like to quote it directly: instead, all I have right now is a record of a paraphrase I told to one of my friends. It told me in gentle and comforting words that if I were to join them, then when I died, I would pass into heaven, where all that had mattered to me before would be washed away, and I would feel only eternal peace and happiness.
I would not regret the loss of those who did not join me. I would not mourn the fate of the fallen. Indeed, my paraphrase suggests it at least implied strongly that I would forget them along with all that I had known and all that might have caused me pain. I would know only happiness, forever. This seemed, to me, like a horror, like one of those nightmares that lures you in and traps you with honey-sweet allure and only then reveals the full horror of what you have all unknowing done. I would not and will not give one iota of my life, of all that gives my life meaning, for a cloud of artificial fantasy.
I don’t remember particularly recalling it at the time, but what prompted me to make this post was the connection I see now between the fate Fel was so barely rescued from, and the promise held out in that leaflet. I wonder how others see Breeze’s actions? In their minds, did he pull his friend from a promised land of unparalleled splendour, instead of the horror that he and I perceived it to be? If my friend who played Fel had objected too much, I am sure he would not have been allowed to depart, yet I wonder now what my friend saw in Breeze’s actions. We assume those we know best think as we do, but sometimes we are wrong.
I hadn’t realised, until writing it out at last just now, how close this story sounds to the one about the two pilots that I told the other day. You’d think that I would, but that one was written from another direction, and it had never even occurred to me to draw a parallel to what I have been told was the other end of the spectrum. The story of the pilots is a story about the hell of purposelessness, of giving up, of accepting nothingness in place of life and letting your dreams wither and die. The story of Breeze and Fel is the story of a man who went to win his beloved friend back from the embrace of what he had been told was heaven. If I hadn’t happened to write them down in the same month, I would never have connected the two, even though it seems the only difference is the scenery.
And now, looking back at this new connection, I wonder at the parallel between this picture of a promised heaven, and my vision of a wasteland of despair. For the graveyard I depicted is the graveyard of dreams, and the lowest part of my life has not been the part where I felt the most pain, but the part where I risked becoming numb to it, where the world threatened to lose all meaning. It can be a kind of dreary contentment that is found there: a simple surrender into weariness of life that lets the days blur by, every one the same until ten years might pass without knowing it. Where any effort is twice or thrice the cost it once was, and what little might be gained by it seems meaningless.
Seen from this other angle, is not my vision of darkest hell at once converted to the so-called heaven that Fel found himself in? A place without desire, without love. With no fear – who can fear, with nothing to lose? – but also with no hope, nor even the ghost of hope? Where everything has been brought level, and what is seems ever unchangeable, without even the ember of a desire to change it?
(If any of you have any thoughts on this topic, please share them in the comments! I’d welcome the discussion.)