Una Mullally: This summer gave me perspective

The two biggest things – love and death – happen to you no matter what you do

Brian Eno: ‘What I mean by surrender is an active choice not to take control. An active choice to be part of the flow of something.’ Photograph:  Sergio Dionisio/Getty Images

Brian Eno: ‘What I mean by surrender is an active choice not to take control. An active choice to be part of the flow of something.’ Photograph: Sergio Dionisio/Getty Images

 

That’s it then. Over for another year. The summer started out with a referendum hailing great social change, but as it has progressed there have been almost too many sad stories, most of all the ongoing helplessness and death of desperate people trying to scramble their way out of Syria and various African countries to us.

Their destination is the promised land of Europe, where we live in privilege and watch them die trying to get here. I’m sorry, I feel like saying to them. I’m sorry this is happening to you. You didn’t do anything wrong. What the plight of not “migrants” but “people” gives us is perspective.

Perspective is a funny thing, because you can only really get it when confronted with an entirely different version of life from your own. My summer has been spent trying to deal with this bloody cancer that I have, an incredibly surreal situation. There’s a common belief that you learn a lot from tough times. We can wish we wouldn’t be confronted with such a lesson, but the cliche is true. I’ve learned a lot, mostly to do with perspective. One of my favourite films this summer was Pixar’s Inside Out. At one point the character Fear says: “Alright, we did not die today! I’d call that an unqualified success.” I’ve learned to enjoy the rare absences of catastrophe.

Listen

I’ve learned that we are very good at absorbing and reacting to terrible things, but not so much the good things. A psychiatrist in hospital told me that even if you get good news, it can be difficult to respond to or digest it. The initial “kick” of the bad news is so hard, that very few things can override it. Although striving to be happy is a general goal for us all, negativity can be more tempting a state.

Adrenaline rush

But the greatest slab of perspective is realising that you are not in control. The two biggest things in life – love and death – happen to you no matter what you do.

When I was lying in hospital one night, sick from morphine, in a delusional state and with a substantial amount of pain after major abdominal surgery, I unconsciously reached for my phone and put on Brian Eno’s 1978 album Ambient 1: Music For Airports. As the music infiltrated my dreams, I woke up at dawn remembering a talk I attended in New York two summers previously.

In a small room to a handful of people, Eno discussed the type of music he makes. There is a video of it online.

“What one does as an artist can stimulate one or the other of the nervous systems that we have, the sympathetic or the parasympathetic,” Eno said. The sympathetic deals with fight and flight, the parasympathetic deals with activities when the body is at rest. Eno believes his work addresses the parasympathetic, the “rest-and-digest” things.

“It’s part of our being that we actually don’t address very much,” Eno continued, “particularly in urban environments. In urban environments, we’re mostly living off the sympathetic nervous system, because we’re mostly in situations that require speed, alertness, quick decisions, possibly they’re dangerous, there are cars flying around and people with knives, policemen and drug dealers, so we have to be paying attention all the time.”

Surrender

More and more we are geared towards being competitive, working relentlessly, being hyper-alert and existing in an environment where stress is a default rather than a rarity. I find it almost amusing that experiencing something so stressful has in fact been liberating. I’ve learned to surrender, which is very different from giving up. That’s perspective, I guess.

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