‘And suddenly, or so it felt to Poirot, there seemed to be in all this group of people only one person who was really alive – the man who was at the point of death. Poirot had never received so strong an impression of vivid and intense vitality. The others were pale, shadowy figures, actors in a remote drama, but this man was real.’
This quote is taken from Agatha Christie’s murder mystery, The Hollow. The story is a conventional crime novel complete with red herrings and twists and turns, but it is also skillfully layered with an insistent theme: what does it mean to be truly alive? The subtle word-play of the title and setting begs the question, how does one avoid that unappealing fate of living an empty, insubstantial, hollow life?
I’ve been wondering on this a lot lately, this age-old, clicheed question, what does it mean to be truly alive?
Not just the breathing, eating, sleeping kind of alive, but the really living alive, the kind of alive that means that your heart is full and your moments are technicolour. I don’t want to be living an imitation or an echo of a life. I want to be sure that I am not missing the point.
In the last few weeks I’ve been questioning all of this and wondering and praying and waiting for answers.
I get the feeling that, partly, the answers are in the searching, the wondering, the praying and the waiting themselves, but I’ve also found a few clues along the way…
- To really live, you have to receive life as a gift.
Not an entitlement, not a burden, but a gift. A gift to be taken and unwrapped and enjoyed, even when it’s not quite what you wanted or expected.
It’s sometimes a bittersweet gift, like dark chocolate or rich, morning coffee.
Our little family – me, Andrew and Jamie the dog – is affectionate but small, and all the happy memory-making times are tinged with the sadness that we are not yet a growing family. When I spend time with our nieces and nephews (who are fast growing up) and I note how like their parents they are, the preciousness of it all is highlighted all the more by the knowledge that our children won’t necessarily have our hair or eyes or quirks of personality. The tough, painful things certainly colour our lives, but they also bring a depth and richness. Sometimes the bitter brings out and complements the sweetness of life.
- To really live, you have to be engaged.
Wistfully observing others as you scroll through social media is not enough. You’ve got to be ‘all in’. Engagement sometimes means struggle. It means not giving up, not sitting back, not turning away. Engagement takes courage and determination.
The character described in the Agatha Christie quote above is someone who is firmly focused on his work and research, engaged determinedly in developing a cure for a debilitating illness. He is real and living, not because he is heroic or selfless or flawless but because he is engaged and gripped by what he does and sees. He has fought to be free of the things that hold him back in that purpose and he has worked hard and relentlessly at it.
It’s hard to engage determinedly with what life throws at us and with what we hope for, but it seems that it is essential if we want to really live. Andrew and I have been at the beginning of the adoption process and the issues, the possibilities and the realities of it all confront us daily. Sometimes there is a part of me that doesn’t want to engage with it, because it’s tough and heart-breaking and requires a self-belief and determination that frankly, I’ve not had to have before. But I know that to turn away from it would leave me hollow and aimless, because I am made to be in this.
- To really live, you need purpose.
Pointlessness is surely a killer and aimlessness a thief. To do something, however small, for someone or some reason, is affirmative; it breeds belonging and hope.
People often ask me (because I am a teacher) if I am enjoying the summer holidays. I hate that question! I hate it because I have a guilty secret: I don’t really like the summer holidays! I find the long, rather aimless weeks and lack of routine confusing. It’s so hard to balance rest with getting ready for the year ahead or getting things done before I find myself in the throws of a new term. We all need rest and recuperation, but I think that if it’s not balanced with a sense of purpose it can leave us unsure of ourselves and our place in the world. I have to set myself goals for the summer, or I lose my enjoyment of it. This year, it’s all about working on my writing, so watch this space!
- To really live, you need to explore.
Children learn through exploring, trying things out, playing around with ideas. To really live, we need to keep exploring, looking at the world with the eyes of children, re-finding our excitement and wonder.
We have already had a holiday this year, so this summer we are not going away much. We live in such a beautiful part of the world that we don’t really need to, but it’s surprising how much a change of scene can refresh you! We travelled an hour away to Dunster last week, a place I had never been, and I came back completely rejuvenated. I want to explore more new places in the next few weeks, to be surprised and intrigued by what I find.
5. To really live, you need inspiration.
Perhaps it is melodramatic to suggest that a lack of inspiration is akin to a lack of oxygen, but I am inclined to think that it is not so very far from the truth. Listlessness and boredom are not the domain of the truly alive.
Fortunately, we are never far from a person with an inspiring story to tell. Recently I have met so many interesting people, people who are training in architecture or battling illness or starting new initiatives. Chefs and therapists and artists and parents. People from all walks of life are constantly surprising when you get beyond the small talk.
And there is so much else out there to inspire us: books, photographs, films, buildings… We are so lucky in the UK to have so much of the world at our fingertips to learn about and explore.
What or who inspires you?