All of us, at some time or another, reach a certain stage in life when we’ve accomplished certain things we’ve always wanted. Of course, there’s been a journey of tremendous hard work, difficult trade-offs, and just the sheer blood-sweat-and-tears of it all. At such a moment of victory, it is only natural to stop and reflect on the gains.
Yet, often, we don’t fully grasp the meaning of that particular moment or event. We’re likely either basking in the joy of having got the things we’ve longed for or filled with relief at having made it through as intact as possible. We’d prefer not to consider the transience or uncertainty of that ground that we stand on. We’d rather not consider how something hard-won is not necessarily fully or forever ours because that would simply negate all the focus, attention, and effort we’ve put into getting it. And that’s what this weekend’s poem is about.
A few words on Margaret Atwood before we step into the poem. Well-known the world over for her prolific writing, her mentoring of other writers and creatives and her efforts in planet conservation causes, Atwood is one of the most eminent public intellectuals around today in an era where such people are not valued as they once were. Yet, she has managed to make a global and household name for herself beyond her home country of Canada by reaching across generations of readers and fans — whether it’s with her uniquely-rendered novel themes (which are both prescient and futuristic at the same time) or her social media presence.
Atwood’s first stanza speaks of just such a moment when we step back, declare to ourselves how we’ve gained exactly what we’ve wanted and stop to enjoy the fruits of our labors. She describes how, after a long journey, when we’ve arrived exactly where we wanted to, we take in our surroundings — small or large, physical and emotional— with a certain satisfaction that, finally, we own them. This sense of ownership is an interesting one because, often, it is just as basic a need as food and water. Owning something validates our single-minded striving for it. Ownership of certain desired things in life defines our very identities and existence — that elusive and ever-changing sense of self. Yet, the more we chase something or desire to own something, the more we feel the lack or absence of it in that sense of self. Trying to fill those holes is not wrong in itself. There are, however, two common and pernicious problems: first, that we might, in our self-ignorance, pursue that which will not truly satisfy; and, second, that we might accept attainment or accomplishment as completion or a resting place.
[On a slight tangent, the latter aspect of settling back into a complacent or passive mode often reminds me of something Henry Miller said to Anaïs Nin: about how being dead while you’re alive is the only real death, not that final sleep. What he meant, I think, is how giving up on the struggle/fight/exploration/seeking, whatever our reasons might be, is like giving up on life. More on that some other time.]
In the second stanza, Atwood proposes that, paradoxically, it is exactly in such a defining moment that we lose the plot entirely. Having reached a key summit, it is possible that, instead of seeing a beautiful vista stretched out in front, we might perceive a disappointing abyss. The entire world, with its myriad pleasures great and small, that we have sought to possess or believe we do possess, might very well fall away as if in rejection of the ownership claim we are staking on it. And, of course, in such a heady moment, many of us don’t have the presence of mind to understand what it truly means. Atwood’s imagery here is cinematic. We can almost visualize a time-motion sequence of trees pulling back, birds falling silent, mountains crumbling and the huge sucking sound of air drawing back. Just the images here, in this context, had me gasping for a deep breath. Knowing Atwood’s concerns for planet conservation, this stanza also speaks to how the universe around us does not belong to us and will, indeed, draw away from us the more we try to master and possess it in our destructive ways.
In the third stanza, Atwood suggests that this is because the things we think we now own were never meant to be owned by anyone. Whatever we might believe belongs to us is really just on loan. After all, we’re all visitors here passing through. And, though there will always be the significance of the journey and how we might have taken it, stumbling and struggling all along the way, nothing that we create or conquer can be taken with us when we’re gone. That last proclamation of “We never belonged to you. // You never found us. // It was always the other way round.” is both plain and powerful. Whatever we’ve received, or will receive in life, finds us rather than us finding them. This is not to say that we can sit back and expect things to fall into our laps. Rather, that we cannot expect that our blessings in life, hard-won as some of them may be, are ever entirely ours to own or hold on to. As Rumi also wrote in his Rubaiyat:
Inside the Great Mystery that is,
we don’t really own anything.
What is this competition we feel then,
before we go, one at a time, through the same gate?
Knowing and accepting this particular mystical truth or perspective is not easy. Most of us cannot even hope to act consistently in accordance with it as it is in conflict with many other commonly-accepted achievement-oriented beliefs and behaviors. Still, as an ideal or a value, it is a reward in itself. Firstly, it allows us to explore and discover the quest that truly matters, no matter how far off the beaten path, rather than focusing all our energies on the desired endpoints. As airy-fairy as this may sound, only a handful have the courage to see it through all the way, especially when there are no signposts guiding along the way or shining lights beckoning at the end. Our fears of failure, loss and not having anything to show for our efforts also stand high up before us as roadblocks. Surmounting these personal summit-like challenges is the real achievement. And, it will lead to possession of the only one thing we can truly own: a grounded, well-rounded and original self. “The Moment”, then, is about the journey and the arrival to that authentic self-possession rather than the amassment and ownership of ephemeral paraphernalia.
The moment when, after many years
of hard work and a long voyage
you stand in the centre of your room,
house, half-acre, square mile, island, country,
knowing at last how you got there,
and say, I own this,
is the same moment when the trees unloose
their soft arms from around you,
the birds take back their language,
the cliffs fissure and collapse,
the air moves back from you like a wave
and you can’t breathe.
No, they whisper. You own nothing.
You were a visitor, time after time
climbing the hill, planting the flag, proclaiming.
We never belonged to you.
You never found us.
It was always the other way round.
~ Margaret Atwood, ‘Eating Fire: Selected Poetry 1965-1995‘