I read what was for me, a rather moving book last week. Though, as much as I loved it, I recommend it with quite a bit of trepidation. I listened to the book on Audible and I must say until the last two hours, it was pretty dull. There was a lot of philosophical rambling. I nearly quit, but I held on and I was well rewarded by the gems contained within. I don’t know how well these will come through without the context of the book, and I have to be somewhat cryptic in order to not spoil the story in the event you might wish to read it for yourself. The book is titled “The Elegance of the Hedgehog”.
There are two concepts that I want to share here that do not give away the story. The first is the idea of the fishbowl. This theory is put forward by 12 year old Paloma, an intellectually gifted French girl who lives with her family. At the start of the story, Paloma is working out her plan to commit suicide on her 13th birthday. As an intelligent child, she deduces that life is nothing more than the struggle to fulfill a great lie that our parents have thrust upon us and therefore, not worth the effort once you know the truth:
“Apparently now and again adults take the time to sit down and contemplate what a disaster their life is. They complain without understanding and, like flies constantly banging against the same old windowpane, they buzz around, suffer, waste away, get depressed then wonder how they got caught up in this spiral that is taking them where they don’t want to go…And yet there’s nothing to understand… “Life has no meaning and we grown-ups know what is” is the universal lie that everyone is supposed to believe. Once you become an adult and you realize that’s not true, it’s too late…. People aim for the stars, and they end up like a goldfish in a bowl”.
Thus, her planning suicide is to suck out what few joyful moments might lie ahead and then save herself the agony of ending up in the fishbowl.
The second thread I want to share is something that Paloma learns at the end of the book. While we all use the word “never” quite freely, it is something that none of us truly understands until we are faced with a condition in which we experience no ability to transcend a limit regardless of our means and abilities. A real never occurs when the illusion of our control is shattered beyond repair. Everything becomes clearly defined without the fantasy of “if only or when this, then that”.
The irony however, is that in the midst of Paloma’s “never” experience (I must be vague here to keep from spoiling the book), she experiences a moment in which time as she knows it to be in its linear form gets “interrupted” for lack of a better word. In her words:
“I have concluded, maybe that’s what life is about: there’s a lot of despair, but also the odd moment of beauty, where time is no longer the same. It’s as if those strains of music created a sort of interlude in time, something suspended, an elsewhere that has come to us, an always within never”.
In short, life is filled with so much beyond our control. The idea that we can and should do X Y and Z and we will be guaranteed the magic answer and life without sorrow, is in fact a lie perpetuated upon us by our parents and our culture. Most of all it is perpetuated by our childlike naiveté and wish to have a perfect life with a happy ending.
Paloma begins with the understanding that the wish is a lie and attempts to resolve it by quitting the game. Despite her advanced intelligence, her immaturity and surroundings prevents her from knowing that there is an alternative to both wrestling to live the lie or dying to avoid trying.
That alternative is also known as life. But it is life that willingly accepts our limitations without shame, fear, denial and insistence that we and others transcend them. It is life that is open to the moments of beauty that allow us to step out of the Never of time for brief moments and to allow those moments to nourish us and hold us until the next one comes along and to let them go as naturally as they came to us. It is life that sees its end, not as a failing to hold on and thus succumbing to the fishbowl, but rather the transformation from this existence into something else, even if that something else cannot be definitively determined by the human mind. And most of all to be open to those moments of beauty in a variety of forms rather than to predetermine allowable examples conjured up by our own ego.