The Charade

Surprised that I was not going out to a restaurant to celebrate a special occasion, a colleague told me last week that I was wrong not to do so. “Live every day as if it’s the last one,” he said. To which I replied that if I were to take that literally, I certainly wouldn’t have gone in to work that day.

Last Saturday we spent the afternoon in the backyard, under the shade of the ashes. The sunbeams danced to the music of the crickets in the meadow as the branches swayed in the late summer breeze. The menu was simple, but perfectly cooked–turkey and beef kebabs, lentils and green salad. After the Roquefort cheese, dessert was homemade yogurt ice cream, then coffee with Tunisian sweets from Masmoudi that a friend brought back from vacation. We talked and laughed for hours.

Nothing beats having a picnic with people you love–combining nature with eating, making plans, sharing stories or just talking about simple things. I wouldn’t trade these times for any dinner in a three-star restaurant, and I’ve had many of those too. Living every day to the fullest isn’t about always doing something special, rather it’s more about deeply experiencing every moment, no matter how mundane.

In the 1982 documentary La vie au bout des doigts (Life at your fingertips), Patrick Edlinger, one of the world’s most talented and daring rock climbers, spoke about his life and philosophy. Although his athletic prowess was anything but mundane, he put it into focus in basic terms,

For me, rock climbing is not a sport, I dedicate all my time to it and it’s a way of life. I am able to find in it all the needs that one can have, if you will, as a human being. When you make a difficult climb, you will rightly have the pleasure of bodily expression, the physical high, that will in fact create a situation in which you have little needs. On finishing a climb, you will appreciate a glass of water… a sandwich. And well, it’s interesting in the times we live in to have little needs I believe. You become conscious at the level of simple pleasures, in fact, that are quite sufficient for staying alive.

Pour moi l’escalade c’est pas un sport, j’y consacre tout mon temps et c’est un mode de vie. J’arrive à retrouver tous les besoins qu’on peut avoir, si tu veux, en tant qu’être humain. Tu vas faire une voie très dure, tu auras le plaisir justement de l’expression corporelle, la défonce physique, qui fait qu’en fait ça va te créer de petits besoins. Tu vas apprécier en sortant d’une voie un verre d’eau… un sandwich. Et bon, ça c’est intéressant à l’époque à laquelle on vit d’avoir de petits besoins je crois. Tu as une prise de conscience au niveau des plaisirs simples en fait, qui suffisent très bien pour pouvoir vivre.

It’s easy to understand how the experience of climbing a rock face 1000 feet straight up with no security material or net, where exhaustion or a lapse in concentration could cause a small mistake, ending in a fall to certain death, would create an increased awareness and appreciation of the simple pleasures of being alive. The trick though is to cultivate this awareness within the often repetitive routine of daily life.

The warmth of the sunshine on your skin, the tickle of cool grass on your toes, the comforting aroma of a summer fruit pie in the oven, the smile of a friend, the reassuring voice of a loved one. You can experience most of these things every day. You notice them so often that you no longer pay attention to them, no longer stop to consider how wonderful they are, how good they make you feel. Your brain, always analysing your environment for something new, barely stops to dwell on these familiar sensations, perceived as dull, routine, ordinary. Something new and surprising is needed to titillate, to stimulate, to wake you from your stupor. While everything around you is filled with wonder, your brain tells you that this is nothing special. You’ve seen, heard, felt, smelled and tasted it all before.

Perhaps this explains why, with so many experiences within reach than ever before, extreme sports have gained so much popularity these days.

It shouldn’t take a thrill to feel that you are alive, but we’re easily caught up in the intrigue of the roles we play at work and at home, while our brains hide from us the reasons behind almost everything we do. Sometimes, like a flash, you feel as if you have stepped out of yourself–out of your own mind–and you see the charade around you, observe others and even yourself absorbed in the agitations of your own work and desires, and the futility of it all hits you like stone–the wasted time and energy on things that really don’t matter. And once you have experienced that moment, stayed outside for long enough, so long that it’s hard to go back, you find that in fact you have little needs. From that moment on, every day is a small miracle.

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