No one can build the bridge on which you and only you must cross the river of life.

When Nietzsche said the thing about the bridge he was philosophising in the same vein as Sinatra when Sinatra sang “I did it my way” although Nietzsche said it first, and perhaps more eloquently but Sinatra had a better tune and he said it in Vegas, but I’m quibbling, the core message is the same: you have to find your way to live, to do life your way. There has to be a time when you start to make your decisions and your mistakes and you take responsibility for them equally. Only you know how to get your life right, how to do your journey the way you are supposed to and it cant be an extension of someone else’s life, it cant be their second life, their chance to have another bash at it by telling you what to do and yet, even when we know this and we sing the song and we say we are doing it our own way it is not possible to always consistently do it our way. We have to compromise, we have to consider others and we are policed and regulated by other people every day. Not just the laws and rules that govern but the social expectations, the views other people have of how we should be doing it, the way the current system(which many of us accept is making us ill) controls us socially and culturally and so we never truly have the freedom to build our own bridge, we’re dependent on other people for much of the planning permission and the materials.

When I talk with people who are dying there tend to be two camps, there are the people who take the approach of “I’ve lived and I’ve made mistakes and I didn’t always get it right but it’s done”, then there are the people who say “if I had my time again” or “If I’d known then what I know now”.

In both groups people talk about having “worried” what other people thought of them and this affected their decision making, how can it not when we are communal animals, we live amongst our own and have to adopt customs and rules which ensure we cooperate with the group, but there are rules and expectations and instructions from those around us which seem petty and conformist and controlling beyond the bigger picture of governing society. Rules about who we marry or what music we listen to or where we travel to or the job we do or the area we live in or what clothes we wear or whether or not we wear red lipstick. These are all things which people who are dying have told me they wish they had had the courage to break free from and make their own decisions on rather than taking the route of doing what was expected or insisted on by the people they cared about.

The tyranny of other people, the need for approval and the reflection of us in their eyes traps us in a way we don’t readily think of but was nailed by John Paul Satre in his 1944 play No Exit in which he opined “hell is other people”. We want to be liked, we want to be accepted and to find what in modern parlance we term our “tribe” but at the same time we wan to be ourselves and to live a life in which we feel free to be authentically us, whatever that is, sometimes its just to break out of the straightjacket of expectations and convention and to surprise ourselves and those who think they know us.

Years ago I worked in a service supporting people with dementia, in the day centre we had various groups and sessions, our work was based on the research of Tom Kitwood and his model of person centred care. One of the groups I supported in was a beauty group, it was simple stuff, basic hairdressing and manicures but it was enjoyable for the woman who attended. We had a selection of nail varnishes and some of them were nice, safe, run of the mill colours, pale pinks and corals, but randomly thrown in the mix was a bottle of sassy bright red, racing car red, a sexy vampish colour that had probably been donated by one of the staff. An elderly woman I worked with, who was what I thought of as very conventional in her navy blue slacks and cream fine knit sweater with short grey, permed hair came to the group one particular week and when I laid out the selection of nail varnishes like a pink colour chart she bypassed the safe colours and picked the red. Nails filed and painted she kept admiring them when she picked up her cup for a drink or when she held her cutlery at lunchtime or just occasionally in that way we do when weve had our nails done, just holding out a hand and checking it out and feeling a little bit pleased about it. Sad thing was, when her middle aged daughter arrived to collect her mum, she was enraged, she took me to one side and said “clean my mothers hands, shes not the kind of woman who wears red nail polish”.

I cleaned the nail varnish off and it was never mentioned again but the experience stayed with me more than 15years, whilst dementia is a cruel illness which takes away many of the aspects of who a person is it also liberates some people from the restrictions of who they are or who they are expected to be. There are all kinds of emotions and judgements tied up in a woman choosing a nail varnish she wouldn’t have usually worn and what this meant to her and what it meant to her daughter and what her daughter thought it might mean to the world. The small compromises we make for the sake of other people and for the way we want to be and be seen in the world still constitute choices, we are still selecting and rejecting so I’m left wondering are we still doing it our way even when we make a choice to do it someone else’s way?

 

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