Du moins, sur ce trottoir où je t’abandonne, j’ai l’espérance que tu n’es pas seule.
(Apologies to those who haven’t read the novel Thérèse Desqueroux by Francois Mauriac. But, y’know, they made a film of it in 2012 so there’s really no excuse).
Whenever I find myself, as today, spending some time alone, passing the time having lunch and watching the world go by, there will always be part of me that imagines I’m Thérèse Desqueroux at the end of the story, sitting at a cafe in Paris totally alone for the first time perhaps ever, the rest of her life stretching out in front of her into a future she hasn’t yet dreamt of. She feels content to sit; mysterious, glamorous, with no idea what is going to happen next. I always thought it was such a fantastic way to end a novel, at the beginning of a character’s life. It’s a novel I first read whilst studying A Level French aged 17. Looking back, I’m surprised it resonated so much with me. Thérèse had already lived one lifetime, I hadn’t lived yet at all. But already there was a stirring, a sense of uneasiness with my life up to that point. Which is natural enough; having grown up in a small seaside town it is inevitable to feel that the world has a lot more to offer.
Well, 16 years later, I have seen some of the world, and of course it is a fascinating place.It may not seem like a long time but 16 years is enough for me to have lived several lifetimes, and here I sit, still uncertain about the future and still no clear idea how it’s going to pan out. The many ‘endings’ we think we have arrived at in life are never endings at all; there are no certainties, no matter how much we feel assured by that ‘permanent’ contract or a signature on a marriage certificate. In some ways it seems futile to pursue these things – why do we voluntarily climb abroad the treadmill? Even if we are not thrown off unexpectedly, is it any better? Each time we make a choice, it seems limiting, and human beings don’t seem to enjoy having their options limited. So we rebel, and the treadmill resets.
This is the point at which Mauriac very wisely ended his story; the point at which, for Therese, everything is still possible. Despite Mauriac’s wish that she should not remain alone, I’m sure he would agree what a tragedy it would have been to find out that, five years down the line, Thérèse met a nice plumber, settled in the suburbs of Paris, got remarried and had four children.
It struck me today that being alone in a city you don’t know is quite a good metaphor for life; you can either opt to tread the well-worn tourist trail, take the guided tour, with pre-defined destinations, you can decide that there are certain things you want to see and do and make plans to get there yourself, or you can simply wander aimlessly, stopping when something interests you and seeing where you end up.
Anyone who knows me vaguely well will attest to the fact that I have been much more a student of the planned approach, both literally and metaphorically. My holidays usually involve a carefully structured and well researched itinerary, lest I should miss something. So today has been quite a departure from the norm; I literally knew nothing about this place before arriving here and can honestly say I’m none the wiser now having wandered around for a few hours. However, I’m not sure I would have had a better time or enjoyed it more had I spent hours researching where to go and what to do. Perhaps there’s a lesson here.
In fact it made me think about something I read in Nic Oliver’s book ‘Radical Coaching’, that thoughts create reality and so having some control over our thoughts determines the way we choose to frame things. Something he said really resonated strongly with me, around the whole question of what we are supposed to to with our lives, and I think it could be a useful basis to return to in times of philosophical and existential angst:
Have I lived life to the full?
Have I loved and been loved?
Have I made a difference?
So to live, love and make a difference – seems like a good set of guiding principles to me, and in a way is maybe what drives us all anyway. But it’s good to be aware and in tune with it, rather than floating through life like Thérèse, never quite knowing exactly what her motives were and what she is searching for, alone on the streets of Paris.