the swimming club
I saw a thought provoking play earlier this year, called the Swimming Club by Hannie Rayson - a Melbourne Theatre Company production. The story was about a group of six friends reuniting and reminiscing about their past – some thirty years ago (in the early 1980s) when they first spent time together on a working holiday on a Greek Island. The present is middle-class, middle-aged, mid-career and mortgaged to the hilt. Life issues no return tickets. With reality far from their idealistic dreams, the play is successful in showcasing not-quite-satisfied characters seeking to rekindle the fervour of their youth.
I was rather struck by the theme of idealism lost through the passage of time. It made me wonder how the optimism I am sure we all embraced as teenagers and young adults one way or another got diluted as we experienced more of life.
As twenty year olds, we were unbridled in our enthusiasm about grand adventures and other great prospects of what was to come in life. No fear of the consequences of our actions. The exuberance of youth.
Now, not quite as old as the characters in the play, but certainly knocking on the door, somehow cynicism has crept in. Slowly but surely, it slipped in through the cracks, like an insidious fog. And somehow, it now fills every inch of our homes and engulfs us in a cocoon. It is on the one-hand comforting, as it seems to provide a form of security shield, protecting us from the vagrancies of emotions that come tagged to those events we call life experiences. But, on the other hand, it is unsettling, as it seems to represent a barrier, preventing us from embracing connections with the level of intimacy needed to appreciate those life experiences to their full potential. It is a cool blanket that sustains our discontent.
“You can’t just dig up the past and go back there as if nothing has changed. You are a different person.”
I know that my memories of the past, by virtue of their being a distortion of the truth the moment they were created and filled in my mind, are selective. But why does time and experience change our outlook so much? I do not think I am a different person to who I was as a young adult, at least the essence of who I am is the same. And yet I look at the world with eyes so removed from that youthful idealism now. So much so that if I were to go back in time and possess my own body, it would feel alien to me. I do not doubt that I would make so many different choices. But this is not regret.
“You are in the middle of your life, but you are nowhere near the centre of it.”
We start as children completely lacking any degree of self-consciousness. We present ourselves to the world so transparently and, in our minds at least, we are the centre of the universe in those moments. As we get older and the world around us apparently more complex, our sense of self becomes (paradoxically) simultaneously stronger and weaker at the same time. As Hannie scripts it in the play (paraphrased), we experience some relationships that resemble a series of burglaries – slowly losing our humour, our joie de vie, our self respect with each robbery. We start playing roles as soon as our reserve is given birth. And we hide behind those roles with a false bravado as if it will protect us from all evil. The roles that gradually erode our foundations to the point where we feel like we are observers only.
As a good friend of mine said to me, "when we're aware of the masks we still have the option to take them off, when we "become" the masks we disconnect from our true nature". It is possible that we forget who we are if we rely on the masks too much. And an upside: "if we ever commit to working on ourselves these "masks" provide us with some incredible moments when we take them off because we didn't realise they were there!"
Wearing too many masks - it doesn’t have to be this way. Life is only as complex as we choose to make it. Keep it honest. Keep it simple. There is something to be said about the exuberance of youth. And there is nothing wrong with wanting to recapture that spirit.