Was Dickens onto Something?
Updated: Nov 7, 2022
It was the best of times. It was the worst of times. Lately, this phrase has been coming to me as I look toward the infinite ways we each interpret our own lives, and how we view the world. Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities (ATOTC) was an assigned novel in high school, and like every other text ‘required’ of me, its meaning was mostly lost in translation. Reading for my own knowledge and/or pleasure is quite different from reading to determine which content might show up on a test. Time has shown, for me at least, that understanding and enjoyment in what I read is highly connected to my ability to ‘dream with wild abandon’ while absorbing the material (fiction and non-fiction alike). My memory is fuzzy on actual plot points, timelines and characters, but the parts that have stuck are indelible, prompting me to consider the origins of why that is… Why do some things really stick with us while other details fall away? This simple question creates small amounts of conflict that we can feel present in both our minds and our bodies at the same time. Pretty cool, right?
The first time I ‘heard’ Dickens’ most famous sentences show up in my head, I was working on a meditation for ‘natural insight’, where you intentionally switch your focus back and forth between (1) all of the natural things in your view, and then (2) all of the man made things in your view. Not only was that contrast a cool experience for my mind, it felt ‘easy’ in my body; similar to the way it feels when you let yourself relax into a three-dimensional drawing to discover the ‘hidden’ picture. I was excited by the vision, but before I could go too far into thinking about it, that hook appeared again and again: “It was the best of times. It was the worst of times”. Its echo has not let up, so I have woven my loose interpretation of its meaning directly into the meditation and I’m pleased by the final product. Since it is the last day of ORM Conflict Week, my intentions for sharing my own internal workings lie in helping others find their own connections, roots and triggers more easily as we each work toward whatever future we’d like to see for ourselves, and the world we all inhabit.
Trying to recall what A Tale of Two Cities was about didn’t take very long, as my memory about it was fairly fixed. I could recall my unanswered questions around the meaning of the first paragraph and that it made me feel somehow unenlightened. I have graphic visions around The Guillotine. The only character name I recall is Madame Defarge, and a lingering fear around her constant ‘knitting’. But mostly, I remember the last few paragraphs, where just before his execution, Sydney Carlton (thanks internet) imagines the best for each character, and their collective futures. I went back and reread the beginning and the end–the words familiar because I had spent so much time trying to glean an understanding that felt out of my reach in high school. I was also holding a very Christian view at that time, so that may be a factor in what followed: I was able to release a lot of shame around my ignorance in literature (that I didn’t even remember I had felt back then). I realized that my young mind somehow believed that it was possible to have read every ‘important’ work and be prepared to speak intelligently about them, and I obviously had not. The ‘reality’ was always that reading every book, or even knowing what was ‘important’ was an impossible expectation to hold for myself, but an ideal space for my imagination to roam. As I breathe for the kid who thought that, I gain some insight into how and where those thoughts formed–from my own interpretations of the words of my Mentors. And there it is.
I paused and gave serious thought to whether the seeds for the Ideal Playground were planted in my mind by Sydney Carlton’s final thoughts. It’s the only part of the book that I remember feeling truly engaged about (though I suppose it could just as easily have been that I was glad to have finished an assignment!). In any case, those words and the little meaning I pulled from the book back then, support the simple view of life I hold to this day, that our Wholeness (the good and the bad combined) is where our ‘magic’ resides. The perimeter of our best and our worst experiences and qualities form the extremes from which our vantage point draws its conclusions and builds its fears and boundaries.
Our minds are capable of producing a narrative for what is good/bad, and depending on our overall emotional landscape or our changing moods, we might see each moment in a different light at any given time. When my kids were young, we had an ongoing ‘dinner time share’ where everyone had to say the best and worst parts of their day. Over the years, dinner itself found its way onto the kids’ lists in both categories, often having more to do with how they were feeling while sitting at the table than what was on the menu. When we separate our values from our emotional reactions long enough to stay intentional, we encourage the mind-body trust that lets us experience our feelings and emotions in real time, within our own bodies. This isn’t something we are formally taught to maintain within ourselves, but it remains instinctual from birth.
The way we smile with our entire bodies and cry with every cell when we are very young is nature’s way of ‘cleansing’ our energetic debris, our feelings ‘washing’ over us with some degree of force, and then retreating more quietly, like waves. As infants, we don’t have words to express ourselves, and by the time we learn them, we have been shamed out of the very practice that would keep us free and clear of negative feelings, no matter what type of experience we are having.
The conflict that we often feel coursing through us when we are triggered by situations, actions, words, or thoughts, creates the very energetic debris that clouds our ability to express and transform our triggers, and to maintain inner awareness when they become ‘active’. We can best support this environment with our breath, our intentions, and our awareness. By intentionally delineating our time lines into two different narratives, we open the space for clearing and detangling the roots of our triggers, while organically softening our defenses. We find the space to ‘remember’ our connections and to continually breathe new life into the mind-body potential that we all want to rely on when we need it.
When I look at the story of ‘strictly the best things’ in my life, juxtaposed with ‘the string of only the worst things’, I start to see the deep value of the tangled space in the middle, and the ways that the universe always provides a balance that we may or may not choose to lean into. It’s amazing how many situations we actually deal with in a day, a month, a year, or a lifetime. It is VERY hard for our Ego Energies to willingly rely on support from something that it can’t prove or see, and the rest of the world can’t find the room to agree. Our inner world is as powerful as we allow it to be, but we must remember that this is a highly individualized space, and WE are the only ones who can properly tend it. When we try to give that power to the people around us, all they can really do is provide some antiseptic and a band-aid. True healing develops from within, as we learn to trust ourselves to maintain our responsibilities while cultivating our desires. Hard for the mind to conceptualize, but amazing in mind-body execution.
Imagine yourself angry, with the ability to let each emotion that brought you to anger wash over you like a wave, feeling it in every cell for the duration of the wave, and feeling it wash away with the rhythm of the tide. The trigger of your anger is standing before you, but instead of taking your aggression out of your body and onto them through your voice, you simply feel it move through your cells, and continue to breathe clearly. Your voice, once ready to let loose, becomes a soothing guide, as you explain your emotion, with the hopes that it leads to transformation. The other person, braced for an outburst, lets out a sigh of relief and instead of the defense they were prepared to mount, an apology finds its way though, and everyone gets to take a breath. The air is clear for now, until the next conflict appears, as we know it will as long as we are human, and as long as the tides continue their cycles.
After a life fraught with conflict, Sydney Carlton died happier than he had been throughout most of his life, choosing to spend his final moments on the Ideal Playground, executed for a crime that I don’t even think was his. As we each face the things that scare us, especially the potential of death, ‘watch’ as your fear rises up, and notice how quickly your thoughts become tangled. I’ll take a page from Sydney (and give him proper credit), as I close with his well-known ending. It is a far, far better thing we do for ourselves and others, to think the best for a situation, than to think the worst for it. Though both have equal power over humanity itself, our ideal thoughts move our conflicts closer to resolution.