Burden of Existence


Under One Small Star

My apologies to chance for calling it necessity.
My apologies to necessity if I’m mistaken, after all.
Please, don’t be angry, happiness, that I take you as my due.
May my dead be patient with the way my memories fade.
My apologies to time for all the world I overlook each second.
My apologies to past loves for thinking that the latest is the first.
Forgive me, distant wars, for bringing flowers home.
Forgive me, open wounds, for pricking my finger.
I apologize for my record of minuets to those who cry from the depths.
I apologize to those who wait in railway stations for being asleep today at five a.m.
Pardon me, hounded hope, for laughing from time to time.
Pardon me, deserts, that I don’t rush to you bearing a spoonful of water. 
And you, falcon, unchanging year after year, always in the same cage,
your gaze always fixed on the same point in space,
forgive me, even if it turns out you were stuffed.
My apologies to the felled tree for the table’s four legs.
My apologies to great questions for small answers.
Truth, please don’t pay me much attention.
Dignity, please be magnanimous.
Bear with me, O mystery of existence, as I pluck the occasional thread from your train.
Soul, don’t take offense that I’ve only got you now and then.
My apologies to everything that I can’t be everywhere at once.
My apologies to everyone that I can’t be each woman and each man.
I know I won’t be justified as long as I live,
since I myself stand in my own way.
Don’t bear me ill will, speech, that I borrow weighty words,
then labor heavily so that they may seem light. 

Wislawa Szymborska

This outstanding poem is like a meditation on life as a whole. Wislawa, in her own inimitable style, deals with the personal, political and social life of an individual in this poem.

 “My apologies to past loves for thinking that the latest is the first” It takes a poet to put the clichéd, “We must move on in life” phrase so beautifully. In life you realize that when you move ahead or move on, lot of people may get offended. As Wislawa points out, your old loves may want to think that they can never be forgotten. That vanity exists in all of us. We tend to believe that we have left a lasting impact on others and when others get on with life without help, we are upset. Moving on in life means letting go of many past burdens and it takes a lot strength to do it. Many a time people want us to keep bearing this burden even at the cost of destroying ourselves.

“Dignity, please be magnanimous.” This is probably what every aged person wants in life: a bit of dignity. When Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer was interviews when he was in late 80s, he said that all he wanted from life was. “anasaayena maranam, vina dainyethi jeevanam” which approximately translates to, “instantaneous (or painless) death, a life without needs (without asking anything from anyone). For as we age, it is our dignity which gets hurt the most. We become dependent and unlike a child, whose dependence of parents is wanted, the dependence of elderly is not always taken well. Thus from life Wislawa seeks dignity, asking it to be magnanimous

“May my dead be patient with the way my memories fade” And if life has to go on, we not only have to leave behind some people we also have to deal with people who have left us. Loss of a loved one is very difficult to bear and come out of but we must in order to continue living our life. Time is a ruthless machine and whether we like it or not, the memories do start fading.

Wislawa intersperses the social and political along with the personal.  The question of issue is an important issue for mankind. In this Information era, when news reaches us from any corner of the world instantly, this issue takes prominence.  We get to know starvation deaths in Africa, child rapes in our cities, civil wars which kill thousands of people in many countries, dictators who crush human rights, plight of workers and much more. The question which is asked to all of us is, “What are you doing about this?”

This question upsets many of us and disturbs us. We react to it in many ways: some try involving themselves in charity work, some work towards uplifting of some section of the society; some join a political party in order to some constructive work, so on and so forth. Then there are people who will outrage in social media but may not do much beyond giving their opinion. The majority probably do not react, for they are busy trying to make ends meet and trying to lead a life of dignity. This is a dilemma that people all over the world face. How much can we care for our fellow men and how much must we care for our own life?

This is not an easy question to answer.  As I said each one has to take an individual decision in this regard. I am not sure if this is a social requirement, in the sense that society looks down upon you because you are not involved in some charity work / social cause or is it our own guilt which drives us in this regard. In cities and amidst the more affluent IT crowd, you find many people involved in such charity work / social causes in their spare time. To an extent that puts pressure on others of similar standing in the society, which is probably a good thing. Many a times we don’t know what to do and it is here that politicians, religious leaders and modern hi-tec gurus  try to fill the gap. Sometimes joining them gives good results but many a time people are taken for a ride. This feeling of guilt is good for many people’s business.

That does sound a bit cynical isn’t it? I personally feel that even if many people are duped and their guilt taken advantage of, this feeling of guilt is what will keep us all human and prevent us destroying each other. The feeling of guilt is an expression of our basic humanity. It is true that all this feeling of guilt doesn’t translate into action but the opinion of everyone matters and it is this public opinion which will lead to the formation of a more just society. 

Yet, as Wislawa says, there is only so much you can do in form of action against all injustice. You cannot be anywhere and everywhere, “My apologies to everything that I can’t be everywhere at once.
My apologies to everyone that I can’t be each woman and each man” We have our lives to lead and out struggle to lead a life of dignity. Yet we have this nagging feeling that we are not doing enough for the society. This is a feeling which will not go away easily. For as Wislawa says,

“I know I won’t be justified as long as I live,
since I myself stand in my own way.”

This is probably the most oft quoted poem of Wislawa for in this she distills the essence of her poetry. No poet has succinctly put his / her vision about their poetry. Wislawa says,

“Don’t bear me ill will, speech, that I borrow weighty words,
then labor heavily so that they may seem light. “

To a certain extent that is what we do when we encounter the injustice all around the globe. We take these weight issues and struggle hard to make them light. If we can’t, living will is hell. Wislawa’s greatness was the she made the words seem light. Yet when she put the words on our shoulders, we realized that these seeming light words carried much more weight than the weight words. That was the magical craft of Wislawa, who shed new light on some of the weightiest issues that mankind faced.

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