“You haven’t written for months,” a friend tells you recently. And as you stare at another blank page begging to be filled with words like a canvas needs paint, like a skyline needs a Sun, you realize there’s nothing you can write that someone hasn’t already thought about, written about, or managed to articulate in a voice unlike yours. In that moment, you are mindful of the enveloping noise and quietly come to believe that there is nothing you can write, nothing you can say that wouldn’t be adding to the cling and clatter; that wouldn’t be amplifying the dissonance. And you don’t know what you want, but you know you don’t want this. You don’t want to be just part of this noise. So that blank page remains unscathed; remains as menacing as ever. This, you realize, is another incarnation of writer’s block. Self imposed. Voluntarily assumed for the sake of retaining one’s own sanity. Your mind is a Buddhist monk self-exiled to a temple on a mountain, far from the world; seeking out peace and quiet far from that room full of wild elephants beating a dead horse. Over and over.
And then he’s born.
Your father names him Talal. It is a name fit for a king. Despite everything you’ve heard, read, or learned up until that moment – about that moment – it is only mildly life-changing. Fatherhood does not come on suddenly like violent weather. There’s no switch. It comes on gradually like a spark that’s kindled into a flame that grows in to an inexplicable fire. And eventually, that fire begins to rage. And you realize, up until now, your life has been one selfish escapade. It is ok to admit this. Sure, “selfish” is perhaps too “ugly” a word; too weighed down in negative connotations; too entrapped by notions of egocentricity in a world where people fancy themselves altruistic. But strip it down, strip it bare, and being “selfish”ť can really just mean focusing on the self. Because really, most of us spend our early years figuring ourselves out, figuring out our place in the chaos, putting our feet out in the world, and other cliches. The world expects this of you.
Like Socrates standing outside the Temple of Delphi reading the words Gnothi Sauton inscribed at the gate - know thyself, it warns all who enter. And like Socrates, you step inside as a blank canvas. You are filled with questions, and you start this subconscious journey of finding answers that might not even exist. It’s a pursuit that should be an adventure but is muddied by convention. You get an education, you get a job, you get another, you find a career, you move from one place to another. You travel. You meet interesting people. You fall in love. You meet the person you know you’ll happily spend the rest of your life with. You do grown up things like pay bills; turn a house in to a home. Along the way, you forget what it means to “know thyself”, and you end up staring at a blank page begging to be filled – like a canvas needs paint.
And then he’s born. And then your father names him Talal. And weeks later, he reveals a toothless grin, and you begin to converse in sporadic laughter. Exchanging noise for noise, chuckle for chuckle. You spend hours staring at this miniature version of you, and slowly, you become aware of the fire. You become aware of the fact that this child is the new center in your life, orbiting around them like the Earth does to the Sun; unquestioningly. Unflinchingly. No longer a star floating out in dead space. Granted purpose instead. Drawn by their gravity.
It’s here the self becomes greater than the sum of its parts. “Me” becomes “we”. And the unavoidable flood of questions come rushing in like blood to the head. You wonder, what world have you helped bring this person in to? This miniature version of you? With your eyes reflected in his, you wonder, what life can you offer him? The mountains are on fire and the people are alight; some aggressively silent, others maddened with fervor. Everywhere, around you, the ceremony of innocence is drowned. The best lack all conviction, and the worst are full of passionate intensity, wrote Yeats.
And some times, he cries in his sleep. Sniffling from bad dreams. It is normal you’re told. It’s his way of dealing with the sensory overload; his mind processing the roll of film from the day. If only he knew what truly awaits for him out there. But you know. And you are moved to be their armor. That is purpose. That is conviction. That, is a new, abrupt consciousness, galloping through your veins like wild horses. Letting you know that to know him, is to know yourself. “Even after all this time, the Sun never says to the earth, ‘you owe me,'” writes the poet Hafiz. “Look what happens to a love like that; how it lights the whole sky.”. And you understand the meaning of these words now.
So what do you do with a love like that? How do you keep it as unscathed as that menacing blank page staring back at you? What do you build in the machinery of night to guard him? What words can you conjure to fix the world he’s come in to?
Nothing. And everything.
Words have united and divided. Have created and destroyed. Words can lift spirits and crack souls. 'Words are timeless,' says Gibran.
And so you begin to understand the meaning of sacrifice. You begin to understand your own father. With your eyes like his - you begin to understand that inexplicable fire. And you know you can’t fix the world. And you know there are questions you’ll never know the answers to; questions he’ll eventually come to you, and ask with a puzzled face, confounding you instantly.
What do you do with a love like that?
You do what you know best. You pick up the brush and approach the blank canvas.
Sure. There’s still, perhaps, nothing you can say that hasn’t been said before; in a voice unlike yours. There’s still that noise to be reckoned with. Still that cling and clatter. But words have moved mountains before, even when they’re engulfed in flames. Mere words have moved masses. Have started wars. Have crafted peace. Have united and divided. Have created and destroyed. Words can lift spirits and crack souls. Words are timeless, says Gibran. They are the most powerful drugs used by mankind, writes Kipling. But remember, words are just the pretext, says Rumi: “it is the inner bond that draws one person to another”.
And so those words need a voice; to “infuse them with shades of deeper meaning”, writes Maya Angelou. And while there’s still isn’t anything that hasn’t really been said before; it all begs repeating. The mountains are on fire; and so the words all beg repeating. And when the boy your father named Talal comes to you with questions of the world, you can only tell him to make noise; challenge the established order of things; bang away at the drums of the universe. Wail at the top of your lungs like the day you were born. Shake the mountain dry. And in the noise, come to know yourself. If you’re lucky.
Because the alternative is silence. The silence that never really brings you the peace of mind you hoped for. The silence that doesn’t make those wild elephants in the room disappear. The silence that lets the world eat away at you. One injustice after another; one tragedy unspoken for, after another. To be silent, says Einstein, is to be guilty of complicity.
So pick up your brush.