A Mandarin fell in love with a courtesan. “I shall be yours”, she told him, “when you have spent a hundred nights waiting for me, sitting on a stool, in my garden, beneath my window”. But on the ninety-ninth night, the mandarin, put his stool under his arm, and went away. From Roland Barthes ‘A Lover’s Discourse.
When I first read this at the conclusion to the chapter ‘Waiting’ in Barthes’ A Lovers Discourse, I was mortified. How could one wait so long only to give up with one day to go!?!
And then I remembered what I’d said to someone this week with only five weeks to go until I’ve completed my Masters: ‘I want to exit the course. I’m over it. I’ve already left the building’.
What is it about the finish line that makes some of us want to give up the moment we see it?
To use another more contemporary metaphor, it’s like you’ve been running. Running for miles. And suddenly you see it. The marker that says, you’re journey is almost over, when you get here you’ve won, you’ve achieved something, you’ve finished (!)…and you just want to break down and cry. You want to stop. You want to fall to your knees exhausted and exclaim ‘I just can’t do it anymore’.
I imagine the Mandarin, waiting so long for love, there would be a similar crumbling, an exhaustion…and, a doubt. ‘What will happen when the day arrives?’ he might wonder. Suddenly all the adrenalin, the work, the anticipation has a question mark around it. For in the end, there is always a beginning.
When the courtesan arrives, he will have to stand up from his stool, stand with her and walk into something else he knows not what.
When I graduate from the year, I walk away from a building that has given me a daily purpose and housed my imaginings for my future. What will the reality be?
When we look at notions of ‘the end’ in this way we see that the only full stop (so far as we know) is death. Everything else is but an ellipsis, a dot dot dot, a pregnant pause as we take stock of what has been and then slowly lean into the next sentence, the next chapter of our story.
Perhaps then it is the pregnant pause that challenges us rather than the full stop that indeed, doesn’t really exist. For it is a kind of limbo place where we know we must take stock of the journey that has been, thank and let go of it…and then invite the next one in.
There is an opportunity here though not to fear the ellipsis but, in remaining open to it, can welcome the idea that if there is no end, no fixed point of arrival, then perhaps there is no mastery one can achieve.
I think I just took a breath for the first time in this realisation. If there is no mastery, there is only experience and growth and experience invites ideas of pleasure rather than hard work.
Running hard to a finish line that doesn’t even exist seems superfluous therefore. Why not run a little, walk a little? Why not meander even? Take your time and look at the river on your right and the trees on your left. Did you notice the little kid too who smiled at you from their bike as they rode it without training wheels for the first time? Did you feel the soft fur from the dog that toyed around your legs momentarily as it sped along it’s merry way?
And when you were indeed running hard and fell over and grazed your knee did you notice the hand in front of you that said ‘I gotcha for the next coupla k’s’, take it and say thank you?
Wonder. Meant …that to give up at the moment you see the end of a long and hard journey is to forget that you don’t have to run. You can walk and you can ask for help…all the way up to and into…the next chapter.
Wonder. Meant …that the end is just the beginning.