Every now and then a book comes along that catches me off guard, and hits me where it matters. I can’t just jump to the next book afterwards, or go on with my day – it leaves me in a state of deep contemplation, culminating in a so-called “paradigm shift”. This is one of those books.
This story – told both through the book and the exceptional TV adaptation – has been an endless source of comfort for me this year, and a resounding alternate voice to the theme of hopelessness and resignation that plays out in my head. This year has been brutal. Many times I have asked myself, in the tradition of Simon Bolivar and Alaska Young, “How will I ever get out of this labyrinth?”
And I guess that’s the fundamental question that we ask of life: how am I ever going to get out of this labyrinth of suffering?
This question also happens to be the central theme of this incredible book.
I’ve often wondered how people keep going – turning up to work every day, paying their bills on time, combing their hair every morning, going through the motions – in the knowledge that life is suffering and that they will one day die. How do they have hope? How do they continue?
This book reawakened me to the truth that these questions don’t have fixed answers, and that not all questions need answers. That life is not black-and-white. That my path is not laid out before me, and that life is not a job application, where we need to meet certain criteria for our lives to “count”. It reminded me of a deep truth I so often forget: that life is fleeting, but it is so precious. I realise that each life is desperately, utterly irreplaceable. To quote the title of a book I have yet to, but intend to, read: On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous.
Although our time here is finite, we get to live. To laugh and to cry. To love. To dance and to sing. To read and to write. To hold and to let go. To stumble forwards into our Parents’ arms.
I cherish this book because it did not try to give me answers to these difficult questions; instead, it grieved with me. It reawakened me to the value of life, and by consequence, to my own value. I hope that you can know your own value too. You are a precious person. You are kind. You are powerful. You are a person of strength. Remind yourself of this truth, over and over again.
As I said, I have found within these pages an alternate narrative through which to read the story of my life. To quote Miles, “After all this time, it seems to me like straight and fast is the only way out – but I choose the labyrinth. The labyrinth blows, but I choose it.”
This has been my mantra: I choose the labyrinth.
And ultimately I see that it wasn’t for a lack of answers that I was struggling; it was that I had the question the wrong way round in the first place. To echo Viktor Frankl, I’m not the one who asks the question; it’s life that asks it of me. And if I’m to live in the labyrinth, I might as well try and do something with myself while I’m here and cherish the ones I love while they’re still around.
So I’ll leave you with the question life asks you: how do you choose to live in the labyrinth?
Mental health crisis helplines
If you’re in crisis and need to talk right now, there are many helplines staffed by trained people ready to listen. They won’t judge you, and could help you make sense of what you’re feeling. I know because they’ve been there for me. Sometimes it’s easier to open up to a stranger.
- Samaritans. To talk about anything that is upsetting you, you can contact Samaritans 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. You can call 116 123 (free from any phone), email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit some branches in person. You can also call the Welsh Language Line on 0300 123 3011 (7pm–11pm every day).
- Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM). You can call the Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM) on 0800 58 58 58 (5pm–midnight every day) or use their webchat service.
- More help from the NHS: https://www.nhs.uk/using-the-nhs/nhs-services/mental-health-services/where-to-get-urgent-help-for-mental-health/
Mental health charities
There are many charities around the world that work to spread awareness of and decrease the stigma around mental health. Several offer long-term support. In the UK, the charity that has helped me in the long-term is Mind. If you think you might need help, then there’s no shame in asking, and it’s never too early to ask.
- Mind. Promotes the views and needs of people with mental health problems. Phone: 0300 123 3393 (Monday to Friday, 9am to 6pm). Website: www.mind.org.uk.
- Here is a list of the main mental health charities based in the UK: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/stress-anxiety-depression/mental-health-helplines/.