If you have read Milan Kundera’s novel “The Unbearable Lightness of Being”, published in 1984, you might have asked yourself this question. Why is the being light, and why is lightness unbearable? Here are my very brief reflections. Don’t worry if you have not read the book, there are no spoilers in this post. Just some musings on weight, lightness, life and meaning.
One of the themes the author explores in his novel is responsibility. Are you responsible for something, especially something negative, if you did not know that your actions (or inaction) could lead to such consequences? It is not a purely legal question. Rather, it is a moral question. An existential even. Does not knowing relieve us of responsibility?
In the Greek tragedy, Oedipus did not know that he had killed his father and married his mother. But he felt responsible when he found out and realized that his actions were causing suffering in his kingdom (we could call it the wrath of gods or fate). How often have you heard or read someone claiming it’s not their fault because they didn’t know? I can say for myself – often.
Sometimes we feel justified to plead innocence because of ignorance. Sometimes it feels naive. But almost always, there is something else to the whole question of responsibility. This something else is the dichotomy between weight and lightness. Between carrying the weight and refusing to pick it up, demanding to be allowed to travel lightly.
Curiously, however, light does not always mean easy or enjoyable. Could this refusal to bear the weight of responsibility explain the unbearable lightness of being, at least sometimes? After all, there are plenty of stories about a confession (=acceptance of the weight of responsibility) lifting a “burden” off the confessor’s shoulders. But why? How can lightness feel heavier than weight?
At one point in his novel, Kundera quotes the German saying, “Einmal ist keinmal”. This translates as once doesn’t count or one time is nothing at all. But that is life. It does not repeat, nothing in it repeats, everything is just once, everything that has ever happened will never happen again, not in the exact same way.
People often use metaphors to express the inexpressible. It is no coincidence we talk about roots in the context of weight and lightness. What makes a tree strong and weighty are its roots. What about human life? What are our metaphorical roots?
It must be something that adds a feeling of weight to our lives. Weight, not lightness, grounds us and gives our lives a sense of meaning. Even if it is something we want to rebel against, it is still more meaningful than living a life with no weight, as if floating in a zero-gravity state.
Meaning is what adds weight to our otherwise unbearably light being. That’s why we seek and create, rebel, destroy, and shape it again. These meaning-giving roots can be understood more literally as our origins, everything that has led to you being here, reading these lines (and me writing them). Some people are lucky to have origin stories that make their lives feel more consequential (=substantial, weighty, meaningful) regarding where they belong, who they are and, perhaps, who they are not.
For example, suppose I know my family has lived in a particular place or practised a certain profession for generations. In that case, I have meaning-giving roots, a clear origin story. Even if I want something different for myself (which I can define only against this background, these roots), I do not need to deal with the unbearable lightness of a rootless being – of questioning who I am and where I belong – in addition to creating my path in life.
Roots can also be understood more metaphorically. Any sort of meaning that I create and engage with adds substance (=weight) to my life. As Nietzsche said, meaning allows us to cope with even the harshest circumstances. Sometimes, as Viktor Frankl observed, it is the last thing still keeping us alive.
As paradoxical as it sounds, Milan Kundera’s pronouncement about the human condition is insightful – the lightness (=inconsequentiality) of being is too unbearable for us, so we need some weight (=meaning) to ground us as we carry it.
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