There is a scene in Ben Okri’s strange and wonderful novel Astonishing the Gods that often finds its way into my thoughts. In it, the hero — a young man on a quest to understand his people’s invisibility — encounters a bridge suspended in the air by nothing in particular. This leads to the following interaction with his guide:
‘So am I to make this crossing alone?’
‘And what about you?’
‘I will be waiting for you on the other side.’
‘But how will you get over without crossing?’
‘That is something you can learn if you have crossed the bridge once. Not everyone learns it, of course. And many have forgotten; and because of that they have perished. On this island of ours learning what you know is something you have to do every day, and every moment.’*
This idea of having to learn what I know, to remember what I have already learned, has often come back to me. There are few insights into life that have struck me as being more true and profound. It’s so easy to forget the lessons we’ve already had to learn. (This is probably why it’s so hard for people to change.)
I have often brought up the line from the song “Rent” (from the musical of the same name), which asks “How do you leave the past behind when it keeps finding ways to get to your heart?” While this has been a fantastic year in terms of putting to bed ghosts of the past and I feel so so ready to start the next chapter of my life free from those burdens, a recent encounter with someone with an unexpected connection to a disproportionately prominent figure from my past has provided yet another opportunity to remind myself of all I have learned and the things I know to be true. As awkward and disorienting as such experiences are, ultimately I think the nudge to “learn what I know,” to remind myself of all these hard-earned lessons, is well worth the periodic (and thankfully very short-lived) cognitive jostle.
Okri, Ben. Astonishing the Gods (London: Phoenix House, 1995), 17.