Sarah Britten
Sarah Britten

Safe, warm and dry

“Our love was like our house. There were cracks in the walls and chips in the paint, but it kept us safe, warm and dry.” His eyes were hollow. His wife, the love of his life, died two weeks ago after a stroke. I was there to give him the painting inspired by one of his tweets. “We are in the territory of miracles,” he had written, and so I painted this:

Territory of Miracles

Later, he asked for it and still later, he gave me the news that it was over. I had the painting mounted and we met for lunch so that I could give it to him. It was the first time we had met in person, despite feeling as though we knew each other.

We talked about typical Joburg things. Work, clients, possessions, the way we define ourselves. He has a successful business, but he only buys what he needs, he said. To be kind and generous and good is as hard as being successful, he told me. That is what he aims for.

I told him that I had a sense of what he meant. How, at the beginning of this month, I had something of an epiphany. (Yes, I know, again. I’ve had an epiphany a month for the past four years.) I was going to rate my life, not be whether I was successful, or productive, or whether I’d made money that day. I was going to assess each day by how meaningful it was. After all, if you can make meaning, that is all that matters.

And that’s how I came to let go of something I used to imagine was the defining aspect of my identity: my ambition. For the first time since I was five years old, I am not holding out for some imagined future achievement. I’m not holding out for anything,

Because what is the point? We spend so much energy trying too hard to accumulate things — accolades, possessions, achievements — because we are supposed to and surrounding ourselves with all of this will make us feel better about ourselves.

It won’t.

This means giving up the middle-class dream, which can be summarised, roughly, as: money, house, SUV, husband, holidays, kids in private school. That’s what most people in my social class aspire to, and by their late 30s, they’ve more or less achieved it.

It is a dream I grew up with, a dream that is thoroughly inculcated into my cultural milieu. The only people of my class, education and upbringing who do not achieve it are drug addicts.

(I’m tempted to invent a drug habit, if only because it will make the narrative tidier.)

I sat there, eating my salad, reflecting on the difference between the man I had imagined through my dealings with him on Twitter, and the man sitting across the table from me.

There was a time when a conversation like this, about loss and pain and anguish, would have been really hard. I would have avoided it. But my mother-in-law died in front of me five and a half years ago, and I had to hold my husband through his grief before we took her out of her housework clothes and dressed her in a nice suit for the post-mortem. When you touch a dead body, when you bend limbs that can no longer move of their own accord, it changes everything.

So I know about death. I know about how, months later, the world moves on and expects you to do the same. I know how the pain and the loss never goes away, or the guilt because you don’t feel enough. How it hollows you out like termites.

This is the thing about adversity: it strips you to your essence. You come out of the other side, but nothing matters quite the same as it did.

In the end, this is all we really need. To be safe, and warm, and dry.

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    • Neil Vels

      Thanks you for this, Sarah. I wish and hope that more people will realise this truth.

    • Sean

      Happiness has a lot to do with accepting and being happy with who you are and with what you have in life. Too many of us are so focused on trying to achieve what we think will make us happy that we do not realise that happiness is just a state of mind and proportional to the diference between what we have and what we think we should have in order to be happy. Expectations versus reality. I love where I am and am happy with what I have, a wonderful place to be!

    • Lisa

      Your best piece ever.

      It cuts to the core.

    • PM

      Ah, yes, making meaning. I thought this was a great comment on that effort, and appropriate for a painter in lipstick, as well:

      I would suggest that something be added to your list of things that we need–which is implicit in your post. We need to feel that we understand. We need a sense of meaning. and the great distinction is whether meaning is something that you find (a search for meaning) or something that you make/construct out of you own life.

    • Momma Cyndi

      You do realise that you are giving up one ambition for another. They are still ambitions. One is measured by the amount of things and the other is measured by the amount of deeds. Same thing, just different coinage. Far more noble though.

    • Shaun

      Ah, what it is to be free. Most have no idea what freedom is. Strangely and ironically enough, for a large majority, freedom means ownership and possession.

    • PrettyBelinda

      You just made my evening reading…beautifully told Sarah

    • Sipho

      Me thinks accumulating things is not the problem but the process of doing it is. For the life of me I have never understood why people would bad mouth, steal, discriminate & undermine others, brown-nose, and sleep their way, just to get ahead in the workplace – to get a better car, better address, and better schooling for their kids, and better holidays. Achieving all these at the back of dishonesty me thinks is the problem. I believe people can honestly accumulate things without destroying their humanity by destroying others. But hey different strokes for different folks. But I don’t think giving away your hard earned possessions is the way to go though, but affording others a space to accumulate on their own is.

    • Barbra

      A beautiful, and profound piece. Thanks Sarah.

    • Nicole

      A very thoughtful piece and a good reminder of what matters. Being mindful of it and remembering it is an achievement in itself, I suppose, particularly because we live in a world that is incredibly materialistic and busy. Thank you for that reminder.

    • Marc

      You better watch out for a copyright lawsuit:

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