A short while ago, on Twitter, late at night, I found myself trying to explain, once again, The Weight. It was suggested that I might want to write a whole essay on the subject, so I did.
Like all philosophical examinations of the universe, this begins with me sitting, bloated, lactose intolerant, but intolerant of such things, at a cheese table, talking to a priest. Now, I’m not religious, and he, of course, was the very definition of devout. It being late at night, we began to discuss the world. It started with me asking about his church, and we easily moved on to ecclesiastical architecture - I’m a fan. Soon, over a wheel of wensleydale, we got to what I call The Weight. I explained it to him, as it neared midnight, in that rambling way I imagine everyone would describe strange, vague, philosophical concepts to Anglican clergy, given the opportunity. He thought, for a while, and told me that, in many ways, I was “a very spiritual person”. Now, normally, if a priest had just said that to me, without preamble, I would have been somewhat offended, anticipating some attempt at conversion (or at least a saving of the soul), but after our conversation, having tried to explain The Weight to him, I understand exactly what he meant.
You see, I feel, very strongly, that people leave traces. I can't explain it, and I certainly can't understand it, but I feel it. When you go to places where people have lived, or worshipped, or just existed, either strongly, or for a long time, you feel the weight of it. It's not ghosts, or energies, it’s nothing so deliberate or defined, it's just... Weight. It settles over you. You feel it in cathedrals and grand historical sites as much as in small side streets with polished cobblestones, and on windswept hills with the odd mud bank where a fort once stood. It's continuity. It’s a sense of being part of something so much bigger than yourself. Like some part of humanity lingers, in great feeling. It’s an awareness of the vast reach of past and present, of how simultaneously close and distant it all is. Of how every person is just one person, yet at the same time they each contain a whole universe. Of how many people there have been. Of how many people have stood in this place, and for how many ages they have done so. Of how we’re connected.
It’s the feeling equivalent of a very very smooth stone in an old doorway, where people have unthinkingly brushed past over and over for centuries, leaving their mark. It’s like looking out of a plane at night, with the knowledge that every light you see below means you’re not alone. But you’re looking out across history, and instead of lights, it’s people, all so human, and so different, and yet so similar to yourself. It’s the “more” that lingers right on the edges of human comprehension, where the limits of our biology cannot allow us to go. Where understanding stops, and feeling takes over. It’s where music, and art, and religion truly live. Where words aren’t enough, and never will be enough. Where knowing is overwritten by feeling, and feeling overwritten by belief. Where conceptions of who we are, and what we are, and why we are here, are created and tested and denied. It’s where the unknowable truths reside.
I feel the weight often, and in wildly different places, but there is one place that stands out in particular. When I lived in the South West I took a visiting friend on a tour of Bath, and guided her to the place I’d felt the weight the most. Hidden in a side corridor of the Roman Baths museum lies the overflow from the sacred spring. Stained orange from the minerals, full of rubble, and grime, an undecorated rough brick semi-circle never meant to be seen, spitting steaming water into a small stream that winds away beneath the floor. It was, and remains, a somewhat less than auspicious space. Now you must understand that my friend, she believes in things, unlike me. She believes in witchcraft and spirits, and so the “more” that she feels can be categorised. We stood there, leaning on the railing, the steam billowing up in the dim light, and I asked her if she felt it. She told me she’d never felt anything like it before, and certainly nothing as strong. I asked her what she thought it was. She said she thinks it’s what religion feels like, when it’s focussed on one thing, in one place, over thousands of years. She said what we were feeling was pure, concentrated, belief.
I don’t know if she’s right. I don’t think I want to know, either. But I’d often visit the Baths; I’d say it was to write, or because I had a season ticket, or just because I could, but really it was to visit the overflow. Not the gorgeous Baths themselves, but the ugly, dimly lit, forgotten, overflow. To feel it, whatever it is. To feel that weight, more concentrated than anywhere I’ve ever felt it before. To feel connected, and uplifted. To see, and be seen. To be, and to have been. I’ve since moved away, but I often yearn to visit again, to walk the Georgian streets and abbey floors, to see the buildings by daylight and the Baths by torchlight, but mostly, I yearn to visit the overflow, and feel it so strongly again. To feel the weight.
I wonder, sometimes, if I’m kidding myself, if the weight is just something I imagine, to absolve my fear of the nothingness of death. It’s possible, because, you see, it’s not the dying that terrifies me, but the forgetting, and if I’m right, and people leave traces; if parts of us live on, in the weight, then how can one ever, truly, be forgotten? The problem with this idea that I’m simply imagining things to soothe my own soul is that there exists something else - the weight’s polar opposite. It doesn’t feel like a lack of weight, of course, it’s just different, and I think, more widely accepted. It’s what you feel when you see a wild ocean, or a good sunset, or a vast empty wilderness, untouched by humanity. You feel that different, opposite, weight. Instead of being acutely aware of how long humanity has existed, you feel the absence of it. It’s just as powerful, and as heavy, but it’s entirely different.
Instead of a continuity, you become aware of the beauty of the world, and the vastness of existence. At the same time you also become aware of the smallness of man, and the shortness of time, and the inconsequentiality of yourself, and everything you do. Unlike the comforting weight of the past, it’s both terrifying, and liberating. It makes you so vulnerable, and so aware that no matter what you do, you have no power over so many things. So much of humanity's existence has been about leaving a mark, and building for the ages, and yet there is so much we cannot control, or even comprehend. It’s like reaching your arms out to a starry sky, and realising that you cannot really grasp how large the stars are, or how much space lies in between. It’s terror of the unknown, and awe at the vastness and power of existence. It’s gratitude for life, and confusion at why we have it. I think, in some ways, we are privileged to live in a time where both weights can be felt, and both perspectives can be had.
So perhaps the weight is real. I believe it is, and it makes sense that it does, when you take into account that its opposite exists too. But I’m no expert, and for me, much of the weight’s power lies in not understanding exactly what it is. There are so many possibilities that I cannot even begin to sort through them all. For example, I read somewhere that some scientists think that all things that have ever and will ever happen could actually be happening simultaneously, all at once. That time is not a line, as we generally see it, side on, stretching from left to right, but a line seen head on, a speck, with everything on it occurring at the exact same moment. Perhaps that’s what the weight is. It’s everything and everyone that has ever and will ever be in a certain space trying to crowd into it at the exact same moment. Perhaps not. It’s hard to say, particularly as I’m not a believer in things. I stand by science, and all things proven to be true, and that’s it. But a key aspect of science is that which we do not yet know. So yes, there’s truth, there’s science, and that’s it. But there is an indefinable “more” out there, and I’ve learnt to be okay with that. I’m okay with not knowing what it is. It’s famously impossible to prove a negative, and by not believing in anything, I think, perhaps, I believe in everything, just a little bit. Enough to feel its weight.
But of course, such things can break a person. Weight, of any kind, can be so painful. Sometimes you cannot stand the feeling, so indescribable and whole as it may be. Some people search for answers, or rules. They create a world view, create meaning. Perhaps that’s how Gods started, or ghosts. Perhaps I’m wrong. Perhaps there’s nothing. I'm okay not knowing. Some mysteries are comforting in their vastness.
All I know, for certain, is what exists in the universe I have made for myself, in my own mind; as we each create our own universes from our own experiences in life. I walk in a world indelibly marked by the footsteps of those who have gone before, and I look in awe at the power of the Earth that holds us. It seems impossible to me that something as powerful as a human consciousness can pass through this world unnoticed, and exit it without leaving something behind. The only thing that every human society throughout time has in common is a belief that there must be more out there, and how could something so consistent come out of nothing at all? Beyond the realms of understanding and connection there stands something little more than a feeling. Something we cannot, and will not understand. Some have named it as a God. Some think it’s another realm. Some simply ignore it altogether. Perhaps it’s a mass delusion. Perhaps it’s just a fact of humanity that we scramble for something, anything, to reason away the finite and unimportant nature of existence. Perhaps we have always reached for more, and when we found nothing there, we made something up.
The thing about questions like this is that there can be no answers. Perhaps when I die my little universe will simply cease to exist, and no trace will remain, not even as part of an indefinable feeling of weight in the places I have been. But perhaps others were right. Perhaps there are heavens and hells and spirit realms, or perhaps people leave nothing behind but their memories. Are memories not, in some way, a weight? When it comes to the unknowable, we must choose our own truths. I choose to be part of a continuity of people stretching throughout time. I choose the knowledge that I am, all at once, a whole person, so unfathomably complex that I can contain a whole universe, and so small that I am a speck on a rapidly diminishing horizon. When you are both so small so as to be insignificant, and part of something so big it transcends time, you become free to choose the impact of your own life. You become free to choose how you wish to live, and to choose what you believe in as you do so.