Is the Lightness of Being Really Unbearable?
When we turn to lightness, the beauty of life becomes seen.
Ever since I started university, one of my goals was to read more. Lately, as a part of my mini project, I have been reading Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being. I first read the book when I was in high school, as a part of my school’s curriculum. I did not give the book, or its themes much thought before, yet when I picked it up and read it again, Kundera’s notion of the “unbearable lightness of being” was stuck in my head.
What exactly is the “lightness of being”? That is one of the central questions the book explores. In his book, Kundera connects weight with responsibility and meaning, and lightness with a lack thereof. He further argues for the necessity of weight in life in his book:
“The heaviest of burdens is therefore simultaneously an image of life’s most intense fulfillment. The heavier the burden, the closer our lives come to the earth, the more real and truthful they become.”
As seen from this famous quote of his, Kundera believes that it is meaning and responsibility that make life authentic and fulfilled. Why wouldn’t it be the case? We have sought after meaning and responsibility ever since we can remember — most of us spend the entirety of our lives trying to work out why and for what/whom we exist. However, when I thought more about this notion, I found myself reluctant to agree with Kundera. Is there really no value in meaninglessness? Is there no space in our lives for the frivolity of irresponsibility?
In his book, Kundera uses the character of Sabina to warn readers about the dangers of lightness, of irresponsibility, and of meaninglessness. As a character who flees from responsibility through numerous betrayals of her parents, her country and her lovers, she finally achieves the “lightness of being” — at the end of the book, there is nothing important to her that ties her down. However, because of this lightness, her life loses any meaning, and becomes one of isolation and loneliness. As she crosses each country, and eventually the menacing divide of life and death, no one will spare her a thought.
When I read about Sabina, I could easily see Kundera’s underlying message — lightness, in extreme, will inevitably be followed by loneliness. But what about lightness in moderation? Besides her tragic end, I saw something positive in Sabina’s existence. When she severs some of her ties to the world, she becomes liberated, and her freedom opens her to experiences she would never have had otherwise. For example, when she divorces her Czech husband and leaves her family, there is no one stopping her from travelling to Zurich, to Paris, to America. Do these experiences really have no value at all? To me, they make her existence, though fleeting, more memorable and interesting than the rest of the characters.
Beyond the fictional world, I still believe there is worth in the lightness of being. When we decide to be spontaneous for once and wander aimlessly in the streets of somewhere unfamiliar, we feel oddly exhilarated; when we decide to call it quits on anything, be it a relationship, or simply a difficult university course, we feel liberated, free. There is no meaning in wandering, nor is responsibility being upheld in quitting, yet we feel a dash of happiness and excitement all the same. When we stop for a moment and leave space for a pinch of spontaneity and a little chaos, the beauty and wonder of life makes itself seen.
As I continue to write here, it occurred to me how human creativity itself feeds on lightness. In the book, Sabina has always been an artist, yet her greatest breakthrough is when she accidentally spills red paint on her early Realist paintings. These meaningless, tiny spots of red on the grey, gloomy canvas light up the entire work not only because of their sharpness, it is also because they result in Sabina’s betrayal against the conventions of Realism, which opens her to new levels of artistic achievement. The freedom that comes with laying down our responsibilities and ceasing our search of meaning, gives us the space to explore, to imagine, and to create.
Yes, maybe meaning and responsibility do make our lives feel real and truthful; but perhaps it is the exhilaration and freedom that comes with spontaneity and the occasional instance of irresponsibility that make us stop and marvel at the beautiful miracle that is life.