She should have died hereafter;
There would have been a time for such a word.
Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury
Signifying nothing. — Macbeth (Act 5, Scene 5, lines 17-28)
These lines have been going through my head in the last week. I first had to memorize this soliloquy in 8th grade. It was difficult for a young teen to grasp the existential despair and exhaustion Macbeth was expressing after hearing of the death of Lady Macbeth while facing his demise and the loss of everything he thought he had in his grasp.
Now that I am 66, the words bring on thoughts that seem to go to the depths of my being. Macbeth starts off by musing about the misfortune of Lady Macbeth’s inopportune death. If only she could have died later there might have been more time to mourn and acknowledge her. This reminds me of the fact that, in general, we cannot plan on all the events of our lives including our deaths or the deaths of those we know and love. Staying attuned to the present moment and taking the time to appreciate what is actually there with us in that moment could reduce the suffering, remorse and regret in our lives.
The everydayness of our lives can numb us as we follow paths lit by the fools who came before us in an unthinking, unaware state and we leave a similar path for those who follow. We take up various beliefs, social and personal constructs, and act on them, forgetting that we and others before us have made them up but we act as if they are true and real. Macbeth’s tragedy, in my mind’s eye, is that he got caught up in the illusions of his own mind and did not take the time to truly observe and experience what was going on in his realm. He was assured he would never be vanquished until the “Great Birnam wood to high Dunsinane hill Shall come against him.” Well, the illusory woods, formed by the troops who were about to lay siege to his castle moved into place and he could not see it coming. In the end he finds himself exhausted of all resources.
It seems like my clients face this challenge at work and in their domestic or family lives. In the work environment they find that the anxiety driven, unbalanced thinking, and illusionary thought of the leadership of their work place creates a charged, unconscious environment that eventually catches all who are part of the company culture. People become blind to the stress they have created and maintain until they hit burnout and find themselves addicted to some substance or behavior that seems to provide some temporary relief but only more pain later or they enter the depths of psychic and physical exhaustion. We take on scripts of that “poor player who struts and frets his hour upon the stage and is heard no more.” The “promised land” is just around the corner or over the next hill or at the end of the next project but no matter how successful they may be, people do not take the time to appreciate and acknowledge the accomplishment so the “success” does not register and all they remember is the pain and suffering experienced in getting to that success: the “sound and fury signifying nothing.”
On the domestic front people fall into beliefs that lead to rigid self concepts about roles they are supposed to play and assumptions about what others in the family are thinking or feeling. Frequently, this starts before marriage when red flags can be flying but people convince themselves that once they say, “I do,” everything will turn out just the way they imagined it was “supposed to be.”
These illusions and assumptions or expectations lead to the “sound and fury” of our lives. When the disturbance passes we frequently find ourselves feeling empty; wondering, “What was that about, really?” All too frequently, we feel that it signifies nothing and we are faced with a sense of despair and absurdity.
Macbeth’s existential despair and exhaustion does not have to be ours. While we all do end in “dusty death” the quality of our lives in the moment can create a life that can absorb and deal with the challenges and leave a legacy of equanimity, creative opportunities and even joy for those who follow. Every waking moment provides an opportunity to create meaning and make decisions that can support our lives and those of people around us. I believe Jean Paul Sartre was correct in his description of “the existential legislator.” If there is no predetermined definition of what it means to be human, then every decision we make builds that definition. We take on the responsibility for the quality of life for ourselves and others when we make decisions about how to lead our lives.