What’s better: a life of lightness or one of weight? So asks Milan Kundera in his novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being.
Our culture is schizophrenic. On one hand we are told to value selflessness, self-sacrifice and duty. We are urged to marry, to raise children, to contribute to our communities. Those who avoid commitment are criticised as immature and selfish.
“Necessity, weight and value are three concepts inextricably bound: only necessity is heavy and only what is heavy has value.”
On the other hand, our culture of individualism encourages us to do what makes us happy, to follow our bliss, to put ourselves first. If we’re dissatisfied with our marriage, we don’t need to work on it, we can just get a divorce.
Knowing whether to pursue lightness or weight isn’t easy. We cannot look to others for guidance. One person’s lightness is another’s weight. To Franz, the secrecy surrounding his affair with Sabina was heavy. To Sabina, that secrecy was light: it kept their relationship free from the judgement of others. When Franz leaves his wife, and the gaze of the world falls on them, their relationship becomes joyfully light to Franz and unbearably heavy to Sabina.
Moreover, many of our most important decisions – whether to marry, for example, or have children – are transformative experiences. We cannot know whether we should pursue them until we are already committed, because the experience itself changes us in a fundamental way.
“The goals we pursue are always veiled. A girl who longs for marriage longs for something she knows nothing about. The boy who hankers after fame has no idea what fame is.”
Faced with such difficulties, we shouldn’t be too hard on ourselves if we find we don’t know what we want:
“[Tomas] remained annoyed with himself until he realized that not knowing what he wanted was actually quite natural. We can never know what to want, because, living only one life, we can neither compare it with our previous lives, not perfect it in our lives to come. Was it better to be with Tereza or to remain alone?...
Any schoolboy can do experiments in the physics laboratory to test various scientific hypotheses. But man, because he has only one life to live, cannot conduct experiments to test whether to follow his passion or not.”