When life has gotten strange, and it’s more than you can handle, the absolute worst thing you can do to yourself is go, “Well, of course. Of course this would happen. Because this always happens to ME.”

This locks you deeper into the general awfulness. This *cements* the awful. And makes you more likely to subconsciously choose the paths that will lead you to more awful in the future.

What happens is only part of the general plot. The other part is how you react. Such an obvious point, but so easy to miss when you’re under heaps of stress.

Many years ago, I was in a stressful situation. I was worried about events not under my control. I couldn’t sleep. I had also recently read Macbeth, and set about re-reading the play, convinced that the not sleeping thing was not accidental. Macbeth shall sleep no more, etc.

I hadn’t stabbed a sleeping guest to death in cold blood, nor executed a potential political rival’s family and servants, but those were details.

I was overcome with guilt. The overwhelming, existential guilt that hides deep in your chest and radiates outward whenever something happens to implicitly confirm your own fears about yourself. “Of course,” the guilt says.

After two weeks of barely any sleep, I would have climbed walls if I had any strength left. My mom told me to stop fighting the body on this. “If it doesn’t want to sleep, it doesn’t want to sleep – get over it.” She also showed me how muttering the same prayer over and over again, while not nearly as cool and dramatic as “When the hurly burly’s done / When the battle is lost and won,” is more helpful if you don’t want to spend the dark hours thinking.

Once the insomnia was accepted for what it was, it went away. Acceptance left no room for that scattered but persistent feeling of guilt that kept lighting my brain up when it should have been dormant.

This year, finding myself in a similarly stressful situation, I reconnected with Macbeth via Justin Kurzel’s film version. I know enough “Scottish Play”-related stories from fellow theater people, and am aware of the general idea that there has never really been a “a great Macbeth.” There is something about the play that makes it not work properly on the stage. Maybe Shakespeare was too far ahead of his time with this one.

Regardless of all that, Kurzel made a great movie – hard to believe that this is his second one. It should have done better in the awards department (you wonder if that’s the curse again – or whatever).

I love Kurzel’s use of children and family to drive the play’s central points home. Both Kurzel and Michael Fassbender understand the terrible sadness at the heart of the title character, and keep the balance between the sadness and his brutality. The brutality cannot be summed up in words like “savage” or “animalistic” – animals go by instinct. Macbeth, on the other hand, has choices, which makes his fate and the fate of Lady Macbeth much more terrible.

"I am in blood/Stepp'd in so far..."
“I am in blood / Stepped in so far”

Marion Cotillard is genius in this film – as breakable as glass, and just as sharp.

I suppose if you’re a snob, you can get angry at Kurzel for the changes he makes, as well as for how he films the action (he doesn’t pay lip service to theater, he doesn’t wish to appear as some genteel version of himself here; he has tools at his disposal to wow you and isn’t afraid to use them), but I think the changes are there to make the film its own thing. He’s having a dialogue with Shakespeare, as opposed to just transcribing him.

I watched and re-watched, and read and re-read, and then – to bed. To bed. I don’t know if I’m handling the new test more gracefully this time around, but at least I’m sleeping so far. I told myself that I wouldn’t get angry at myself if I didn’t sleep. I told insomnia it was OK to show up (where’s the fun in that? Insomnia is asking).

When life has gotten strange, and it’s more than you can handle, remember that it’s not about you. And it is about you. The world doesn’t seek us out for this. The world seeks us out every time. Battles visible and invisible are lost and won equally, and Shakespeare knew that this isn’t a paradox. You can’t rise above any bloody battle without compassion – and you can’t extend compassion to others if you don’t first extend it to yourself.

4 thoughts on “Life advice for when the mind is full of scorpions

  1. “I hadn’t stabbed a sleeping guest to death in cold blood”
    I can’t help but note that you exclude the possibility that you stabbed someone in the heat of the moment…

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