Death and Happiness

This is a response to Chapter 31 on ‘Darwin and Freud’ from the book Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder. A story which stirred my heart and mind, deeply.


There are some memories we allow to flood in. Birthdays, graduation, the first time you met your partner, special memories with special friends. But there are others which we push outside the ‘metaphorical room’ we build up in our minds. Closing the door, we put a chair up under the the handle, locking out the unpleasant experiences with a firm left-turn whilst trying to continue peacefully through life. But like the unwanted room service merely doing its duty, those are the very memories which will just keep knocking. And you, the rightful key holder haven’t got round to doing your laundry yet. 

These are the experiences which will keep resurfacing. Flashbacks, images and conversations. Appearing like a mole, unexpected in the garden of the mind. They find a way of burying deeper in the subconscious every time you choose to ignore them. And when there’s a total shutdown of every attempt to access this conscious mind, that is when neurosis happens. That is when mental disorders arise.  That is a total repression of our truest needs, urges and desires. Which we have failed to listen to, time and time again. Despite their incessant attempts to communicate.

That being said, I do believe that true expression comes from this subconscious state. Does that not give bearing to why some of the greatest poets, artists and creatives of our times have also been the most troubled? Don’t the most incredible pieces of art display some expression of the repressed? Is this work not a communication of truth from the subconscious, the rattled thoughts buried deep in the mind? The greatest songs, paintings and books. Think. They all have this. 

It made think in a deep and profound way about my own approach to making art. Why do I feel so free writing? Why do I care too much about how my art looks? Why is there a drive for perfection in an area that has the permit to be so free? Well, I found the answer in this chapter.

It is what happens when imagination gets throttled by reasoned deliberation”

So, again. Why do I write so freely? Because I don’t think. I’m not thinking at all now. I’m letting the words flow. Automated from the subconscious to my hands and connected with truth into your mind. 

Gaardner gives an interesting example of a child who is so tired, that they are overtired and actually seems surprisingly awake. In this state, it is often when children starts to speak of concepts and thoughts which lay dormant in the subconscious, experiences they may have had but which they haven’t fully understood. Ones which are in the waiting room. Sat tight, patiently in the corridor for an opportunity to be understood. 


At this moment, a situation I had stored in my own laundry basket came to the forefront of  my mind. It was was a bizarre conversation I shared with a 6 year old little girl called Ellie. This is how it goes.

Ellie and I were coming into the close of our second hour learning the English language. A burdensome demand of any person, let alone a little creature with boundless and bubbling energy. I could see the concentration was dipping. It always does. We were going over the irregular past tense. No surprises there.

“Ellie, if today I say, I ‘fall’ over, what do I say if it happened yesterday?” I asked, checking whether the last 90 minutes meant anything at all.

She sprung to life,  “FELL, FELL, FELL!”  Ellie’s face lit up and her voice reached the higher octaves that could only belong to a little voice box as hers.

“Yes, did you know, did you know…” she started, stuttering almost. “Did you know, that my grandma fell over and it made me really really happy.”

I registered the white elephant appearing in that moment. My adult mind awkwardly glanced at the time to justify the comment with reason. She’s tired I thought and responded “Why did it make you happy Elsa?”

“Because she is ill, she is very very ill and she is going to die and it makes me SO SO SO happy” she continued becoming more and more elated as she pressed on with the story. A smile spread wide on her face.

Curious and somewhat confused about this little girl, dressed charmingly top-to-toe in a pink tutu dress, matching jacket and princess bag. I asked again, this time more gently.

“Why does that make you happy Ellie?” 

“Because she is going to die and I’m not. I’m healthy.” she replied grinning, looking me straight back in the eye.

I was astounded by this conversation and it did lead to me onto saying that we all grow old at some point. Perhaps I was the ‘reason’ to her ‘free imagination’. Or the adult ego to her subconscious. She was 6 and she was speaking the truth that she wanted. The truth that in reality, we all suppress into that room, the one the maid keeps knocking at.

Closing the lesson, Ellie’s other teacher actually did come knocking at the door. 

“Hi Henika, how was Ellie this lesson?” he asked.

“She was fine, tired in the last hour, the usual”, I responded in teacher mode.

“Well, did you find that she sometimes talks about death?” he asked.

I stood still. Pausing from packing my bag. I looked up, eyes wide. Shocked and ever more confused that this topic of death was seemingly a recurring episode in Ellie’s english lessons.

Until now that is. 


It’s obvious. Ellie was speaking directly from her subconscious. Her filtered mind was tired. She hadn’t yet built up the walls of maturity that keep our deepest needs and desires locked under the surface. Just a little push from fatigue and Elsa was speaking the truth. Her own truth. The one that came from her depths into a brief conversation of delusional tire. Ellie in that moment, shared the traits of a true artist.

She was free.

Isn’t creativity after all, bringing together two ideas that don’t normally run together? Why couldn’t death and happiness sit like that? Is it not our primordial desire speaking, our human instinct which deep down, is satisfied that it didn’t happen to us? Wasn’t it just the superego of society associating death with sadness, a thing that we learn along the winding path to adulthood.

It’s incredible when you go in to teach a tiny human being how to express themselves and they teach you the biggest lessons back in turn. 

Death and happiness. Isn’t it what we’re all really thinking?


Click here for a review of this incredible book – ‘Sophie’s World’ by Jostein Gaarder

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