Milan Kundera, in his book The Unbearable Lightness of Being, talked about a new kind of freedom. A freedom from life itself. A way of living that discards the immeasurable weight of existence. He said that there is only one life, one existence, one shot at all of this. So our decisions, our choices, their consequences, they don’t matter. Do whatever the fuck you want. A hitherto unexplored moral, sexual and spiritual liberty. But there was a rub. The fact that your decisions, you choices in life don’t matter, living in “lightness” also became unbearable.
Kundera was taking on Friedrich Nietzsche and the philosophy of Eternal Return, which said that our lives, our existence, all our choices and all their consequences keep recurring infinitely across infinite time and space. Whatever we’re doing now, we’ve done it before and we’ll do it again. We are predestined to go through all events in life over and over again. Nietzsche said this eternal recurrence gives weight to our actions and decisions in life. It exerts this incredible “heavyness” on our being. Both Kundera and Nietzsche were talking about ways of existing. Their theories, though polar opposites, somehow seem to touch upon the dread of existence itself. Both freedom and responsibility can be a terrible source of crisis.
When the Argentinean national anthem rang out in Nizhny Novgorod Thursday night, one man looked like he had known that same dread, that “heavyness” all his life. Thousands of colored faces, exulting in hope and joy, ensnared by the occasion, but Messi looked alone. He looked lonely. Rubbing his forehead, his gaunt face staring at his toes, Messi looked like he had been there before. He had done this before. And he was predestined to do this again. This was his Eternal Return. He would love to have that lightness Kundera talked about. For him, it could not be more unbearable than it already is. He’d like to be free from consequence, expectation and the weight of it all. He’s been carrying it around since he was 17. But no. He is condemned to heavyness. He is stuck in recurrence. Past, present, future have dissolved into a singular horrible monster that haunts him every time he wears that shirt. Somehow, by some cruel twist of recurring fate, Messi always finds himself in the role of the saviour. It is always him, standing between Argentina and disaster. He must score from the freekick, he must take the penalty, he must galvanise his team. He must. There was hardly any surprise when it came down to him again. He must vanquish Croatia to keep Argentina’s World Cup hopes alive. Everyone keeps telling him to wager more and more, when he knows he has always lost the hand with the same cards. Before Croatia shackled him, Messi was shackled by his fate.Embed from Getty Images
He kept collapsing, little by little, as the minutes rolled by. Toward the end, you could see he wanted to disappear, reduced to a ghost of himself. He knows he will take the blame again. Argentina fail because of him, not despite him. That’s the way it has always been. It had already begun. “I don’t know what’s wrong with him. When he plays plays for Barcelona, he’s the greatest. When he plays for Argentina, he goes blank,” an Argentinean fan had looked at the camera and said after the draw against Iceland. He had an Argentina shirt on, a glass of beer in his hand. It looked like he only remembered the penalty miss. He surely didn’t remember four years ago when Messi dragged Argentina to the World Cup final. Or just last year, when Messi produced one of the greatest solo performances in recent memory as his hat-trick sent Argentina to Russia. Or the fact that for eight consecutive World Cup qualifiers, Argentina’s goals had only come in two ways: Messi and own-goal. He is worshiped when he, despite his team, carries Argentina with his brilliance. And when he can’t, he becomes the sole bearer of the brunt.
And this keeps happening. Over and over again. It’s attrition by repetition. Imagine the accumulated weight on him. Imagine the heaviness he has accrued over time. No wonder he looks tired. What great irony that the man whose brilliance has brought so much joy to so many people around the world, doesn’t seem to have any himself. Is it so difficult to understand why he quit after the Copa America final? “It had to be me to miss the penalty,” he had said. As if he knew. When he returned, he said he didn’t want to create more problems for Argentina. Last night, the problems of Argentina weren’t his design either. In fact, he rarely got a chance to interfere. Jorge Sampaoli set up the team in a way that took Messi out of the equation. He looked on as others decided his fate for him. A helpless audience to his own condemnation. As the minutes played out, Messi had the look of recognition on his face. The past repeats. We have all been talking about Messi’s destiny for so long. That he must win the World Cup to complete the narrative. The Greatest of All Time. But in our wait for his arc to reach a satisfying conclusion, we seem to have missed that the arc is actually a circle.
So what must Messi do? Embrace this fatalism, embrace his Eternal Return and live with the heaviness? I can only think of another great writer when I ponder over this. In his essay, Myth of Sisyphus, Albert Camus argued one more way to live in the face of Eternal Return. Sisyphus, the king who chained death, was condemned by the gods to roll an enormous boulder up a hill, only for the rock to roll down to the bottom when it reached the top. Sisyphus had to start over. This was his fate. Rolling the boulder up the hill, over and over again. But Camus saw something in his fate. He equated the meaninglessness of rolling the boulder up the hill with the absurdity of life itself. Life too is inherently meaningless. But that doesn’t mean we can’t realise the absurdity of our predicament, laugh in the face of meaninglessness and continue to push on the boulder. Messi could look at Sisyphus, gather his heart and fight the day again. He could find strength and solace in Camus’ words, as I have over the years: “The struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”