Making Something of Memory (part 2)

To give some context to my previous ramblings on memory, I can’t help but marvel at my own forgetfulness in respect to one relatively recent period of my life. Despite being the source of one of the most distinct paradigm shifts I’ve had, the memories contained in this period – memories that once held so much depth and nuance – have somehow seemed to flatten out with time, creating the false impression that the perceptions I held by the end of it were ones I had held all along. But I know this is far from the reality. I am reminded of the deceptions produced by my own forgetfulness each time I find myself at another major life event or shifting context, searching again for the exact same gems of wisdom I had once held firmly within my grasp.

Even in knowing the inevitable distortions that result from my repeated recollection of events after the fact, it seems revisiting them, tracing their progression and attempting to remember them in fuller detail through conscious effort, is the best means I have of keeping the underlying value of the memories alive. As incomplete and inaccurate as my attempt may be to give shape to them through words, maybe I can at least imbue them with more indelibility than they would otherwise have. And most importantly, maybe I can then maintain the lessons embodied by them not as fading memories of the past but as insights integrated into the actions that shape my present and future.

As I think is characteristic of all memory, what I remember most vividly is the ‘beginning’ and the ‘ending’, with the middle condensed into a series of unorganized and probably disordered fragments…

The ending: Seated on one of the white plastic foldout chairs that had been arranged a few hours earlier into several neat rows on the grassy open space besides our office building. My gaze directed at the mini podium placed at the front of the row of chairs, just behind the thatched roof gazebo – normally the sole centerpiece to the office lawn – its wooden tables now host to several large platters of assorted meats. The same set up of assorted meats and foldout chairs I’d been witness to on multiple occasions, the standard package for office birthdays or farewells, now felt like superfluous emblems of recognition as I reexamined them through the eyes of my own farewell gathering.

My body overheated and face flushed from the weight of all the attention centred on me, heightened by the mere presence of the podium and meat platters, I sat there with a strained half smile on my face and quivering lips as I fixed my attention on those addressing me from behind the podium. While my eyes remained fixed on the speakers, my mind struggled to fully comprehend their words, catching only bits and pieces of amusingly disjointed compliments and parables (…one involving something about a tortoise, a lion, and a watering hole…perhaps what was an extended metaphor for my work ethic?). In between confounding bits of tortoise-related commentary, a billion other disheveled thoughts flooded my mind…the rest of my handover notes I still had to finish despite having to catch a plane in a few hours, the colleagues I had yet to say a proper goodbye to, the strangeness of the fact that I would soon be an unemployed person, and even stranger, that I had chosen this fate…

As some of the distraction subsided and my attention found its way back to my immediate surroundings, I felt both my gratitude and discomfort levels rising as I listened to the rest of my colleagues and superiors tell me what they thought of me: that thing we can’t help but want to know (with the exception of maybe the most enlightened and self-assured among us), compelled by our egos and general curiosity, but which we nonetheless never really want to hear, much less relayed to us from a podium in front of other people. As more relayed their kind words of acknowledgement (coupled with half-joking commentary about how I managed to have any friends when I spent all my time at the office), expressing the ways they thought I had contributed to the work of the organization, I felt something inside me click – a subtle paradigm shift of sorts. Struck by my own interior reactions to each of their words, from “I didn’t actually do that,” “he’s giving me credit for something that was a team effort,” “they don’t know what they’re saying,” or “they’re just being nice,” I had this simultaneous realization that what I thought about what they thought about me didn’t actually matter. In this case, what actually mattered was their perceptions, not the ‘objective’ reality of what I thought I had achieved during my time there.

That is, if my own judgment of my accomplishments did not align with what was perceived by the people who in fact were meant to be the ultimate judges of my work (like my supervisors), then whose standards was I actually referring to? Who exactly was I comparing myself to in thinking that no matter what I did, it didn’t measure up to what someone more qualified would have achieved in my position? Unable to definitively answer these questions, I was forced to take a step back from all the assumptions I had held up to that point, including about all the imaginary ‘others’ around me who were so much more stable, accomplished, and effective at what they did: all the people who had that mysterious quality that I somehow did not and never could possess. For once, stripped of my idealization of them, I saw them as actual people. Maybe, just maybe, everyone – my colleagues, my bosses, my peers – actually did not have all the answers, all the skills, and all the confidence. Maybe I was so caught up in my own failures that I failed to actually notice the struggles and failures of those around me, instead noticing only their impressive feats and public facades and piecing together narratives of perfection from these limited insights into their realities.

While written out in this way, these realizations probably seem rather evident (i.e. of course nobody is perfect), recognition of a truth is different from internalization of it. For some things, words only go so far – sometimes it takes being pushed to your limits and emerging on the other side to actually realize what you are capable of (or at the very least, to accept that you can never truly discern your own abilities or potential abilities). And perhaps it takes embracing all the mistakes and shortcomings that characterized your own road to the other side to actually recognize all the mistakes and uncertainties that equally shape and define the successfulness of everyone around you.

While seemingly simple, the mere mental exercise of truly considering that my abilities were no less than anyone else in my position – that my confusion or discomfort in various situations was not something singular to me – was one of the most profound and even life-altering realizations I have had to date. It was the first time I actually felt that adulthood and maturity were not things to be earned through self-defined benchmarks, confidence levels, or achievement, but rather, states of being already granted to me whether I liked it or not. Equipped with this new knowledge, the ‘future’ – the thing which until then had seemed like this constant shadow looming over me, bringing with it unwanted motion whilst I remained a constant, inevitably leaving me ever more behind in relation to everything around me such that I could never catch up to whatever or wherever I was supposed to be – suddenly felt like something full of possibility, a thing at least partially within my power to mold.

The beginning: My body pressed against the hard wood floor, crumpled beneath an overwhelming heaviness, as though the invisible weight of life itself was literally pushing me to the ground, pinning me down with all its force until my body ceased to be more than a mass of misshapen flesh, another weight to carry. The feeling of nothing and everything. All at once. The sensation of inhabiting this physical form convulsing from the force of heaving cries between gasps for breath, fingertips clutching at a cool hard surface…yet somehow being outside of it…or below it…not really there at all. Inhabiting a space that didn’t feel real, a body that didn’t feel real. Nothing felt real. The only thing that felt of me was an overwhelming desire to literally sink into the ground…

Some days earlier I had learned that I got the job someone had recommended me for – a new position in a new country with massively more responsibility than my current one. It was the exact kind of opportunity I had hoped for for months, the kind of field experience I desired, the chance to see and be part of the work closer to the ‘ground’ and to develop myself further in work I found intriguing and meaningful. Yet, at the time of receiving this news, I had been immersed in a period of depression that rendered me unable to fully access my own desires except as distant memories of things I knew some part of me wanted. This recognition, this knowledge that the news I received did in fact constitute good news, was not enough to convince my mind that happiness or excitement was the appropriate response.

Fear, guilt, confusion, doubt, horror: these were my mind’s chosen responses. Knowing what I was capable of, and knowing what the position expected of me, what the person who recommended me thought of me, what my future boss would expect me to be…these were the thoughts that kept circling through my mind. Circling and circling until they all made less and less sense….until none of it made any sense at all…until the whole situation simply felt like some illusion. I knew who I was, what I was able to do. None of this aligned with the world I was about to enter. The fact that I had somehow slipped my way into this new role, one that had a real impact on other people, one for which I knew myself to be incapable of fulfilling, was baffling and horrifying. It was unreal, and yet it was my reality: this contradiction was simply more than my mind could handle, an impossible thing to reconcile. The more I tried to grasp it, the less real it felt, until eventually nothing at all felt real…in the most literal sense. And here I struggle to find words that can actually convey what it is I felt in that moment…this disconnect from reality (particularly in the challenge of truly re-accessing, much less describing, a mental state that was so specific to my depression at the time)…but it was as if I was floating outside of my own life, glimpsing into this strange and unlikely thing, and despite my desperate attempts to reconnect with it, to actually inhabit my own existence and the world which surrounded it, I simply could not.

The middle: Kind faces and potent words – some profound, but most quite simple – delivered at the right time by the right people. Moments of mutual respect and admiration shared with people whose mere presence radiated warmth and kindness. Glimpses of myself as seen through their eyes. The magnitude of meaning through a simple “I see myself in you” offered by an individual whose qualities and world views I deeply admired, from someone I saw as possessing all the qualities I thought were beyond my reach.

Friendship. The kind devoid of judgement or expectation – just pure, unfiltered love and understanding. The kind where new roommates, ones I’d only known for a short time, find me in the dark, turn on the lights and come sit by me, providing me with extra illumination through their simple yet invaluable words of reason when everything felt beyond reason. The kind where an older friend exhibits persistent patience and determination in forcing me away from the serious things, re-igniting in me curiosity and creativity when I needed it most.

Unexpected friendship – people willing to be vulnerable, or embracing my vulnerability – in contexts normally reserved for professionalism and self-regulation, contexts where vulnerability is not meant to be displayed: where the personal is meant to be left at home, neatly tucked away until you’ve closed your laptop and left the office compound. An invitation to a coffee break and an open and nonjudgmental ear to my sleep-deprived musings. A “how are you doing?” delivered with the kind of sincerity meant for a real response rather than a passing pleasantry. Subtle reminders that I was seen, that I was more than just a worker, more than my successes or my failures.

~~~***~~~

Inasmuch as the ‘middle’ remains the most elusive in my memory, accessible now only as these fragments and feelings more than concrete moments with well-defined boundaries, they contain probably the most power. While the ultimate remembered paradigm shifting moment came from the totality of the period, from simply surviving all the difficult moments and finding myself at the finish line in tact, all the little victories along the way, the ability to transcend the perceived chaos that surrounded me at the time, was rarely of my own doing. Even in the newfound ‘self’ confidence produced by these experiences, I am humbled by a greater awareness of my dependence on others – not as something antithetical to self confidence but as necessarily intertwined with it.

Still, even as this exercise in memory enables me to remember the source of my current perceptions and even recognize them as feats in themselves, I know this particular set of memories is particularly vulnerable to forgetting. Unlike other types of memories that merely become lost to time, these ones – the ones linked to confidence – also face active opposing forces of the mind: put to the test over and over again when new contexts and challenges bring with them new doubts. And there’s nothing like being a student again (i.e. by definition, someone whose entire world is future-oriented, whose acquisition of knowledge and experience is intended to set them up for what will come after graduation), or like job searching (i.e. being questioned and judged for your abilities, your plans and interests, and your ability to eloquently articulate said plans), to make you turn inward and start regressing towards the same doubts and uncertainties that past experiences had already proved to be unnecessary.

And so I hold on to what I can, each time the doubts return, because I know that fear only serves to blind us from what is really possible. As Maria Popova so accurately articulates, “the choices we make in life in discerning what we ought to do are invariably limited by our perception of what we can do, which are in turn a function of our individual talents and the cultural canvas of permission and possibility onto which these talents can unfold.” Permission and possibility – those incredibly powerful forces that guide what we do – are just as much self-produced as culturally constructed. If nothing else, I hope that my memories will help to always remind me of the true power I hold to either limit or expand the boundaries of my own possibilities.

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Making Something of Memory (part 1)

When does a fascination with memory border on obsession? Obsession seems to imply thought that is unwarranted, unnecessary…superfluous. But if the focus of such attention is not one singular, definable, graspable thing, but really more a means or a channel through which to understand other phenomena, then can it really ever be an obsession? With that said, if the focus of the memories are inward and grounded in an effort to understand one’s self merely for the sake of understanding one’s self, then maybe such mental occupation can be said to be egotistical. I wouldn’t deny this. Memory, in its connection to one’s selfhood, is more often then not evoked in times of introspection and perhaps overly self-focused intentions. Still, I continue to straddle this line, wondering whether my preoccupation with memory is of little, or even regressive value, but nonetheless finding myself locked in its grips whether I choose to be or not.

Paradoxically, every time I find myself at a crossroads concerning the future, my mind seems to revert that much more towards what I assume it feels is the source of answers in the wake of uncertainty: the past. It is as though, faced with this insurmountable obstacle before its forward-looking line of sight, with an inability to visualize what one month ahead could like look, much less 10 years, it simply looks backward in its search for anything concrete. Sometimes it also feels like my mind, in recognising the imminent closure of a period with clear defining features (i.e. defined by a certain overarching goal, be it school, a certain type of job, etc. – coupled with a specific external context, both physically and socially – and characterised by a specific self-definition and way of moving through the world as a result of these other factors), it undertakes a sort of wrapping up and moving on exercise. It is almost like my subconscious puts together one of those Facebook ‘year in review’s, enticing me to stop and look at what it has chosen to assemble and what it has assumed would be most relevant to my interests. Often, it goes far beyond a ‘year’ in review, projecting several years into the past and neatly sorting the memories into these deceptively categorized experiences: each occurring within its own separate definable timeframe and context.

And most often, just as with Facebook’s selection process, the actual ‘highlights’ that surface most often are rarely relevant to what I would have thought to focus on had I picked them myself (although, yes, I realize here I cannot speak of my mind as though a thing separate from me; if I am remembering something, it is of course because some part of me has selectively chosen to remember it). In general, though, the memories that resurface and revisit me have this disjointed quality from my present experiences. They feel random, and in this randomness, mysterious in a sense…I can’t help but wonder at times whether my subconscious is trying to tell me something in its choice of memories. Or, more likely, given the deep interconnection between emotion and memory (i.e. we tend to remember most vividly those moments that we experienced in the most heightened emotional states), they are simply granting me access to some emotional territory I am craving at any given moment, whether fully conscious of it or not…

…pausing at the cross street during a Sunday morning run in Harare, the one that headed into the tree-covered quiet bend of road before the city suddenly transformed into a mini countryside oasis, connected by that thin strip of pavement where the sunlight always played magical games between the thick cover of branches …

…that time I had my scarf pulled down over my head as we inched our way down the congested Johannesburg highway at rush hour, feeling your presence next to mine and your concern as I kept hold of that thin fabric veil that felt like a literal and necessary shield between myself and the world in that moment…

…standing beside the little white car that had become over-heated in its efforts to pull the five us along the stretch of road from South Africa to Lesotho, accepting the failure of our aim to reach the border before nightfall, both defeated and inspired by the night sky now in full bloom, its stars encompassing every inch of the domed darkness overhead; watching as you guys submersed yourself in the darkness to frolic in the field besides the road while we waited for the determined little vehicle to regain its mobility…

…alone in my meekly furnished, very square bedroom in a suburban (dreary) area of Johannesburg, a few months after I had started my first post-graduate job, on a Sunday where I had finished all that I had to do for the day and just sat there on my bed possessed by thoughts of the past: of the college bubble so close yet distant in my memory, of a friendship recently ended, of the future ahead, of where I was and what I was doing in that moment, about my newfound independence, adultness, aloneness…

As with the last memory, oftentimes my most recurrent memories are ironically memories of profound moments of remembering. They also tend to have this common characteristic of deep solitude within a context where everything felt foreign. And maybe because of this, many of the most deeply embedded and recurrently resurfacing ones took place in hotel rooms in parts of the world I never envisioned myself or new apartments not yet imbued with a sense of home, places whose physical elements held no particular emotional sentiment. They were moments in which my direct, physical surroundings embodied blank slates – surrounded by ‘foreign’ territories just beyond their walls – yet perhaps owing to these concrete physical boundaries, tended to position my thoughts towards an inexplicable space not quite in the present, past, or future.

Other times, though, my memories are not mere happenings before which I feel like an observer of something presented to me. While the resurfacing of these seemingly uneventful moments provide their own form of insights, I am guilty of willing other ones to the surface and consciously dwelling there. In this form of remembering, or re-remembering, I feel even less certain of its actual value or harm, probably in large part influenced by social conditioning as to the appropriateness of dwelling on the past. I get the sense that, as a whole, our society is attached to forward motion as this embodiment of progress – whether for an individual or a nation. Implicit in this connotation is the necessity of always “moving on” from the past, to not dwell on things that are no longer there and instead look to the future. I recognise that this attitude does have value in certain contexts and for certain types of memories, individual or collective. Yet, more often than not, I find this approach to be overly simplistic and perhaps limiting in its recognition of what it is to be human.

Not least of which are those memories that pertain to loss — I have been fortunate to not yet have experienced the physical loss of a close loved one, but from hearing others’ stories and their description of grief in particular, it becomes quickly evident that expecting people to “move on from” memories of people they loved is both unrealistic and unhelpful. In the case of grief, it seems that while its initial, debilitating form eventually subsides, the grief remains; it merely takes on new forms until it becomes just another facet of a person’s life (on this subject, I also found this podcast on the myth of closure really powerful). Perhaps if one were able to completely erase the memory of another, then the grief would be erased with it — but in what world would we want this to be anyone’s reality? To know that we can be forgotten from those whom we are most connected to? Or that we would be capable of forgetting those most intimately a part of our own being? To believe either would seem to negate a belief in the power of love – a force so powerful so as to persist beyond the end of physical access to another. Or at least I would like to think.

Earlier today I was listening to a podcast that interviewed an artist whose work attempts to embody the spiritual capacity of material objects, exploring also the interplay between memory, time, and these physical objects. Over the course of this interview, I latched onto one comment in particular: that memory represents an intentional creative response to loss…a tool with which we attempt to guard against decay. The artist also spoke of his connection to a grandmother who had passed away, describing his own memory as a capacity to still honour her, underlined by the title of one of his art pieces, ‘Heaven is Being a Memory to Others.’ While I don’t necessarily think that being remembered by others in this life is by any means a purpose or goal we should live by, I do think it has some kind of value for both the rememberer and the remembered – whether or not the latter is aware of their being remembered.

Tangibly, in my own life, recalling people who have at one point or another mattered to me feels like an exercise both in gratitude as well as in honouring the value of those I love or have loved (and here I mean love in the grandest sense – not simply familial or romantic). This often feels all the more necessary for those people no longer in my life, including those who merely passed through it (I don’t think meaningful connection is necessarily a function of the length of time two people are in each other’s presence). And, more selfishly, I also hold onto these memories for the sake of what all of these people inspire in me or remind me about the world. It is a very conscious, almost desperate, use of the one tool in my grasp to guard against the decay that is forgetting.

Equally so, and perhaps less lofty an exercise, I tend to quite consciously wield this tool in my possession to guard against the loss of my past selves. I say less lofty because, on the one hand, I recognize a kind of egotistical undertone in both the defining of “self” (and even more so in identifying and attempting to reconcile multiple “selves”), as opposed to merely existing as an inseparable part of the larger universe. Perhaps this sentiment is also influenced by those who speak of the self as this false and unnecessary concept, both in scientific terms (e.g. one physicist describes that all reality is in fact interaction, and that everything, including humans, are not ‘things’ but really ‘happenings’) as well as philosophical (e.g. those like Alan Watts who speak of the ‘self’ as this deceptive human construction). Nonetheless, this [perhaps egotistical] ‘need’ remains. And the deeper my sense of disconnect with a past time-period, and the more jarring the divides between each one, the more I fear letting them slip forever out of the conscious parts of my mind (all whilst cognizant of the fact that the more you recall any memory, the more your subjectivity distorts it, until it eventually becomes a mere skeleton of what the true, real-life experience was).

But maybe I find justification for this form of remembering mainly under the banner of maintaining ‘wisdom’. I notice in particular that each time I submerge myself into a completely new life (usually corresponding to a new city or country), no matter how much I initially think otherwise, the speed and depth by which my recollection of the former fades is rather astonishing. Moreover, beyond the memories of events and people, the fading of the way in which I perceived both my interior and exterior worlds within those contexts also begins to quickly slip out of my grasp. It is in this fading of perception that I feel the greatest weight of loss. For only certain experiences, certain tests and difficulties, certain people, and the unique mixing of all of them at any given period, allow us moments of clarity or bridges into new expanses of thought never before experienced. Yet even these paradigm-shifting experiences can be just as feeble as memory itself. They represent forms of personal growth that do not necessarily come with an inherent quality of permanence or linear movement. No doubt, some insights cannot be reversed — once you have realized something, you cannot unrealize it. But in particular when it comes to new, valuable insights about ourselves, given all the subjectivity and complexity and emotional distortions that come with them, I think it is particularly easy to forget the incisive things we may have once realized. Perhaps retaining a positive self paradigm-shift actually requires some intentional cultivating and processing of the initial insights, a process mainly enabled through the traces left behind of the moments that enabled them in the first place: our memories.

Without all the chatter

The other day, following two weeks of solo travel around central Europe coupled with a temporary hiatus from all forms of social media, the one thing I was probably most pathetically excited for in returning to my home base in Paris was reinstalling my WhatsApp: to be able to satiate that socially conditioned desire to see that little orange notification button on my phone screen and open all the messages sent over the past weeks from closest friends; to finally reconnect with the world I had cut out during my self-imposed period of solitude. And then. That evening as I reinstall the app, anticipation rising (solitude gets to you after a while), I finally open it to find I can no longer log into my old account: everything from the past few weeks, and the past few years – all message history, photos, correspondence with interesting acquaintances met along the way or loved ones or lover, as well as a few of my contacts – gone. Permanently inaccessible.

Of course, it was not the end of the world. I still have most of my contacts, can still reach out again to the friends I’m still actually in communication with. But at that initial moment of rejected entry to my WhatsApp history, as much as I’d like to deny it (and as what may easily constitute the definition of an ‘overreaction’), I felt this strange sensation of the ground sucked out from under me… as though I had suddenly lost the gravity and weight of self-ness: the cognition of actually being me, in my own body, in the place I was sitting, in my corner of the world, with all the relations and social ties to which I am inextricably bound.

To give some context to this mother of overreactions, I had just previously been reflecting on the concept of memory and its role in giving continuity to our past and present selves, essentially providing a basis for the formulation of our conception of selfhood at all. I had recently come across an article, referencing an idea from modern psychology, suggesting that memory in fact constitutes the ‘crucible of the self’. The poet John O’Donohue, in his writing on transience as the one constant in our lives, elsewhere described memory as ‘that which holds out against transience’…as ‘the place where our vanished lives secretly gather.’ I had found a certain comfort in this description, and especially liked the reference to vanished ‘lives’ in the plural. Particularly in the place I found myself at the time of reading these words — alone in Vienna, a solo traveler surrounded by couples and families during the holiday period, on the road for the past few weeks in a state of self-enforced solitude (I’ll get to this later), living in Paris, a U.S. citizen, an Ethiopian-American, unable to recall the last time I was physically with my entire family, having spent the past few years living in South Africa and Zimbabwe, finding myself periodically in countries and contexts I never expected to be, a constantly revolving set of friends and communities, and recent shift in title from ‘boss’ and ‘diplomat’ to ‘poor student’ — I felt all the more drawn to the idea of memory as this shield against complete transience, this keeper of continuity.

Each time I delve into the bank of my own memories, whether by conscious intentional digging, something triggered by a scent, a song, an image, or just the regular intermittent infiltration of unexpected and completely random memories that surface from time to time with no evident reason as memories do, I often feel as though I’m peering into several separate lives, unconnected and unrelated from my own: characterized not only by different places and people but, perhaps most notably, by distinctly different conceptions of self and paradigms for interpreting the world. Despite being able to remember what I thought at a given time or how I felt, as filtered through the non-static and often unreliable medium of memory, I am always keenly aware of my inability to inhabit that same space again. And in this inability, I feel I can only catch glimpses of something that is not my own, inasmuch as I am aware of the fact that it is.

But even amidst this overwhelming sense of discontinuity that seems to taint most recollections of the past, the ability to still regain bits and pieces of it, in whatever form, provides some basis for imagining a kind of coherent whole out of all the separate parts. And for someone like me with the worst memory ever, to reach back every now and then through the potent medium of an old message or photo long forgotten – to be transported momentarily by that mysterious mnemonic power latent in certain physical and technological traces of our past lives – feels like something invaluable in this clumsy attempt at reconstructing wholeness. I am also not sure why this impulse to grasp at something complete and continuous even feels necessary in the first place, but I assume it is linked to what is probably a universal human instinct to make sense of oneself and to a broader extent, everything outside of oneself, through the roots on which we’ve been formed – both in the immediate context of one’s own life as well as roots that are familial, historical, etc.

Such was the mental state in which I found myself at the time of the WhatsApp incident. And so, given these impulses just described, my decision a few weeks ago to completely cut myself off in the first place from all the social networks that provided me with unfettered access to my ‘other lives’ so to speak – to all those relationships and memories that are a part of me but not a part of my immediate physical life context – may seem counterintuitive. In a way, though, I think it was actually one stemming from the same impulse behind my evident attachment to social media in the first place: connection.

For while these networks provide us with the channels for maintaining, strengthening, establishing, and mapping out our human connections, I think their oversaturation in our modern social realities can simultaneously hamper our capacity to actually be fully present in any of it. In this effort to always be connected, there is inevitably this stretching of the mind and heart to encompass the various spaces where connection is sought. It manifests in this feeling of being in touch with everyone all the time but concurrently somehow not really with anyone – including one’s self. This is not to say that love, or friendship, or authentic connection in whatever form, is a limited good, something we can only possess or share in finite quantities. But I do think the human mind’s capacity for attention is limited. In fact, it would seem that by definition the most profound forms of attentiveness require a certain level of restriction. For how can we truly give someone else, or ourselves, or our surroundings, this gift of attentiveness – one of the deepest manifestations of love – when we find ourselves stretched out in all directions, leaving access to only thinned out, fragile slivers of attention that we can allot to any one thing or person at a given moment?

I could be making assumptions here in implying this is a universal phenomenon, but at least in my own case, I couldn’t help but notice from time to time the effect that even the mere access to this technological world of social networks was having on me. It became even more noticeable while traveling: surrounded by inspiring street art in Berlin or magical architecture in Prague and finding that my mind was always only partially there – the other parts thinking about what I was planning to tell a friend about it or how I needed to capture the most beautiful places in photos to share on Instagram later or making a note to self to catch up with so and so while I had time. Even whilst my mind was there in Prague, it was simultaneously in Bangkok with my best friend, in Johannesburg with my nostalgia, in Harare with the work I missed or people I longed for – brought back to each of these places with each seemingly harmless text or glance at an old photo. Equally disconcerting was the realization that in my desire to share so much of my lived experience with other people or to just post it somewhere, the motivation behind my every action felt somehow less authentic. I began to wonder whether I would even live out my life the same way in the absence of these external social forces: to do things merely for the sake of doing them. I can’t remember where I read or saw it, but someone once spoke about societal fears of solitude as stemming in part from this need to constantly validate one’s own existence. It’s probably not a conscious thing someone would admit to or necessarily find true of their own impulses, but nonetheless, it seems fitting in a way to understand platforms like Instagram and Facebook (and, of course, blogs) as spheres that enable us to validate and shape our lived realities – to place them in a context in which they become subject to reaction and take on meaning beyond something that would otherwise be fleeting and lost to time and our own feeble memories.

None of this is inherently negative necessarily, but I do think it can become less benign in those moments where it detracts from the experiences we might otherwise have. For me, each time I allowed myself the distractions linked to these networks, I couldn’t help but notice a general sense of flatness to what I was feeling, as though a thin wall stood between me and the deeper emotions I wanted to access at times, the emotions that felt present yet never exposed in their fullness. And while I’m sure a range of factors can contribute to this, it felt quite evident at the time that much of that wall was constructed out of the consistent safety net of social distraction at my fingertips, and consequently, at the center of my thoughts.

Through my search for better words to articulate the numbing quality of these networks, I found an incisive description of the phenomenon by the writer Rebecca Solnit. In lamenting the “lost world” of the time before network technologies, she describes the loss of a world made up of two poles: solitude and communion, saying that this “new chatter puts us somewhere in between, assuaging fears of being alone without risking real connection. It is a shallow between two deeper zones, a safe spot between the dangers of contact with ourselves, with others.” I also resonated with words I stumbled upon in Krista Tippet’s book that “there is that window of choice, moment by moment, to go for distraction instead, to settle into numb…” I can’t remember the actual context in which she made this comment but it felt perfectly germane to the kind of escape allowed by social media, (in addition to television and the array of other media that so often take us away from our present moment).

And in fact, in cutting myself off from the choice to connect to these networks, I did feel a marked shift in the locus of my thoughts. I found myself increasingly awed by the banal things around me, forced to put forth more effort in keeping myself entertained from moment to moment with what was at hand – my beautiful surroundings, interesting strangers, my own thoughts. Perhaps less expected, I found myself actually feeling things with greater weight. It was as though, without the choice to retreat into the immediate yet somewhat false comfort of connection allowed by exchanging words or even simply an emoji with a close friend on the other side of the world, there was no longer a veil between me and my own thoughts. In the absence of a buffer, any inkling of a thought or emotion that may have otherwise been unintentionally (or sometimes intentionally) suppressed by an easy distraction was instead given free reign to unfold in its fullness, unencumbered and uninhibited. Meanwhile, bare and exposed by my own solitude, I was left with no alternatives but to actually confront whatever was there.

The thoughts or feelings that surfaced were nothing too shocking or unexpected, but nonetheless challenging to face at times. There are always those things you know are true but you may be ashamed to admit even to yourself, and so you avoid or ignore them and pretend like they aren’t there. A common one for many I think would be the fear of loneliness – or admitting to ever feeling alone at all (particularly when you are aware of all the love and support that surrounds you). Such admissions appear all the more unacceptable within the context of our social media saturated lives and the kind of taboo attached to the idea of solitude in general. I think Martha Nussbaum quite nicely touched upon the roots of some of these fears – fears that likely fuel our attachment to those outlets providing us with safeguards against the risk of fully seeing and accepting our own emotions. I found her framing of emotions particularly insightful in stating that“our emotional life maps our incompleteness”, explaining how “a creature without any needs would never have reasons for fear, or grief, or hope, or anger. But for that very reason we are often ashamed of our emotions and of the relations of need and dependency bound up with them.”

In a way, it is actually extremely liberating to admit to one’s own dependency. Perhaps also counterintuitively, finding solace in solitude – learning to be content in one’s aloneness (as distinct from loneliness) – seems like one of the best ways to embrace this dependent nature and discover the most fulfilling application for the impulses born out of it. Ironically, the less I was surrounded by endless streams of digital communication with friends and family, the more I was able to actually feel the depths of my connection with individuals and find myself immersed in the beauty of that recognition. And the longer I went about each day without the usual mental distractions, the more I found myself forced to reckon with truths I so often suppress in fear of failing to meet my own expectations: the loudest and most recurring of which related to the mere acknowledgement of my connection and interdependency with humanity as a whole. For in this acknowledgement is felt the weight of responsibility – the beautiful yet overwhelming and in many ways painful weightiness of a reality that is there regardless of whether one chooses to engage with it. Herein, I found in solitude a necessary reckoning with the complacency and numbness I had allowed to replace moments that might otherwise have been spent in benefiting the world of humanity, another individual, or in simply elevating my own state of awareness about those things that are hardest to face but most necessary to grapple with as a member of society and the human race.

All this to say that, in my own temporary immersion into one form of solitude, I have come to better appreciate the power of allowing silence to replace chatter that might otherwise blind us to fragments of wisdom already latent in our own emotions and consciousness. For, as so perfectly put by the writer Wendell Berry, and as the most apt elucidation of my own experience, in solitude, “one’s inner voice becomes audible [and], in consequence, one responds more clearly to other lives.”

“…anything or anyone that does not bring you alive is too small for you.”

“Sometimes it takes darkness and the sweet confinement of your aloneness to learn anything or anyone that does not bring you alive is too small for you.”

Anything. Or anyone. That does not bring you alive.

Is too.

Small.

For you.

I’d once heard poetry described as language against which we have no defenses. It is a language whose words at times bring with them truths we didn’t want to hear, didn’t feel ready to hear. They render us unable to deny or hide from some reality we felt hesitant to confront, because confronting new truths usually means confronting our own vulnerabilities and the uncertainties we all possess as humans.

These brief, poignant words from one of David Whyte’s poems had seared themselves into my consciousness since I’d first heard them. Some words are too significant, too evident, too loud to be ignored.

Equally so, some experiences are too loud to be ignored.

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A few weekends ago, I had a chance to briefly visit Johannesburg, the city I had called home for two years before moving to Zimbabwe some months ago. The moment I had stepped off the plane and into the airport, it was as if I had breathed in new life. As I rode the train into the city, the outlines of familiar shapes blurring past my sight amidst the evening lights reflecting off the large glass windows, I continued to inhale the strangely satisfying air. It was as if my lungs were just now able to fully take in the air necessary to expand to their full capacity, whereas for the past months they had only taken in what they could to sustain life, unsatiated yet laboring on in their capacity.

This fullness literally felt in my lungs continued to define the rest of the two days spent in that city. One day felt like a week – from driving through the city centre and taking in all the beautiful grittiness I had always loved about it, even amidst the very real danger and need to remain alert in turning each corner; to revisiting the familiar artsy spaces carved out throughout the town, in the hipster cafes and markets and in the fashionable and unavoidably cool youthful city residents who occupied them; to catching up with familiar faces and friends whose vibrancy, intelligence, and beauty I had the privilege of appreciating anew, the way periods of absence always seem to re-introduce us to the things we come to take for granted in others by way of familiarity.

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Our experience of time is so deeply intertwined with our experience of people and place; of the emotions and diversity of experiences we allow ourselves in each moment of each day. This could not have been more evident than in that one Saturday in Joburg. One day can easily assume months or even years of meaning and depth, depending on how we fill it and what we let in. It is both frightening and liberating to realize the extent to which we control or relationship with time – the way in which one day can seem to pass by in a second, accumulating to months or even years of fleeting empty moments, but equally so, how one day can be filled with so much life that the concept of time in itself seems to become irrelevant and meaningless.

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Relatedly, it is both a deeply beautiful and yet in some ways painful phenomenon to be reminded of the manifold ways our existences depend on our connections with other people. Such reminders may come in the inevitable moments where we find ourselves kept afloat and able to keep at this business of living simply by the grace of those in our lives, but they may also come in those moments where we think we are fine, living, moving, but then jolted suddenly more alive by the influence of another.

I am all for learning to love oneself, or at least learning to be at peace within one’s own self – to recognize the wholeness that is already there, and find a sense of grounding in that alone. It is no doubt dangerous and unhealthy to expect that anyone else can complete us or to rely on someone else to build up those things we must ultimately build up in ourselves. But I’ve also found the beauty and mystery in the power of another person to sometimes expand our sense of completeness. It is not that this other comes in and fills some hole we thought needed to be filled in our lives, but rather, that he or she literally stretches the space that once represented the totality of our identity and human experience. Inevitably, this may end up leaving a sense of loss or incompleteness once that individual is no longer in our lives, but not because we had relied on him or her to fill a certain absence. Still, in stretching the canvas of self we started with, that person ends up leaving some sense of emptiness in the stretched out space they had made for us, but a space whose emptiness is only an illusion – one that, with time, we find a way to fill with our own color, adding ever more shades of beauty to our existence.

It is this sense of expansion I had the privilege of experiencing on multiple occasions throughout the course of that Saturday in Joburg – in the unexpectedly diverse and profound conversations had with both old friends and new. While naturally not all conversations in life must serve to elevate or inspire, I find that for me personally, I rely on such conversations for sustenance. Lately, I’ve come to realize that maybe bringing up my confusion over the nature of reality with random colleagues on a coffee break or delving into the meaning of life with drunken strangers at a party or discussing colonialism and racism on a first date may not be typical contexts associated with certain types of conversations, but I’ve also realized, why not. More often than not, regardless of the context or ‘norms’ for discussion topics in certain settings, simply allowing people the space for expression on those things that matter most creates an instant connection and opportunity for something meaningful to emerge.

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In many ways, these moments transform mere conversation into a form of art: a molding of two or more experiences into some new idea or expression, something never before revealed into the world in that precise way. Simply by nature of the uniqueness of the elements – of the perceptions and experiences and personality of each person – brought together to produce the interplay of thoughts and meaning making in that specific instance, the conversation unleashes something that ripples out in tiny invisible ways into the ocean of meaning that shapes the world.

While the following quote from Rilke was written in the context of marriage, I think it also applies to the beauty of connection, facilitated through the types of conversations had between people in any context: “Once the realization is accepted that even between the closest people infinite distances exist, a marvelous living side-by-side can grow up for them, if they succeed in loving the expanse between them, which gives them the possibility of always seeing each other as a whole and before an immense sky.”

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When reminded of the immensity of depth and wholeness embodied by each and every individual in our midst, it is that much more incredible to imagine what is possible by the interactions between them. As Rilke articulates, the point is not a merging together, for such a task is impossible in light of the infinite distances between any two people, but rather, an appreciation of the distance in itself. Conversation is one means of delving into the depths of another person’s immense sky and in the process, finding the horizon of your own sky shifted into ever-farther expanses.

I’m not sure why exactly the conversations in Joburg stood out so much as compared to the ones I’ve been having in Harare. It’s not that I haven’t come across moving people or interesting things worth reflecting on here, but maybe it is also that my excessive focus on work has left me more closed off to the influence of these conversations. And then, there is also the fact that some people just have a deeper effect on us than others, who make us feel more alive for whatever reason. As with most things, this reality becomes more evident in the absence of it. In this case, my experience of leaving those individuals who had been a part of my life in Joburg made their uniqueness and inspiring qualities that much more worthy of appreciation in having the opportunity to once again feel a unique kind of alive in their presence.

These moments of heightened aliveness in the past few months however have by no means been confined to my weekend in Joburg. They’ve appeared in countless and usually unexpected ways throughout my time in Harare, yet often in short fleeting bursts rather than in a sustained and embedded way.

One day, in returning from a work trip to the field, I had been driving back to Harare from Mwenezi, a dry, dusty rural district in the southern region of Zimbabwe, at dawn: the sky was painted with a deep red along the horizon, as the rays of the luminous waking sun pierced through the dust, casting shadows of hazy pink brightness in every direction. The vibrant red horizon softened into lighter shades of pink, mingling with strokes of blues and wispy forms of white, eventually settling on a bluish grey expanse as the eyes journeyed upwards. The reddish pink horizon rested along the outlines of ridged mountains in the distance, appearing in layers of various depths and darkness, broken only by the rounded outlines of trees in their midst. Something about the way the dust from the rocky dirt road we traveled along filled the air around us, lit up by the warm hues of the morning sun, seemed to encompass our vehicle with an inexplicable warmth. This combined with the thick morning soundscape of nature’s silence – rooster calls, cattle bells, and singing birds – felt almost like a warm embrace by the earth itself. Breaking my attention from my concerns of the work awaiting me in Harare, of the millions of things I thought mattered here or there, the embrace brought me into my surroundings, reminding me that all that mattered was what was there, then in that moment.

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Why do I bring any of this up in the first place – this concept of feeling alive, and of allowing oneself to be drawn to those things and people which bring us to feel this way?

Preparing for grad school and working through all the confusing and necessary life lessons and growth that comes with the early career experience, I’ve spent much time reflecting on decisions over the past few months, thinking such reflection necessary in setting a fruitful path for whatever is to come next. But really, I don’t know what the future holds, whether it be 10 years from now or even 10 seconds from now. It is a futile and vain human imagining to think we have any control over our futures – that the decisions we make now will determine exactly where or what we will be doing later in life. I do not know what decisions now will put me in the best position to achieve what I want to achieve in the future. I don’t even know what it is I want to achieve in concrete terms. Or whether I should care about ‘achievement’ in the first place.

What I do know is when I feel alive, and when I don’t. I know what beauty feels like and what the absence of it feels like. I know that beauty – in the world, in other people, and in contributing something meaningful to both – makes me feel alive. I know that I do not want to live a life devoid of actually feeling alive.

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This may all sound extremely basic and simple, and in fact, it is. But how often do we abstract ourselves from those evident truths that are so deeply obvious and glaring in our lives that we forget how important they are to begin with? Amidst so much uncertainty in life and the paradoxical necessity to continue making big decisions anyway, it seems that a useful guiding force (which could be what some already define as ‘intuition’) should simply be whatever makes us feel alive. In making a decision affecting our life context or path, the question to self should always be “does this bring me alive?” and take it from there. This is the accumulation of what the past few months have taught me, and, for the moment, is probably the only basis upon which I feel I can stand firmly with any choice I make affecting how I live my life.

Goodbye to 2015

Sometimes I wonder if I too readily apply the adjective “life-changing” to experiences – particularly in thinking back to the amount of times I’ve used such a description over the past year. And each time, with the same conviction and depth of meaning attached to it as the last.

Perhaps if I had to give one overarching theme to 2015 and the underlying lesson of everything it contained, it would probably be the ever-present, profound reminder that the concept of self is nothing but a set of ever-evolving experiences – that ultimately, we are the accumulation of every experience, person, and interaction we’ve had with the world around us – both physical and spiritual (a sentiment I’ve previously expressed but seem to have constantly reaffirmed in new and evolving ways). And on this basis, it follows that just as our experiences can drastically shift over the course of a day, month, or year, so too do we.

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(first photo of 2015)

2015 was by far the most challenging, most perplexing, and most life-altering year I’ve had to date. But the thing I’ve realized is, I would have said the exact same thing at the end of 2014, and the year before that. This year, more than any other, has brought me to see just how false any expectation of finality is in life – the [often unconscious] expectation that something will be the hardest thing you ever face, that this is the best life moment you’ll ever experience, the closest connection you will ever have to another person, that such and such thing is the most important thing in your life and will always be that way, that this is how you cope with certain situations, that you know yourself.

As I sit here writing this now, amidst the hazy heat of summer instead of biting cold and snow on New Year’s Eve in a quiet house in Harare, I feel the need to somehow force my mind to acknowledge that this is even the end of 2015. At first I thought to try to summarize some of the highlights of the past year, but then, in reflecting even on the past two months and how many “life-changing” things have happened in just this one small chunk of it, it seemed a futile effort. In fact, with all that has changed so drastically and suddenly over the past months, without break or pause, I feel like I haven’t even had time to actually absorb or comprehend what my life is at the very moment. So maybe just these short few months are the perfect starting point for appreciating what the year in it’s entirety has been like…a recurring cycle of reaching points of conviction, only soon to be broken, that life can’t get any weirder, any less expected, full of any more emotion, or more introductions to new emotions previously incomprehensible, any more possible to feel or not feel so much or so little to nothing and everything, any more ‘adult’, any more real, any more surreal, any less definable, any more awe-inspiring, any more heart-breaking, any more full of life in all its shapes, forms and definitions – beyond definitions previously known – ever more expansive.

For just over the course of the past couple months:

…I came to know the deepest, most piercing and all-consuming, indescribable and crippling feeling of hopelessness in the face of depression – the kind that in the moment, leaves you unable to even imagine the possibility of feeling better again

….soon after, I find myself in the Democratic Republic of Congo – wondering at the strangeness of being perceived as a nutrition advocacy expert as I sit in meetings, conversing with donors or people leading nutrition programmes in the government, surprised that I am even able to understand them in the French, much less that they are taking me seriously as someone qualified to be sitting in the same meeting room as them and helping to provide strategic guidance to anyone. Most importantly, I find myself actually living again and feeling capable of something – a feeling that felt so completely out of reach only a week before and for so many months prior, and then

…a week following my return home to Johannesburg, I find myself suddenly closing up my assignments for a job I was still supposed to continue for another two months, and packing up two-years worth of living, friendships, and memories over the course of a few days to take up a new position in a new country that I had only barely come to realize was really confirmed

…after which, I find myself living in Harare – and only about a week or two in, suddenly realizing that I am now a manager, a donor relations officer, a ‘diplomat’ working for the UN in an African country, and that I live in Zimbabwe – not to mention actually living out the exact kind of job description I remember once envisioning for my future self while still an undergrad; the exact kind of career ambitions I would vaguely articulate whenever forced to write out my five-year career plans or long-term career goals in the context of fellowship programmes or other college activities. But strangely enough, now actually living out this idealized future career and life abroad, that felt more handed to me than deserved in any concrete way, it has become somewhat of a hazy alternate reality in which I am still unable to connect the image I supposedly assume on the outside in the context of my status as a fully fledged, working, independent adult, with the amount of confusion and uncertainty and immaturity I continue to feel on the inside (although confusion and uncertainty I am also aware is felt by all ‘adults’) – while at the same, struggling to find the conclusion to what feels like one long, drawn-out interior battle between choosing to make the most of the absurd amount of opportunity that continues to be granted to me with the reality of my unreadiness for it – or what’s more, simply having to figure out what it is I actually want in the present moment against the backdrop of previous years’ obscurely formed ambitions.

But in writing all of this and speaking of the major life changes, the real underlying life-changing aspects contained in all of it has been the people. In many ways, from all the confusion of the past few months to the past year in its entirety, I can’t help but think that much of it actually served as the basis for being more open and susceptible to the influence of others – and therein, having that much more opportunity to be witness to the incredible beauty and spirit of those around me: from the people physically present in my daily life to those whose connections never fade regardless of time or physical distance to every stranger, acquaintance, and potential new friend I cross paths with. If nothing else, I want to take from this year an even deeper appreciation for human connection – not only in the form of best friends or people we’ve known for significant periods of our lives, but in the incredibly powerful potential latent in everyone to make a deep lasting impact in another’s life, whether it be through a fleeting interaction with a stranger who said something to change the way you looked at some piece of the world, or with a new friend who is able to guide you through rough times as if he had been a part of your life all along, or from coming across a natural mentor – a person who by nature of being his or herself is able to inspire and lift simply from their example and kindness.

This year taught me that best friends, soul mates, and life-changing individuals do not come into our lives in limited numbers – and that each and every one may be as deeply and uniquely moving as the other. And by virtue of our capacity as human beings to ceaselessly expand our understanding of the world and what it means to be human, we are ceaselessly subject to the opportunity for another person to come through and widen our own world vision and definition of self.

So rather than closing this with a New Year’s Resolution, I want to only end with an Ending Year Thank You – a thank you to too many to say, as well as to many that may not even know the depth of gratitude I have for you. To every single person that impacted, shifted, uplifted, or restored something in me this year, and to those that continue to inspire and shape my way of being in the world.

And here’s to a few more pertinent take-aways from 2015:

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1385238_10153385981285430_919363978_n.jpgI had a love affair with a city that I came to call home on the other side of the world from the country I am expected to call home – the kind of love grounded in a slow, gradual, and deep appreciation for all the beauty and ugliness it has to offer to the world and the raw, vibrant, gritty, and beautiful life evident in all its streets, corners, and surfaces.

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11112717_10155456363855430_407259587272068630_nI had my life changed multiple times by multiple people – in inspiring as well as excruciating ways – all of which I wouldn’t change for anything.

11102702_10155456370195430_2872859962626385320_n11018127_10155456368035430_1724531961010940277_nDSC_0719.JPGDSC_0458From being lost in the sound of wind-strewn sands and loud silence embodied by dawn amidst a rising desert sun in Senegal, to finding serenity in a setting sun behind the contours of all expansive earth in the mountains of Lesotho, I experienced so many occasions of nature’s power to envelop all the senses and bring the mind and body to be fully present in its life.

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DSC_0561.JPGAnd perhaps most importantly, I had my perspective stretched or shifted on just about everything and anything that one could have a perspective on in life.

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meaness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.
Be grateful for whomever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

~Rumi

So here’s to 2016 and the all the new guests it will inevitably bring.

Depth in Darkness

I’ve often found a certain gratification in lingering on the darkest elements of a painting: the spaces between the subjects in the foreground or the whites and yellows intended to portray light, between those colors that not so much ask for your attention but demand it. Often, in serving their humble purpose of contour and shadow, the dark spaces go beyond notice – quietly resigning themselves to the background of the viewer’s attention. Yet in this humble role, they paradoxically bring life and vitality to the painting in its entirety, providing the backdrop against which the lighter colors achieve contrast; without which, even the most vibrant of colors appear flat and lifeless.

Out of darkness comes depth.

My appreciation for darkness on canvas parallels the gradual appreciation I’ve gained for darkness in life more broadly. In using the word ‘appreciation’, I am cautious also not to connote this with ‘glorification’, but rather, a conscious awareness of the depth darkness can add when appreciated for what it is. I say this particularly with respect to the kind of darkness, or suffering, that comes from depression.

In recognizing that the idea of appreciating trials and suffering is often more easily applied to the kind of experiences that come from circumstances or events outside of oneself or in the wake of something lofty such as love or passion or belief, such a concept feels much less applicable to the kind of suffering that comes without reason or purpose and from a place neither fully from within or exterior to oneself. In such a context, in fact, the concept of ‘appreciation’ feels somehow inappropriate in relation to the basis of the experience.

It actually wasn’t even until recently, in coming across this podcast reflecting on the concept of the ‘soul in depression’ – attempting to grapple with the “spiritual territory of despair” – that I even found it acceptable to use the word appreciation in relation to depression. Admittedly, I had written in the past about depression and the valuable lessons I had come to find from it following the experience – yet even in such expression I don’t think I ever came to internalize it as an ‘appreciation’ for the depression in itself. In fact, my initial neat summation of the life lessons gleaned from my first period of depression, once I felt enough time and distance from its memory, suddenly became hypocritical words of false growth when this distant experience of my past unexpectedly re-emerged into my present – when the experience I had assumed to be an abnormal, first and only occurrence, now learned from and overcome, became not the last.

And maybe therein lies the key, most challenging aspect of achieving genuine and constructive appreciation for something negative: not only coming to recognize the significance of past experiences in hindsight, or in drawing the abstract, profound lessons from them only after having securely moved on, but in holding to the value of those lessons even when the context in which you formed them starts to become less stable. That is, in continuing to find a place and purpose for the positive meaning once derived from a negative experience, even when the trajectory of growth following the experience and lessons gained turns out to not be as direct and clear as expected or assumed. More often than not, life gifts us with periods of growth followed by new and unexpected periods of turmoil or struggle – periods that catch us all the more off guard after having grown from past struggles and perhaps come to feel a heightened sense of assurance in our own stability. But rising above one experience does not mean we are equipped to immediately find our way through every related future challenge, nor does it mean that we are any weaker if we find ourselves brought down again by the same challenge we once rose above. As evident as this sounds, I think it’s something easily forgotten when actually experienced, leaving us wondering how we could have gone backwards or lost our way again amidst familiar territory.

But humans are infinitely resilient creatures.

This idea, as it relates to depression in particular, is so keenly articulated in this quote from the interviewer in the above mentioned podcast: “…emerging from depression — ‘healing’ if you will — doesn’t mean leaving darkness behind. It means being aware and whole enough to accept dark months and dark times as expressions of human vitality.”

As a common theme iterated by all of those speaking in the podcast, a likely reason that it is so difficult as well to contemplate benefits linked to the spirit or soul when it comes to depression is that such understanding or appreciation is only actually possible after the period of depression – whereas whilst in the midst of it, it feels almost as if the spirit has somehow left altogether. It is a strange phenomenon in a way to imagine that an experience that can so deeply alienate you from the world, your sense of spirituality, and ultimately, yourself, could – for those fortunate enough to emerge from it, whether naturally or with the help of medication – in some ways create new opportunities to engage more deeply with each of these facets of life.

Again, this is by no means to glorify or romanticize an experience that presents itself as an all-encompassing and devastating force in so many lives, but to recognize that there is value even in the darkest of experiences. Thus, in an attempt to convey an appreciation grounded in something meaningful and un-exaggerated, I want to only highlight those beneficial experiences that, in my own case at least, I don’t think I could have arrived at to such a degree without having gone through depression.

The first is: an appreciation for the ability to appreciate beauty. More specifically, by ‘appreciation’ for beauty, I mean the ability to not only consciously recognize or acknowledge the beauty of something, but to possess the capacity to actually internalize and feel the power of something perceived as beautiful.

Perhaps one of the most centrally defining features of depression – at least in my personal experience – is incapacity to feel the depth of emotion you would normally feel in response to certain experiences: in particular, those powerful emotions such as passion, wonder, inspiration, and excitement. Such incapacity is all the more frustrating as you find yourself able to recognize the beauty or amazingness of something on a cognitive level, yet unable to connect it to something deeper within yourself. It is almost as if going through life encompassed by a thick foggy glass, through which you are able to still perceive the world on the other side but only in muted distant images you can see but not touch or fully engage.

I’ve often heard people with depression recount such frustrations in the wake of loved ones’ efforts to be supportive. One story that struck me was a man who described how a good friend, in seeing him sitting desolate in his office each day, pleaded that he come outside as it was a beautiful day, saying he would feel better if he just came out and smelled the flowers. While appreciating the sentiments of his friend, such encouragements only deepened the disconnect and sorrow he felt, as he was able to see and recognize that it was a beautiful day, and wanted nothing more than to experience it as his friend suggested, but nonetheless remained unaffected by the beauty he knew to be around him.

The first moment I actually recognized that I had hit a turning point in finally starting to emerge from a period of depression was an experience grounded in my relationship to beauty. Perhaps the simplicity of the experience is in itself telling of its power: a simple moment where, when standing outside waiting for the bus, I found my attention momentarily yet fully enveloped by the beauty of a tree beside me. For a moment, I was not only enraptured by the vibrant purple of the tree’s blossoms, but in such a way that my attention was simultaneously focused in on the singular beauty of the tree whilst opened up to the expansive beauty of all things around me and the world more broadly. In sum, it was an experience of beauty in how I would normally have defined true beauty: an experience of spirituality and connection to the deeper essence of the things around us.

In recounting this example, though, it should be noted that such experiences are all relative to the individual: if you are not someone that normally finds awe-inspiring moments of spirituality and life-shifting perspectives from purple trees, then it is obviously not a sign of depression that you don’t come across such moments in daily life. But as someone that has always found beauty to be a central and defining feature of life, it was through temporarily finding myself detached from such a faculty that I discovered an even deeper appreciation for the experience of beauty in itself, rather than mere recognition of it.

The second, and perhaps most valuable and unique benefit I have gained from depression is an opportunity to exhibit more compassion for the experience of others: an opportunity largely derived from a widened understanding of what it means to exercise compassion in the first place. To some extent, I’ve always thought compassion is something that ultimately originates from an ability to resonate and sympathize with another person – to attempt to put yourself in their shoes and strive to understand their experience and point of view.

While depression has on the one hand heightened my awareness of the futility in trying to ever fully understand another human being – particularly given the futility of even trying to fully understand oneself – it is in this awareness that I have paradoxically come to find a platform for deeper compassion. In trying to sympathize with other people and show compassion towards their experiences, I think we naturally strive to do so from the basis of our own experiences – that is, we attempt to relate to and understand another person by drawing on the only reference points we have available: our own life experiences and thought processes. Sometimes, this does allow us to form deeper connections with the people around us, but this is often the case in contexts where our own experiences already mirror those of another. It is often the reality, however, that our experiences may be nothing like that of another person’s, yet we inevitably attempt to apply what we know to our interpretation of what the other person is feeling – and in doing so, we create limitations to the depth of compassion we are able to show for what they are experiencing.

Put more simply, experiencing depression has given me a deeper recognition of the fact that no individual’s experience should serve as a basis upon which to interpret another person’s reality. And given the natural human tendency to attempt to understand other people from the basis of our own perceptions and understanding of the world, it is a recognition that I think requires continuous nurturing and conscious effort to put into practice. Through such efforts, we are able to exhibit deeper compassion for the experiences of others, not because we understand exactly where they are coming from, but because we acknowledge the uniqueness of what they are feeling from the context in which they are feeling it.

I realize this explanation is probably incoherent, as it is an attempt to describe something in words that I am still to fully grasp in thoughts, so to give some more specific context to what I mean, I’ll illustrate the evolution of my thinking around it: most notably, it is only in experiencing the disorienting disconnect from my own mind and relationship to the world, as a phenomenon of going through depression, that I came to realize the illusion of what it meant to ‘know myself’. More specifically, in going through moments or periods where I found myself paralyzed by emotions and physiological effects for which I quite literally couldn’t even identify the specific origin or thoughts behind them at the time, I felt for the first time that I didn’t even know myself. Further than not knowing myself, that I didn’t have full control over my own emotions, body, or thoughts.

The most significant aspect of such an experience as it relates to compassion was this: that I never would have thought such an experience possible or feasible or even within my capacity to understand until I had actually gone through it. In that realization was the realization that just as it is possible to experience something that was beyond my realm of thought or even belief up until that point (that is, the belief that it is even possible to not have complete control of our own emotions), it is possible that the experiences of others may lie beyond our realm of comprehension. The value in such a realization is in allowing ourselves the space to detach from what we subconsciously hold onto as singular realities in life that are true for everyone. For example, I once met a man who was deeply devoted to the spiritual practice of yoga, and who described to me an experience he once had where he had been observing his yoga instructor, and her form started to change, such that she essentially evolved into an ora of light before his eyes. Who’s to say even an experience like that, which may not be within my own realm of experience or full comprehension, is still not a reality equally real as the reality I myself know?

While that may be a bit of an extreme example, I think the mere attempt to detach ourselves from what we subconsciously know to be ‘true’ is an important step towards deeper compassion. On a less abstract level, I have often heard people that have not gone through depression wonder at how some people could become so distressed – to the point of even taking their own lives in some cases – in response to life events or triggers that seem so miniscule in their minds: a break-up or failure at work or in school etc. ‘Why couldn’t they just see how unimportant such things were in the grand scheme of things? If only they had focused on the positive things in life or gotten through those times, they would have seen how great they had it, and not felt in such a way.’

In hearing such sentiments, I can on the one hand still relate to such a point of view – in previously having felt the same before going through depression, within the context of an understanding of reality that we have control of our emotions and that our happiness is fully dependent on how we choose to see the world at any given moment – but at the same time, I now see the harm in such a mindset when it is used as the basis for understanding everyone’s reality. Even if we cannot put ourselves in the shoes of another person, I think it is equally powerful if not more so to acknowledge that we cannot relate sometimes, and simply strive to be fully and deeply present for someone else in the absence of doubt or judgment for their experiences. In my own case, I think the most beautiful and powerful experience of compassion I can draw to mind in such a context was the moment where a friend, who had never experienced depression and who had strived to be supportive in the best way she knew how, merely acknowledged that she couldn’t fully understand or relate to what I was going through, but nonetheless trusted in the reality of what I described to her.

Anyways, while I may have not originally intended to write such a ridiculously long narrative, particularly one as rambling and incoherent as this, I hope that publicly sharing some of my own experiences, and attempting to put some words and coherence to something so confusing and disorienting, at the very least contributes to a sense of greater openness on the topic itself. Particularly given that it is something so many people will experience at least once in their lives, why not strive to take from it something positive where and when possible.

Scratched and Faded Letters

I’ve lived in Johannesburg for nearly two years. I tell people I can’t believe it, that it doesn’t feel like two years has passed, that I don’t know where the time has gone, but the words fall short of the depth of bewilderment which underlies them. I have significant memories from these past two years, no doubt, and I know that things have happened, time has passed, things have changed, the world has been moving, but at the same time, I struggle to fully grasp and feel the weight of what it would seem two-years worth of memories should contain. In my mind, they feel light and fleeting…as if the time barely existed…as if I just stepped foot off the plane into my new country, my new job, my new life. Somehow that is the memory that bears the greater weight, the deeper sense of reality, than the compilation of two years as a post-graduate adult living life thousands of miles away from what once was home.

This sentiment has felt all the more troubling when juxtaposed with the physical signs of the passage of time, the signs that force the resistant mind to admit to the reality of the fact that time keeps moving. And strangely enough, the one that has incited the strongest emotion has been my travel coffee mug: the thin, translucent tumbler with the Northwestern emblem detailed in purple on one side. The tumbler which, when first receiving it, I so distinctly remember thinking “good thing I came to this one,” after realizing I’d get to keep it as a free gift from one of the many graduation ceremonies I went along to mostly for my parents’ sake in my last days of undergrad. The tumbler which sparks memories of the long, decisive and deliberate packing process I embarked on days before my journey overseas – determining it would make the cut as one of the necessary items to receive a spot in my precious luggage space. The tumbler I remember carrying in my brown leather adult-like work bag, filled with sub-par instant coffee, as I walked into my new office filled with uncertainty and expectation my first day of work, and proceeded to carry with me every single morning since that day. Since then, it has become an invisible staple of my surroundings – an item rendered insignificant by its practical utility and regular presence and use in my daily life.

But recently, something about it caught my eye – something which I found more disturbing than I perhaps wanted to admit: I saw that the royal purple enamel which once formed the perfect block lettering spelling out the name of my alma mater now revealed scratched out remnants of letters – the S and H only half remaining, the Y completely etched away; and the ornate and detailed emblem above NORTHWESTERN now reduced to a barely visible outline of circles, its edges traced by indiscernible symbols and letters – a shadow of what it once was.

As strange as I know it sounds to be rendered dumbfounded by the scratched out lettering of a coffee mug, it was in that instant that a realization of something I was already well aware of in some unconscious part of my mind finally forced its way to the surface and refused to be ignored: that this was undeniable, physical, tangible, concrete evidence that time that had passed.

On the one hand, each time I reflected on my own life with the introspective eye of expectation for what the passage of time and growing up is supposed to look like in an individual, I felt unsatisfied with the inability to see and feel what I knew to be true: that I’ve changed, that I have lived, that things are different now. Looking at myself, I still felt exactly as I did two years ago – not in a negative way exactly, or in a way that implies we all must change drastically with the passing of each year or that any certain milestones must happen, but just simply that it didn’t feel right. It didn’t feel right because we essentially are our experiences. None of us are constant beings – from our physical cells to our brain activity to our ever-evolving souls. And with these experiences that become us, with this constant motion all around us and within us, it follows that something should be evident…felt…noticed.

But this didn’t seem the case when I looked at myself or filtered through my thoughts or sorted through my memories. Only in looking at the scratched out purple letters of my mug…or of the gigantic Builders’ Warehouse that stands erect across from the apartment where I used to live – in a spot where once only dirt and bricks stood…or of the mall which has doubled in size, with shiny new stores and large glass windows down my street where once there was only empty space…or of the friends to whom I once ventured in taxis across town to see every other weekend who are now scattered in all corners of the world…or the fellows with whom I had shared the continent a year ago who have now started degrees, found new jobs, established new lives on other continents…or of the high school friends I have long ago lost touch with who I see getting married or having children as I unwittingly yet instinctually click through their wedding or baby photos on Facebook…or of the dear souls I had the bounty of meeting in South Africa and briefly crossing paths with on this earth who are now no longer on this physical plane…

Only then, for a brief instant, do I feel the true weight of time.

But while these concrete signs of time’s passage each capture my attention and open my eyes a bit wider to their deeper implications, they’ve also made me that much more anxious to reconcile the physical and concrete signs with those less tangible. I wonder as well whether time without the physical markers of its passing, or time without the arbitrary numbers we assign to it in an attempt to make it more concrete and feel as though we wield some control over it, would hold the same weight in our minds. If I could not define it as two years of time that has gone by, or define myself as 24 – a constant reminder of my own time on this earth that comes with its own implications – then would I still expect something from it? Would I let time exercise its control over me the way I know I do now?

Maybe it is the misleading impression that time brings with it forward motion which creates these feelings of disconnect and disjointedness. Forward motion implies motion towards something – a direction of some sort that we have envisioned for ourselves or for the things around us. But time does not inevitably bring us towards anything. In fact, it could even take us backwards (or what we would perceive as backwards in relation to whatever it is we subconsciously – or consciously – thought we were moving towards).

I would try to put this in more concrete terms, but in my own case, I am still trying to figure out what exactly it is I had expected to be moving towards that has left me feeling as though time has deceived me…enlightenment? wisdom? understanding? or something more tangible? something to show for when thinking back at how I’ve spent most of my hours these past two years – impact on other people’s lives? new skills and talents from my work experiences? more confidence, more self-assurance in my abilities? or something more abstract? some new experience of love? the capacity to distinguish reason from emotion?

I don’t know. But I can’t help but look back with a longing for more evidence of time’s marker in myself as much as I see it in the physical changes around me. But in saying this, I also recognize the passivity latent in such a desire….one implying again that time itself provides the force for motion in a direction…if there should even be a direction to begin with. But if there should be, then one of the characteristics of time that I find most frightening is that if we choose to not act towards something or initiate changes or make things happen, our lack of ‘motion’ does not reflect stagnation in the wake of potential progress, but in fact represents regression – because time never stops moving. And if we exist in the context of this ever-moving force that is time, then the act of not moving in some ways becomes backwards motion.

I think I find this frightening because, as is well known, when we grow older, time seems faster as each year becomes a smaller fragment relative to the amount of time we’ve spent living. And with each passing year, I feel myself scrambling to hold onto each piece that meant something to me, to internalize and make something of what has passed and ensure that it does not become lost in the accumulation of too many layers of memory and self. I can’t even fully say why this feels so necessary, but perhaps it is to feel that my time has been well-spent and that I am capable of some kind of forward motion — that I have not wasted the opportunities presented to me by the people and experiences that have come into my life, nor failed to enact some kind of positive change, some sort of progress in the world – no matter how small or insignificant…