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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Misplaced Longing

 

What name does one give to the phenomenon of wistful longing for a past event that wasn’t event pleasant, or one that’s not actually in the past yet? Could it still be labeled as nostalgia?

Whether or not the name actually applies, these nostalgia-like feelings seems like ever-present sentiments in every stage of my life. In fact, even though I have terrible memory/usually can’t remember anything from my childhood, I have this one random vivid memory of grappling with nostalgia at an early age. I remember sitting on the school bus in 1st or 2nd grade and being excited about something that day (I can’t remember what) and subsequently having the thought that the state of excitement and happiness felt at that moment was something that the next day or even weeks from that day I would be looking back on with fond remembrance and longing, with nostalgia (obviously not articulated in such a way at the time). I remember then trying really hard for a few moments to just fully soak in the feeling of that moment and the events of that day that I knew would be so fleeting, to somehow hold onto them more deeply before they became things of the past to look back on.

Obviously, it was an impossible endeavor…it has even been said that there is really no such thing as the present moment, insofar as the present is comprised of such tiny fractions of time that our human mind can’t really grasp it. But nonetheless, I wanted to hold onto the present, and in doing so, felt this subtle nagging anxiety for what I knew would quickly be a moment of the past, no matter how much I tried to hold on.

The nagging anxiety to hold onto the present, and ultimately, the past, has followed me around ever since….spreading and taking on new forms and disguises, almost like a disease. It was in one of my college courses that I remember making the ironic discovery that the idea of ‘nostalgia’ actually first emerged in the 19th century being perceived as exactly that: a disease. That is, it was seen and treated (sometimes harshly) as an actual medical illness, a psychopathological disorder. While the idea of nostalgia over time lost this connotation of illness and strayed instead into the realm of romanticism and literature, I think it still regains the same underlying potency to infect a person’s mental and physical well being if not regulated.

This may be a bit of a dramatic take on nostalgia, but just given the all-encompassing nature it seems to play in my own life, particularly as it relates to aging, I think I’ve begun to subconsciously regard it as some kind of disease to be cured. The more I come to realize just how much my aversion to aging has not subsided with each passing year but in fact deepened (made worse by the fact that each year continues to represent an even older age), the more I find the necessity to get at the heart of my nostalgia for youth in particular, whatever ‘youth’ might mean.

It’s not a fear of grey hair and wrinkles, coming more closely to death, or even a fear of failing to reach some preset idea or expectation of what is meant to happen at any specific age. Nor is it that I think that youth is inherently superior to being older, despite the subliminal narrative affirming such a notion in most media these days (particularly for women). Perhaps I can best describe it as an anticipation of the loss of youth itself. And since I realize this description is still barely a description, I’ll borrow the words of another who has reflected on this topic and so uncannily captured exactly how I feel about it in her essay:

“What I miss is the feeling that nothing has started yet, that the future towers over the past, that the present is merely a planning phase for the gleaming architecture that will make up the skyline of the rest of my life.”

Just as the essayist Meghan Daum alludes in her reflection on the subject, I also recognize that such a sentiment is of course a complete romanticization of youth and the excitement attached to such a state, one often overshadowing the real lived experiences that may not have been so pleasant, despite the fact that we had the ‘gleaming architecture’ of the future to placate us at the time. What’s more, I also realize that my misplaced longing for this idealized period of youth that probably never even existed to begin with is made that much more ridiculous by the fact that part of my longing for it is directed at the present moment. The above referenced essay to which I found myself relating so closely describes this nostalgia from the point of view of a middle-aged woman longing for her twenties. And, just as first-grade me felt that day I tried so desperately to hold onto the present, my current nostalgia for youth is almost just as much an anticipatory longing for a past time that has not yet become the past as it is a longing for my actual younger days, particularly in recognizing that I still could consider myself in the midst of youth from the reference point of my older future self.

At the moment, this abstract longing for a nonexistent idealized past and a period of youth in which the future towered over me continues to take on a multitude of unexpected forms. This is perfectly illustrated by the most recent longings for a distinctly-tumultuous-but-rewarding-in-retrospect time of my life: the 7 months I spent living and working in Zimbabwe. They rise and fall, without warning or reason, as a series of flashbacks tinged with pangs of yearning:

An image of running through the row of jacaranda trees that formed a long green canopy down the street next to my house, recalling the way the light pierced through the leaves onto the pavement in beautiful outlines and caught my eyes in flashes as I ran by them; glimpses of beauty which at the time actually felt like rare breaths of fresh air amidst weeks spent mostly behind a computer screen…

A sudden strong craving for the bland meals served at my office canteen…the same $1.50 plate of rice, chicken, greens and butternut I ate nearly every single day at the office, always marveling at my own taste buds for somehow never seeming to tire of the plain, monotonous experience each time….

Some song, image, or smell that jolts me back not into a past time but a past emotion, not so much as a re-experience of the emotion but as if viewed through the eyes of a spectator; a remembering of the emotional states that at specific times became the entire lens through which I experienced my life, though often skewed and limiting in nature…

A feeling of safety and comfort in remembering a Saturday in which the highlight of my day was a run or trip to the grocery store (the few forms of ‘breaks’ I allowed myself for the majority of my time there, always with the heavy weight of unfinished work preventing me from desiring much else by way of breaks); the kind of comfort not grounded in contentment necessarily but in simplicity, and perhaps even lack of choice (or at least a feeling of lack of choice)…

As is probably evident from these descriptions, the majority of these things I feel nostalgic for are nothing remarkable or particularly enjoyable; in fact, many were the opposite of pleasant. And yet, even in having this awareness and surface-y recollection of the unpleasant emotions felt at the time, I continue to reminisce nostalgically over them, to almost unwillingly yearn for them. The thing is, regardless of what my actual daily experience was at the time, I think much of its allure to my present mind is that it was distinctly a period which had a clear transitional and temporary quality to it, a period intended to bestow upon me life lessons and allow me to delve into confusion with the knowledge that the future still lay ahead. I knew that even if it turned out I failed completely at the job and left from it broken and confused, it would ultimately still serve as a time of growth and a jumping point from which to move towards my next life context, whether grad school or a career shift, equipped with the lessons of the last.

And the paradoxical thing about this seemingly comforting knowledge of a future full of possibility, flexibility, and time, is that its comforting qualities rarely seem evident at the time. Only in recalling the period later, once it feels as though less ‘future’ lay ahead, does it feel like something has been lost, and is thus something to long for. Really, it is a yearning not so much for any specific event or experience but for the underlying current of ‘youth’ that characterized all of them. I like the way the essayist Daumer articulates this phenomenon through a fictitious interaction in which her Older Self gives wisdom to her Younger Self, but doesn’t have the heart to tell her about the nostalgia that will be most unbearable later on, to tell her Younger Self that:

“…the CDs you play while you stare out the window and think about the five million different ways your life might go — will be unbearable to listen to in twenty years. They will be unbearable because…they will sound like the lining of your soul. They will take you straight back to the place you were in when you felt that anything could happen at any time, that your life was a huge room with a thousand doors, that your future was not only infinite but also elastic. They will be unbearable because they will remind you that at least half of the things you once planned for your future are now in the past and others got reabsorbed into your imagination before you could even think about acting on them.”

And, at the center of this nostalgic longing is really a romanticization and unfounded worshipping of our younger selves based on the notion that whatever we did in youth represented, as another author puts it, “our highest potentiality at a point before crumbling into the reality of necessary concessions and mediocrities.”

And with this recognition, one might ask oneself, would you really want to go back to that time representative of endless potential, if you had the choice? Or would you opt for the current, inevitably wiser, even if not necessarily more ‘grown up’, version of you? I have a feeling most would go with the latter…and I think I would too if really given such a choice…just in taking stock of what you know you know now that you didn’t know then, even if that knowledge is in many cases characterized by more confusion and uncertainty. That’s probably part of the beauty of aging: not some grand epiphany or stepping over some static line from youth to fully fledged adulthood, but simply a state of deeper knowing – the kind that lends itself to expanded awareness of how much you don’t know and how much there is yet to be known. The kind of knowing that we often taken for granted as we reminisce over our romanticized younger selves.

But with all that said, even my own words on the beauty and gift that is aging do little to quell the continuous nagging nostalgia for the period of ‘youth’ the more I move away from it. The closest conciliation I’ve found of late is in the recognition that I’m not alone in my paradoxical romanticization of and nostalgia for the experiences of my younger self. There is always comfort in knowing that your own irrational responses are not unique to you but something deeply human and, in that, a unifying experience. So, in the absence of any satisfying conclusions, I’ll instead share some further reflections from others who have felt the same and articulated my own sentiments much better than I could have: https://www.brainpickings.org/2014/12/09/meghan-daum-unspeakable/

“…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.

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…

Home

I’ve recently returned from visiting ‘home’ (the United States) for the first time in a year and a half – the longest I’ve ever continuously been out of the country. Having prepped myself for not only reverse culture shock, but also for potential feelings of estrangement and distance from old people and places, simply for having not been in contact with them for such a relatively long period of time, I ended up instead finding myself more shocked by the lack of shock. Being back in the states, it felt strangely as if the life I had built in South Africa over the last year and a half suddenly belonged to a distant, abstract memory; another life in fact. For whatever reason, my mind simply couldn’t reconcile the life abroad with the life I left behind – not in any positive or negative way, but simply such that returning to the U.S. felt literally as though I never left. Just as coming back to South Africa after a month away felt as though I never left. Each time, the perception of the latter place quickly fading into that strange distant memory, reflective of a life somehow disconnected from my present.

I’m not sure if this is the experience of most, or if I’ve even managed to articulate it in a way that makes any sense to other humans, but I feel like many people return to a home place unconsciously expecting things to be just as they left it, only to find that life continued on after they left – and that the friends and places of their past were not the stagnant images their minds had expected. Yet somehow, for me, things did feel the same. Obviously people had grown, lives had evolved, and places had changed as is inevitable with time, but the feeling of never having left still pervaded all of my interactions.

Amidst this unexpected, and no doubt deceptive, feeling of sameness, I felt more hyperaware of and attuned to the nature and effect of my interactions with these places and people both in the present and the past. By this, I mean that faced with such unexpected sameness, and simultaneously recognizing the absurdity and falseness of this perceived sameness, I began to wonder whether it had more to do with my lack of astuteness to the obvious changes outside of – as well as within – me that had inevitably occurred over a year and a half. It quickly evolved into a desire to not only consider what changes I failed to immediately grasp in my return ‘home’ but also to re-examine what changes I had failed to notice over my entire childhood/young adulthood throughout my interactions with these various home-places I was now revisiting.

To give an example, one thing that struck me when first seeing my dad after almost two years, and my sister after something like three years, was that: they’re black. I realize this makes me sound like an idiot. And I don’t mean that I didn’t realize this before. But what struck me was how I never remember really pondering on this very evident, and pretty significant fact when I lived with them up until high school….as in, how did I never have great cause to wonder whether they’d ever faced discrimination in life due to this fact? or how did I not notice what society perceived of our mixed family and the various interactions that would have resulted? And also, how did I never feel pulled towards defining my own race any earlier than college (when I was forced to concretely check a box that would define it)? Obviously, it is an extreme privilege that such questions didn’t come up…and I’m sure a lot of the world would love to frame this example of someone not noticing such things within their own life as evidence of progress in the world or how it is possible to be “color-blind”, but the reality is that the world is still far from achieving such a stage, and “color-blindness” in the sense in which it is typically used is generally an excuse by those in already privileged positions to deny the privileged basis upon which they are able to function in the world. Being color “blind” in today’s world essentially means choosing to be blind to (as well as perpetuating) all the inequalities and discrimination that continues to shape how much of the world lives.

Returning home after a year living in South Africa – a place where the memory of institutionalized racism is so recent that it is impossible to deny its links to the present systems; while viewing life overseas in my own home country through the lens of an outsider – seeing all of the news of Ferguson and riots and race dialogues emerging through clips and articles; it was impossible not to compare the two and arrive at the troubling yet evident and telling realization that America is no better….only more in denial. One of my favorite parts about Joburg specifically has been this overall sense of realness in what it has to offer as a city – a complex place with incredible people, culture, and diversity, but a place which also doesn’t try to hide (or perhaps, is incapable of hiding) its issues: the inequality, the violent crime, the way in which a long history of racism does not disappear overnight and is still present in the structures and systems around us. America, on the other hand, seems like a place intent on masking all of its parallel issues under the guise of progress and politically correct language and emphasis on the policies intended to correct the injustices – all the while failing to fully grasp and give light to the reality of things beneath this veneer. In any case…this combination of realities and realizations remained in the back of my mind as I re-engaged with the people and places of my past…leading to the many questions I was surprised to not have been forced to deeply grapple with previously.

Above all else, this re-visiting of home-places also became a reminder of the centrality of people in defining home, and even more, defining self. Re-connecting with family members and friendships I had only minimally engaged with over the past year and a half felt a lot like reconnecting with fragments of myself I forgot that I had. In my last blog post, I talked about the uncertainty I felt surrounding the role that relationships do or should play in our lives, and while I still don’t know about the ‘should’, this return home allowed me to see just how much relationships ‘do’ define me. I’m not sure if this is good or bad, but reuniting with the various people from various parts of my life and with varying depths of involvement in my life left me with the sense that the person that I am at any moment is largely an amalgamation of each person that I’ve crossed paths with in life – or, better said, an amalgamation of my interactions with each person – extending beyond the people still in my life, or even the people I can recall being in my life, to even those fleeting interactions with individuals now forgotten.

And, as I’m sure is the case for many, it’s usually the negative or most traumatic remnants of relationships that end up leaving the greatest impact or wielding the most influential power to shape us. There’s something about returning to the physical settings and people that intersect with an old relationship assumed to be forgotten and left behind that seems to reveal the deceitful power of our own minds — pulling out fragments of memory and understandings of not only the relationship, but also ourselves, that we’ve subconsciously buried away. At least in my case, simply having contact once again with the people and places still connected to a broken friendship forced me to realize just how much fear I still held in actually coming face to face again with the memories I had essentially suppressed — not so much of the friendship itself or events even, but really, of myself: of the person I perceived myself to be through the friendship, of what the friend had perceived of me, of what the broken friendship would mean for the mutual friends that had remained at the periphery, or in this very specific case – being reminded of the state of being and thoughts my mind was capable of during depression….and grappling with the thought of who I was in that state, and whether I could claim to be a wholly different person now having moved on from that period or state of being; whether I could claim to be fully immune to such thought processes now or the potential of even falling back into such a state.

It made me realize that, being in another country, and as it felt, another world, from the events of my past — of the broken friendship and the symbolic reminder it continued to hold for my period of depression as a whole — it enabled me to achieve the distancing from memories necessary for what felt like moving on, but this was still to some extent superficial; as distant as they felt, the memories still haunted me. The hesitance to even confront them again was evidence of this. And, only in returning home, did I also realize this fear stemmed largely from wanting to claim complete forgiveness of the past and happiness in the present – to prove to myself that I had grown from the experience and that was the end of it; and that to admit otherwise was essentially weakness. And, if I’m being completely honest, it was not only about proving to myself, but in doing so, somehow proving to the friend that was never able to separate her image of me from my depression – from all the irrationalities that defined my actions during that period but which now seem to have belonged to another person entirely – that I really never was and am not that person. I had assumed that only in ‘moving on’ in this sense of proving this to myself and to the abstract idea of ‘her’ (regardless of whether or not the actual ‘her’ ever came to know or care that I had moved on), that only then would things make sense and I would come to find myself stronger and better off as a result.

But if nothing else, coming in closer contact to these thoughts again allowed me to finally admit to myself that I’m still not over it. And as paradoxical as it may seem, allowing myself to not be over something has felt like a much stronger path to peace of mind and greater understanding than to claim otherwise. And I may never be completely ‘over it’: I am not over it because experiencing a friendship break-up shattered the idealistic and essentially unrealistic worldview I had held up until that point of how friendships worked. Of how people worked. Of how I worked. I am not over it because in each relationship I now have – from the oldest friends to the new close bonds I’ve formed – I can’t help but wonder now whether any of us really know each other. ….I know it sounds melodramatic worded in this way, and perhaps it is, but truly, how can any of us really know each other? Often, we hardly understand what’s in our own minds, and often we try to convey who we are to others using the tools of communication we have in our midst: words, gestures, actions….but in the end, how can we know how these things were truly intended to be conveyed by the other person…especially when the things we convey in words may not even be accurate portrayals of what we truly feel or think to begin with? And how much of our perceived connection and mutual understandings of each other is truly understanding versus projections of our mutual desires to be understood; a reflection of us each grasping at what we want to be true and willfully ignoring what might otherwise be the reality: that even those closest to us and those that care for us most still don’t really know us.

Again, I don’t know how to word this in a way that isn’t melodramatic, and I’m not saying that because we may never be able to truly ‘understand’ another human, that we are all just alone in this world (although this existential-y view does actually seem like one that has crossed the thoughts of many based on conversations I’ve had, and for some, instilling actual consternation at the thought of just how alone they are because of this fact)…but I just think this realization has left me with less certitude when it comes to the assumptions of constancy we often seem to attach to the people in our lives without even realizing it (again, not necessarily in a negative way, but more so in just recognizing the reality of life and change and people)…and perhaps more frustration at the limitations of words. Even in writing all of this now, I can’t help but think just how feeble the words I’ve just written are at actually conveying the thoughts I really want to say (particularly in considering the abstractness of the mind and what often feels like a billion different ideas floating around and intersecting and overlapping and sometimes never even converging into what can be defined as a concrete ‘thought’…as something tangible enough to be translated into a ‘word’…as something which can actually be interpreted by another person through a limited medium of communication). And I also know that whoever is reading this is interpreting it in a certain way – all based on their own experiences and worldviews and personal lens of understanding, as we all naturally do as unique individuals – inevitably rendering the meaning somehow different or altered from the way in which it was intended.

At the same time, I know that regardless of how capable we are of fully understanding another person, we are fully capable of loving another person – and acting in a manner reflective of that; and I think that in itself is the basis on which friendships should be and are grounded in legitimate substance and worth. It is the basis on which people at the very least make the attempt to know and understand other people – which almost renders the end outcome irrelevant in my mind: if someone makes an effort to understand you, purely out of love and respect for who you are as another person (something which is in their power to do), then why should it matter if they actually achieve a point of fully understanding you (something that is ultimately beyond any of our powers). This conclusion became another overarching realization of my visit home. At first, in realizing how even some of my closest friends seemed to have no comprehension of the way the broken relationship with a mutual friend had affected me – of the casualness with which they approached the whole situation, in juxtaposition to all the confounding and unresolved emotions that seemed to flood my thoughts at the mere reminder of all that had happened or of what the memory of the person still symbolized in relation to my own self-concept – the existential thought of aloneness did momentarily cross my mind…but only to be quickly replaced by the reminder of how much these same individuals cared for me, and I them, and how, in the end…the rest didn’t really matter.

I’m not sure what it is about this desire to be understood….whether it is a natural need we all have as humans, or something we tend to equate with closeness to other people… but such experiences in revisiting home have rather left me with a desire to not desire it. But now, having just written this novel of rambling thoughts attempting to convey the realizations of my home travels to a general audience of strangers…largely out of a need to make some sense of everything and render it more concrete by sharing it with others – I am struck by the irony of how much this post seems to have risen out of an unrealized ‘desire to be understood’. So I guess I’ll just file this as another inconclusive life topic beyond my reach of comprehension for now.

3 Things 23 Made Me Realize I Don’t Understand

I have wracked my brain for days, opening new documents and staring at the blank page searching for the perfect words to articulate and condense all the abstract lessons of the last year – each time failing to arrive at a single sentence and finally closing each one in the same blank white state in which it started. When I reflected back on my 22ndyear, the words – and the urgent desire to concretely state the words – to sum up the year materialized into lessons that were so clear it was almost as if they were being told to me by someone else. But now, as I find myself on the brink of 24, feeling as though another year of life must warrant some sort of reflection and insight into myself or the world or simply just something, I’ve come to realize that the reason I can’t articulate the lessons is because lessons are essentially answers, and unlike 22, 23 didn’t bring with it answers – it brought questions, and deeper uncertainty about more things.

But maybe that in itself is the big lesson of 23: coming to terms, and in fact embracing, the reality that the wisdom of growing older may actually just be a greater comprehension of just how much we truly don’t understand. And with this conclusion, it feels only appropriate that my sequel to the ‘lessons 22 taught me’ be the ‘big things that 23 made me realize I don’t understand’:

1. Adulthood.

There comes a point where you can no longer deny the fact that you are fully and completely an adult human being according to most definitions of the word….not just the legal definition (cuz really, who actually considers their 18-year old selves an adult?), but like a it’s-socially-acceptable-to-be-married-and-have-kids-now and I-should-buy-health-insurance level of adult. And once you reach this point of adulthood where you realize that the rest of the world is actually perceiving you as an adult, you come to the strange but inevitable realization that on the inside, you’re still you: there was no single, major life-changing moment where you suddenly realized you transitioned from childhood to ‘adulthood’, and that maybe the concept of adulthood that most of us have subconsciously ingrained in the back of our minds from childhood is all one big illusion – that illusion of thinking that being an adult means we’ll be married by 25, with a solid job and children by 30, and perhaps most importantly, that we’ll just know things.

A huge part of this I think comes from the mindset we have throughout our school careers that the whole first part of our lives is about developing ourselves to one day be functioning adults contributing to society, and that in the meantime, it is okay if we don’t know what we’re doing with our lives or have stability or understand everything because we’re constantly told “you have time” – that awful misleading statement with deep implications not only of the nature of our adulthood but also of our youth. Because ‘having time’ implies that we will eventually reach a point where we don’t have time – where we are suddenly expected to be putting to use everything we have developed and learned up to that point and making something of ourselves by then – thus undermining the important fact that what we do as youth can also have incredible impact on the world and that the period of youth should not simply be about looking inward and preparing ourselves for the ultimate day of ‘adulthood’ when we suddenly need to be something more.

And, probably most detrimental, is that it casts a huge shadow of expectation on adulthood. And, for me at least, expectations – particularly expectations for who you should be at any given time – represent one of the biggest challenges in the transition to adulthood and coming to accept oneself as an adult. While I still have no idea what it means to be an adult, the one thing I do know is that it shouldn’t mean any single thing – and that my fear of getting older has never really been a fear of ageing but ultimately a fear of not meeting the self-imposed expectations of what I should be at any given age or period of life. Being an adult means being you (and hopefully striving to be the best you that you can be)…but older. It should be that simple. And hopefully, as I get older, it will mean chipping away at all the deeply embedded expectations I didn’t even realize I had for myself that stand as heavy obstacles in the way of self-acceptance and contentment with whatever age I happen to be.

2. Relationships.

Just in general. Romantic relationships, friendship relationships, family relationships, relationships to strangers, relationships to hobos, relationships to people we haven’t even met yet, just all of it. And actually, I can’t even really articulate what it is about relationships that 23 taught me I don’t understand – but somehow, in the path of forming new ones, losing old ones, deepening existing ones, and reflecting on past ones, I’ve found myself just uncertain on how I feel about it all and the role they do or should play in my life. More specifically, how our relationships with people shape who we are, how much we should allow them to govern how we see ourselves, how much we should rely on them for happiness, and how much we should nurture the ones we’ve physically left behind.

This topic is probably too broad and vague to really mean much in writing, but I do feel there is a certain usefulness – if nothing else, by way of coming to a sort of acceptance about it all – in simply acknowledging the fact that I just don’t have the answers (or the questions for that matter…highlighting the extent of my perplexity on the whole subject). And recognizing that adulthood or more relationships and experiences with people don’t necessarily bring greater clarity – but by prompting us to question more things, including ourselves, they do inevitably still bring growth.

All of it might really come down to grappling with the concept of loneliness – and especially the fear of loneliness. 23 has really opened my eyes to the power of future loneliness – and the absurdity of the fact that the fear of potentially having the emotion in the future can actually make you concretely feel it in the present, and to some extent, start to blind you from the amazingness of everyone in your life in the current moment by overshadowing your actual relationships with them with a fear of what they will be to you in the future. Essentially, the fear of loneliness can actually make you lonely in and of itself by preventing you from fully experiencing what you have in the present.

And while I don’t have a solution to this, I do have some semblance of a theory: There are some things in life that are mostly in our control and some things that are minimally in our control. While this is probably debatable and also extremely contextual depending on a person’s life circumstances and probably on how often they move around, I feel like relationships fall more in the latter – we can’t predict who we’ll meet in life and when or where we’ll meet them. We can’t predict how we’ll change in relationship to the friends we have and whether our life paths or growth will converge or diverge. And when you go to a new place and leave people behind, you can put in effort to maintain and deepen what you have but you can’t fully control who will still be in your life 50 years down the line.

And for the things in life that are largely out of our control, it seems the best way we can deal with them is to strive to accept them as they are and appreciate them for what they are – and this includes the people that cross our paths in life. Meeting someone in the most random place in the world that you know you will likely never see again should not create a sense of sadness before you’ve even left them – it should leave you with a deep appreciation of whatever mark they’ve left [or continue to make] on your life for whatever period of time that may be (not to say that we shouldn’t make every effort to keep the people in our lives that matter to us, but just to accept that this is not possible for every single person).

And for even more abstract things like ‘love’ or finding ‘the one’, I may just be extra cynical, but I also feel like this is largely out of our control and that it is not guaranteed that every single one of us finds that person that we will end up spending the rest of our lives with. And because it is out of our control, maintaining an expectation that this will be a given in our lives creates a destructive mindset in which at least a part of us – that part that has internalized all the societal messages of what it means to be an adult and have a fulfilling life – feels as though something is wrong or missing, either in our lives, or worse, in ourselves. Rather, why not live each day focusing on the relationships you do have at any given moment and how beautiful and fulfilling those are – whether or not it’s your friends or families or even the exciting strangers that come along? Or focus on whatever it is that gives your life meaning and purpose and dedicate all of your thoughts and passion into that, rather than the expectation of a future fulfillment to come from someone else entering your life.

I also find some truth in the way a friend had articulated her theory on loneliness and relationships: that the fear of loneliness is less a fear of not having people in one’s life, but the fear of one day finding that you are left with only yourself – in other words, that the fear is actually a manifestation of lack of love for oneself and the thought of finding yourself alone and forced to face the reality of who you are.

I am yet to come to a conclusion on any theory related to loneliness and relationships and how best to function in the world in a way that allows us to fully appreciate each person that comes into our lives without letting the depth of our appreciation for them result in sadness at their absence or lower esteem for ourselves by way of comparisons with those that we regard so highly. But I assume this is just one of those life-long questions that doesn’t have any real answers, but maybe just becomes less of a ‘question’ through the inevitable insights to be gained with age and the wealth of experiences/perspectives that come with it.

3. The mind.

Underlying all the uncertainty about my own fears and relationship to relationships, I feel that this year has allowed me to more fully grasp something that I perhaps knew all along but maybe not the full depth of it: that I don’t really understand my own mind – in fact, to the extent that I am somewhat fearful of how much I don’t understand it. People are complex, and I’m sure we all can recognize that there is so much we don’t understand about others – which is also largely why we have so much to gain from our interactions with others – but I feel like there’s always that part of us that feels that we at least know ourselves. Whether or not we even consciously voice or think it, there is just that sense that since you are in your own body, and your mind is essentially ‘you’, that you must inevitably have a deeper understanding of that entity than the things outside of you.

Or maybe that’s just me. But either way, whatever pretense I had for myself that I understood my own mind was completely dissolved after going through a period of depression – realizing that not only do I not understand my mind but that, if we allow it (assuming it is something in our power to ‘allow’), our minds can take on meanings and perceptions outside of our control and in a way come to control us (and I also realize phrasing it in such a way then presumes that whatever it is that defines ‘us’ is separate from the mind…but that’s another complex topic in itself that I won’t attempt to unravel now). But perhaps one invaluable thing I have come to grasp from the whole experience is a better comprehension of how much power is latent in the mind – and that our entire world, our perceptions, our lived experiences, our memories…just everything – is shaped by it. Which I realize in itself sounds like such an evident statement: that our mind shapes how we see the world and navigate in it. But it’s so much more than that…

Just think, how much of our happiness or unhappiness is a reflection of our actual lives versus what our minds make of it? I keep thinking, for instance, of my fears of loneliness and how much they have come to shape my actual lived experience of loneliness. When I actually step back and look at the reality of what’s around me, loneliness stands in stark contrast to what is presently, physically, and concretely there in my life. And yet, images of the future and of all the ‘what ifs’ weave their way throughout the images of the present, creating a picture tinted by doubts and fears that, regardless of whether they will ever even materialize into reality, in a way do become a part of the current reality purely by existing in my mind.

But then again, how much control do we truly have over our own perceptions? Going so far as to say “happiness is a choice” is a concept I find extreme and harmful to a lot of people – often creating the sense that, if you are not happy, it is on you. If you are sad, it is because you chose to give into the emotion and perceive things in a particular way – which for many, rather than instilling a sense of power and freedom, can rather incite guilt or helplessness in being unable to achieve something they are told is in their power to control. On the other hand, to fully concede to the opposite notion that the mind is an entity of its own, and that the emotions that come from it are largely out of our control, perhaps has equally harmful implications. Perhaps allowing ourselves to believe that our moments of sadness or fear emanate from something outside of our control contributes to the reification of the thoughts themselves, however irrational or skewed they may be.

But again, who knows….

And maybe, to ever come to a point where we can confidently say that we do understand how our own minds work – or how relationships work or what adulthood really means – would be cause for greater concern than not knowing. While I sometimes find myself perplexed and overwhelmed when reminded of the sheer volume of things I don’t understand in the world – or the fact that now, as an ‘adult’, I no longer have the excuse of ‘I’ll understand such things when I’m an adult’ to justify how little I know (although, to be fair, maybe it is a bit extreme to be hard on myself for not being able to understand things like how exactly computers and electricity were invented – by other human adult minds – and came to exist out of the raw material of this earth) – but anyways, as overwhelming as it is to know how much I don’t know, it is also somewhat comforting to know that at least I recognize it – and for now, simply being humbled and inspired by all that I am yet to learn or really comprehend seems an okay state of being as I embark on yet another year of overwhelmingly-perplexing-yet-strangely-and-beautifully-enlightening adulthood.