“…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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.”


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.


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.


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.


Another Rant About Life Decisions

You know when you’re struggling to make a big decision and you ask people for advice and they give you something along the lines of “trust your intuition”? Well, I’m convinced that some of us just don’t have this ‘intuition’ thing. And I am one of them. And here is the evidence:

The evolution of my grad school-related thoughts & ‘decisions’ over the course of a week:

Friday – Livin my life, no thoughts of grad school (still in the mindset that grad school would be a thing I’d deal with after I’d worked another year…a conclusion I’d settled firmly on several months ago).

Saturday – Someone mentions grad school. I start to question all my life plans. Start considering doing some last-minute applications to schools I thought of applying to before, like Sciences Po.

Sunday – End up talking to someone that went to Sciences Po and didn’t speak super highly of it. Decide in that instant that I would no longer apply to Sciences Po (which previously seemed like the most rational school to apply to). Realize that maybe I haven’t done enough real research into grad schools and it would be too hasty to just apply to random ones now.

Monday – Ask a colleague at what age she went to grad school. She was 23. Become instilled with horror at the fact that I’ll probably be super old if I wait until 25-26 to go. No one wants to be an oldie amongst youngsters. Frantically research my options for schools that night. Create a list of places to apply after googling ‘best grad schools to apply to’ in my subject. Suddenly remember that I don’t actually have $140,000 lying around (the cost for most of the schools). Hesitantly decide that this is reason enough to not apply at this very moment and that maybe working a bit more is the right thing after all.

Tuesday – Start realizing that a ton of people I know are in grad school or planning on going next year. Wonder what I’m doing with my life again. Start up a frantic search into scholarship options for various grad schools. Realize I’ve already missed a bunch of deadlines for scholarships. Except for Oxford University. Decide to apply to Oxford University (on the well-thought out basis that 1. Oxford sounds nice and 2. I didn’t miss its deadlines).

Wednesday – Ask 2 friends my age whether they planned on applying to grad school this year; they didn’t. Realize (again) that tons of people spend several years working before going to grad school. Start to question whether it is truly necessary for me to go right now. Decide to hold off on applying to Oxford (and the other random places I had settled on applying to mostly due to the fact that only applying to Oxford would be stupid). But then, realize that if I didn’t get a job next year, future-jobless-and-bored-me would be pissed off at present-me for being lazy and not applying to grad school when I had the chance…..

Anyways, the cycle doesn’t conclude, as it is still up in the air. But the moral of the story: I have no intuition when it comes to life plans. ‘Decisions’ for me are essentially gut reactions to the concerns/fears/uncertainties that arise whenever I compare myself to what people around me are doing (which is basically the opposite of intuition).

But besides the fact that I have no decision bone in my body, the other moral of this story is this: that I still haven’t managed to internalize the message I keep telling myself about jobs and grad school and other life-plan-related matters – that it truly doesn’t matter. Not as in making plans and trying to achieve your best and all that good stuff doesn’t matter, but as in, in the end of the day, these are just elements that should be part of a life purpose much bigger than any one plan or success or failure. If I truly believe that my purpose in life is to serve mankind, than how I do it (i.e. what job I have) is a trillion times less important than why I do it. In other words, it all comes down to the question: Who am I ultimately doing this for?

So, in the example of grad school, if the reason I am applying is so that I can work my way up in the career ladder, earn more money, achieve status, or simply just have something to do and not end up unemployed, than am I really working towards my ultimate goal? Or even if I do it because I think it will help put me in a better position to serve mankind, is that really a valid argument when service can take the form of simply loving another person and trying to bring happiness to their lives? And if I do end up jobless or going to grad school late or just completely lost in where I’m going, then couldn’t I still be engaged in something somewhere that is serving others or making some tiny part of the world a better place? And if I can, even if it is not through the methods I had envisioned for myself, then shouldn’t I be content with that?

The answer is yes. But I know I am still a ways away from living my life through such a lens. Especially when I take a deeper look at why the thought of being unemployed fills me with so much consternation. I’ve recently come to realize that this fear I carry – of becoming older, of not having “achieved” enough, of the possibility of being unemployed for any period of time – is extremely telling of how I derive mental stability and contentment. For as much as I’d like to think that I strive to align my life to this idea of service as the basis for everything I do, the fact that the thought of no longer working for the UN or living somewhere interesting brings me fear must mean that my underlying motivations are not as pure as I thought.

Even if my motivation is not to have status or money, the fact of the matter is: working for a prestigious institution inevitably does instill a sense of confidence and self-worth – which becomes all the more apparent following a period of essentially no self-worth. And as much as I know such attitude’s towards oneself should come from ‘within’ and from simply being a good person and doing good things, I haven’t exactly figured out how not to derive this confidence from external factors. So in this context, the fear of being jobless or not going to a fancy grad school is less a fear of not achieving material success, but more a fear of what I will come to think of myself – which inevitably ends up influencing what I am able to do for others. And I worry how much of my current contentment is based in the job I now hold and how much of my mental and emotional stability comes from the title I attach to my name.

Anyways, this is just an articulation of what I’ve noticed recently and how terrible and backwards it is but how, if I am to take a good honest look at my fears and why they exist, it is necessary to acknowledge the warped mindsets that create them in the first place. Hopefully that is at least one step towards changing them. And maybe, diving head-first into a world of joblessness, uncertainty, and ‘failure’ is just what I need to actually start living my life with a mindset wholly grounded in a pure and lofty purpose, and not a self-serving, falsely conceived sense of purpose.


When Life Hits You With a Big Question

Today, I was basically asked whether I would be open to potentially picking up and moving to a new country (in a conflict-zone area) in two weeks.

It was a hypothetical question, largely dependent on a number of factors and circumstances – but nonetheless a question I had to answer before there could be any possibility of forward motion for it to potentially happen. So there is a large chance that the whole thing could fall through tomorrow, but there is also a chance that the hypothetical situation could actually materialize into a reality.

Regardless of what the outcome ends up being, though, just the mere act of having to come up with an answer in that moment has made me realize a number of important things. And since the outcome could come to a conclusion as soon as tomorrow, I feel like I should take advantage of this fleeting moment to acknowledge the interesting set of emotions/thoughts/considerations that have arisen from this sudden, unlikely question I’ve had to answer under fairly unexpected circumstances.

The main shocking part of this whole thing was the inner struggle/conflict it took to come up with an answer with any certainty.

I realize this doesn’t sound like the strangest of reactions…most normal people will probably experience some reservations/indecisiveness about moving to a conflict zone…or just moving to a new country in general. To give some context though – this wasn’t the first time I’d ever considered this particular option…the opportunity had come up many months ago in a less concrete manner and with no definitive timeframe. But I think having already reacted once to this question when it first came up and thinking back to my thoughts and reactions then versus now is what has made this the most interesting.

The first time it was ever mentioned, I was absolutely overjoyed at even the slight possibility that it could happen – it represented excitement, change, an incredible career opportunity, an important personal development opportunity, etc. But when it come up today – the immediate, overwhelming reaction was just a bombardment of conflicting emotions.

And I think one of the main reasons for that, besides the fact that this time it was asked with much more concrete potential for it to quickly result in something, was my current circumstances. In the few seconds of pause before I responded with an [outwardly confident] “yes” in response to the hypothetical question posed to me, my mind was flooded with thoughts of my lovely new apartment with my lovely new roommate in our lovely new neighbourhood…to the vibrant, joyful, and inspiring Baha’i community I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know these past few weeks….to the amazing people I’ve recently met or begun to form deeper friendships with…to all the unbelievable art, culture, history, and spirit within Joburg that I had recently started to appreciate with more depth and meaning than I had a year ago when I first moved here…

It was a flood of thoughts far removed from the types of thoughts incited from the first time the question came up – which, by contrast, had been far removed from my life in Joburg itself. Looking back, it seems like my attachment to my surroundings was barely existent – I had appreciation for the things around me, for the place I inhabited…but it never really elevated to the level of ‘attachment’. Friends were constantly leaving the country and I was living in the country with the expectation that my time in SA was limited by an eventual end date of my fellowship. It was also my first year as a college-graduate, which I feel comes with a natural subconscious assumption of continued change & movement (whether to grad school or to a new job).

And I think with such underlying assumptions and expectations constantly present, some part of me forms a guard to the possibility of attachment – a small voice in my head constantly reminding me that none of this is permanent, that becoming too close to too many people or getting too comfortable in the place that I live carries with it the risk of attachment…for which I will then have to fight to overcome when the inevitable day of leaving it all behind finally comes. But when I got my contract extension, ended my status as a “fellow” and entered the phase of adulthood no longer bound by periods of certain start and end dates, my inner non-attachment voice started to fade a bit. And I let it.

My perspective suddenly shifted from seeing Joburg as my fellowship placement site to seeing it as my temporary ‘home’ – the word that carries with it so much weight and depth. Moving to a new place, with a new roommate, and making an effort to take advantage of all that my new location had to offer – I’ve allowed this place to slowly become a home. And having once taken a college course in which we had to break down and analyze the concept of “home” in its every facet, I don’t use that word lightly. I’ve also realized that, by far, many of the places I’ve lived had never manifested themselves into ‘homes’ – either for lack of sufficient time or, due to the knowledge of my limited time there, self-imposed lack of freedom to allow my mind to consider them as places of ‘home’.

And for me, I think one of the biggest indicators of having established ‘home’ anywhere, is the reaction to leaving that place (or persons). It’s a shame, but also a seemingly common occurrence, that we really never realize what exactly we have in our lives until we find it being taken away – a realization that seems all the more jarring when the pending removal of those elements of home is compressed into a small time frame. As cliche as the idea is, the weight of its implications never seem to diminish.

Which brings me to the whole point of this rambling post:

That I am just really grateful for these rare moments that force me to examine my own life from another perspective. Whether or not the thing which instigated all of these thoughts and emotions in the first place comes to fruition,  it has done something equally as important: that is, remind me how beautiful it is to have a place (or set of life circumstances) that feel, in whole or in part, as ‘home’. And even more – that the power to create ‘home’ is so deeply entrenched in our own level of openness and willingness to allow someplace new to become home. Sometimes it means moving to a new neighbourhood, sometimes it means investing in friendships even though you know you will eventually have to leave many of them, sometimes it means continuing to explore a place even when you think you’ve explored all the best parts – recognizing that there are always new layers to unfold and new experiences to be had.

If I end up having to leave Joburg in a few weeks, overcoming the attachments I’d let myself form will no doubt be a challenge, but I will also be equipped with this newfound appreciation for the potential to experience ‘home’ anywhere I go. If I don’t end up leaving, I will be all the better off for having been faced with the possibility even for a moment – as it has deepened the pride and appreciation I feel for this perplexingly beautiful city that I currently call home.