Nonexistent Lines

“We operate under the illusion that we are separate – individuals proudly defined by flesh and values and our differences from one another. And I think that’s how we got to this point.” Her words – her reaction to the collection of words I had shared with her the day before – suddenly injected new meaning into my own. What I had initially written as a direct expression of my physical surroundings at the time became, through her reframing, a larger commentary on the underlying essence of something at play in the turbulent social context in which we now find ourselves. It also reminded me of the beauty of art as something inherently relational, something that acquires endless variations of meaning in its capacity to be shared. Through this act of sharing, the creator in a way relinquishes ownership over the art and the meaning attached to it, whether or not intended, and therein creates the space for new dialogues to emerge not only between artist and audience but between artist and his or her own art.

I don’t write poetry. I am not a poet by any measure. But there are some experiences that feel only appropriate to express in an abstracted form. And as poets like Rilke have counseled to aspiring young writers, poetry should in fact be reserved for those things that you need to say, that you feel you would die if you were forbidden to say. If something “spread its roots into the very depth of your heart” and “commands you to write,” then you should write it. That is probably the best way to describe the sensation I felt when I had the privilege a few weeks ago to be standing in the most hauntingly beautiful landscape in Ireland. There was a point where I literally felt as though my own being was indistinguishable from my surroundings – a sense that I was seeing the reflection of my own soul in the things around me. The earth felt like a living being in every respect, one with a message that drew you in and made you listen with all of your faculties. It was a message I felt compelled to try to capture however feeble my attempt…

When I exhaled I felt the strong breeze let out its own breath
Melding with mine and carrying it across the soft copper horizon
Slanting the blades of green yellow purple red gold into a gentle curve
A suggestion of a question mark in their ever present slant.
The mist covers the horizon
Pleading with you to stop searching for edges and endings
Rendering everything into one endless expanse
Grass and boulders, heather and wildflowers, fern and moss, mountain and sky.
The sharpness of the individual parts fade into one soft blur of copper and grey strokes
Extending beyond the exterior
Denying you even those fleshy boundaries you take to be concrete
Blurring the lines between skin and air, the inhales of the earth from the exhale of your lungs.
The lines of the hills, the curve of the grass, the roughness of the stones
They define the contours of your soul.
The gurgling undercurrent of the streams that run beneath the ground
Invisible beneath the thick yellow cover but constantly carrying forth secrets
Working in unison with the wind
Leaving its trace in the tilt of the trees and the slant of the hills, the endless bow of the grass.
Concealing a desperate yearning to be heard
But reserving its utterance only for those who seek it
Letting out only whispers
Except
For those dark tangled roots that emerge between the soft brush
Unable to contain their desire to be seen
Jutting out sharpness, demanding your attention
Adding depth and contrast to the expanse of soft copper
But at their tips, nothing more
than pale pink buds.
The land is content in its solitude
But reverberates with a silent outcry all the same
The restless winds that call out for more,
The rough silence soothed by the echoing of birds’ songs
of origins untraceable
And by a conviction
In its own expansiveness
Not allowing high peaks or horizon lines to feign separation
That does not exist.

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While my poem (if it can be considered that) was more reactionary than intentional in its message, it is interesting to place it in the context of the confusion of emotion resonating throughout the world at the moment, as my friend had done in her interpretation after the elections. As I look at my own words now again with new eyes, I want to draw from them the essence of what I felt not only in the raw material of the physical earth but in the social material that surrounds me now: evidence of our interconnectedness with each other and the earth at the deepest of levels.

And, just as I felt in the Irish landscape, the interconnectedness I see evidenced by the cries of the global community now is not one of an abstract idealism but one of a concrete reality. It is a thing at once so brazenly visible and yet at the same time, persistently suppressed into a false obscurity. Paradoxically, many even use the evidence of its existence as proof of the contrary. For this interconnectedness is perhaps most visible in the pain itself — even in the seemingly conflicting forms of pain that manifest in clashes between those who perceive themselves as existing on opposite sides of socially constructed divides. Underneath it all, the responses by all sides speak to the reality of our oneness as human creatures with the same fears and concerns, irrationalities and inner contradictions. It is a truth that, when ignored, allows for ‘othering’ based upon these self-created distinctions. It allows us to forget the humanity in those we feel most different from.

The visceral quality of the collective emotional response – the fear, the pain, the hopelessness, the desperation, the anger, and for some, the elation or new hope – emotions not just felt within the U.S. but in every corner of the globe, particularly underscores the recognition of the deep and complex ties that define our current world order. They reveal a comprehension of the stakes at hand for everyone, whether positive or harmful; of the way the outcome of one country’s election implicates each individual in one way or another, whose ripple effect goes far beyond the sphere of politics and national borders.

The reality of this fact is both beautiful and terrifying: terrifying in the implications of just how much our own actions affect the lives of everyone else on this planet, but beautiful in the implication of how much our actions have the power to affect the lives of everyone else on this planet.

In drawing light to this positive aspect, even opportunity, granted by the current moment, I do not want to minimize the validity of the pain and fear felt by anyone. At the same time, I do want to shift the focus of the conversation. I want people to engage with their pain and fear in recognizing the roots of the same emotions felt by the ‘other side’. I do not want people to condone behavior or views that are objectively racist, bigoted, or full of hate, but I do want them to recognize the beauty and hideousness we are all capable of and the very different contexts and realities that shape the lens through which each person comes to see the world. I do not want people to resign themselves to tolerance for the sake of some kind of utilitarian existence amidst insurmountable differences, but to strive for empathy and its inevitable aftermath – love.

Ultimately, I hope that amidst the hatefulness and destructive divisiveness, people come to recognize the reality of the interconnectedness behind it, and to translate this comprehension into something fruitful. While the conversations all come back to the politics or words and actions of one political candidate, it is equally evident that so much of the fear and pain surrounding it is not merely linked to this one public figure but of what the support for him implies of the values of the society more broadly; of the potential normalizing effect his position might have on racist or violent attitudes. This is also in a way empowering because it points to the fact that our fears are directed at things in our power to change, regardless of who is in power. And, whilst obvious in one sense, I also think it is critical to remind ourselves that such feelings don’t emerge overnight. Sometimes, certain events help symptoms of much larger issues rise to the surface and force everyone to confront them head on. Much of the shock surrounding the prevalence of these attitudes as embodied by the election result may also be said to speak to the suppression of critical voices among us – the voices of those who were not at all surprised by the results, of those who have long been the targets of these aggressions, of the voices listened to but never really fully heard.

Hopefully now we will actually start to hear each other. And hopefully our politically-charged dialogues can give way to greater recognition of the reason we care about politics at all: to collectively create a community that we all want to live in. No doubt, the actions of one person in power can have very real and direct effects on the society at large; policies can change and the institutions they shape can render the achievement of equality that much more challenging. But in the end, the underlying cries for change and reform are at their core cries for reforms of the heart, for empathy and understanding. And I wish there was a way to express this that didn’t come across so idealistic and light-hearted, because I think it is something that we all too often cast aside as less weighty than real ‘political’ issues and that so many still struggle to envisage in the same concrete, practical terms, and so I am saying it anyways, as deceptively simplistic and reductive as it may sound. Because really, how can we possibly hope for a better future, for any different outcome than what we are seeing now, if we aren’t engaging with the emotions and spirits of the individual humans that shape the institutions that represent them? And how can we claim to embrace diversity as a progressive society if we don’t humble ourselves to the fact that maybe the so-called diversity we claim to embrace is still primarily confined to those who hold the same values and world-views as ourselves?

I myself am still grappling with the dimensions of my own initial reaction of shock, of what it implies of my own ignorance and of the voices I am yet to fully hear out. All I know is that the strong ties that hold us all together, while painful at times, are more visible now than ever.

“Let this American democracy become glorious in spiritual degrees even as it has aspired to material degrees, and render this just government victorious.  Confirm this revered nation to upraise the standard of the oneness of humanity, to promulgate the Most Great Peace, to become thereby most glorious and praiseworthy among all the nations of the world.” – prayer excerpt from the Bahá’í writings

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How are you?

What if we lived in a world in which the following scenario was a normal one: You walk into work Monday morning, your boss walks by and says “Good morning, how are you?” and you casually answer the question with a completely straightforward yet nonchalant, “Not so good actually; I cried myself to sleep last night,” or a “You know, I’m really not so sure; sometimes I just don’t know how I’m doing, or what I’m even feeling, or how to articulate those feelings.”

Imagine what the reaction to such a response would be in the real world – likely intense discomfort on the part of the person who asked, or just pure bafflement at how to respond or what to make of it. And yet, in some ways, I think there is more irony and strangeness in the normal, more common answers we give, of ‘fine, thanks’ and ‘good, how are you?’ – the answers we unconsciously produce as part of a deeply ingrained social script. A script so deeply ingrained, in fact, that when learning a foreign language, we’re always taught a set of short, simple phrases to use in response to the ‘how are you?’ equivalents of the other languages – quickly dismantling any notion that the question was ever really meant as a question.

And this is not to say that there is anything inherently strange or unnatural about the existence of rhetorical questions used as greetings in many cultures’ social scripts, but the seeming irony of it all is this: We ask each other this question every day – the casual add-on to a ‘good morning’ or ‘hello’, an extended greeting with seemingly more substance and depth than just a word of hello. And while we ask the question by way of habit, politeness, respect, friendliness, etc., and not with any intent of digging deeper into the psyche of the person we’re asking it from, at the same time, most of us – on some level at least – truly do care to know about the wellbeing of the people around us. Even those we barely know. Just think of Humans of New York for example – a page that generates hundreds of thousands of genuinely supportive comments – and in some cases, actions – each day in response to brief glimpses into the lives of complete strangers: responses to nothing more than a few sentences about someone’s fears, struggles, hopes, etc.

I know a lot of people are of the opinion that humans are inherently selfish and no one really cares about anything but themselves, but I think this opinion in some ways becomes validated purely by the fact that it is believed. When you live in a culture shaped around the concept of self-interest – including on a macro level when thinking about the basis on which businesses thrive or how the economy is structured – then little room is given to allow people to act otherwise. And rather than allowing space to change these expectations, our language and social norms in many ways deepen our limitations by setting up walls to separate each person’s multiple selves – their professional self, their personal self, their vulnerable self, their fun self, their spiritual self, etc. As a result, we come to these unspoken agreements, reflected in our social norms of interaction, that our lowest and most vulnerable moments and thoughts are just too much information for most people and in most settings. In this, we limit our opportunities to fully know people in the totality of their highs and lows, to offer our empathy, to connect in a greater understanding of each others’ humanness even with those we deem not close enough for such interactions.

That common expression of advice “just be yourself” always struck me as the most unhelpful thing to say to someone – implying that we all have some innate, static, true ‘self’ that’s somehow the real essence of who we are. I don’t know anyone who displays the exact same version of themselves at work, at home, with friends, etc., nor anyone who doesn’t in some way regulate the self that they display in various settings, whether consciously or unconsciously. And that’s not a bad thing. In fact, it’s probably for the best in many cases. But at the same time, each of those versions of self constitute a true and real facet of the greater self, the totality of who someone really is, and I think we all begin to forget this reality when interacting with others…just as we come to feel the need to hide parts of ourselves in certain settings and with certain people. Again – something that is normal and necessary in many instances (for instance, you probably wouldn’t want to bring out your crazy party self at your office if you wanted to maintain the respect of your colleagues) – but something I think we often take too far.

One potentially problematic result of this I think can be seen in the way we generally present our ‘best’ selves in professional settings or with people we don’t know very well, or even in social media, until we all start to fall under the skewed impression that everyone around us has their stuff together. Even whilst cognizant on some level that everyone has their own disjointed, troubling, perplexing things going on in their lives – simply by nature of being human – it becomes difficult to truly appreciate the depth of that fact when only seeing the side of people that we are allowed to see: the side that societal expectations have deemed appropriate for the public. How much harder does it then become to reconcile our own human weaknesses – our irrational fears, our self-doubt – with the images of put-togetherness we see around us each day?

Perhaps it is this phenomenon that manifests itself into the ‘imposter syndrome’: that nagging feeling of disconnect from the image we assume on the outside and of how people see us in our current situation with the reality of how we’re actually feeling and how we see ourselves. I’ve had several people tell me that they too have felt this imposter-ness, and that it is probably common to most. Ironically though, even in hearing this and acknowledging the reality of it, I often can’t help but think of the people saying it to me and wondering why they would ever think such a thing – these people with their incredible personalities, their kindness, their talent, their ambitions; people who clearly belong in the thing they are doing; people who in no way seem like imposters. At the same time, I always feel guilt for letting a thought pass through my mind – as it inevitably implies that the imposter-ness felt in my own circumstances is in fact more legitimate, more grounded in truth, than that felt by others.

Maybe this difficulty to fully reconcile the evident fact of everyone’s imposter-ness remains challenging with the walls that continue to block us from truly seeing into the multiple selves that make up each individual. But maybe these walls serve a purpose that should not be underestimated….would we really be better off in a society in which we were more aware of each other’s fears and challenges? At a surface level, more openness and empathy sounds like a positive thing for a society, but on a practical level, TMI is real – and as much as people have empathy and are capable of being supportive in the face of others’ complex issues or self-doubts, such issues might quickly come to dominate people’s views of each other.

So I am not proposing that anything should necessarily change in how we interact with other people and regulate our multiple selves. A simple “How are you?” does not impose any societal harm as a rhetorical greeting rather than a platform for facilitating exchanges of empathy and humanness. If nothing else, though, perhaps it is useful at times to simply remind ourselves that the casual “I’m good” or “Not bad” we receive when we pose the greeting to others is coming from another human being who may be struggling with something at that moment, or feeling things contrary to the collected image they display. Whether reminding ourselves of this serves as an impetus to exercise more compassion and empathy just in general life – even when the people around us appear completely fine – or a means of recognizing the source of unrealistic expectations we sometimes have for ourselves when unconsciously forming comparisons with the people around us – striving to always be more cognizant of the deeply multi-dimensional nature of each individual seems an overall useful mindset to have.