Finding Symbols for the Wordlessness

It’s funny how the times I actually feel most compelled to write seem to be the times when I feel least able to make sense of something in words. In fact, even in starting this post and writing these words now, I don’t know where this is going, or what I want to say, or how to find the language for it, and yet, can’t get over this gnawing sense that I need to say something and find a way to formulate it into words.

For the thing I want to describe not only lacks words but I’m not even sure has managed to surface to the level of a thought. Feeling maybe, but not thought. But then, even the idea of a feeling somehow seems to connote a sense of concreteness and understanding that I have yet to arrive at, since feelings we generally communicate to the outside world and to ourselves through the medium of language, indicating a certain definitiveness about them.

Conveniently enough though, I recently stumbled upon this quote by John Steinbeck that couldn’t be anymore germane to my current sentiments, and has motivated me to continue to write something in any case:

“The craft or art of writing is the clumsy attempt to find symbols for the wordlessness. In utter loneliness a writer tries to explain the inexplicable.”

Maybe the act of writing this in itself is the thing I feel the need to somehow articulate: that deep embedded recognition within all of us of what it means to be human and what it means to make manifest and express it. Like many of the abstract things I’ve clumsily attempted to find symbols for through words (‘reality’, ‘identity’, etc.) this clichéd concept of ‘what it means to be human’ in fact has no meaning in and of itself given its broadness and different associations it holds to different people. However, I recently read a piece with a definition I quite like for the essential component of our humanity: the parts of ourselves that extend beyond the mere mechanical.

While still a rather broad and abstract definition, I think it holds a lot of relevance as an important reminder to self, particularly when we find ourselves drudging through the day to day details of life – those details that more often than not feel overwhelming and vital when in the thick of them – not even realizing just how much our mindless daily actions come to consume our beings until something shakes us from our monotonous routine and reminds us of our core humanness. That is, a reminder that our being in the world is not just a facet of our daily motions and mere existence, but really, of our ability to connect and interact and reflect on our relationship to it; to have an ongoing and active conversation with the world around us and with ourselves.

It is a definition of human identity that is complexly positioned somewhere in between our relationship to the physical reality we inhabit and our interior reality. I really liked the way the poet philosopher David Whyte describes this space as it relates to our individual identities, saying that the “only place where things are real is between the frontier between what you think is you and what you think is not you.” In talking about the tendency of humans to abstract themselves out of their direct experiences (and in fact, highlighting this ability of humans to deny their own humanness or fundamental identities as a key feature of what distinguishes us as human, as opposed to all other creatures on the planet which are undeniably and unavoidably nothing more than themselves), he notes that the formation of one’s identity depends not only on looking within oneself, but more on the depth of one’s attention to all things other than himself. It is through deepening our attention to the things around us that we begin to deepen our own sense of presence – in a literal and physical sense, but also probably in terms of the presence we have in relationship to ourselves and the sense of grounding we have in the bodies we inhabit. “Alertness is the hidden discipline of familiarity,” he poignantly states in one of his poems.

Something I think I’ve struggled with of late though is finding the balance between being grounded in the physical and real versus the abstract and interior. In the past couple months, I feel like I’ve found myself wavering between two extremes: from being so fully and completely immersed in my work and allowing it to become the totality of my life and thoughts, leaving no space for introspection or reflection beyond the immediate and present reality, to having something suddenly knock me out of this state – whether by a sudden shift of perspective or even physical relocation – such that I find my sense of reality dislocated altogether, leaving my mind to settle only on the reality within itself.

The latter is where I find myself now, and also constitutes the crux of the ‘wordlessness’ and ‘inexplicable’ that has prompted me to put words on paper at this time. Not necessarily a bad thing, it is a state of being that can be described as nothing else but perplexing, and perhaps also disorienting, all the more so in the frustrating lack of words that seem available to describe it. Still, while I can’t necessarily put words to my current mental state that would clarify what I mean, I can at least describe the underlying characteristic defining it, which is essentially a struggle to ground my thoughts in the present.

Described in such a way, I’m sure this struggle is one relatable to many, but probably with very different undertones and driving forces behind it. While I’m still trying to get a grasp on the unyielding force behind mine, in the hopes that identifying its roots will allow me to regain control over it, I think it is in part linked to the very different realities I’ve experienced lately that have become juxtaposed against each other in such dramatic ways: from spending a month recently in the U.S. (the first time I’d been back in a year) and rediscovering facets of myself and way of being in the world that I hadn’t experienced in a long time, to returning to my life in Zimbabwe and so suddenly and completely becoming immersed into it as though I’d never left, to finally submitting an acceptance to a graduate school offer and having my mind quickly propelled forward into the idea of the new places and physical and mental spaces I will soon be occupying for the next two years (and all the while, still having the recent memory of my two-years lived in Johannesburg, the place that continues to hold the closest association to the feeling of ‘home’ in my mind).

Somewhat counter-intuitively, it is the experience of extreme normality in each of these realities (even the ones yet to be experienced) that feels like the underlying source of bewilderment at any one of their realities. Something about traversing between each of these spaces, which on the one hand feel so normal and natural in and of themselves during the periods in which I am experiencing them, has led my mind to struggle with believing in any of them as ‘real’. It’s not even that the places in themselves are so drastically different from one another, but more that who I am in each of them has felt so drastically different, all whilst underscored by the obvious fact that each has inevitably constituted just another piece of the totality of who I am. For instance, whenever I look back at the memory of one from the viewpoint of another, it almost feels like I’m glimpsing into someone else’s life altogether, but then when I return to one from the other, it deceptively feels as though my present life context has in fact been my reality all along.

I probably sound high in my attempt to describe this inexplicable mental state, or just simply incoherent, but in any case, maybe there is at least some reassurance to be found in the description I’ve recently come across of one of the essential aspects of humanity as being our “fluidity of character and multiple selves.” It’s always nice when someone else’s words seem to succinctly summarize an experience into a context that at least has some connection to something valuable. Perhaps all this disorientation and disconnect from any single reality is just a means of arriving at a greater wholeness in accepting the fluidity between my multiple selves, and relatedly, acceptance of the continuous process of renewal, loss, and new formation of different selves.

Still, throughout all of this, as I fail to find grounding in my present reality, I continue to grapple with the question surrounding the value or danger of having a deeper grounding in the mind than in the exterior. In communicating the value of deep thought and reflection, someone recently expressed to me he was of the opinion that there is no such thing as overthinking. While the sentiment behind his thought was clear and straightforward in the context, it still prompted me to think a lot more about thinking, particularly the kind of thinking that feels uncontrolled and without intention. As much as I agree with the necessity of such thinking, especially in the context of what I described earlier about the core of what even makes us human and truly alive in our own existence, I still think allowing the mind to rest too much within itself ends up actually preventing us from achieving deep connection with the things around us, which ultimately serve to form who we are. Again, it comes down to finding the frontier or space in between, ensuring that we are fully attuned to and grounded in the immediate things outside of us all whilst allowing the landscape of the mind the space and means to reflect.

In thinking about how this interplay between thoughts and action has presented itself in my current work context, I was stuck by this quote from the writer Annie Dillard:

“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing.” Describing how this affects our sense of time, she goes on to say that “the life of sensation is the life of greed; it requires more and more. The life of the spirit requires less and less; time is ample and its passage sweet.”

While not necessarily the most earth-shattering idea, the statement that what we do with each hour is what we do with each day, and ultimately, our lives, was profoundly moving when I first read it. It particularly spoke to my work experience over the past few months, in which it felt as though three months of living had passed in an instant and that time had somehow cheated me as I looked back at all the 12, 14, and 16 hour days spent consumed with nothing but work. All the while through that period, while I’m sure on a deeper level I had recognized that the way I was spending each day would add up to how I spent my weeks and months, by the end of it all, I was left with a memory of the time as something that felt extremely bare and thin.

What it lacked, rendering it devoid of weight and substance, was the spirit. Just as the quote so beautifully reflects, it’s incredible to realize just how much control we have over our experience of time itself, and just how vastly different time can feel depending on the state of mind we inhabit as we experience it. While it’s still very much a work in progress, I think I’ve at least come to realize just how crucial it is to be always cognizant of making sure I’m consciously and consistently infusing the life of the spirit into every day, hour, and even minute. So in this context at least, I can agree with the sentiment that regular thinking and reflection must be woven throughout all that we do, to ensure that we not lose those fundamental aspects of ourselves that truly make us human. Otherwise, we become nothing more than a fixture of our surroundings, alive but not fully living. Even if we manage to be productive in the work or task at hand, the work itself ends up losing its sense of purpose, and we start to lose our core humanness in the process.

I could probably go on for another 50 pages about this but, as with most of my non-structured posts about non-structured things, the lack of conclusion or central point to all that I’ve just written about makes it seem only appropriate to just end it here with an equally non-structured and inconclusive conclusion. I’m not sure if I’ve arrived at any greater clarity in my clumsy attempt to put to words the range of indefinable things that continue to take up much of my thoughts, but if nothing else, thanks to Steinbeck, at least I can say that in the attempt itself I’ve undertaken some form of ‘art’ in just simply putting together letters and sentences for now.

Advertisements

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.

You Go Ahead

“You go ahead,” I breathlessly exclaimed, no longer confident in my feet’s ability to maintain their balance as we inched higher up the rocky slope. 

“I’ll be right here when you come back down,” I assured my two friends, sensing their hesitation.  As they finally acquiesced, I watched as they continued up the mountain, shadowed by the crowd of children who hadn’t left our side since we first got off our bodas, and trailing behind our unofficial tour guide.

“The top is just a little further,” he urged them, “I know the way.”

He must have been no older than 10. “I will take you to Kibuye,” were his first words when we met along the trail – not so much an offer as a declaration. His floppy rubber sandals and skinny frame were strangely fitting with the nonchalant air of confidence he exuded. Our thick hiking boots, nalgene water bottles, and backpacks full of produce for the trek felt like neon signs of our musanze-ness as we were led up the mountain by a group of mostly barefoot children.

Allowing my body to collapse on a soft grassy patch along the steep hillside, I looked up to find that two of the boys had stayed back. Their hands frantically gestured towards the path from which the voices of my friends and their hiking companions were now fading. “No no, you go ahead. I’m staying here,” I said, forging my own awkward hand motions in an attempt to convey the message where words were of no use.

They finally stopped, looked at each other, glanced back at me, then sat down several feet away, keeping their eyes pinned to me all the while. I made myself comfortable in the tall, cool grass, grateful for the chance to fully process my surroundings:  endless layers of lush green hills spotted with dirt fields, clusters of trees and houses – all of which faded into soft grey outlines in the background. Mesmerized by its grandeur and vastness, I became transfixed in the beauty and stillness of it all. I allowed my body to sink deeper in the grass as my thoughts sunk further into my surroundings – getting lost in the contours of the mountains and taking with them all concept of time.

My awe began to wane as minutes started to feel like hours. I wondered how far my friends had gotten. I shifted my focus to the little boy in the distance whose tiny figure grew closer, whipping at some goats while repeatedly pulling his oversized shirt back onto his shoulder with his free hand. I watched intently as he hopped with ease up the rocks, his tiny bare feet seeming to mock the arduous battle I had faced earlier ascending the same path.

I soon became keenly aware of how alone I was. “I am somewhere deep in the mountains of Rwanda with no phone, no idea where my friends are, and no one in sight who speaks French or English,” I thought. I glanced over at the two boys still sitting a few feet away, now casually playing a game of cards in the grass. The glanced back at me.

As if on cue, the sky suddenly let out a monstrous boom, prompting the boys to duck to the ground. The clouds had turned a threatening shade of grey. For the first time in hours, one of the boys approached me and began to speak in a slow, enunciated manner, but again to no avail. He pointed at the sky and down the hill. “I can’t leave this spot, my friends won’t find me if I do.” But he was insistent.

As it began to drizzle, I followed the kids down the slippery mud path, the two of them running up to grab my elbows each time I stumbled, until we finally approached a mud hut. I crouched behind them through the open doorway and found a tiny room with several people gathered along two narrow wooden benches, all seeking shelter from the impending storm in a neighbor’s house.

The boys motioned for me to sit. I offered a smile to the strangers around me, whose dark figures were illumined only by the light which poured in through the small door, now half covered by a large wooden plank. I could hardly make out their countenances as I strained my eyes to find theirs, hoping that my shy awkward smile relayed to them what words couldn’t. The rain continued to beat down on the roof, quickening its pace and intensity, conveying a sense of desperation and force in its efforts to make itself known to every inch of the room. It was all at once dominant and subtle as it became the constant backdrop to the soft murmur of voices.

I looked around at the dim discernible shapes in the room – the corn stalks hanging from the ceiling, the large metal pot in the corner, the wide-eyed toddler on the bench across from me, his gaze as strong and constant as the rain on the roof. Unable to do much else, I finally stared out the crack in the door, watching each raindrop make its mark in the dirt as I soaked in the unexpected warmth of the small crowded room.

Warm Fuzzy Feelings

So, many people have said to me, “Johannesburg is an amazing city. You’ll love it here.” And each time I ask them, “What is it that you like about this place?” Of course, I’ve been discovering this city little by little on my own terms and learning how best to love it through my own point of view, but there is also a lot of value in seeing a place through others’ eyes – through the people who have lived in it 3 months, 1 year, 10 years, or a whole lifetime more than you. Through these conversations, the responses that have struck me the most have been those related to the diversity of people here. Yes, it is a diversity that comes with a fair share of segregation and in some cases even racism, but nonetheless, one that seems to give its own unique vibrancy and color to the city. It has also become probably my single favorite thing here over the past few weeks.

It’s strange because, thinking back to my life in the U.S., I was never really lacking in diversity – from my own multi-cultural family to my friends groups reflecting Indian, Chinese, Korean, Jewish, African-American, Persian, and Hispanic backgrounds to my Baha’i communities with people from all over the world to simply living near a city like Chicago made up of neighborhoods that still reflect the cultural makeup of the immigrant communities that settled there years ago. But somehow, being in South Africa, I constantly find myself in awe at the diversity of people I am surrounded by each day. And, maybe it is the communication studies major in me, but something about hearing the mix of different languages and accents in particular resonates on an even deeper level, hitting me with unexpected feelings happiness. More than simply seeing the evident diversity of the people around me, the sound of the different accents coming together in one place is almost like listening to some kind of harmonious melody containing in it the essence of the beauty of mankind.

As music holds a potency to influence the soul and speak to all people in a way that words alone cannot, I can’t help but compare the intermingling of sounds that reflect the cultural background of each person to something as powerful as music. Accents just seem so beautiful to me in that they carry with them an always-present reminder of people’s cultures or places of origin. While molding one common medium of communication (in this case English) into different forms, they still allow the same message to come through — just seems like a good symbol for the oneness of humanity…how our differences are what add beauty and interest to our interactions and yet don’t prevent us from communicating and relating to each other.

At the same time, I am quite aware that the diversity I get to experience in my workplace – from the French speakers in the office across from me, to the lovely Irish (but sounds more like British) accent and sometimes even a “jolly good ol’ chap” from my one boss and the Italian accent of my half-Egyptian other boss to the always interesting South African accent of my sassy colleague in the cubicle next to me to the Japanese accent of the colleague diagonal from me – is a pretty exaggerated picture of the diversity of the city. Obviously, working in a UN office for an international aid organization comes with its fair share of expats and well-traveled, unique individuals. But still, even reflecting on who I’ve spent my weekends with – from Ethiopian dinner parties and trips to downtown areas where entire streets are full of Ethiopian-owned businesses (and several who gave me discounts just for being Ethiopian…despite my lack of Amharic-speaking skills or the fact that I don’t even look African) to native Joburg people my age (and my one friend who revealed to me that she refuses to speak the South African language she grew up with, Afrikaans, because it is a symbol of colonialism….something I found extremely interesting and a telling example of the power of language as more than simply a means of communication. especially after having read Mandela’s autobiography and all the times he mentioned how his white jailers would only speak Afrikaans and even refer to English as evidence of one’s inferiority) to Persians and Indians another weekend to Zimbabweans and Ghanaians the next. It’s hard not to feel some sense of joy from just simply having the opportunity to meet so many people from so many places in such a short period of time.

And, with all my talk of the oneness of humanity and the beauty of diversity, I realize this post has become rather cliché and cheesy, but sometimes you just have to step back and acknowledge all the warm fuzzy feelings from the good things around you. I could also talk about how it seems like with each new group of people I meet, we all at some point go around and exchange mugging or police corruption stories from our time in Joburg, in a manner always so casual and nonchalant as if a common icebreaker topic. Or about the rather unsettling realizations of how dramatically the racial demographics change depending on the wealth of the neighborhood you’re in. But, every city has its problems, and these still do not overshadow the beauty of the diversity here in my eyes.

All my oneness-of-humanity talk might also be attributed to the upcoming Baha’i youth conference this weekend and the pre-conference meeting I attended this past weekend. For those who don’t know, the Baha’i Faith is a world religion whose central aim is prettymuch to unify mankind and which teaches that all religions come from the same God. (I realize this is an extremely short summary of a religion but in the interest of not making this post a novel, you can also see the basics here: http://www.bahai.org/ or ask me more about it…plus I’m sure I’ll talk about it more in my next post). The upcoming youth conference is nothing short of incredible. One of 114 conferences happening all over the world (literally. all over the world….there was even one in Antananarivo! 😀 ) around this time, the point of the conferences is essentially to mobilize the Baha’i youth and initiate change by having youth (Baha’i or otherwise) plan more ways to serve the communities where they live. As such, all Baha’i youth were asked by the Universal House of Justice (the elected governing body of the Baha’is which is in Haifa, Israel) to only attend the conference where they live…and, seeing as I now will be living in Joburg for another 11 months, I decided not to go to the Chicago conference in August and will instead be going to this one.

And I cannot even express how excited I am. There is nothing I love more than being surrounded by a bunch of people my age with a similar life purpose and vision of the world. Not as in people of the same religion or people who think the same way, but just people who care about the world, love everyone, and want to make a difference. It is that common goal and purpose in life that leads to instant bonds between strangers and ties of friendship that go far deeper than liking the same kind of music. It was the same thing I felt at the 3-day orientation with the other fellows from my program – that instant connection with so many people I’d just met due to a common love for learning about other cultures and wanting to do something good in the world. This conference will be all the more special because I not only will get to meet hundreds of Baha’i youth from all over South Africa, Mozambique, and Swaziland, but will also have in the back of my mind the whole time the knowledge that the same meetings are happening in every part of the globe, with thousands of other youth coming together with one common vision of serving mankind. It is the embodiment of unity in every sense — one that truly extends across the whole world.