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.

Making Something of Memory (part 1)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“…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.

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.

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 Words Aren’t Enough

For the second time this year, my heart is breaking for someone I barely knew, for someone who passed through my life for just an instant and passed on to the next life too soon. And again, it is a pain I struggle to comprehend, and almost feel guilty to feel – for having only met someone once, what right do I have to feel this sadness for their absence, or to want to give my condolences to the family who I also barely know, or to share my praises of someone who barely knew me? Such words from a practical stranger would simply seem insincere. But this person clearly has made an impact on me – more than I even realized until now. And I really just want to express it somewhere, if not to them, than at least here.

For while I only really had a conversation with this woman on one occasion and witnessed her incredible faith and warmth in person on this one day, the beauty of her soul shines through so brightly through the words and deeds of her entire family – the brightness of which I’ve rarely come across. Never have I witnessed a family so selfless, so cohesive, so loving, so fully and completely devoted to constant service to mankind – so much of which is clearly due to the exemplary example of the parents. Just having the opportunity to be a part of the same Baha’i community as them this year and to see the love they have for their community has been a blessing to me – to see the effects of their children’s classes, junior youth groups, firesides, and devotionals on the spiritual growth of so many other souls. Or to see the amount of love and respect that children can show towards their parents – the kind of love that manifests itself in action, and is reflected in the love they so generously pass on to others. These small and indirect glimpses I’ve had into the huge effect that a few individuals can have on so many people and to be reminded of how much positive change can be achieved in the world through selfless service, trust in God, and ceaseless efforts to lead lives wholly devoted to the happiness of others is truly inspiring.

While a part of me is sad for the missed opportunity to have gotten to better know an admirable human being while in this world, and while my heart is sore in thinking of what the family is going through now – to whom all my thoughts and prayers go out to at this time, another part of me feels driven to make something more of these feelings – to strive more sincerely and deeply to re-align all the elements of my life to its ultimate purpose: serving mankind. What better way to express my appreciation and remembrance of a person whose life example has touched me than to work towards the achievement of everything that their life represented?

Beneath these confused mix of emotions, I also can’t help but feel reminded of my own mortality and of the shortness of life. I feel as though the cliche ‘life is short’ has never held so much weight in my mind as it does now. From the passing of another beautiful and inspiring person earlier this year – one who was even younger than me and who I had the incredible privilege of teaching some children’s classes with – the fleeting nature of life resonates even louder in my mind. And I don’t feel the weight of this reminder in a morbid, depressing sort of way, but more so as a call to action. It is a reminder that each and every day and each and every moment truly matters – that our every thought and action is an opportunity to progress or regress, to work towards something good or allow our situation to remain stagnant.

It has also awaken me to the mindset I have fallen into lately – having been in the ‘adult world’ for a year now and achieved more than I could have ever wished for in my career thus far, I had allowed myself to believe that it was enough; that working for an organization whose primary objective is to improve people’s lives somehow meant that I was achieving everything I needed to be achieving, and that as long as I continued to devote everything to staying in this career path, I was doing my part to help the world. It was a mindset that had largely dominated my thoughts and actions throughout college as well – a mindset which centred around the underlying concept of a ‘future,’ of some undefinable yet certain endpoint/life circumstance that I was continually working to attain. Under this delusion, I felt complacent as long as my actions were leading towards this ‘future’, knowing that it all was for the purpose of placing myself in the best position to do something good for the world.

But it was just that: a delusion. I’ve found that it is possible to be selfish even in a career centered around selfless motives, or to lose focus of what my ultimate spiritual purpose in life is by focusing too much on the self-defined goals and objectives for my material life that I deem as ‘good enough’ by way of serving others. It is in the shortness of life and the shining example of those who have ascended to the spiritual realm (as well as the countless living examples I see each day) that I am reminded of how necessary it is to make each day count – not simply by going to work each day at a place that helps to improve the material well being of others, but by striving to make sure that whatever work I am doing, it is done with a heart full of love, a joyful and prayerful spirit, and a mind always centered on the well-being of others. And to never allow myself to feel complacent in any single action, but to strive towards a life in which all my thoughts and actions become manifestations of love and selflessness. While I have an extremely long way to go, I think it is important to at least articulate, and remind myself that a career goal should never become a life goal in itself.

“Assist the world of humanity as much as possible. Be the source of consolation to every sad one, assist every weak one, be helpful to every indigent one, care for every sick one, be the cause of glorification to every lowly one, and shelter those who are overshadowed by fear.
In brief, let each one of you be as a lamp shining forth with the light of the virtues of the world of humanity. Be trustworthy, sincere, affectionate and replete with chastity. Be illumined, be spiritual, be divine, be glorious, be quickened of God, be a Bahá’í.”

And in working towards this ultimate goal, I hope that my actions can convey the gratitude that I feel towards those who have touched my lives so deeply through their radiant spirits, not so much through our minimal interactions, but simply through the beautiful examples of love they showed in the world.