Without all the chatter

The other day, following two weeks of solo travel around central Europe coupled with a temporary hiatus from all forms of social media, the one thing I was probably most pathetically excited for in returning to my home base in Paris was reinstalling my WhatsApp: to be able to satiate that socially conditioned desire to see that little orange notification button on my phone screen and open all the messages sent over the past weeks from closest friends; to finally reconnect with the world I had cut out during my self-imposed period of solitude. And then. That evening as I reinstall the app, anticipation rising (solitude gets to you after a while), I finally open it to find I can no longer log into my old account: everything from the past few weeks, and the past few years – all message history, photos, correspondence with interesting acquaintances met along the way or loved ones or lover, as well as a few of my contacts – gone. Permanently inaccessible.

Of course, it was not the end of the world. I still have most of my contacts, can still reach out again to the friends I’m still actually in communication with. But at that initial moment of rejected entry to my WhatsApp history, as much as I’d like to deny it (and as what may easily constitute the definition of an ‘overreaction’), I felt this strange sensation of the ground sucked out from under me… as though I had suddenly lost the gravity and weight of self-ness: the cognition of actually being me, in my own body, in the place I was sitting, in my corner of the world, with all the relations and social ties to which I am inextricably bound.

To give some context to this mother of overreactions, I had just previously been reflecting on the concept of memory and its role in giving continuity to our past and present selves, essentially providing a basis for the formulation of our conception of selfhood at all. I had recently come across an article, referencing an idea from modern psychology, suggesting that memory in fact constitutes the ‘crucible of the self’. The poet John O’Donohue, in his writing on transience as the one constant in our lives, elsewhere described memory as ‘that which holds out against transience’…as ‘the place where our vanished lives secretly gather.’ I had found a certain comfort in this description, and especially liked the reference to vanished ‘lives’ in the plural. Particularly in the place I found myself at the time of reading these words — alone in Vienna, a solo traveler surrounded by couples and families during the holiday period, on the road for the past few weeks in a state of self-enforced solitude (I’ll get to this later), living in Paris, a U.S. citizen, an Ethiopian-American, unable to recall the last time I was physically with my entire family, having spent the past few years living in South Africa and Zimbabwe, finding myself periodically in countries and contexts I never expected to be, a constantly revolving set of friends and communities, and recent shift in title from ‘boss’ and ‘diplomat’ to ‘poor student’ — I felt all the more drawn to the idea of memory as this shield against complete transience, this keeper of continuity.

Each time I delve into the bank of my own memories, whether by conscious intentional digging, something triggered by a scent, a song, an image, or just the regular intermittent infiltration of unexpected and completely random memories that surface from time to time with no evident reason as memories do, I often feel as though I’m peering into several separate lives, unconnected and unrelated from my own: characterized not only by different places and people but, perhaps most notably, by distinctly different conceptions of self and paradigms for interpreting the world. Despite being able to remember what I thought at a given time or how I felt, as filtered through the non-static and often unreliable medium of memory, I am always keenly aware of my inability to inhabit that same space again. And in this inability, I feel I can only catch glimpses of something that is not my own, inasmuch as I am aware of the fact that it is.

But even amidst this overwhelming sense of discontinuity that seems to taint most recollections of the past, the ability to still regain bits and pieces of it, in whatever form, provides some basis for imagining a kind of coherent whole out of all the separate parts. And for someone like me with the worst memory ever, to reach back every now and then through the potent medium of an old message or photo long forgotten – to be transported momentarily by that mysterious mnemonic power latent in certain physical and technological traces of our past lives – feels like something invaluable in this clumsy attempt at reconstructing wholeness. I am also not sure why this impulse to grasp at something complete and continuous even feels necessary in the first place, but I assume it is linked to what is probably a universal human instinct to make sense of oneself and to a broader extent, everything outside of oneself, through the roots on which we’ve been formed – both in the immediate context of one’s own life as well as roots that are familial, historical, etc.

Such was the mental state in which I found myself at the time of the WhatsApp incident. And so, given these impulses just described, my decision a few weeks ago to completely cut myself off in the first place from all the social networks that provided me with unfettered access to my ‘other lives’ so to speak – to all those relationships and memories that are a part of me but not a part of my immediate physical life context – may seem counterintuitive. In a way, though, I think it was actually one stemming from the same impulse behind my evident attachment to social media in the first place: connection.

For while these networks provide us with the channels for maintaining, strengthening, establishing, and mapping out our human connections, I think their oversaturation in our modern social realities can simultaneously hamper our capacity to actually be fully present in any of it. In this effort to always be connected, there is inevitably this stretching of the mind and heart to encompass the various spaces where connection is sought. It manifests in this feeling of being in touch with everyone all the time but concurrently somehow not really with anyone – including one’s self. This is not to say that love, or friendship, or authentic connection in whatever form, is a limited good, something we can only possess or share in finite quantities. But I do think the human mind’s capacity for attention is limited. In fact, it would seem that by definition the most profound forms of attentiveness require a certain level of restriction. For how can we truly give someone else, or ourselves, or our surroundings, this gift of attentiveness – one of the deepest manifestations of love – when we find ourselves stretched out in all directions, leaving access to only thinned out, fragile slivers of attention that we can allot to any one thing or person at a given moment?

I could be making assumptions here in implying this is a universal phenomenon, but at least in my own case, I couldn’t help but notice from time to time the effect that even the mere access to this technological world of social networks was having on me. It became even more noticeable while traveling: surrounded by inspiring street art in Berlin or magical architecture in Prague and finding that my mind was always only partially there – the other parts thinking about what I was planning to tell a friend about it or how I needed to capture the most beautiful places in photos to share on Instagram later or making a note to self to catch up with so and so while I had time. Even whilst my mind was there in Prague, it was simultaneously in Bangkok with my best friend, in Johannesburg with my nostalgia, in Harare with the work I missed or people I longed for – brought back to each of these places with each seemingly harmless text or glance at an old photo. Equally disconcerting was the realization that in my desire to share so much of my lived experience with other people or to just post it somewhere, the motivation behind my every action felt somehow less authentic. I began to wonder whether I would even live out my life the same way in the absence of these external social forces: to do things merely for the sake of doing them. I can’t remember where I read or saw it, but someone once spoke about societal fears of solitude as stemming in part from this need to constantly validate one’s own existence. It’s probably not a conscious thing someone would admit to or necessarily find true of their own impulses, but nonetheless, it seems fitting in a way to understand platforms like Instagram and Facebook (and, of course, blogs) as spheres that enable us to validate and shape our lived realities – to place them in a context in which they become subject to reaction and take on meaning beyond something that would otherwise be fleeting and lost to time and our own feeble memories.

None of this is inherently negative necessarily, but I do think it can become less benign in those moments where it detracts from the experiences we might otherwise have. For me, each time I allowed myself the distractions linked to these networks, I couldn’t help but notice a general sense of flatness to what I was feeling, as though a thin wall stood between me and the deeper emotions I wanted to access at times, the emotions that felt present yet never exposed in their fullness. And while I’m sure a range of factors can contribute to this, it felt quite evident at the time that much of that wall was constructed out of the consistent safety net of social distraction at my fingertips, and consequently, at the center of my thoughts.

Through my search for better words to articulate the numbing quality of these networks, I found an incisive description of the phenomenon by the writer Rebecca Solnit. In lamenting the “lost world” of the time before network technologies, she describes the loss of a world made up of two poles: solitude and communion, saying that this “new chatter puts us somewhere in between, assuaging fears of being alone without risking real connection. It is a shallow between two deeper zones, a safe spot between the dangers of contact with ourselves, with others.” I also resonated with words I stumbled upon in Krista Tippet’s book that “there is that window of choice, moment by moment, to go for distraction instead, to settle into numb…” I can’t remember the actual context in which she made this comment but it felt perfectly germane to the kind of escape allowed by social media, (in addition to television and the array of other media that so often take us away from our present moment).

And in fact, in cutting myself off from the choice to connect to these networks, I did feel a marked shift in the locus of my thoughts. I found myself increasingly awed by the banal things around me, forced to put forth more effort in keeping myself entertained from moment to moment with what was at hand – my beautiful surroundings, interesting strangers, my own thoughts. Perhaps less expected, I found myself actually feeling things with greater weight. It was as though, without the choice to retreat into the immediate yet somewhat false comfort of connection allowed by exchanging words or even simply an emoji with a close friend on the other side of the world, there was no longer a veil between me and my own thoughts. In the absence of a buffer, any inkling of a thought or emotion that may have otherwise been unintentionally (or sometimes intentionally) suppressed by an easy distraction was instead given free reign to unfold in its fullness, unencumbered and uninhibited. Meanwhile, bare and exposed by my own solitude, I was left with no alternatives but to actually confront whatever was there.

The thoughts or feelings that surfaced were nothing too shocking or unexpected, but nonetheless challenging to face at times. There are always those things you know are true but you may be ashamed to admit even to yourself, and so you avoid or ignore them and pretend like they aren’t there. A common one for many I think would be the fear of loneliness – or admitting to ever feeling alone at all (particularly when you are aware of all the love and support that surrounds you). Such admissions appear all the more unacceptable within the context of our social media saturated lives and the kind of taboo attached to the idea of solitude in general. I think Martha Nussbaum quite nicely touched upon the roots of some of these fears – fears that likely fuel our attachment to those outlets providing us with safeguards against the risk of fully seeing and accepting our own emotions. I found her framing of emotions particularly insightful in stating that“our emotional life maps our incompleteness”, explaining how “a creature without any needs would never have reasons for fear, or grief, or hope, or anger. But for that very reason we are often ashamed of our emotions and of the relations of need and dependency bound up with them.”

In a way, it is actually extremely liberating to admit to one’s own dependency. Perhaps also counterintuitively, finding solace in solitude – learning to be content in one’s aloneness (as distinct from loneliness) – seems like one of the best ways to embrace this dependent nature and discover the most fulfilling application for the impulses born out of it. Ironically, the less I was surrounded by endless streams of digital communication with friends and family, the more I was able to actually feel the depths of my connection with individuals and find myself immersed in the beauty of that recognition. And the longer I went about each day without the usual mental distractions, the more I found myself forced to reckon with truths I so often suppress in fear of failing to meet my own expectations: the loudest and most recurring of which related to the mere acknowledgement of my connection and interdependency with humanity as a whole. For in this acknowledgement is felt the weight of responsibility – the beautiful yet overwhelming and in many ways painful weightiness of a reality that is there regardless of whether one chooses to engage with it. Herein, I found in solitude a necessary reckoning with the complacency and numbness I had allowed to replace moments that might otherwise have been spent in benefiting the world of humanity, another individual, or in simply elevating my own state of awareness about those things that are hardest to face but most necessary to grapple with as a member of society and the human race.

All this to say that, in my own temporary immersion into one form of solitude, I have come to better appreciate the power of allowing silence to replace chatter that might otherwise blind us to fragments of wisdom already latent in our own emotions and consciousness. For, as so perfectly put by the writer Wendell Berry, and as the most apt elucidation of my own experience, in solitude, “one’s inner voice becomes audible [and], in consequence, one responds more clearly to other lives.”

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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.