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.

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“…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.

3 Things 23 Made Me Realize I Don’t Understand

I have wracked my brain for days, opening new documents and staring at the blank page searching for the perfect words to articulate and condense all the abstract lessons of the last year – each time failing to arrive at a single sentence and finally closing each one in the same blank white state in which it started. When I reflected back on my 22ndyear, the words – and the urgent desire to concretely state the words – to sum up the year materialized into lessons that were so clear it was almost as if they were being told to me by someone else. But now, as I find myself on the brink of 24, feeling as though another year of life must warrant some sort of reflection and insight into myself or the world or simply just something, I’ve come to realize that the reason I can’t articulate the lessons is because lessons are essentially answers, and unlike 22, 23 didn’t bring with it answers – it brought questions, and deeper uncertainty about more things.

But maybe that in itself is the big lesson of 23: coming to terms, and in fact embracing, the reality that the wisdom of growing older may actually just be a greater comprehension of just how much we truly don’t understand. And with this conclusion, it feels only appropriate that my sequel to the ‘lessons 22 taught me’ be the ‘big things that 23 made me realize I don’t understand’:

1. Adulthood.

There comes a point where you can no longer deny the fact that you are fully and completely an adult human being according to most definitions of the word….not just the legal definition (cuz really, who actually considers their 18-year old selves an adult?), but like a it’s-socially-acceptable-to-be-married-and-have-kids-now and I-should-buy-health-insurance level of adult. And once you reach this point of adulthood where you realize that the rest of the world is actually perceiving you as an adult, you come to the strange but inevitable realization that on the inside, you’re still you: there was no single, major life-changing moment where you suddenly realized you transitioned from childhood to ‘adulthood’, and that maybe the concept of adulthood that most of us have subconsciously ingrained in the back of our minds from childhood is all one big illusion – that illusion of thinking that being an adult means we’ll be married by 25, with a solid job and children by 30, and perhaps most importantly, that we’ll just know things.

A huge part of this I think comes from the mindset we have throughout our school careers that the whole first part of our lives is about developing ourselves to one day be functioning adults contributing to society, and that in the meantime, it is okay if we don’t know what we’re doing with our lives or have stability or understand everything because we’re constantly told “you have time” – that awful misleading statement with deep implications not only of the nature of our adulthood but also of our youth. Because ‘having time’ implies that we will eventually reach a point where we don’t have time – where we are suddenly expected to be putting to use everything we have developed and learned up to that point and making something of ourselves by then – thus undermining the important fact that what we do as youth can also have incredible impact on the world and that the period of youth should not simply be about looking inward and preparing ourselves for the ultimate day of ‘adulthood’ when we suddenly need to be something more.

And, probably most detrimental, is that it casts a huge shadow of expectation on adulthood. And, for me at least, expectations – particularly expectations for who you should be at any given time – represent one of the biggest challenges in the transition to adulthood and coming to accept oneself as an adult. While I still have no idea what it means to be an adult, the one thing I do know is that it shouldn’t mean any single thing – and that my fear of getting older has never really been a fear of ageing but ultimately a fear of not meeting the self-imposed expectations of what I should be at any given age or period of life. Being an adult means being you (and hopefully striving to be the best you that you can be)…but older. It should be that simple. And hopefully, as I get older, it will mean chipping away at all the deeply embedded expectations I didn’t even realize I had for myself that stand as heavy obstacles in the way of self-acceptance and contentment with whatever age I happen to be.

2. Relationships.

Just in general. Romantic relationships, friendship relationships, family relationships, relationships to strangers, relationships to hobos, relationships to people we haven’t even met yet, just all of it. And actually, I can’t even really articulate what it is about relationships that 23 taught me I don’t understand – but somehow, in the path of forming new ones, losing old ones, deepening existing ones, and reflecting on past ones, I’ve found myself just uncertain on how I feel about it all and the role they do or should play in my life. More specifically, how our relationships with people shape who we are, how much we should allow them to govern how we see ourselves, how much we should rely on them for happiness, and how much we should nurture the ones we’ve physically left behind.

This topic is probably too broad and vague to really mean much in writing, but I do feel there is a certain usefulness – if nothing else, by way of coming to a sort of acceptance about it all – in simply acknowledging the fact that I just don’t have the answers (or the questions for that matter…highlighting the extent of my perplexity on the whole subject). And recognizing that adulthood or more relationships and experiences with people don’t necessarily bring greater clarity – but by prompting us to question more things, including ourselves, they do inevitably still bring growth.

All of it might really come down to grappling with the concept of loneliness – and especially the fear of loneliness. 23 has really opened my eyes to the power of future loneliness – and the absurdity of the fact that the fear of potentially having the emotion in the future can actually make you concretely feel it in the present, and to some extent, start to blind you from the amazingness of everyone in your life in the current moment by overshadowing your actual relationships with them with a fear of what they will be to you in the future. Essentially, the fear of loneliness can actually make you lonely in and of itself by preventing you from fully experiencing what you have in the present.

And while I don’t have a solution to this, I do have some semblance of a theory: There are some things in life that are mostly in our control and some things that are minimally in our control. While this is probably debatable and also extremely contextual depending on a person’s life circumstances and probably on how often they move around, I feel like relationships fall more in the latter – we can’t predict who we’ll meet in life and when or where we’ll meet them. We can’t predict how we’ll change in relationship to the friends we have and whether our life paths or growth will converge or diverge. And when you go to a new place and leave people behind, you can put in effort to maintain and deepen what you have but you can’t fully control who will still be in your life 50 years down the line.

And for the things in life that are largely out of our control, it seems the best way we can deal with them is to strive to accept them as they are and appreciate them for what they are – and this includes the people that cross our paths in life. Meeting someone in the most random place in the world that you know you will likely never see again should not create a sense of sadness before you’ve even left them – it should leave you with a deep appreciation of whatever mark they’ve left [or continue to make] on your life for whatever period of time that may be (not to say that we shouldn’t make every effort to keep the people in our lives that matter to us, but just to accept that this is not possible for every single person).

And for even more abstract things like ‘love’ or finding ‘the one’, I may just be extra cynical, but I also feel like this is largely out of our control and that it is not guaranteed that every single one of us finds that person that we will end up spending the rest of our lives with. And because it is out of our control, maintaining an expectation that this will be a given in our lives creates a destructive mindset in which at least a part of us – that part that has internalized all the societal messages of what it means to be an adult and have a fulfilling life – feels as though something is wrong or missing, either in our lives, or worse, in ourselves. Rather, why not live each day focusing on the relationships you do have at any given moment and how beautiful and fulfilling those are – whether or not it’s your friends or families or even the exciting strangers that come along? Or focus on whatever it is that gives your life meaning and purpose and dedicate all of your thoughts and passion into that, rather than the expectation of a future fulfillment to come from someone else entering your life.

I also find some truth in the way a friend had articulated her theory on loneliness and relationships: that the fear of loneliness is less a fear of not having people in one’s life, but the fear of one day finding that you are left with only yourself – in other words, that the fear is actually a manifestation of lack of love for oneself and the thought of finding yourself alone and forced to face the reality of who you are.

I am yet to come to a conclusion on any theory related to loneliness and relationships and how best to function in the world in a way that allows us to fully appreciate each person that comes into our lives without letting the depth of our appreciation for them result in sadness at their absence or lower esteem for ourselves by way of comparisons with those that we regard so highly. But I assume this is just one of those life-long questions that doesn’t have any real answers, but maybe just becomes less of a ‘question’ through the inevitable insights to be gained with age and the wealth of experiences/perspectives that come with it.

3. The mind.

Underlying all the uncertainty about my own fears and relationship to relationships, I feel that this year has allowed me to more fully grasp something that I perhaps knew all along but maybe not the full depth of it: that I don’t really understand my own mind – in fact, to the extent that I am somewhat fearful of how much I don’t understand it. People are complex, and I’m sure we all can recognize that there is so much we don’t understand about others – which is also largely why we have so much to gain from our interactions with others – but I feel like there’s always that part of us that feels that we at least know ourselves. Whether or not we even consciously voice or think it, there is just that sense that since you are in your own body, and your mind is essentially ‘you’, that you must inevitably have a deeper understanding of that entity than the things outside of you.

Or maybe that’s just me. But either way, whatever pretense I had for myself that I understood my own mind was completely dissolved after going through a period of depression – realizing that not only do I not understand my mind but that, if we allow it (assuming it is something in our power to ‘allow’), our minds can take on meanings and perceptions outside of our control and in a way come to control us (and I also realize phrasing it in such a way then presumes that whatever it is that defines ‘us’ is separate from the mind…but that’s another complex topic in itself that I won’t attempt to unravel now). But perhaps one invaluable thing I have come to grasp from the whole experience is a better comprehension of how much power is latent in the mind – and that our entire world, our perceptions, our lived experiences, our memories…just everything – is shaped by it. Which I realize in itself sounds like such an evident statement: that our mind shapes how we see the world and navigate in it. But it’s so much more than that…

Just think, how much of our happiness or unhappiness is a reflection of our actual lives versus what our minds make of it? I keep thinking, for instance, of my fears of loneliness and how much they have come to shape my actual lived experience of loneliness. When I actually step back and look at the reality of what’s around me, loneliness stands in stark contrast to what is presently, physically, and concretely there in my life. And yet, images of the future and of all the ‘what ifs’ weave their way throughout the images of the present, creating a picture tinted by doubts and fears that, regardless of whether they will ever even materialize into reality, in a way do become a part of the current reality purely by existing in my mind.

But then again, how much control do we truly have over our own perceptions? Going so far as to say “happiness is a choice” is a concept I find extreme and harmful to a lot of people – often creating the sense that, if you are not happy, it is on you. If you are sad, it is because you chose to give into the emotion and perceive things in a particular way – which for many, rather than instilling a sense of power and freedom, can rather incite guilt or helplessness in being unable to achieve something they are told is in their power to control. On the other hand, to fully concede to the opposite notion that the mind is an entity of its own, and that the emotions that come from it are largely out of our control, perhaps has equally harmful implications. Perhaps allowing ourselves to believe that our moments of sadness or fear emanate from something outside of our control contributes to the reification of the thoughts themselves, however irrational or skewed they may be.

But again, who knows….

And maybe, to ever come to a point where we can confidently say that we do understand how our own minds work – or how relationships work or what adulthood really means – would be cause for greater concern than not knowing. While I sometimes find myself perplexed and overwhelmed when reminded of the sheer volume of things I don’t understand in the world – or the fact that now, as an ‘adult’, I no longer have the excuse of ‘I’ll understand such things when I’m an adult’ to justify how little I know (although, to be fair, maybe it is a bit extreme to be hard on myself for not being able to understand things like how exactly computers and electricity were invented – by other human adult minds – and came to exist out of the raw material of this earth) – but anyways, as overwhelming as it is to know how much I don’t know, it is also somewhat comforting to know that at least I recognize it – and for now, simply being humbled and inspired by all that I am yet to learn or really comprehend seems an okay state of being as I embark on yet another year of overwhelmingly-perplexing-yet-strangely-and-beautifully-enlightening adulthood.

When Life Hits You With a Big Question

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Are you black?

“Are you black?” he bluntly asked me from the front of the taxi; a casual question, likely prompted by the boredom of our long and motionless wait behind a never-ending sea of traffic following the New Years celebrations in Cape Town’s city centre. I told him my dad was from Ethiopia. A grin spread across his face. “Ah, then you are a child of Africa,” he replied, with a certain air of approval in his voice. I was instantly filled with happiness at his remark. I nonchalantly smiled back, trying to conceal how embarrassingly overjoyed I was on the inside as I thought to myself, ‘a stranger actually knew I was black.’

I knew that coming to South Africa, race would be something I would be confronted with at some point. Early on, I realized that race dynamics here weren’t necessarily worse than what you’d see in the U.S., but simply more overt. While racism is not something you actually encounter on a daily basis in Joburg (it also might depend on where you are… Cape Town, for instance, seemed somewhat worse in terms of racial divisions), something that does constantly stand out are the definitions. Simply the word “coloured” – something not so politically correct to still use in the U.S. – has survived here as a non-offensive matter-of-fact term to refer to basically anyone who is not white, black, or Indian (the three other political categories during the Apartheid era). Whereas in the U.S., people seem so cautious to use any term which might offend, so much so that the words black and white must sometimes be diluted with African American and Caucasian (words that aren’t necessarily any more accurate in their labeling), in South Africa, the remnants of old racial classifications don’t seem so hidden. 

And in this context, something I didn’t necessarily prepare myself for, was an inexplicable pull towards defining my own race. Constantly surrounded by these categories, and even the evident racial divisions linked to economic circumstances (again, not something unique to South Africa, but perhaps something that just stands out more when white people are actually the minority), I’ve just felt a strange need to somehow declare my own place. And in particular, a need to make known my African side. It is largely irrational, I know – a feeling I think arising from the history of racial divisions here and somehow not wanting to be associated with the side that only 20 years ago was the oppressor. And yet, while irrational, especially considering how much has in fact changed since then, there are still certain stereotypes, assumptions, and in some cases, unsettling power dynamics that do remain.

This fear of stereotypes and assumptions is all the more heightened within my particular field of work: humanitarian aid. While I am not the foreign white person barging into African communities, handing out food, and taking pictures with the hungry children I’ve “helped,” I am still the one helping to write reports and web stories that give visibility to other foreigners who do so. This is not to say that the work my organization does is not absolutely vital and life-saving for millions of people, but just that the kinds of images produced by humanitarian and development work as a whole still tend to lend themselves to divisive racial stereotypes (often by request of the donors themselves).

And by extension, partially because of stereotypes that have arisen through aid work, the matter of entering new communities as a foreigner, and trying to build meaningful relationships with people of different cultures becomes complicated by a range of assumptions. In my own case, at least, I can’t help but worry any time my actions seem to fulfill the expectations of the stereotypical white person going into an African community and trying to make a difference. My concerns of having to overcome these stereotypes, actually, are less about those in the community, and more about those of the outside world.

I’ve been going to one of the townships near my house each Saturday, for example, to help out another lady who’s been running a childrens class there. I’ve been facilitating a Baha’i junior youth group (basically meeting with a group of 12-14 year-olds to do a workbook and art projects that focus on spiritual/moral education). I am keenly aware of the fact that I do not live in the same community, and that my accent is sometimes difficult for them to understand, and that I cannot speak the language that many of them speak at home, and yet I also am aware of how well the kids respond to the group and the lessons and songs and quotes they learn each week. Sometimes I step back and think, from the outside, I probably just look like exactly what is described in billions of articles and blog posts about how harmful voluntourism is: a foreigner going into a community and trying to make a difference. But I know that this is not the same – I do in fact live here, and I do have the chance to invest time in building relationships with these kids, and more than anything, this is not something I would only do in Africa – this is something that I would aim to do anywhere I am in the world, and this just happens to be where I am now.

And yet, a part of me still worries that because of my skin color, my actions and intentions will become skewed somehow. And with these concerns, I’ve also become more aware of the uncertainty that surrounds how I actually define my own racial identity. I realize with the fears I’ve just written about, I’ve basically described myself as white, and also just previously mentioned how happy I was that someone saw that I was black. It’s honestly not something that I’ve felt the need to really decide which I identified more with until now – until questions surrounding racial stereotypes and assumptions of privilege have become a silent, underlying factor in my daily activities.

I still have no idea what my “racial identity” is, but in this context at least, I’ve found myself more and more self-conscious and even resistant of  my “whiteness” …of the fact that regardless of how many times I declare myself to be African-American, or “black” by some definitions, or at least, equally as black as Barack Obama…the truth of the matter is, that from straight outer appearances at least, I am still a light-skinned foreigner. And in this day and age, particularly with this topic of race and ignorance and stereotypes and white privilege seeming to pop up constantly all over the internet, I  worry that anything I say on the matter may be interpreted as a manifestation of my own white privilege….and yet, if I can be considered “black” by some in the U.S….or “coloured” here in South Africa, then can “white” privilege even technically apply to me? (also. don’t even get me started on all the “what not to say to a mixed person” articles I keep coming across and the endless confusion/guilt I feel for not getting offended by all the things that I am apparently supposed to be offended by as a mixed person….it’s not that I don’t get the reasoning behind why calling someone exotic or asking them “what are you?” has its issues, but at the same time, I just can’t personally get myself to feel offended by such comments. And sometimes I feel like there’s  just waaayy too many potentially offensive things in the world to keep track of these days. In fact, even just stating that opinion makes me feel like I’ve probably just offended someone.)

Either way, in the simple fact that for basically my entire childhood, I never remember even thinking about the fact that my parents were different colors, or what my own racial identity was, or wondering where I “belonged” as a kid (for instance, you always hear of people saying they never felt white enough for the white kids or black enough for the black kids)…in that, there was privilege. In the simple freedom to live my life without a thought towards what role race played in my daily interactions or the opportunities I would have later in life, there was immense privilege. Whether that can be labeled “white privilege” or not, I honestly still don’t know…but I think it is irrelevant. Privilege is privilege.

And, when society actually forces you to define yourself, you also begin to realize how completely ridiculous the whole concept of race is in the first place. The first time I ever even used the label “Black or African American” to describe myself was when I applied to colleges, and my parents suggested that I should tick that box. “If Obama is African American, then so are you.” And so it went. From then on, I was suddenly a “black” person by definition. The arbitrariness of race as a category never ceases to amaze me…and yet, as arbitrary as the definitions and labels themselves are, the social implications caused by their mere existence still remain. So for all those who like to argue that race is arbitrary and that by continuing to bring it up as a topic only serves to create tension, they are ignoring the ultimate fact that our imaginary categories of human differences still perpetuate very concrete social and economic divisions. Ignoring race as a whole becomes an excuse to ignore the deeply imbedded inequalities in our social systems.

I think this is the perfect place to end my rant on race. I realize this has been rather long and rambling, and essentially reached no real points or conclusions, but you know what, I think that quite nicely reflects how I feel about the topic as a whole – one big confusing mess of things that don’t really make sense, and yet still need to be said.

The end.

22.

As I still struggle to fully comprehend the fact that I am about to be 23, a number which once seemed so large and mature in my middle school imagination, I also am kind of ready to embrace it. In particular, as I think back to all that has happened in 22 and the countless ways I have grown because of it, I am curious to see what 23 will bring. Before entering this new, slightly daunting age, however, I just want to take one last moment to reflect on some of the important realizations from the past year.

So with that, here are the lessons that 22 taught me:

1. You are stronger than you think.

This one probably took the longest to arrive at and apparently it took getting through depression to actually realize it. I still feel a weird sense of guilt just using the term itself, because I know of people who have suffered from depression their entire lives and it feels like I am somehow claiming the same level of struggle by use of the term. But perhaps my hesitance to state it is partially an effect of the general stigma towards it…I’ve realized I shouldn’t feel guilty or embarrassed to admit to something that was out of my control, and does in fact affect a lot of people at least once in their lives. Mine was short-term (only a few months) and not brought on by any single event or moment, but was basically the scariest thing I’ve ever experienced: the feeling of having lost all control over my own thoughts and emotions.

It’s not just being sad for an extended period of time; it’s having your mind constantly tell you things that are untrue and having some recognition of their absurdity to some extent, but still being unable to stop thinking them and being physically and mentally affected by them on a daily basis. It’s becoming so out of touch with reality (about yourself and about how other’s see you) that you don’t realize how irrational your thoughts are until you’ve managed to finally snap out of the depressive state. The worst moment I can remember was just simply coming to understand what it meant to feel hopeless (while at the same time guilty for feeling that way because I knew I had no real reason to be sad about anything). I can vividly recall the day I had gone into my friend’s room, who was usually the one person that could actually make me feel better when something was bothering me, and she happened to also be going through something at the time. As we just laid there, each trying to comfort the other with words of reason, neither really getting through to the other, I suddenly realized that no matter what she told me, and no matter how much I wanted to believe it all, I just couldn’t. I finally just stopped trying and stared silently at the ceiling as I wondered to myself if I’d ever be able to just feel happy again.

This all sounds so melodramatic and ridiculous as I write it out now, but that is truly how I felt at the time and I think that is what makes it so scary. For me, it was almost as if I was just an entirely different person when I look back at the way I felt during that time and how I possibly could have thought and believed the things I did. But from having been in that state and comparing it to where I am and how I feel now, it is impossible to not feel as though I have become at least a little stronger because of it. I still have a billion doubts about myself, as do many people, but having come out of something that I literally thought was impossible a year ago, and now having the ability to look back and see the good that came out of the bad, it also makes me feel slightly more assured in my ability to overcome whatever other challenges I might face in the future. At the same time, by attributing feeling stronger to overcoming a period of depression, I want to be sure not to imply that depression is in any way a sign of weakness, and I know that so many people suffer through it their entire lives and it is out of their control to ever fully come out of it. I just mean that everyone has challenges they will overcome in their life, whatever they may be, and the great thing are those times when you can clearly see the positive aspects that came out of things that were terrible.

2. There are some things in life that are out of your control.

I think this was the hardest lesson I learned this year – especially as it pertains to friendships. Before last year, I had always thought that if a friendship ends, it is because people gradually grew apart with distance and time, or because of a fight in which someone hurt the other. As much as people had told me of their experiences with friendships ending just as a natural part of adulthood and people changing, I still never believed that things really worked that way. Depression just adds a whole new level of complexity to the reality of people growing apart. When you yourself are not even sure what is going on with you and why your are feeling the way you are, it is inevitable that other people may not necessarily understand it either. I don’t mean to say that a person can’t be supportive even when they can’t relate, but just that there are some times when the divide becomes too big and neither one really gets the other anymore.

In sum, I basically lost a a friendship I valued as a result of this divide. And the hardest part of it all was coming to terms with the fact that it wasn’t anyone’s fault. Our life experiences shape who we are and how we think, and sometimes you just come to a point where you realize you no longer are on the same page with someone you used to be close to. Sometimes, there is nothing you can do to make a person understand where you’re coming from, and sometimes, in rare cases, the only thing you can do is accept it and move on.

In any case, the experience has taught me an extremely valuable lesson in love and forgiveness. There is a Baha’i quote that says: “Recognize your enemies as friends, and consider those who wish you evil as the wishers of good. You must not see evil as evil and then compromise with your opinion, for to treat in a smooth, kindly way one whom you consider evil or an enemy is hypocrisy, and this is not worthy or allowable. You must consider your enemies as your friends, look upon your evil-wishers as your well-wishers and treat them accordingly. Act in such a way that your heart may be free from hatred. Let not your heart be offended with anyone. If some one commits an error and wrong toward you, you must instantly forgive him.”

Although I would obviously never go so far as to call anyone my enemy, this quote still so beautifully describes what it truly is to forgive….just in any situation where you are hurt by another person, whether intentionally or not. Forgiveness isn’t simply letting go of what happened, but actually loving the other person regardless and considering them as a friend irrespective of how they see or treat you. It is easy to tell yourself that you’ve forgiven someone, and even fool yourself into believing that you have, but you soon come to realize that you haven’t truly forgiven until you can draw that person to mind and wish nothing but the best for them.

3. Always appreciate your friends.

Although difficult life experiences like depression can sometimes lead to people growing apart, it also can make you realize just how amazing the people in your life are. I can’t even properly express how much appreciation and awe I have for my friends…from the friend who I always knew had my back, but never could have imagined the amount of patience and love that could be exhibited by any single person, to the friend who never showed much emotion but with a few simple, straightforward words, somehow made me aware of the thousands of different ways that people can show they care, to the friends who didn’t even really know what I was going through at the time but simply reminded me of the fact that so many amazing people exist in the world and that in itself is something to be happy about. And then there are the new friends I made later in the year, and whose friendships I am almost equally grateful for — for those new friendships helped me to stop worrying so much about the fact that as we leave college and go our billion different ways, it is impossible to maintain every single friendship we had in college. It reminded me that no matter where you end up in the world, there will never be a shortage of amazing people and the potential for new amazing friendships.

4. Passion is vital.

One of the defining characteristics of my general state of mind during the depression was a general lack of passion for anything — or, more accurately, a lack of ability to properly feel the sense of passion and excitement for the things I knew I should feel passionate about. When I finally discovered I had gotten the fellowship I had wanted more than anything in the world, for instance, I cried. Not out of happiness, but out of frustration for the fact that I didn’t feel happy for the thing I had yearned for for months, the thing that used to keep me awake at night sometimes just out of pure excitement as I imagined how incredible and perfect it would be if I actually got it.

I think it also had something to do with the college bubble I was still in, which made it harder to really think beyond my current surroundings and remember all the things that mattered. It wasn’t really until the fellowship orientation that I was able to finally absorb what it was that I would be embarking on, and remember why I was so passionate about it in the first place. Even in simply meeting the other fellows, and being so inspired by the passion in each one of them, I couldn’t help but feel moved. I almost think that orientation was the turning point for me to finally snap out of whatever was keeping me depressed. There’s just something about being able to feel passion for something relating to the betterment of others that allows you to focus less on yourself and your own limitations.

5. Never underestimate the value of a compliment.

I know this doesn’t sound as big as some of the other lessons, but having felt the significant impact from such a lesson myself this year, I just want it to be something I remember and make use of in the coming years. Perhaps it was the specific context and the state of mind I happened to be in at the time, but I  still can’t believe just how big a difference a compliment can make.  Even as I recall it now, it sounds so simple and meaningless, but a girl I had met at orientation at one point said to me, in a really sincere manner, that she thought I was a funny and candid person. Honestly, in any other situation, this might have just been like any other casual fleeting compliment, in which it is thanked and forgotten as soon as the moment passes, but in this moment, a moment that came after months spent in a delusional state basically hating myself for how boring and worthless I was, the simple words of a new friend acknowledging something positive about me was like a sudden jolt of realization that made me start to question everything I had been telling myself for quite some time.

I realize that not every compliment you give someone will have such a significant effect on them and it is all completely contextual, but you really never know how much your sincere compliment might mean to someone at any particular time, so why not take advantage of all the opportunities you have to let someone know the good that you see in them.

6. There is truly no greater source of happiness than bringing happiness to others.

And finally, a lesson I feel like I continue to learn again and again, on new and deeper levels each time. I think the best way to sum this one up is with another Baha’i quote that I love:

“Be not the slave of your moods, but their master. But if you are so angry, so depressed and so sore that your spirit cannot find deliverance and peace even in prayer, then quickly go and give some pleasure to someone lowly or sorrowful, or to a guilty or innocent sufferer! Sacrifice yourself, your talent, your time, your rest to another, to one who has to bear a heavier load than you — and your unhappy mood will dissolve into a blessed, contented submission to God.”

When all of your thoughts are focused on others, you begin to simply become forgetful of self. And when  you aren’t thinking about yourself, there’s also less chances to put yourself down or focus on all the negative things that might otherwise absorb your thoughts. Trying to rationalize yourself into happiness when you’re feeling any kind of negative emotion typically ends in failure because every person has faults, and it’s easy for anyone to get caught up in these faults when your thoughts are focused inwardly. But when your only aim and desire is to make someone else happy, you can’t help but feel a sense of joy in the mere fact that you are capable of doing something good for someone else. In that, there is peace.

So there it is. 6 lessons that 22 taught me. I apologize for the fact that this long post was so me-centric while ironically talking about how important it is to not think about myself, but more than anything, I just wanted to write these thoughts out and remember them as I embark on 23. For a while, I thought the best way to move forward was to forget the bad moments of the past and just make the most of the future, but with time, I’ve realized that every moment of 22 was crucial to the things I now know, and for that, I wouldn’t have changed a thing.

…and since this whole post was all cheesy and reflective, I might as well follow it up with some cheesy sunset photos from my recent trip to Cape Town…

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Sketchy Border Crossings, Good Company, and Mini Revelations

This weekend I ventured to Livingstone, Zambia (home of Victoria Falls, one of the seven natural wonders of the world) with a couple other Piaf fellows for a little Southern Africa regional meetup. Amusingly enough, the time it took to travel there was about the same as the time we actually spent there. Some of the fellows and I drove down to Gaborone, Botswana from Joburg, and from there joined the Gaborone fellows on a 13 hour bus ride the rest of the way to Livingstone. My favorite part of it all was arriving at the Zambian border. Our bus was originally supposed to take us all the way to Livingstone but informed us at the last minute that it wouldn’t be going into Zambia due to riots in Lusaka or something, so instead, we get dropped off at the border. After 13 hours of quality time spent basically on top of our seat-mates and woken up periodically throughout the night from the bus honking loudly to scare the goats, donkeys, or cows of the road, or swerving suddenly to avoid hitting a cow right in the middle of the road (pretty sure we almost died at the moment), we groggily stumbled off the bus at 10 am and headed towards the ill-marked little office to get our visas stamped out of Botswana.  With grey skies and light downpour outside to complement the setting, we continued down a road hoping to find the Zambian border control and another bus to take us the rest of the way (as our bus basically decided to abandon us with no further guidance), and eventually came to a dead end where the road was cut off by a river. Turns out you have to take a ferry across to get to the border. After warding off several men trying to convince us to exchange money to pay the fee of boarding the ferry (yeah, they were lying), we got onto the plank of floating steel next to the trucks that loaded before us and finally made it to the other side where we then had to pay a $50 fee for the Zambian visa. With pockets full of dollars, kwachas, pula, and rand, whose conversion rates all started to blend together in my mind by the time we made it to the border (which only accepted dollars and pounds for some reason), it took quite some time to sort out all of our payments without giving in to the shady money exchange dealers swarming around us outside the door trying to rip us off in our moment of desperation. …I guess there’s not really much point to this story other than the amusing sketchiness of it all…I’ve never come closer to feeling like I was engaging in some kind of illegal border-crossing activity without actually doing anything wrong.

Rather than share the details of what we actually did in Livingstone, though (basically, just the normal touristy things one does in Livingstone), I feel compelled to share some of the mini revelations I’ve had over the course of these past few days, mainly from the discussions I’ve had with the other fellows and their personal experiences in their respective organizations and countries. After having now left the others and continued on to Lusaka on my own for a 2 day work-trip at the country office we have here, I think I’ve had some time for their words to settle more. In particular, the other night we talked about unexpected challenges vs. expectations that we had in the 3 or 4 months we’ve been here now. Throughout everyone’s response was some link to race dynamics, expat behavior towards locals, and combatting stereotypes towards Africa. In my own time in Joburg, I also saw the presence of these issues, but typically interpreted them with a critical, interested eye rather than feeling them as personal challenges to face on a daily basis. Perhaps it’s that I’ve created somewhat of a sheltered life for myself in Joburg with the people I’ve befriended and the places I spend the majority of my time, such that I don’t necessarily encounter all the incidences of racism or stereotypes and skewed perspectives between different cultural groups that I know is so common. I jokingly expressed to the group that there must be something wrong with me for not getting more offended by things that I know should be offending me; I still don’t know if it’s linked to my belief in the eventual establishment of unity on earth that leads me to not internalize all of the issues around me to such a strong degree or if it’s that I’m really not as critical as I should be of things that are so evident and horrible.

From this weekend and I think mostly as a result of hearing the experiences of the other fellows on these matters, I feel like some feelings have finally come to the surface though and made me realize that I am actually troubled by a lot of what I’ve encountered and there are some pretty messed up things that should evoke some kind of emotional response. One thing I’ve realized throughout all of this is that wealth makes me uncomfortable. And particularly in the cities where poverty is literally right beside it. While huge economic disparities would obviously bother most people who are able to see it so drastically displayed and is not something I just now have reflected on, it’s more that I keep finding myself in positions that feel hypocritical in a way. For instance, I just entered Lusaka a few hours ago, where I was picked up by a hotel shuttle bus filled with several business-looking older white men, and was taken to a hotel that costs over $100 a night, which is more than I think I’ve ever paid for a hotel. Perhaps part of my discomfort is due to guilt and pressure at the fact that I am here for these 2 days to basically create some visibility material on some of our operations in Zambia and hopefully write some success stories for our reports, which donors will see. While my bosses have not placed much pressure on me for this mission, and have been encouraging in my being able to go to the field (as was agreed upon as one of the terms of my fellowship), it’s mainly the fact that such a ridiculous large amount of money is going towards my mere 2 days of coming here to write some stories. I realize that the UN has plenty of money and is not going to lose it’s ability to feed more people due to the cost of my little trip, but I just hope that the end results of it are worth the cost for the organization.

More than that though, being here just makes me think about what it would actually be like to continue working in the field of international development, and particularly for a big multilateral organization that does pay for it’s officers to go on missions to impoverished countries and stay in nice hotels. It’s not that I necessarily see a problem with providing enough funding for employees to stay in comfortable hotels when they travel, and in fact, for many of them, I think it is important that the UN does provide such logistic arrangements in light of the difficulty of the work a lot of them do and especially the challenges they face in having to constantly move their families around or live in difficult environments. What bothers me is more related to perceptions and stereotypes that play into these kinds of accommodations – both those of the local people towards international development workers or expats and of expats towards locals. To a large extent, it just feels like my staying in this hotel or the groups of expats that stick together for the most part rather than befriending the local people (as seemed the case in Livingstone) just contribute to the divides and stereotypes that hinder the effectiveness of the work itself.

And within this context, I’ve found myself extremely resistant to being pushed into the stereotypes of expats or aid workers or Americans or even white people (despite not even being completely white), while at the same time engaging in things that essentially further these views. One of the most common stereotypes of Americans that I’ve heard many times is that all Americans are rich. You should see the surprise on people’s faces here when they learn that I’ve never owned a smartphone. And now, despite being a deeply indebted recent graduate with only a basic living stipend for the year, it feels weird and hypocritical to be staying in a fancy hotel or living in one of the wealthier (and whiter) areas of Joburg or being able to travel around Africa or simply saying that I work for the UN and having people comment on the high salaries that UN workers make. And the thing about a lot of these stereotypes that bothers me the most is when they are actually perceived in a positive manner —  the biggest, for instance, is the superiority that seems afforded to white people in a lot of places. One always thinks of racism in terms of someone oppressing someone else, but less often do people talk about the psychological effects that remain among the oppressed (something that Stephen Biko focused on with his Black Consciousness Movement in South Africa). This could not have been more apparent than when I had gone to a soccer game in Soweto, one of the townships in Joburg where the population is mostly black, and when my white friends where approached by tons of local soccer fans asking for pictures to be taken with them. One person even asked one of the girls to kiss their baby. It was literally like they were celebrities for no other reason than their skin color.

It still blows my mind that apartheid only ended less than 20 years ago and that so many people here literally lived in a time when racism was a key component of the country’s basic institutions and legal system. Change takes time, and changing laws won’t immediately change mindsets and attitudes that have been around for so long, and I’m starting to see more and more just how deep these attitudes go.

There’s so much more I want to say on the topic of race but I’ll save it for another post cuz I also want to mention the other mini revelation that has come about from these recent travels, and that is, my own stereotypes of Africa. Again, more instances of hypocrisy I keep uncomfortably finding myself in. Especially after just talking about the importance of people seeing Africa for what it is (a diverse continent) in my last post, I keep realizing just how much western media shapes our perceptions of places in Africa and how much it’s even influenced my own. Despite working in Joburg and acknowledging how different every single country is from each other, in the back of my mind I still had some preconceptions of what other countries would look like. For whatever reason, I still held on to the assumption that outside of South Africa, cities in Botswana or Zambia would look more like ones I lived in in Madagascar as opposed to Joburg. Low and behold, Botswana and Lusaka have tons of similarities to Joburg, and contain just as much economic diversity. As much as I hate all of the exoticized notions of Africa, which make it out to be a place that’s either war-torn and poor or full of beautiful landscapes with wild animals, my expectations seemed to conform to these views in a lot of ways when I found myself surprised at the relatable city settings before me. I don’t mean to imply that these places were exactly like Joburg or Chicago or any other city, but just that they were not some extreme polar opposite to what one would find in the U.S. either. It is the side of Africa that tourism agencies never promote and international media never cover, and yet it is what I think is one of the most important aspects for people to see. It’s not like the West doesn’t engage in the affairs of Africa in significant ways, and if it’s going to continue to do so, it only makes sense for the general population to have access to a better understanding of all the intricate facets that make up each country, and not just the natural disasters or political instability or death tolls due to starvation or fighting in various regions. The kind of coverage that dominates media now basically furthers the sense of “otherness” towards Africa as a whole, leading to skewed understandings of its people and forming the basis for the ways in which many Western countries often try to intervene.

In sum, I’ve become more uncomfortable with more things, and I think it’s a good thing.