Nonexistent Lines

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

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

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

dsc08173

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

dsc07903

Another Rant About Life Decisions

You know when you’re struggling to make a big decision and you ask people for advice and they give you something along the lines of “trust your intuition”? Well, I’m convinced that some of us just don’t have this ‘intuition’ thing. And I am one of them. And here is the evidence:

The evolution of my grad school-related thoughts & ‘decisions’ over the course of a week:

Friday – Livin my life, no thoughts of grad school (still in the mindset that grad school would be a thing I’d deal with after I’d worked another year…a conclusion I’d settled firmly on several months ago).

Saturday – Someone mentions grad school. I start to question all my life plans. Start considering doing some last-minute applications to schools I thought of applying to before, like Sciences Po.

Sunday – End up talking to someone that went to Sciences Po and didn’t speak super highly of it. Decide in that instant that I would no longer apply to Sciences Po (which previously seemed like the most rational school to apply to). Realize that maybe I haven’t done enough real research into grad schools and it would be too hasty to just apply to random ones now.

Monday – Ask a colleague at what age she went to grad school. She was 23. Become instilled with horror at the fact that I’ll probably be super old if I wait until 25-26 to go. No one wants to be an oldie amongst youngsters. Frantically research my options for schools that night. Create a list of places to apply after googling ‘best grad schools to apply to’ in my subject. Suddenly remember that I don’t actually have $140,000 lying around (the cost for most of the schools). Hesitantly decide that this is reason enough to not apply at this very moment and that maybe working a bit more is the right thing after all.

Tuesday – Start realizing that a ton of people I know are in grad school or planning on going next year. Wonder what I’m doing with my life again. Start up a frantic search into scholarship options for various grad schools. Realize I’ve already missed a bunch of deadlines for scholarships. Except for Oxford University. Decide to apply to Oxford University (on the well-thought out basis that 1. Oxford sounds nice and 2. I didn’t miss its deadlines).

Wednesday – Ask 2 friends my age whether they planned on applying to grad school this year; they didn’t. Realize (again) that tons of people spend several years working before going to grad school. Start to question whether it is truly necessary for me to go right now. Decide to hold off on applying to Oxford (and the other random places I had settled on applying to mostly due to the fact that only applying to Oxford would be stupid). But then, realize that if I didn’t get a job next year, future-jobless-and-bored-me would be pissed off at present-me for being lazy and not applying to grad school when I had the chance…..

Anyways, the cycle doesn’t conclude, as it is still up in the air. But the moral of the story: I have no intuition when it comes to life plans. ‘Decisions’ for me are essentially gut reactions to the concerns/fears/uncertainties that arise whenever I compare myself to what people around me are doing (which is basically the opposite of intuition).

But besides the fact that I have no decision bone in my body, the other moral of this story is this: that I still haven’t managed to internalize the message I keep telling myself about jobs and grad school and other life-plan-related matters – that it truly doesn’t matter. Not as in making plans and trying to achieve your best and all that good stuff doesn’t matter, but as in, in the end of the day, these are just elements that should be part of a life purpose much bigger than any one plan or success or failure. If I truly believe that my purpose in life is to serve mankind, than how I do it (i.e. what job I have) is a trillion times less important than why I do it. In other words, it all comes down to the question: Who am I ultimately doing this for?

So, in the example of grad school, if the reason I am applying is so that I can work my way up in the career ladder, earn more money, achieve status, or simply just have something to do and not end up unemployed, than am I really working towards my ultimate goal? Or even if I do it because I think it will help put me in a better position to serve mankind, is that really a valid argument when service can take the form of simply loving another person and trying to bring happiness to their lives? And if I do end up jobless or going to grad school late or just completely lost in where I’m going, then couldn’t I still be engaged in something somewhere that is serving others or making some tiny part of the world a better place? And if I can, even if it is not through the methods I had envisioned for myself, then shouldn’t I be content with that?

The answer is yes. But I know I am still a ways away from living my life through such a lens. Especially when I take a deeper look at why the thought of being unemployed fills me with so much consternation. I’ve recently come to realize that this fear I carry – of becoming older, of not having “achieved” enough, of the possibility of being unemployed for any period of time – is extremely telling of how I derive mental stability and contentment. For as much as I’d like to think that I strive to align my life to this idea of service as the basis for everything I do, the fact that the thought of no longer working for the UN or living somewhere interesting brings me fear must mean that my underlying motivations are not as pure as I thought.

Even if my motivation is not to have status or money, the fact of the matter is: working for a prestigious institution inevitably does instill a sense of confidence and self-worth – which becomes all the more apparent following a period of essentially no self-worth. And as much as I know such attitude’s towards oneself should come from ‘within’ and from simply being a good person and doing good things, I haven’t exactly figured out how not to derive this confidence from external factors. So in this context, the fear of being jobless or not going to a fancy grad school is less a fear of not achieving material success, but more a fear of what I will come to think of myself – which inevitably ends up influencing what I am able to do for others. And I worry how much of my current contentment is based in the job I now hold and how much of my mental and emotional stability comes from the title I attach to my name.

Anyways, this is just an articulation of what I’ve noticed recently and how terrible and backwards it is but how, if I am to take a good honest look at my fears and why they exist, it is necessary to acknowledge the warped mindsets that create them in the first place. Hopefully that is at least one step towards changing them. And maybe, diving head-first into a world of joblessness, uncertainty, and ‘failure’ is just what I need to actually start living my life with a mindset wholly grounded in a pure and lofty purpose, and not a self-serving, falsely conceived sense of purpose.