Misplaced Longing

 

What name does one give to the phenomenon of wistful longing for a past event that wasn’t event pleasant, or one that’s not actually in the past yet? Could it still be labeled as nostalgia?

Whether or not the name actually applies, these nostalgia-like feelings seems like ever-present sentiments in every stage of my life. In fact, even though I have terrible memory/usually can’t remember anything from my childhood, I have this one random vivid memory of grappling with nostalgia at an early age. I remember sitting on the school bus in 1st or 2nd grade and being excited about something that day (I can’t remember what) and subsequently having the thought that the state of excitement and happiness felt at that moment was something that the next day or even weeks from that day I would be looking back on with fond remembrance and longing, with nostalgia (obviously not articulated in such a way at the time). I remember then trying really hard for a few moments to just fully soak in the feeling of that moment and the events of that day that I knew would be so fleeting, to somehow hold onto them more deeply before they became things of the past to look back on.

Obviously, it was an impossible endeavor…it has even been said that there is really no such thing as the present moment, insofar as the present is comprised of such tiny fractions of time that our human mind can’t really grasp it. But nonetheless, I wanted to hold onto the present, and in doing so, felt this subtle nagging anxiety for what I knew would quickly be a moment of the past, no matter how much I tried to hold on.

The nagging anxiety to hold onto the present, and ultimately, the past, has followed me around ever since….spreading and taking on new forms and disguises, almost like a disease. It was in one of my college courses that I remember making the ironic discovery that the idea of ‘nostalgia’ actually first emerged in the 19th century being perceived as exactly that: a disease. That is, it was seen and treated (sometimes harshly) as an actual medical illness, a psychopathological disorder. While the idea of nostalgia over time lost this connotation of illness and strayed instead into the realm of romanticism and literature, I think it still regains the same underlying potency to infect a person’s mental and physical well being if not regulated.

This may be a bit of a dramatic take on nostalgia, but just given the all-encompassing nature it seems to play in my own life, particularly as it relates to aging, I think I’ve begun to subconsciously regard it as some kind of disease to be cured. The more I come to realize just how much my aversion to aging has not subsided with each passing year but in fact deepened (made worse by the fact that each year continues to represent an even older age), the more I find the necessity to get at the heart of my nostalgia for youth in particular, whatever ‘youth’ might mean.

It’s not a fear of grey hair and wrinkles, coming more closely to death, or even a fear of failing to reach some preset idea or expectation of what is meant to happen at any specific age. Nor is it that I think that youth is inherently superior to being older, despite the subliminal narrative affirming such a notion in most media these days (particularly for women). Perhaps I can best describe it as an anticipation of the loss of youth itself. And since I realize this description is still barely a description, I’ll borrow the words of another who has reflected on this topic and so uncannily captured exactly how I feel about it in her essay:

“What I miss is the feeling that nothing has started yet, that the future towers over the past, that the present is merely a planning phase for the gleaming architecture that will make up the skyline of the rest of my life.”

Just as the essayist Meghan Daum alludes in her reflection on the subject, I also recognize that such a sentiment is of course a complete romanticization of youth and the excitement attached to such a state, one often overshadowing the real lived experiences that may not have been so pleasant, despite the fact that we had the ‘gleaming architecture’ of the future to placate us at the time. What’s more, I also realize that my misplaced longing for this idealized period of youth that probably never even existed to begin with is made that much more ridiculous by the fact that part of my longing for it is directed at the present moment. The above referenced essay to which I found myself relating so closely describes this nostalgia from the point of view of a middle-aged woman longing for her twenties. And, just as first-grade me felt that day I tried so desperately to hold onto the present, my current nostalgia for youth is almost just as much an anticipatory longing for a past time that has not yet become the past as it is a longing for my actual younger days, particularly in recognizing that I still could consider myself in the midst of youth from the reference point of my older future self.

At the moment, this abstract longing for a nonexistent idealized past and a period of youth in which the future towered over me continues to take on a multitude of unexpected forms. This is perfectly illustrated by the most recent longings for a distinctly-tumultuous-but-rewarding-in-retrospect time of my life: the 7 months I spent living and working in Zimbabwe. They rise and fall, without warning or reason, as a series of flashbacks tinged with pangs of yearning:

An image of running through the row of jacaranda trees that formed a long green canopy down the street next to my house, recalling the way the light pierced through the leaves onto the pavement in beautiful outlines and caught my eyes in flashes as I ran by them; glimpses of beauty which at the time actually felt like rare breaths of fresh air amidst weeks spent mostly behind a computer screen…

A sudden strong craving for the bland meals served at my office canteen…the same $1.50 plate of rice, chicken, greens and butternut I ate nearly every single day at the office, always marveling at my own taste buds for somehow never seeming to tire of the plain, monotonous experience each time….

Some song, image, or smell that jolts me back not into a past time but a past emotion, not so much as a re-experience of the emotion but as if viewed through the eyes of a spectator; a remembering of the emotional states that at specific times became the entire lens through which I experienced my life, though often skewed and limiting in nature…

A feeling of safety and comfort in remembering a Saturday in which the highlight of my day was a run or trip to the grocery store (the few forms of ‘breaks’ I allowed myself for the majority of my time there, always with the heavy weight of unfinished work preventing me from desiring much else by way of breaks); the kind of comfort not grounded in contentment necessarily but in simplicity, and perhaps even lack of choice (or at least a feeling of lack of choice)…

As is probably evident from these descriptions, the majority of these things I feel nostalgic for are nothing remarkable or particularly enjoyable; in fact, many were the opposite of pleasant. And yet, even in having this awareness and surface-y recollection of the unpleasant emotions felt at the time, I continue to reminisce nostalgically over them, to almost unwillingly yearn for them. The thing is, regardless of what my actual daily experience was at the time, I think much of its allure to my present mind is that it was distinctly a period which had a clear transitional and temporary quality to it, a period intended to bestow upon me life lessons and allow me to delve into confusion with the knowledge that the future still lay ahead. I knew that even if it turned out I failed completely at the job and left from it broken and confused, it would ultimately still serve as a time of growth and a jumping point from which to move towards my next life context, whether grad school or a career shift, equipped with the lessons of the last.

And the paradoxical thing about this seemingly comforting knowledge of a future full of possibility, flexibility, and time, is that its comforting qualities rarely seem evident at the time. Only in recalling the period later, once it feels as though less ‘future’ lay ahead, does it feel like something has been lost, and is thus something to long for. Really, it is a yearning not so much for any specific event or experience but for the underlying current of ‘youth’ that characterized all of them. I like the way the essayist Daumer articulates this phenomenon through a fictitious interaction in which her Older Self gives wisdom to her Younger Self, but doesn’t have the heart to tell her about the nostalgia that will be most unbearable later on, to tell her Younger Self that:

“…the CDs you play while you stare out the window and think about the five million different ways your life might go — will be unbearable to listen to in twenty years. They will be unbearable because…they will sound like the lining of your soul. They will take you straight back to the place you were in when you felt that anything could happen at any time, that your life was a huge room with a thousand doors, that your future was not only infinite but also elastic. They will be unbearable because they will remind you that at least half of the things you once planned for your future are now in the past and others got reabsorbed into your imagination before you could even think about acting on them.”

And, at the center of this nostalgic longing is really a romanticization and unfounded worshipping of our younger selves based on the notion that whatever we did in youth represented, as another author puts it, “our highest potentiality at a point before crumbling into the reality of necessary concessions and mediocrities.”

And with this recognition, one might ask oneself, would you really want to go back to that time representative of endless potential, if you had the choice? Or would you opt for the current, inevitably wiser, even if not necessarily more ‘grown up’, version of you? I have a feeling most would go with the latter…and I think I would too if really given such a choice…just in taking stock of what you know you know now that you didn’t know then, even if that knowledge is in many cases characterized by more confusion and uncertainty. That’s probably part of the beauty of aging: not some grand epiphany or stepping over some static line from youth to fully fledged adulthood, but simply a state of deeper knowing – the kind that lends itself to expanded awareness of how much you don’t know and how much there is yet to be known. The kind of knowing that we often taken for granted as we reminisce over our romanticized younger selves.

But with all that said, even my own words on the beauty and gift that is aging do little to quell the continuous nagging nostalgia for the period of ‘youth’ the more I move away from it. The closest conciliation I’ve found of late is in the recognition that I’m not alone in my paradoxical romanticization of and nostalgia for the experiences of my younger self. There is always comfort in knowing that your own irrational responses are not unique to you but something deeply human and, in that, a unifying experience. So, in the absence of any satisfying conclusions, I’ll instead share some further reflections from others who have felt the same and articulated my own sentiments much better than I could have: https://www.brainpickings.org/2014/12/09/meghan-daum-unspeakable/

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.

 

Youth Can Move the World (but like, actually)

Two weeks ago I spent three inspiring, exhausting, chilly Spring days in dust-filled tents cozily squeezed in beside  over 1,000 other youth between the ages of 15 and 30 who came from all over parts of South Africa, Mozambique, Swaziland, and Seychelles for no other purpose than to discuss how to make the world a better place. Daunted by how to even describe the full power of such an event in a blog post afterwards (and further postponed by getting sick after the conference and having little desire to do anything but sit in my bed and watch Friends for a week), I’ve finally decided to at least attempt to convey a tiny glimpse into the amazingness that was the Johannesburg Baha’i Youth Conference. To keep it simple, I’ve decided to present the reasons for its amazingness in list form:

Reason #1: Unity

This one is probably the single most incredible underlying factor in everything we did at the conference, including the existence of the conference itself. As I think I mentioned in my previous post, this conference was one of 114 youth conferences that have happened/are happening all over the word all for the same exact purpose of figuring out how as youth we can best render service to mankind and learn how to better support each other in our community-building activities. It was a historic event in many ways, as it is the first time the Universal House of Justice, the governing body of the Baha’is that provides guidance to Baha’i communities globally, has called for such conferences to take place around the world specifically focusing on youth. Likewise, the immensely positive response to the Universal House of Justice, in which tens of thousands of youth, Baha’i and otherwise, have gathered together in their respective parts of the globe reveals the vast scope of the occasion. From big, well-known cities like Chicago and Paris to far-off, less well-known ones like Port Moresby,Papua New Guinea and Antananarivo, Madagascar, it is incredible to fathom that the youth in every single one of these places came together as a result of the same set of guidance from the Universal House of Justice in Israel, inspired by one common vision of service to humanity, all to discuss similar themes and help each other in going on to transform their words into actions. Sitting among the diverse group of youth at the Johannesburg conference, I couldn’t help but feel inspired not only by the energetic group of people around me, but also by the ever-present thought in the back of my mind of the even wider family of youth I knew were joining us in every other corner of the globe.

Reason #2: Diversity

obligatory spontaneous jam sesh

the [stereotypical but necessary] spontaneous jam sesh

I know I just kind of implied this one with the unity stuff, but I don’t just mean diversity in a geographical or cultural sense (although, making new friends from Saudi Arabia, Australia, Italy, South Africa, and Swaziland all in one weekend was pretty awesome), but also in terms of people’s lifestyles and even economic background.  People always talk about the evident segregation that often exists between racial groups whether in the U.S. or here in South Africa, but I feel like an equally common form of segregation that is less often discussed are those based on different economic circumstances. Especially in Joburg, where crime is a huge issue and the most dangerous areas also tend to be the least economically well-off ones, the divide becomes even deeper when people remain confined to their nice, gated communities. The thing I liked about the conference was that some youth had a lot of money, some had barely any, and none of this seemed to matter in any way. It was just another opportunity to learn from people’s experiences and gain a better awareness of the different kinds of struggles people have had to face in their lives.

Reason #3: Hope

This is a big one. I don’t know about you, but I can’t even describe the number of times I’ve had people say to me, “Why bother trying to make the world a better place. No matter how much you try to fix things, in the end, people just suck and nothing will really change. There will always be war. There will always be hatred. You can never have world peace and a unified world. All you can do is make the most of your own life and do what’s best for you.” (okay, this is a compilation of what people have said. No one has said all of this at once, but you get the point.) Not to mention the interesting reaction I often encounter when describing the Baha’i Faith to people and its central purpose of unifying mankind: “Is it a hippy religion?” ….What is it about the prospect of a unified world in the future that is so unimaginable to people? Okay, I mean I guess looking at the current state of things, I could understand people’s pessimism, but I think if people actually took a second to look at the seeds of unity and change that have taken root all over the world, and particularly in the mindsets and actions of today’s youth, it would be impossible to ignore the vast potential there. That is why an event like this conference is so important. I wish that every single person with an ounce of pessimism in their hearts and vision of doubt about the good in the world in their minds could have witnessed this incredible gathering of youth. I wish they could have seen all of the high-school aged youth, even the ones in their beanies and skinny jeans and ‘yeah, I’m cool cuz I rap and wear sunglasses at night’-facades (I particularly enjoyed the rapper kid who came up to me to complement me on my American accent and inquire into how he can get one), voluntarily spending their weekend studying passages about service and making plans to teach children and start groups for younger youth in their communities. These same youth, who much of our society still glances at and brushes off as materialistic, apathetic, and self-centered beings, are capable of initiating so much change in the world when simply given a bit of direction and encouragement.

And I wish everyone could have witnessed those beautiful moments in the tents when, filled to capacity with youth of all ages and colors, they would fill with the sound of a thousand voices in any number of accents proclaiming their joy for life through a Zulu or Portuguese or English song about the oneness of mankind against the backdrop of pounding drums and clapping hands, accompanied by swaying hips and a contagious energy that manifested itself in vibrant dancing.  If anyone with doubts about the possibility of a future global civilization characterized by love and unity felt the spirit in those tents at such moments and gazed upon the sea of youthful faces  expressing such joy, I guarantee, at least for that moment, that their doubts would be dispelled. And, in their place, a new sentiment would take hold – one powerful enough to inspire them to think beyond their own limitations and feel compelled to join in the efforts towards the creation of such a world civilization: hope.

IMG_9777

Reason #4: The Power of Youth

And of course, as a final amazingness reason, I cannot fail to mention the one that was kind of the central theme of the entire conference: youth. So many people talk about how important “the youth” are and how they are “our future” and how it is so important to educate them and guide them on the right path and all that other good stuff, which is all completely good and true, but how often does society actually look to the youth themselves for guidance? (and I apologize for my use of the word ‘society’ btw…I realize it’s an awful vague and cliché term that doesn’t really mean anything in itself but I can’t think of a better one at the moment). Like really, think of all the obnoxious jokes that go around about the “millennials” for instance and how lazy and privileged they are. I know that most people don’t actually subscribe to such ridiculous generalizations that attempt to characterize and pass judgement on an entire generation of people, but nonetheless, such stereotypes about today’s youth still seem to influence a lot of the way we’re treated (in school, in the workplace, in general). One thing that is so inspiring to me as a Baha’i is the absolutely vital and central role that youth play in the progress of the Faith, and really, in the progress of mankind. One of the central figures of the Baha’i Faith, the Báb (who foretold the coming of the founder, Baha’u’llah) was in fact only twenty five when He delivered his message to the world. Countless other youth became some of the first Baha’is and even sacrificed their lives alongside the Báb all to spread His teachings. They were the ones who enabled the Baha’i Faith to become the amazing and ever-growing world religion that it is today, and it is their example of courage and certitude and sacrifice that lends inspiration to the role of youth in the Faith today.

a game that symbolized something about mutual support

a game that symbolized something about mutual support

A lot of the conference was spent talking about the fact that as youth, we have a special capacity to serve that we may not have at other points in life: we’re at a period where we aren’t necessarily tied down by family or work obligations and don’t have a specific path ahead of us, which in many ways gives us a lot of freedom to devote our thoughts and time towards serving mankind. Another point of discussion, though, was the caution we must take in not having a fragmented approach to life in which we create false choices between things like serving and studying or serving and working — rather, by viewing everything we do in life as an opportunity to provide service to someone, all of our actions naturally become part of our overall efforts towards building a better world. We also have great potential to influence younger youth simply by nature of being older youth. As such, it is imperative that we take hold of this opportunity to work with junior youth and children in our communities to prepare them for lives of service and assist them in their moral and spiritual development.

So, not to go on and on about everything we discussed at the conference, but basically, youth are powerful. Not just powerful in the sense that we can do good things in the world, but powerful in the sense that we are absolutely vital to its transformation. In a sense, it is absolutely terrifying how much power we have — for it implies a huge responsibility and sense of urgency to take action and make the most of this fleeting period of our lives. But, bearing in mind the collective action and unified vision that such a task requires, and realizing the mutual support that comes from the global community of youth working towards the same goals, it is mostly just inspiring.