This post is predicated on two contradictions. For one, I know we destroy silence by naming it, but I want to explain my own, so as to mitigate any harm I might have caused by withdrawing from so much, and so many, in the last few months. For another, though, I am working to be more silent precisely because I recognize how childish it has been of me to strive to be understood, and to be frustrated when I am not–and yet, here I am, trying to explain myself. This post is a blatant exercise in cognitive dissonance, but I hope it will help me to avoid more.
The other day, I was reminded of a line from 1984: “Perhaps one did not want to be loved so much as to be understood.” In its original context, our protagonist is being tortured, but in a moment’s reprieve, he feels acutely that the whole interrogation still involves a deeper mutual understanding than is usually possible in his world.
When I hear the line now, I think of the pursuit of “being understood” as one of my greatest vices. I think of all the scenarios in which I have caused harm, to myself and to others, because I could not let go of the desire to have my convictions and behaviours read in the clearest light. I wonder, too, about all the scenarios that I have probably forgotten, in which I caused harm over much the same. I think of all these incidents as so much waste that I can only hope to avoid perpetuating–for how exhausting it is, and how deeply unfair, to expect ever to be understood by anyone, let alone by most everyone in one’s immediate purview.
When I failed last year at something that mattered a great deal to me, I came quickly to resent others for trying to understand that failure on their own terms, in ways that they could correct, and often with counsel that I did not ask for or desire. I was furious with the impetus towards talk that emerged everywhere in the ensuing months, but I was even more frustrated by my own readiness to play into it–and so often, with so many. What I needed was to think, and to be alone, and to act. So why couldn’t I? What left me feeling trapped?
Suffice it to say, I know I hurt or at least estranged many worthy people simply for not knowing how to decline to engage on certain topics. After decades of over-telling, though, silence does not come easily to me. For years, I have relied on social processes of narration–on blogs, on Facebook, in person–to negotiate my feelings, and I know I’ve been cloyingly open at times in consequence. And yet, I also know that some things can’t be talked through. Some simply require acceptance, and change. But when you have been open for so long, how are others to know when you’ve finally given up on that approach–and not out of despair, but for growth?
So–I know that I have been unfair, in expecting folks to understand how much I needed to hurt in private, and how much I needed to decide in private. And I hate how much added harm I have caused in the process, simply for not knowing how best to grieve.
In the last few months, for instance, while overcoming an unexpected eating disorder wrought by loss of appetite and a desire to disappear, I also significantly reduced my social circles, and planned at length how I would start over in a completely different community and field: a field, furthermore, that would compel the shrinking of ego I’ve yet to manage on my own. I also worked on a novel I intended to have finished at the end of April, which would say everything I felt I wanted to say in fiction, and so leave me free to vanish in other ways, too. I also started learning a new language (in part to distract from negative thought-processes in English), and attempted more silence in general to escape the pressure to perform that I put upon myself.
But last week, all these efforts–which varied in both success and coherence–were abrogated by the emergence of employment that guarantees my continued presence in this region for at least another eight months: time enough, that is, that I need to embrace being present in this community, and to focus on making the most of these new opportunities. After all, if I’m going to continue working multiple part-time jobs until at least the end of the year, I should be making the most of the stray pockets of time between them: writing article pitches and short stories, finishing revisions to the novel, supporting other artists in the community, developing new creative ventures, and otherwise asserting that certain kinds of narrative still matter.
So, this is what I will be doing, going forward. I’m sure I will make mistakes–decades-old habits are hard to break–but I will continue trying to minimize my investment in social narratives all the same. I am tired of retelling the story of myself, and in so doing rediscovering how little about me ever really changes. Instead, I will keep teaching myself to rely more on externalized narratives: the story, the book, the article, the lecture, the podcast. All of these new works will still contain a piece of me, but with any luck the piece that they carry will be less exhausting, because I will no longer be appealing directly to be understood. As such, I should be in a better position not to get frustrated, or resentful, or despondent, when I inevitably am not.
I’m sure this will sound cold to some, and maybe even unhealthy. Who are we if not the people we are among others–whether online or in person, at work or in play?
And yet, I am fairly confident that I will only be a better friend, colleague, teacher, and general community ally the more I learn to keep personal expectations low, ego in check, and a judicious, attentive silence at the fore of all interactions. With any luck, my stories will improve, too, in becoming the main outlet for my desire to communicate.
In short: I’m not disappearing entirely–but neither am I looking to return to old routines. I look forward to following word of other lives, and doing more to promote other people’s creativity on social media–but if I succeed in changing my outlook into something less toxic for myself and others, then my professional output–about the world, and about my fellow human beings within it–should suffice to convey who and where I am.
Much love in the meantime–and apologies, too, for any hurt or confusion my withdrawal has caused. May you find every success in the work and years to come.