27 July 2008

We live as we dream, alone.

I came across this famous sentence of Conrad's in his Heart of Darkness when I was in my late teens. It gave me a profound and painful shock, so long-lasting that I am still juggling and struggling with it emotionally in my thirties. This time, the thought is giving me a whole new ground from which to look at my life and reclaim what I have so far experienced as troublesome destiny.

We often pick up interesting thoughts that are floating around us. Some come from our parents, other from peers, books and various media. Thoughts anchor themselves deep in our psychological landscape without asking for permission. We make a perfect host for them, and no matter how interesting, deep, and philosophical they may sound, many of them cause us inexplicable anguish. Take the 19-year-old me: I embraced this Conrad’s thought with ovation only to be able to justify my adolescent suffering about not fitting in with my self-centred and pretentious social surroundings. The reality, of course, was that I didn’t fit in, just as much as anybody who has grown out of the herd mentality doesn’t fit in. So, instead of looking for fresh pastures, I dressed my social wounds with the intoxicating depth of Conrad’s mind, whilst staying with the same group of horses whose unsavoury name was ‘The Bambus Clan’ – bunch of high school girls who called themselves after a drink bambus, a deadly combination of coke and cheap red wine that sent us unconscious and sick every Saturday night.

I would have done anything to smoothly fit in with the constitution of the Bambus Clan – anything but not care if I did fit or not. So I tossed them the Conrad’s thought, knowing how much they valued suffering as one of the ‘coolest’ things a teenager can do. They praised me for being so meaningful, for giving them the expression of their otherwise inexpressible pain and alienation. They used Conrad’s idea as a means of social cohesion – they wallowed together in the realization that understanding between people is utterly impossible. We would go out together and drink more bambus to ease the pain and secure the bond. I wallowed in the same realization a bit more than them, which made me understand that I will never be able to fit in with another social group. I finally managed to scare myself to death by believing that alienation, separation and coldness are closing in on us and that this was all we could hope for in the life to come.

I wrote a book about love which I called Absence and I dedicated the first story to Joseph Conrad. I thought there is really nothing to talk about in terms of love but how much it sucks when love is not around. And though I plodded through 200 pages grieving and morning the human condition, the inability of two people to be joined as one, I already sensed that this heartache might be caused by our own deceiving minds. I wrote in the opening of the book: Absence has less to do with the lack of the Other and more to do with our own disposition. I understood then that I am not suffering because of reality itself – which is that people are separate, individual beings who come together to try and share their lives – but because I have been convinced that this was a tragic and dismal destiny of our kind.

Since then, there have been other, exaggerated, variations of experiencing separateness as an apocalyptic state of existence. After leaving Croatia, the ‘fear of being alone’ has mutated into the ‘fear of being alone in England’ – don’t ask me by which logic, but I was convinced that, if I went back to Zagreb, I would never feel alone again. I tried reminding myself how I used to hate Zagreb for its unfriendliness and aloofness; how I would roam empty and neglected leafy paths on Sundays, grumbling about lazy Croats because nobody wanted to join me. They all preferred their family barbecues. Yet, from my London perspective, empty streets of Zagreb looked pleasingly lively.

I noticed something positive about these illogical mind twists that I played on myself. I noticed that a thought that is skimming my troubled mind is the very source of my heartache. First I think We live as we dream, alone. Then I say, oh, gosh, being alone is the most horrible thing that can befall the human kind, then I continue, people are all doomed because we will never be able to understand one another and we will live and die in our isolation, and it goes on and on until I notice that my whole body is tense, my teeth are clenched, the palms of my hands are sweaty and my stomach is slowly being corroded by its own juices.

Recently, I tried changing the course of my train of thoughts. I started with aloneness and I thought, it’s good to be alone because it gives me plenty of time to write. If I can’t understand myself, I will never be able to pour myself into words, and I can say goodbye to the hope of being understood by others. Hey, why do I need others to understand me? A-ha, here was the voice that changed the meaning of Conrad’s words for me so that I slowly lost the tension from my unnerved body. The more I tried to understand my own experience of the world, the less I needed others to validate and approve of how I felt. The communication and unity with the Other started to take place within me and as part of my daily experience of just living with myself. Conrad’s words are now even truer than before, even more beautiful than ever, yet their meaning has changed for me. Whatever seemed like an inherent lack within people has now become our biggest strength. Just think, being alone in your own experience of the world means that you are the master of your house. You get visitors, and if they are well-intentioned, you let them in to wine and dine together. But if they are mean, jealous, fowl-mouthed road bandits, you know how to keep your gate closed. You will never again come back home to find your house marauded by such specimens.

What I mean is that too often our whole lives depend on how other people treat us and how life circumstances arrange themselves around us. Knowing that you alone are the master of how you experience these outside forces is a source of strength and not, what I used to think, a pitiable and tragic human fault. These days I need little or no understanding from others. Understanding myself and how I sail through life is such a grand task that it leaves me no time to fret about whether anyone will think what I do is any good. Once I’ve felt that strong favourable wind in my sails, there is no looking back to see if anyone is waving their white handkerchief.