[Part 3 of the Autobiographical Sequence]
[1 – Earliest Memories]
[2 – Birth of Venus]
[3 – Playground Dynamics]
I am in the southern playground of Hawthorne Elementary school — an open, cement-paved square.
There’s a group of kids playing together by the monkey bars.
I’m off to one side. My thoughts swing uselessly between these two poles:
- How do I join them?
- How do I hide myself?
- They’re occupying the playground equipment…
to use it, I’d have to figure out how to approach them… which is what I’m failing to do…
…but without playground equipment, there’s nothing around to make me look busy.
I’m just standing here, by myself, in clear view… doing nothing.
…do I go hide behind the bungalows? That seems a bit much; I’m not being bullied or anything…
- They’re occupying the playground equipment…
When I get back home that evening I tell my mother about what happened.
She tells me I should just forget about them and play by myself. Eventually, I’ll start having fun… at which point, the other kids will notice and want to join in.
…she was entirely right, of course.
…but what a weight, to be told the right answer so early!
From that point on, I knew explicitly what it was I was failing to do!
So that’s the first thing revealed here: you crave something, but the pressure and intensity of the craving is pushing it away. So you have to learn to stop wanting the thing you want so you can get the thing you want.
But we already covered that basic conundrum in the last post, so we won’t discuss it any further here.
What I’ll point out instead is this.
There’s a 20th Century Indian holy man known as Rajneesh or Osho.
The German intellectual Peter Sloterdijk called him “the Wittgenstein of religions” — and, as should be apparent from that epithet, he basically said all the right things (save for his critique of socialism).
He stressed the inadequacy of any static belief systems, relied largely on humour and contradictions to jog his audience into the right understanding, picked freely from the world’s religious heritage, and explained that he wasn’t to be worshipped — he was just a catalyst for others’ spiritual growth. You know — another peddler of “non-dogmatic, religion-less religion”.
Near the end of his life, he gave a talk in which he said:
“I never really wanted to be a guru. The people I encountered were looking for a guru, and so that’s what I became. But what I really wanted all along was not followers… but friends.”
And that’s the last time I ever listened to him.
I’d sort of grudgingly overlooked my distaste up to that point, putting it down to my own jealousy at his popularity — but the insincerity of that comment collided too precisely with my sorest point of pain.
Because it’s just fucking bullshit.
You don’t accidentally fall into getting a bunch of wealthy donors to give you large sums of money to set up mega-ashrams with tens of thousands of followers, which are then surrounded by allegations of sexual exploitation and slave labour.
And, see — I knew from the beginning that what I wanted was friends… and I’ve stuck to it.
There’s been a barrier of nausea preventing me from engaging in his attention-seeking and self-promotion and manipulation… and all I’ve gotten in exchange is a frigid trophy of integrity, which I polish as I lie awake alone at night.
…so that’s the first thing.
I have the occasional fantasy of fame, like many people — but as far as my actions are concerned, I have consistently acted to find a few friends I can enjoy spending my limited time with.
A couple of years have passed.
Many attempts have been made to integrate myself into different social cliques.
This latest one has again gone awry, and I have ended up in Ms. McDonald’s classroom during recess with three other boys.
She asks them why they had been excluding me during the play break between classes.
They say a few variations on the basic theme, but the one that stuck is:
He keeps being sarcastic.
The go-to word to justify exclusion at this point in time was “annoying”. Many Millennials are still traumatized by that word. Because it became so fraught, by the euphemism treadmill, these kids arrived at “sarcastic”.
But the basic phenomenon is the same:
In order to avoid just holding back forever, I would force myself to try and engage with what they were doing, but my words and energy would come out abrasively, and things would eventually go sour.
And here’s the central insight.
For years, the story I told myself was that I was, indeed, annoying.
Annoyingness was a quality I had in me, which I had to be on constant look-out to suppress or modify.
In time, I realized that the fundamental problem was not that I was annoying…
…but that I was annoyed.
Being isolated, separated from the other kids, was unpleasant, and so I would seek them out.
But then I would finally make my way into their company…only to find that that was unpleasant too.
On the surface level, that’s because I just didn’t like how they were acting or what they were saying. And I gave myself a lot of stick for feeling that way, pre-empting and internalizing the criticism that I was snobbish and judgemental.
After years of intense self-reflection and a series of ceasefires with my internal critic, I realized what was actually going on.
This was the manifestation of a deep, deep fear of temporal existence.
I was already keenly aware that whatever we do, whatever we say, is both traumatizingly permanent and traumatizingly impermanent.
Whatever happens in that particular break between classes… as soon as the bell rings to go back into class, it’s gone.
And yet, it will have always been the case. For all the rest of time, the events of that break will be unchanged.
Every single moment is the one chance we have at that moment.
It’s the one chance we have at it before it slips away…
…and it’s the one chance we have before it is etched into eternity.
And so, I was constantly nagged by the question… “is this really how you guys wanted to spend it? Isn’t there something better that could have happened with it?”
At the beginning of the play break, the possibilities were effectively endless — but instead of roleplaying a grand adventure or deciding on a single game to play or having an interesting conversation, it was frittered away in gossip or half-measures.
Since I was the one coming in from the cold, from a position of weakness, into a pre-existing social group with pre-existing dynamics, I held back, kept silent, let them act naturally, observed, and tried to join in.
As the days went by and still nothing really interesting or beautiful or meaningful or intimate showed any signs of materializing…
…I began to feel as if my life were slipping away from me…
…and it is from this agitation that the annoyingness, the sarcasm, the abrasiveness came.
I am pleased to say that I have largely been cured of this affliction, in the particular form described above. Now, I’m quite capable of just staring off into space or leaving… though the path I took to get there veered dangerously close to the cliffside (as we’ll discuss in a later post).
That underlying fear of the passage of time, however, still manifests itself in my low moods. It gives a knife’s edge to depression: not only am I miserable, I am also chipping away at my lifespan with my inactivity; all my hopes and dreams slip further away as I stare into the abyss which keeps me from moving towards them as it widens.
At my worst, every single second is invested with a weight which could only be carried by the whole span and scope of the universe in its totality, and must surely crush a single creature.
Immobility combines with urgency until existence itself becomes a trap I am tempted to try any means in order to escape.
Hence the passion behind my will to surrender.
Sometimes it is in search of ecstasy; sometimes it’s to prevent mere passage into the next moment becoming a matter of life and death.
Before, it was surrender through escapism — books, anime, manga, video games — which could suck me in wholly enough that I would forget myself.
Eventually, it became surrender to the flow of Nature itself — to stop trying to do anything with it, and let the moments happen of themselves.
It’s a dizzying see-saw: tilting the weight of gravity between the fragile, ephemeral node of momentary self until it risks being snuffed out… then swinging it back outwards so that the weight rests on the opposite (utmost; omnidirectional) pole, and one can explore an open world in total freedom and light-heartedness.
In the words of Simone Weil, it’s the pendulum between la pesanteur et la grâce — Gravity and Grace.
In conclusion: I was lonely as a kid, and find it frustrating when interactions fail to develop into anything meaningful or beautiful, and I am prone to wanting so desperately to make the most of my life that it becomes an almost unliftable burden.
…other than those things, though… everything was great!
I had a very happy childhood.
But to get a glimpse of that you’ll have to either spy on me with a time-tunnelling telescope, meet me in person and let me sit in silence until a pleasant memory pops up I feel like sharing… or, ideally, intuit it through the aesthetics of the adventure stories I dream of writing.
One… maybe two adolescent memories next. Then onto the spiritual awakenings proper.
Til then — please be well!
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