The night my mother crashed my car

Time for oversharing.

One morning I was woken by my very agitated father. He urged me to get up and follow him downstairs and outside, where, apparently, a police officer stood waiting for my statement. My car had been found on some farm road a couple of miles away, crashed into a bollard. Both my father and I knew that it hadn’t been myself who crashed the car. However, until shortly before, neither my father nor I had had any idea that my car had been involved in a crash in the first place.

My mother had taken my car the night before. Without my consent, of course. I had gone to bed already. She had been drunk and I (or my father, I don’t remember this detail) had hidden away the keys to her own car, so at some point she must have decided to take mine. And at some point she must have crashed it. And after that she must have returned home some way, probably in part by foot, in part by taxi. Anyway — at the time the police rang at our front door, my mother was sound asleep in her bedroom.

On our way down the stairs, and through the hallway, my father briefed me. I was to confirm the story he had already told the officer, namely, that I must have forgotten to lock the car, and that some youngster, or youngsters, from the neighbourhood must have taken it for a ride. And confirm the story I did. The officer mustered me carefully, and for some reason decided not to press the matter further. The details, again, are somewhat blurred — but I think that my father arranged for the car to be towed away, and for the bollard to be replaced or paid for, and I suspect that the policeman didn’t want to get me into trouble. I’m sure he thought that I, or one of my friends, had caused the crash.

My mother and her relationship to cars. I have an early childhood memory: Her speeding on the autobahn for no discernible reason, myself in the back seat, afraid, not understanding why we were driving so fast, and why my mother seemed so strange, tense and silent. At some point my mother took the exit close to Lüttelforst, and we visited my grandparents. There was no talk about the autobahn. Much later, when my much younger siblings were of primary school age, she took them on a nocturnal drunk drive. She then left them in a parking lot in front of a bar, to sleep. She returned to her car because some other customer had noticed my brother and sister in the back. My mother got into a fight, the police was called, she tried to escape the parking lot, ramming other cars — and I was told that my brother tried to calm my sister down when all of this happened. I wasn’t at home at that time. Neither was my father, but I have no idea where he went that night. At any rate, I was crushed when I heard about the incident the next day.

I don’t remember whether the parking-lot incident was followed by my mother’s first stay in a psychiatric ward, or whether it took place in between what would eventually become a handful of hospitalisations. There were many more incidents, not all — not even most — of them involving cars, I lost track of some. There are fragments that stand out, which my memory returns to from time to time — but the order of events is hard to reconstruct for me. My siblings were too young to remember as much as I do, and my father rarely talks about the years that were most intense. My parents are divorced by now, and my mother has been relatively stable since 2010, roughly. She has managed to keep her job, and she lives in a flat by herself. Needless to say, she doesn’t have a driver’s license any longer.

There’s so much shame involved in a family history like that, or at least there was for me. For years, I spoke to almost nobody about what had happened to my mother, or to us. Her repeated stays in psychiatric wards were burdensome, and yet it took me about a year to tell my then-roommate, who had long (tried to) become a friend and repeatedly asked why my mother didn’t come around to visit, about the “problems at home”.

I felt lost for so long, unable to connect. I was afraid of people, except for very few very carefully selected humans. And then I became afraid of things like shopping, or riding a train, or going outside. Or speaking. When I was around twenty I experienced a severe bout of depression. I tried to be interested in something, anything, but I wasn’t. Again, the chronology of things in this post might be a little messed up, but at some point I went to a doctor, was prescribed SSRI and things slowly improved. Thankfully, I have never felt that level of desperation again. Now, even if I feel bad about some thing or other, there are always good things, too. Like horses, or my running buddies, or the vegetables I grow.

I guess that, all things considered, my younger brother and sister and I are pretty resilient. I read somewhere that, in these cases, there’s usually a person that provides a semblance of the much-needed stability and normality. During my childhood, youth, and early adulthood this person has been my grandmother, whom I loved and love very, very much. When she died in 2016 it felt like I had lost the one person who nurtures and protects like no other. And for close to fifteen years now this tether has been my partner. I sometimes look at him with surprise and ask myself how on earth he bears living with me, for I couldn’t live with myself, that’s for sure.

Writing this post felt intense, but in a good way. I regret that, once again, I belie the motto of this blog. No bookmarks to go with these remarks. Maybe I should rename the blog Confessions.

Words

Two days ago I gave what was probably the worst talk of my life.

I began my talk as any sane person would: impeccably dressed, well kempt, and smiling. I made sure in advance that my camera and microphone were working well, chose my virtual background picture carefully, and had my shiny Type-A-personality mask firmly glued to my face.

Things began to unravel when I happened upon my next-to-last slide — for which I hadn’t prepared in writing — and felt at a loss for words. Earlier that day I had convinced myself that I would be able to improvise when facing the respective bulletpoints. After all I had given the same talk three years ago already, and at that time the plan to improvise had worked well enough. This time, though, I floundered. And my floundering was then followed by a Q&A from hell. The questions were perfectly in order, nothing mean or annoying. At all. Many people in the audience knew me, some were former students of mine — everybody was friendly and well-meaning. Still, I just crumbled. I either gave wrong answers, or very strange answers, or no answers at all, and I knew full well that my answers were, hm, less than ideal. The most terrible thing about the Q&A were the audience’s very tangible attempts to help me out of my predicament by asking easier questions. I somehow survived the thirty minutes, and immediately afterwards felt partly desperate, partly numb.

The correct answers to the audience’s questions began to dawn on me the night after. And the night after that. Oh, and at daytime, too. I rehearsed again and again each and every stupid thing I said. I have a habit of obsessing over stupid stuff I said. And because I have said stupid stuff in the past I have developed a habit of monitoring myself up to a point where I’d rather not say anything at all. It’s not always like that — there are times when words come more easily.

In hindsight, I shouldn’t have agreed to the talk in the first place. I didn’t feel comfortable talking about the topic, but it felt impolite to decline an invitation. The most obvious problem, though, was my inability to prepare until a couple of hours before the talk. I have always struggled with procrastination, but lately I get the feeling as if I’m trying to stretch the concept to its very limits — as if I’m trying to become the postergirl of self-sabotage.

I’m glad I can write this now, that, at least, the Q&A from hell occupied my mind for no longer than two nights and one-and-a-half days. That’s a good thing. Roughly 36 hours of beating oneself up should be enough. I mean, I didn’t torture a cat or something. Only an unsuspecting group of philosophers.

So what now? Yesterday I got in touch with a tried and trusted mental health professional. That’s another thing I’m glad about. Because something shifted — for quite some time, more than just a few weeks, I wondered whether I should just quit my job. And I agonized over whether I’d not someday terribly regret a decision to quit. Now I think I’ll try something else first. We’ll see how that goes.

On Closing Doors

“He came to earth to tidy up” — that’s what a former acquaintance of mine once told me the inscription on the headstone of her father’s grave reads. Apparently, he had devoted a considerable part of his lifetime to the establishment of a low-key terror regime regarding the cleanliness of their family home, and this was the family’s tongue-in-cheek way to finally get back at him. I have no idea whether the story is actually true or not, but I find it hilarious either way.

“She came to earth to close some doors.” That’s what I would like my headstone inscription to read. And then it would be great if someone added a graffiti reading: “Also, horses.” But back to business. One must not allow oneself to get sidetracked. The business of this post being: the closing of doors.

Letting go is hard, whether of thoughts, feelings, people, or one’s idea of oneself. In defiance of the claims of several hard-boiled self-help gurus, I remain unconvinced that it can be accomplished by breathing exercises or the ritual burning of todo or other kinds of lists.

I had a hard time letting go of the negative feelings towards my dissertation. During the six years it took me to finish it I came close to a complete meltdown more than just once, and there were prolonged periods of time where I did not only resent the manuscript with every fiber of my being, but questioned my own sanity for ever having worked up the audacity of embarking on such a project.

When I had to revise the manuscript for publication all these negative feelings came back, though slightly attenuated by some temporal distance. I didn’t feel much relief, not to speak of pride, or happiness even, when I eventually sent the final draft off to the publisher. The only vaguely positive feeling I could discern was a pale contentment that, at last, I wouldn’t have to face the text any longer.

And so my emotional reaction to yesterday’s delivery of a couple of specimen copies of the finished book took me by surprise. Because I actually felt happy and proud, and compelled to call my relatives in order to spread the good news. I still see the text’s many weaknesses, but for some reason I seem to have decided to like it anyway. I hope things stay that way.

Door closed, mission accomplished.

On Trying Something New

When I was in my teens my father diagnosed a general inability of mine to follow through with something. Apparently, I had taken up too many after-school activities only to drop them again after a few months, respectively. Among the discarded were handball practice (too aggressive for my taste), gymnastics (I didn’t really fit in with the group age-wise), and the school choir (not sure why I dropped this one — it seems fine in retrospect). I believe I thought of myself as a “quitter” for some time as well. It took me a while — and a school drop-out — to gather some evidence to the contrary: On my second attempt to acquire the German higher education qualification I tried extra hard to stay the course, and it worked.

Still, I don’t think there’s merit in following through with something — or shame in quitting — per se. It would be more than odd if someone were to say: “Well, that’s an utterly worthless and shitty thing to do, but at least she followed through with it.” It’s good to have the ability to stick to something through periods of hardship or stagnancy when you see some value in whatever activity it is that you are pursuing. But if you don’t, or if you do but realize that there is a misfit between the activity and yourself — in my case, handball — then you should probably quit. Or else you might miss out on opportunities to try some different, better suited, thing.

I have found that, in my case, trying something new frequently helps with the sticking-to-it aspects of life. I started a blog when I felt overwhelmed by my master’s thesis, took up running and did some online coding course when I felt stuck during my PhD, and when the current pandemic hit I began to learn some Japanese (turns out Japanese is really hard — who would’ve thought?) and started another blog.

Taking up new activities when you’re already in over your head with old ones might not seem the best idea, so I felt a little relieved — not to say validated — when I recently read an article about the perks of trying something new. Apparently, learning new things builds emotional resilience and thus helps “to weather setbacks and navigate life’s volatility”. Here’s a charming case of a fellow individual who likes to try new things:

Eight years ago, while working as an assistant Cuyahoga County prosecutor in Cleveland, Gayle Williams-Byers was in the throes of a serial killer case when she decided to take horseback-riding lessons. This summer, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, Ms. Williams-Byers, 46, now a South Euclid Municipal Court judge, started free online classes in American Sign Language offered by Gallaudet University in Washington. She also took a webinar in labor trafficking. In recent years, she has enrolled in a variety of classes and workshops, including one on how to get a commercial driver’s license — not something she plans to act on any time soon.

Luckily, I don’t have a serial killer case to work on right now. But I get the decision, and not just because I think that horseback riding is an excellent choice. To try and learn something new amidst challenging circumstances (whatever it is that constitutes a challenge for you) can be a helpful coping strategy rather than an unhelpful distraction. For me, not only does it help to take my mind somewhere else, but it reminds me that there are many areas out there which I haven’t so much as grazed, that it’s possible to change oneself, that the trajectory of one’s life is not fixed — and those are beliefs I have always clinged to and wouldn’t want to give up.

Some scattered thoughts on interpretation, validation, and creativity

I spent roughly two hours of this weekend doing something somewhat unusual for me: I played a video game.* Those were two hours very well spent, because the game — called “The Beginner’s Guide” and created by Davey Wreden — was not only aesthetically pleasing but pretty weird and thought-provoking. “The Beginner’s Guide” is a small narrative indie game which, according to the Steam website, has no “traditional mechanics, no goals or objectives. Instead, it tells the story of a person struggling to deal with something they do not understand.” Sounds perfect.

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A random example of weird (and weirdly charming) footwear serving as an illustration of the general claim that weird equals good.

Now, I don’t want to spoil the game, as I believe it is best played with as few expectations as possible. So I won’t write about its content. Rather, I’d like to write about some of the thoughts the game prompted — even though, this time, I don’t have any bookmarks to go with my writing.

Interpretation as violation. Do you remember the time you were first expected to not only experience a work of art but to produce a written interpretation of it? For me this happened somewhere around sixth grade. We would read a poem, say, or a play or a short novella, and the teacher would introduce us to the idea that there are layers of meaning to uncover in a literary work, to concepts such as personification, symbolism, and so on. In order to prepare for tests in German or English many of my classmates regularly turned to secondary literature — guides to interpretation like sparknotes (or their German equivalents). Those were understood to shed light upon the work’s more obscure aspects, to hold the key to unlock its secrets, as if the author — or, in general, the artist — had provided a puzzle for us to solve, and as if the commentator — the author of the study guide — had solved it. Of course, the better study guides — and teachers, for that matter — offered more than one interpretation and the caveat that no interpretation has a claim to being the correct one.

But what if by interpreting a work of art we always wrongfully impose something on it? I think it’s possible to conceive of an interpretation, any interpretation, as a violation both of a work of art and of its creator. Or at least that’s what the game made me think. So if this doesn’t make sense: blame the game.

A perceived inability to decipher some thing’s meaning triggers anxiety. In order to get a feeling for just how frustrated people get by anything that “resists” interpretation, read the user reviews on IMDB for movies that have open endings. Our drive to interpret works of art might be viewed as compulsive, as resulting from a deep uneasiness with anything we don’t readily understand, a feeling of lostness in the face of ambiguity or openness we’re unable to tolerate. We are so compelled to see patterns, meaning, that we cannot help but demand answers. There has to be one, right? There has to be a right one?

Maybe our attempts at interpretation say more about ourselves than about the works in question. The right question to ask when faced with some work of art might not be “what does it mean,” but rather “how does it make me feel; which specific meaning-making attempts does it evoke in myself and why; why do some interpretations appeal more to me than others?” The primary goal, then, would not so much be to understand the piece of art, but to understand ourselves. The artist hasn’t left us a puzzle to solve. We are the puzzle. (And if this sounds puzzling: I’m sorry. It’s late and I have spent too much time playing video games.)

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A maze. Puzzling.

Creativity and validation. The game also made me think about how validation, or any other kind of “external reward”, interacts with our creative impulses, or with motivation more generally. I vaguely remember having read somewhere that external rewards such as money have a negative effect on creativity. Be that as it may, the idea of external validation as somewhat of a two-edged sword intuitively makes sense to me. On the one hand, even though the process of creating something is often experienced as intrinsically worthwile — a flow state — we usually don’t create stuff for ourselves only. We want others to take note of what we created, to enjoy our work and reassure us. (A notable exception (maybe): Erwin Hapke, who folded all kinds of amazing stuff.) Being validated feels good.

On the other hand, validation can feel stifling, I suppose. Because even if it is not meant to do so, it can feel laden with expectation. Just imagine you had published a great first novel, or movie, or whatever, and suddenly found yourself to be hailed as “the next big thing” — how absolutely terrifying. Now you’d have to prove yourself to your audience, to show them that (to quote from one of my favorite TV series again) you’re anything but a one trick pony. It amazes me that people manage to produce decent, let alone equally great or even greater, follow-up work under circumstances like these.

But the effects of external rewards or incentives on more mundane activities or under more mundane circumstances might be problematic as well. Not only because of the expectations they might have in tow, but also because they can lead us to question our own motivation and sincerity.

*Update: Actually, I spent roughly four hours of this weekend playing video games. Because after finishing “The Beginner’s Guide” on Saturday I decided to download another game by the same author, “The Stanley Parable”. This latter game was released in 2013, two years earlier than “The Beginner’s Guide”. It’s pretty mind-boggling as well.

On kindness (with a short digression)

If I had to choose a phrase for a tattoo covering both of my forearms the winner would be “Kindness Rulez”. A close runner-up would be “Keep It Real”, but the former has at least two advantages: (1) It consists of exactly two words, which perfectly matches my number of forearms; (2) if I were ever forced to assume a defensive position in a fistfight, my tattoo would probably discourage my opponent from punching too hard, or maybe even scare him or her off entirely. Note: Kindness does not only rule, it also has subversive potential.

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Bracing myself for a fistfight.

What prompted me to think about kindness was a short autobiographical text by George Saunders (who also made an appearance in an earlier post, and whose stories frequently radiate kindness). In it, he reflects on his education — both writerly and moral, I’d say. This is what Saunders writes about one of his teachers at Syracuse, Tobias Wolff:

Toby is a powerful man: in his physicality, in his experiences, in his charisma. But all that power has culminated in gentleness. It is as if that is the point of power: to allow one to access the higher registers of gentleness.

Kindness, or gentleness, to me, signifies strength, not weakness. Genuinely kind people seem to be those who have figured the important things out, those whose life seems to rest on the firm footing of certain unwavering and worthy ideals. Kindness is an attitude we take towards people, of course, but also towards non-human animals, nature, and inanimate objects. Kindness towards people is not the same as mere friendliness or joviality, but rather a genuine will to see the good in others, to conceive of them as worthy of consideration and respect, regardless of their accomplishments. I also think that it goes hand in hand with a willingness to change one’s perspective.

When I was a first-year student, I took a course that was designed to help us develop some basic scientfic skills such as conducting a literature search, writing a term paper and citing correctly, or giving a short talk. From this course, I grasped a somewhat perverted notion of constructive criticism: Whenever you have to criticize a shitty talk or paper, start by saying something nice first; just find something nice to say, whatever it is, for f***s sake! I’m not sure who is to blame for my early misconception of what constructive criticism consists in — but I myself was probably no less culpable than the course’s instructor. From Saunders’ text I grasp a different, more apt (partial) characterization of constructive criticism: Find something good and mean it. This determination to find something good and mean it — in a text, in a talk, in a person — is one aspect of being a kind person, I guess.

What I also grasp from Saunders’ text is a certain idea(l) of teaching that I would subscribe to. According to this idea(l), the goal of teaching is not, or not primarily, knowledge transfer, or the imparting of certain intellectual skills. Rather, teaching is conceived of as an effort to help others develop a well-rounded personality. The acquisition of intellectual skills is, of course, a part of that, but it’s a part only. To a certain extent, and for better or worse, teachers are role models. Here is some anecdotal evidence: During my many years in school I have acquired various skills and accumulated some pieces of knowledge (I still remember some facts about acetabularia mediterranea). But what really stuck with me about our teachers was not the amount of knowledge they were able to impart, or the number or level of skills I owe to them, but their personality and the way they treated us students.

Digression: Re-reading Saunders’ reflections I was also struck by the following lines, which touch upon what I wrote about getting lost in literature:

The story is not some ossified, cerebral thing: it is entertainment, active entertainment, of the highest variety. All of those things I’ve been learning about in class, those bone-chilling abstractions theme, plot, and symbol are de-abstracted by hearing Toby read Chekhov aloud: they are simply tools with which to make your audience feel more deeply—methods of creating higher-order meaning. The stories and Toby’s reading of them convey a notion new to me, or one which, in the somber cathedral of academia, I’d forgotten: literature is a form of fondness-for-life. It is love for life taking verbal form.

Back to kindness: Now, to make this blogpost even more confusing, I feel compelled to include a further video. It’s a talk by David Foster Wallace. In essence, its message is: “Being an adult is hard. It is hard for others, too. Get out of your own head. Be kind to others. Don’t be a jerk. Or, at least, try not to be.” But Wallace, like Saunders, has a way with words — and that’s why one should listen to the talk in full and not rely on my very brief summary of its essential points.

Related bookmarks (to be deleted after publication of this post):

On getting lost (Part II)

In my earlier post on getting lost in literature I wrote that “I usually don’t approach literature with an analytical stance, but like to immerse myself in a story.” That’s not entirely true — or, better yet, it’s not the whole truth. Because sometimes I do feel compelled to approach some piece of writing in a more analytical way, to attend to the author’s choice of words and punctuation, to sentence structure and imagery.

But in order for that to happen, two other things (usually) need to happen first: (1) The novel/short story/poem/… has to resonate with me, by which I probably mean the evocation of some sort of emotional reaction (not just any sort of emotional reaction, but I’m too lazy to dig deeper right now), and (2) I need to have the impression that the particular writing style has a significant role to play in said evocation.

The relation between style and what might, perhaps, best be called mood is, perhaps, most obvious in poetry. (Lots of perhapses today. But better perhapses than lapses.) The abundance of dashes in Dickinson’s writing, for example, often contributes to her poems’ specific mood. (Needless to say that, had she owned a keyboard, she would have made sure to dash the fuck out of it.)

This is the Hour of Lead –
Remembered, if outlived,
As Freezing persons, recollect the Snow –
First – Chill – then Stupor – then the letting go –

Another example that comes to mind is “Fox 8”, a story by George Saunders. According to the Bloomsbury website, it tells a story of “human greed and nature” — from the point of view of a young, dreamy, and somewhat naive fox, who also speaks “Yuman” pretty well. For a fox, that is. Saunders gives this particular fox a unique voice that captures his character and worldview extremely well.

We do not trik Chikens! We are very open and honest with Chikens! With Chikens, we have a Super Fare Deel, which is they make the egs, we take the egs, they make more egs. Not Sly at all. Very strate forword.

The above feels somewhat incomplete and too short, even for a blogpost. Maybe I’ll get back to getting lost in a third post. Or I’ll finally turn to horses. We’ll see.

 

On getting lost (Part I)

I was planning to finally improve upon my early diary entries and write a decent blogpost about why horses are great. I would have made sure to have some bookmarks ready to substantiate my firm opinions about their general adorability. Things, however, don’t always go as planned.

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Early efforts in second languages. Sadly, Sally and I didn’t remain girlfriends forever.

Because today I read the following lines by Patti Smith:

Personally, I’m not much for symbolism. I never get it. Why can’t things just be as they are? I never thought to psychoanalyze Seymour Glass or sought to break down “Desolation Row”. I just wanted to get lost, become one with somewhere else, slip a wreath on a steeple top solely because I wished it.

These lines are part of a short paragraph devoted to Smith’s reflections on her reading habits, and they struck quite a chord with me. I have always been sort of an escapist reader. I usually don’t approach literature with an analytical stance, but like to immerse myself in a story — get lost. Whenever I read for pleasure I assume a horizontal position: nothing better than to slide from a story into a daydream and back again. I also tend to empathize with literary characters, or with fictional characters in general. They grow dear to me, as do their creators.

My escapist tendencies go hand in hand with a preference for an unobtrusive style. Good fiction writers make immersion into their stories feel effortless. They have no need to show off their rhetoric abilities, they don’t have to pile up intertextual references or create elaborate puzzles that require an entire wiki to solve (sorry, Thomas Pynchon). They don’t, to quote Jonathan Franzen, “let their writerly ego […] intrude on the pure story.” In writing, as in many other areas, good does not necessarily equal difficult.

Related bookmarks (to be deleted after publication of this blogpost):

Half empty (Part II)

I still miss my grandma. She wasn’t much of a talker but preferred to show her affection through cooking. Many dishes inevitably remind me of her. My favorite: hash browns. There was an air of stoicism around her. After her death I found myself wishing she had complained a little more often. She would have had more than enough reason to do so — it just wasn’t her style, I guess.

My grandfather misses my grandma, too. A lot. Roughly four years since her passing, he still refuses to clear out her wardrobe. He visits her grave almost daily as, he says, there’s always something to fix — some leaves to be removed, some flowers to be rearranged. My grandfather probably meets enough of the diagnostic criteria for “persistent complex bereavement disorder” specified in the DSM-5. Or, at least, he has probably met enough of them over a period much longer than six months. And it was him who immediately crossed my mind when I read the following lines from a relatively recent article on aeon:

The tendency that goes together with overpromotion of happiness is stigmatisation of the opposite of happiness – emotional suffering, such as depression, anxiety, grief or disappointment.

For while at various points I hoped that my grandfather would eventually play his accordion again, or join the local Nordic walking group, I was and still am reluctant to count his inability to move on as a disorder. He has suffered a terrible loss, and he has every right to mourn it however and for as long as he pleases.

I’m not a foe of happiness. But the happiness I’m interested in, the kind of happiness that, to me, seems worth striving for, is a happiness despite. It’s a happiness that doesn’t deny the more — pardon — shitty aspects of reality, but keeps them in full view.

I have long suspected that slightly depressed people — or people we would likely describe as slightly depressed — have a more accurate view of the world and themselves. Studies in psychology and behavioral economy indicate our general susceptibility to a number of cognitive biases. A tendency to overestimate one’s control over life’s events, one’s abilities and efforts, seems to be the rule rather than the exception. Intuitively, the claim — labeled “depressive realism” — that people who show some amount of downward deviation from an overly optimistic baseline are, in fact, more trustworthy judges of reality than those who do not makes sense to me.

A positively distorted worldview and self-image might make life easier, or improve one’s ability to function. But it might have its downsides as well, especially with regard to others. A tendency to ascribe one’s successes to one’s own efforts and abilities while “reason[ing] away negative events” (link) often goes hand in hand with a tendency to judge the failures of others overly harshly — they must have been lazy, or they just don’t have what it takes. Julie Reshe, the author of the aeon piece, writes that her depression helped her develop “a deeper understanding of the suffering of others.” This relates to the notion of empathy, or compassion, that is central to philosophical pessimism. So, again, I think that a worldview that is frequently labeled “pessimistic”, or a disposition that is frequently labeled “(slightly) depressed”, might actually make us better persons.

 

Writing in one’s second language (Part III)

Some people prefer writing in their second language to writing in their first — not, or not only, because of pragmatic reasons such as an increased reach, but for more personal ones. In my previous posts (part I & part II) on this topic I ventured two guesses as to why writing in one’s second language might sometimes feel more adequate: reflective and therapeutic distance. By “reflective distance” I meant a less habitualized and more playful way of using a language that promotes self-expression. By “therapeutic distance” I meant a certain degree of detachment from one’s thinking habits that facilitates engagement with difficult or painful topics. There’s certainly some overlap between both kinds of distance, and I suspect that both have a role to play in “finding one’s voice” — the subject of this post.

I so fear the word of men.
They pronounce everything so distinctly.
And this is called dog and that is called house,
and here it begins and the end’s over there.

(R. M. Rilke 1897/1899, translated)

Finding your voice is hard, especially if you’re not exactly the opinionated type to begin with or tend to second-guess yourself. Each sentence you put down on paper (or screen) might strike you as too confident, too definitive. And how can you ever hope to capture subtle moods or shifts thereof by words such as “happy” or “sad”, “angry” or “frustrated”? Putting things into words can feel confining, as if it thwarted rather than fostered one’s striving for authenticity and sincerity.

When I first started blogging, all my posts felt wrong. And I remember the same feeling regarding my early diary entries, which preceded any eventual blogposts, and which mostly dealt with horses. Sometimes the products of blogging and journaling still feel off to me, but less so. In part, that is certainly due to the shedding of my preconceived notions of what a decent piece of writing looks like — no, you don’t really need a big idea; and no, your sentences don’t have to be complicated; and yes, there may be repetitions; and no, uncommon words ain’t essential. If you really, really like dashes and brackets, go for it, keep them. Dash the fuck out of your keyboard!

More importantly, however, I allow myself a different perspective on what I have written. I now like to think that our sentences don’t define us, they reflect a momentary stage of our lives, they are snapshots. I once called myself a “futility maximizer”. Do I really see myself that way? Sometimes, maybe. I also once wrote a somewhat pathetic rant about small towns and an accusatory piece called “bitter pill”. It’s okay to exaggerate. We all have our more dramatic moments. Why not own them?

Another thing to let go of: fear of imitation. Our own voices are a distillate of a wild mixture of influences. Our selves emerge through engagement with and in distinction from others. And this, finally, forges a connection to the topic of this little trilogy, second languages. Because if your most cherished authors — those, whose voices you admire, whose writings inspire you — write in a language different from your native one, this might quite naturally yield a desire to emulate.