My Dear Yuna,
When your email arrived the other week, I wanted very badly to respond, but was inundated with more pressing and less important matters. The business of life (and the life of business) has been poked and prodded out of its spring slumber, I’m afraid. Nonetheless, your powerful words have stayed with me during this time, so this morning I felt compelled to write you.
Thank you, as always, for sharing so much of yourself with me. That you are in better spirits these days, trekking your way into the light makes me very happy! I was pleased to read that you are, as you so beautifully put it, “gathering” yourself and have “embarked on a journey of healing”. I’d love nothing more than to read your description of each waystation, of every gestation. Since your last two emails, I’d been meaning to ask how much of the deep-end part of the dive into yourself has been a direct result of the lockdown, or whether the lockdown merely brought your inner struggles to the surface and revived it like an able lifeguard? One thing is clear: it has been a time of profound reflection for you, of consequential change.
Your thoughts on vulnerability, how it’s empowering you today, offering sustenance, gave me much to chew on. To wilfully enter into a state of vulnerability, particularly these days when anonymous trolling on social media gives the bully a much larger playground, takes courage. And when it hasn't cowed people into wholesale retreat from the world, or degenerated into that most perverse form of neurosis, toxic machismo, vulnerability is like that delicate-appearing butterfly that crosses multiple continents during mating season— who can blame it?!
Most men I know, myself included, too often interpret what is being shared with them, particularly by women, like a puzzle to be solved, a problem that requires fixing. (I’ve come around to concluding it must be an Oedipal thing— boys who wanted to save their distressed mother but felt utterly helpless to do so.) How often have I entered an open, electric space and fidgeted with my toolkit when all I was asked to do was be present? To breathe. Listen. Commiserate. The truth is I’ve never been very good at it, which is why, I think, I often prefer letter-writing over direct communication as it affords me time to allow my responses to marinate and put the drill away. And it’s taken me years, after so many failed attempts, to see that it is the leaky pipe that needs fixing— not lovers, friends or family. My eyelids continue to slowly unfurl.
There is, however, a difference between “feeling vulnerable” and vulnerability. To wander alone through the African Savannah on a starlit night where hyenas and lions roam, or to set up a base camp at the bottom of an active volcano, makes one feel (deservedly) vulnerable. Nature, the whims of circumstance, and human stupidity makes it so. But this is different from the experience of vulner-ability, which requires agency, free will. You can't, for example, feel vulnerability on a desert island by yourself. You need other people to ignite it in you.
Vulnerability seems to me a human construct— a social contract that the insecure among us are always poking holes in, fearing we will lose something of value when, in fact, it's always only been worth the weight of our ego. And so it is one of the tasks we are called upon as a species to recognize as a community ideal of the highest order— possibly one of the few redemptive community ideals we have left. During this time of mass revolt, and after legitimate rage has been addressed, we, the global community, need to find a way toward a deeper awareness of this. Any form of truth and reconciliation, whether it’s in the privacy of the bedroom or in the state assembly hall, can only be reached by consciously passing through the doors of vulner-ability.
As for the work of undoing narratives to "embrace our own truths", as you eloquently put it, strikes me as the right orientation. There were so many difficult experiences you described in your email that I felt the pain in your expression, particularly around your traumas. I’m grateful to you for sharing them with me. It’s made me reflect on my own past experiences.
Self-narratives, both the false and less-false stories we tell about ourselves, have been around since the first hominids climbed down from the trees, stood on two feet, and ran for shelter in a cave. Language as we know it today was likely invented around then, in that cave, but my instincts tell me it was not invented to tease out narratives, to tell stories. That was a secondary necessity, likely born out of smelling our fingers after scratching the general vicinity of our butts and some rudimentary quest to understand death. Language was intended to be entirely practical, just another tool in the box, utilitarian in purpose. Stories about what happened (perhaps to offer contextual information) and why it happened (to create some tenuous link between cause and effect) must have been dismissed by our earliest Alpha Male ancestors as irrelevant. If stories had to be told, it was likely to transmit information about what might happen to a member of the tribe, particularly around danger. It was goal-directed, forward-looking. In other words, “If you do_____, then_____will happen.” A way to de-stress the amygdala's fight-or-flight response. It must have been of immense service to the gatherer when the hunter pointed out that there is a sabre-toothed tiger hiding behind the mulberry bush at the bend in the river, ready to pounce, and how the beast could best be avoided. At that moment, peering anxiously out from the cave’s entrance, the gatherer isn’t interested in the sabre-toothed tiger’s gender or how many years it took to grow its fangs or even how it got there behind the mulberry bush. The gatherer is interested- nay, inspired- to not become part of the tiger's paleo diet regimen. It's probably too obvious to point out that a story’s true utility (whether it’s told to others or to ourselves) lies in its forward gaze, its future orientation and not the past. What good would it do the gatherer to know that the sabre-toothed tiger was born with spots on its coat or was last seen mating three weeks ago? (I say this knowing it rattles the cage of some psychoanalysts and paleontologists, and all historians- these past-obsessed professionals whose vocations, by the way, like the sofabed, are entirely modern inventions, having arrived long after we abandoned the cave for upholstery.)
Whenever I hear expressions like “childhood trauma”, “internalizing guilt” etc., I feel like my inner hearing has been disrupted. Something just doesn’t sound right. Do you know Alessandro Moreschi? He was a castrato with an angelic soprano voice. It’s jarring when you see pictures of this grown man with his broad chest and then hear him sing something like Ave Maria. You feel disoriented, as though you're looking through the wrong end of a telescope or been released by kidnappers on a street corner in some foreign land. That’s what I feel when I hear people talking about their past traumas.
This is not to say I dismiss traumas per se- yours, mine, or anyone else’s. Traumas happened, some much more intensely than others. Denying it is the neurotic's version of revisionist history. But they don’t actually exist when we are truly present. They are shadows, or better yet, carcasses we have chained to ourselves and that we feel obliged to keep dragging into this moment— and onto the next one if we can. While we push forward through time, facing backward, we gaze at the carcass and it gazes back at us, like Nietzsche's Void. Despite the mental-emotional toll it takes, we drag it along because it’s something familiar; better the carcass we know than the one we don’t, even if neither exists here-and-now.
It seems to me that trauma is about the way we orient ourselves to time, to our use of tense. The Buddhists built an entire belief system on this premise. My daily meditations teach me the same. When we are meditating or running, laughing or crying, making love or spaghetti, or writing as I am to you at this moment, traumas don’t actually exist. Whenever we are truly in a moment, any moment- and when are we actually not?- trauma is not there. It’s “behind” us in space and time, but our tendency is to eternally warp it with the gravitational equivalent of overworked cathexis. And language is essential here. Our stories matter. But tense is everything. We are not what happened to us. Nobody ever is. We are how we consciously utilize tense. Will we let it raise or decimate us? Make us feel hopeful or abject? Is it about "to done" lists or "to do"?
All this to say, my dear Yuna, that the work you are doing now on yourself is brave and good. I say keep charging forward, and without giving an iota of thought about whether or not it will lead to happiness, which is, like sex, empty of meaning and overrated if it's not exercised in the service of something higher. Happiness is not the goal of your journey. Your inner work is. And while you trek along this uncharted road, know that the obnoxious (and opinionated) voice you are hearing behind you is me, your lead cheerleader and blind guide!
Don't forget to write back!