2020 has been an incredibly reflective year for me. This is because one of my habits, residing deep in my bones, is to run; never have I imagined myself in one place long enough to cultivate a deeper contentment with myself & my environment. When 2020 pulled the emergency brakes on life-as-normal, the only real option, for me, was to reflect: what now?
(I think, in fact, the running is a gay thing—when for your whole life, you’re terrified that people might reject you because of the most intimate, immutable parts of yourself, you decide to close off, to not-be-present around others, and, ultimately, yourself. So instead, you find yourself always on the move, looking for belonging in physical and mental externalities and performances, until you exhaust yourself and give up in despair. This is not just a gay thing, obviously, but a commentary on belonging).
So, we know that people have made do in relative isolation, whether they’ve chosen it or not. I’m thinking of Jain monks during Monsoon Season, of the Pillar Saints, of Forest Monks, of those Romantic writers who forged their way into the wilderness proclaiming the fruits of solitude. Why not hear what they have to say? Of course, we are social creatures, but in an exceptional year of covid-19, it’s instructive to examine the lives of exceptional people and traditions, to befriend isolation.
Most, if not all of these people (at the risk of uncritically essentializing) highlight a sense of self (or “no-self”) beyond the reactionary tides of other people and culture. There is a portion of you (a soul? Anatman? Whatever it is, it's a portion of "you") sitting, waiting underneath all the big ideas, the events around you, and the fast-paced escapism. It is a sense of self that can only belong—the one already there, reaching out to the world around it, no matter what anyone says (including yourself).
This sense of belonging, I think, is what allows you to truly be present with yourself, and after that, others. I guess it allows you to accept the good and the bad, the hope and despair, learning to hold with open hands the contradictory and irresolvable puzzles in the world. It’s allowed me to see that I’m just as fragmented and bewildered as anyone else. So, why not just exist? 2020 has been a lesson in existing—existing without reducing experience inside of a discursive circle—and, with that, existing just for the sake of it. We all think we’ve mastered just existing--we cannot un-exist. Of course we’re in the present (where else would we be?). But can we exist in the present just for the sake of it, accepting a tiny bit of good but a whole lot of bad, accepting what is simply because it is, without the theatrics of it? That’s the hard part.
And so, I’ve learned to practice—you can only just practice—contentment with the world (the absolutely bonkers world) through simple presence with myself. From that comes an acknowledgement that everything around me will continue to whirl around, that people make it their business to have opinions on things that should not be opinions, but ultimately, in any case, that the sun rises every day and the ground below me remains firm and the sky above puts on a show outside the reach of any human institution; each day merely presents itself, stable and bare, no matter how far I run. And that’s cool.
2020: weird, but impactful; not the best, but worthy of our best efforts. Remember, ease on the brakes every once in a while, or the world will slam on them for you, and to check in with yourself, gaze at the clouds, and remember that you, that hopeful and despairing you, are just given to the world, and the world—the joyful and maliciously indifferent world (or is it benevolent?), similarly, is just given to you. You belong.