Friday, June 12, 2020, 3.12 am. You wake up because part of your brain is screaming that you are wasting time. That you should be doing more important things than sleeping. Your brain deliberately disregards the debates that sleep is good for your health. It tells you that the three hours of sleep you have had are more than enough. So, the two of you start arguing in the dark like an old couple over the other’s need to wake the other at that ungodly hour for inconsequent reasons. Can’t this wait till morning? Don’t you know I’m supposed to be at work early? What is so important that you had to wake me up at this time of the night anyway? The argument continues for hours on end.
I think most people have had one day like this, and some people have had more than one. It’s the day of the accident, the nervous breakdown, the meltdown or what others call the culmination of a midlife crisis. The day you stop drinking, or the day you start. The day you know things will never be the same again… “Could I be having a midlife crisis ahead of schedule?” I ask myself. God, I haven’t even turned thirty. Or have I gotten to my peak too soon. But I refuse to call mine a midlife crisis because I low-key wish to live to be at least a hundred. Terming it midlife would not sit well with that.
Maybe I should call it a quarterly crisis or merely a life crisis, perhaps just one of many to come. I am unraveling; feeling a desperate pull to live the life I want to live, and not the one I’m “supposed” to live. I feel challenged by the universe to let go of who I think I am supposed to be and to embrace who I am. I feel shitty about my life.
Twenty-six. I sit up, astounded by my age once again, and each time that I have sat astounded, trying to figure out what has become of this young, slim (until recently) man in his mid-twenties, a whole additional week or month slips by, a continually growing sum which I cannot reconcile with my self-image. I still see myself, in my mind’s eye, as youthful, but when I catch sight of myself in recent photographs, I no longer recognize myself. Somebody took my actual physical presence away and substituted it for this now fat beaded man.
There have been significant changes in my physique lately. And while they do not occur automatically or overnight, what they do not seem to have captured is the experience of an inner struggle that continues to unravel as changes must often fight against our resistance and with observable results. In this sense, this crisis I am in is a drama more worthy of a playwright than a scholar. I see myself as a mere character in the play, caught at the opening of the second act, and I do not know what will happen next.
Crises happen to us every day. Most of them are sufficiently low grade, devoid of enduring consequences, so we pay no attention and keep on rolling. A crisis occurs when our identity, our roles, our values, or our road map are substantially called into question, prove ineffective, or are overwhelmed by experience that cannot be contained by our understandings of self and world.
There is a line from Viktor Frankl’s memoir about surviving the Holocaust, Man’s Search for Meaning, that stopped me cold when I read it: “it did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us.” I had never thought about what life expected from me. I had only thought about what I expected from life. That was a book putter-downer. It was a look-up-at-the-sky-and-wonder-where-the-fuck-have-I-been-all-my-life? moment.
Growing up, we kept hearing again and again that we could be anything we wanted to be. We had supportive mothers insisting we would accomplish more than they had. We had absent fathers who nonetheless made sure we didn’t lack a thing. We saw men and women on television who had families and fun careers. So, if we happened to fail, why was that? The only thing left to blame is ourselves. And we do that quite a lot.
And now, here we are, entering the second half of our lives and our old life compasses no longer work. The magnetic fields have been altered. The new compass that we need cannot be held in our hand, only in our heart. We read it not with our mind alone, but with our soul. Now we yearn for wholeness. We yearn to remember the parts of ourselves that we have forgotten, to nourish those that we have starved, to express those we have silenced, and to bring into the light those we have cast into the shadows. On this quest for wholeness, we realize we must let go of the old clichés of adult life, both positive and negative. Using the best information available, we realize that each of us must find his own way. To varying degrees, all of us are trying to break out of the “life structure” that we have built during the first part of our lives.
But with the new compass also comes a peculiar new problem. We realize that making dreams come true also costs money. Money, we don’t have. And ambition and an insatiable hunger for adventure and success. But most of us abandoned the idea of a life full of adventure and travel sometime between graduation and our first job. Our dreams died under the dark weight of responsibility. A responsibility to take care of one self and sometimes one’s beloved(s) with a meager job earning a meager wage all while clearly being overworked but underpaid. Occasionally the old urge surfaces, and we label it with names that suggest psychological aberrations: the big chill, a crisis.
A crisis that so much underscores an inner conflict. Each side of the conflict is likely to be a composite of many partial forces, each one of which has been structured into behavior, attitude, perception and value. Each component asserts itself, claiming priority, insisting that something else must yield, that it MUST be accommodated. The conflict therefore is fixed, stubborn and enduring. It may be impugned and dismissed without effect, imprecations and remorse are of no avail, strenuous acts of will may be futile; it causes yet survives and continues to cause the most intense suffering, humiliation and rending of flesh.
So, you start asking yourself the difficult questions. Can such a conflict be uprooted or excised? Is it an ailment or is it the patient himself? Does it happen to everyone or is it only you? Can the suffering disappear without a change in the conflict? But a change in the conflict amounts to a change in what one is and how one feels and reacts. So how the fuck do we get out of this loop? When did figuring out what makes you happy become such hard work? How did I get myself to this point where I had to figure ME out? Why didn’t they tell us it would be this hard?
In my college psychology class, I had studied theories of adult development and learned that our twenties are for experimenting, exploring different jobs, and discovering what fulfills us. One lecturer, probably a Professor now, warned against putting so much faith in our first degrees, asserting that we were not fully formed yet. That we didn’t know if it’s what we really wanted to do with our lives because we hadn’t tried enough things yet. That if we rushed into something, we were unsure about, we might awake midlife with a crisis on our hands. “Oh, no, not me.” Most of us thought. But alas! I know better now. His words now resounding more clearly than they had back in that chilly morning lecture.
Now, against my deeply held idealism, I have to accept that the world’s people are in peril and that my standard ideologies will not always fit the world. We no doubt live in a noisy, numb, narcissistic age. The talents and attentions of the majority are not invested in personal mastery and social responsibility but squandered on senseless games, voyeurism, and base sensationalism. We have recklessly abandoned what truly matters, the striving to be great as individuals and as a society, for the glamour and thrill of speed, convenience, and vain expression, in a kind of humanity-wide crisis. Gone are the big visions; and in comes the quick wins and the sure things. Effort has lost out to entitlement. In the transition to our age of self-adoration and conceit, the page turned long ago on the dreams to rise as a people. Greatness is so rarely sought, and generation after generation fail to hold the line of human goodness and advancement.
Could it be because we have so often been treated as objects and may have be profoundly affected thereby? Kick a dog often enough and he will become cowardly or vicious. People who are kicked by this life undergo similar changes; their view of the world and of themselves is transformed. . . People may indeed be brainwashed, for benign or exploitative reasons. If one’s destiny is shaped by manipulation, then one has become more of an object, less of a subject and has lost freedom.
If, however, one’s destiny is shaped from within then one has become more of a creator, and has gained his freedom. This is self-transcendence, a process of change that originates in one’s heart and expands outward. Begins with a vision of freedom, with an “I want to become…”, with a sense of the potentiality to become what one is not. One gropes toward this vision in the dark, with no guide, no map, and no guarantees. Here one acts as subject, creator and author.
However, as you become a creator and an author, you also come to realize that you are no different from a lot of people out there. People who want to break away from normalcy. People who want to change for the better. People who have refused to crack under the weight of oppression by this life. In no other generation has so many people harbored such intense ambitions to become authors of their own truths and in extension, writers. The longing for one day to write a book, probably a novel or less likely, an autobiography lies close to the center of most contemporary aspirations.
This is at one level is a hugely welcome development, a consequence of widespread literacy, higher educational standards and a proper focus on the power of books to change lives. But looked at from another angle, it may also, in private, be the result of something rather more haphazard: an epidemic of isolation and loneliness. The army of literary agents, scouts, editors and writing coaches testifies not only to our love of literature, but also, less intentionally, to an unaddressed groundswell of painful solitude.
Reasons for wanting to write are multiple of course, but the structurally simplest option may also be the most pervasive: we write because there is no one in the vicinity who will listen. We start to long to set down our memories and emotions on a page and to send them out into the wider world because our friends don’t bother to hear us, because our partners are preoccupied and because it’s been agonizingly long since anyone gave us an uninterrupted stretch of time in which we could be attended to with respect and attention. In short, because we are very lonely.
Writing, for all that it might begin with; experiences of joy or disinterested intellectual fascination, also owes its origins to despair, shame and a lack of someone to cry with. Just as it was with my first ever post. It is when we have screamed a long time for help, and no one came, that we may begin quietly to burn to write a novel instead. Writing can be the solution to a more poignant ambition beneath: to be heard, to be held, to be respected, to have our feelings interpreted, and soothed, to be known and appreciated. French novelist Gustave Flaubert put it at its simplest: if he had been happy in love at eighteen, he would never have wanted to write. Similarly, if I had not been distraught and heartbroken when I was 23, I would never have wanted to write.
At the start of every journey into self-awareness, we meet the figure of Socrates, who puts forward a striking proposition: writing is not what thoughtful people should ideally be doing with their time, he suggests. For Socrates, writing is a pale imitation of and replacement for our true vocation, which is that of talking to our fellow human beings, in the flesh, in real time, often with a glass of wine on the table, or while strolling through the park or doing some exercise in the gym, about what really matters. The birth of literature is, in the Socratic world view, simply a symptom of social isolation and an indictment of our communities.
Even if we find literature the finest of substitutes, infinitely better than anything else yet invented, it still pays to recognize that substitute is what it might primarily be, that writing is in certain ways an act of very polite and artful revenge on a world too busy to listen to us and that we would never develop such fierce bookish ambitions if we had not first been let down by those we needed so much to rely upon.
A slightly more conscious awareness of writing as compensation may lend us energy to acknowledge our unrequited ache for more visceral forms of contact. Whatever the satisfactions of writing alone in bed at 3 am in the morning, we should perhaps not cease so easily to give up on the ecstasies of mutual understanding and sympathy. It is far from easy to write a decent article let alone a novel; it may be even harder yet ultimately more rewarding to learn to locate a circle of true friends.
A better world might, from this perspective, be one in which we wanted a little less ardently to be writers because we had collectively grown ever so slightly better at listening and making ourselves heard. Perhaps literature’s loss might, in the end, be humanity’s gain. My gain.
©C. J. Njoroge