More than kin and less than kind

Am I really the me I think I am -the cogito ergo sum I have been led to believe? Or have I been naïve all these years in assuming my identity rests solely inside somewhere -in the uniqueness of my brain, maybe, or in the peculiarities of my experiences that no one else could ever hope to share in the same intimate fashion? Am I, in other words, a self-portrait?

I was raised in a society that values self-fulfillment as if were a birthright. Even the motto of my high school was ad maiora natus sum –‘I was born for better things’. Not we, you understand but I… me. And, of course, my teachers were only too happy to inculcate the values of independence and self-reliance in each and every one of us. Competitions on the sports field, and gradations in our marks, only heightened the feeling that each of us was separate, and in charge of our ranking, somehow. It seemed only natural -to some of us, at any rate- to see ourselves as nascent statues seeking our own pedestals.

There’s nothing wrong with that, I suppose, except that as I grew older and gained more experience, I began to realize that I was not alone. Much like my shadow that followed me everywhere, so did the world. Indeed, everything I did, and much of what I thought, was influenced by others -either by assimilation, or unwitting imitation. The opinion of others, although sometimes shunned, was more often modified and subsequently integrated as if by disguising it, I became the author. And yet, deep down, I realized that the parthenogenesis of ideas was largely fictive. I was swimming in the same waters as everyone else…

But it was not as traumatic as I might have predicted in my tutored youth. In fact, on reflection, it has been more affirming than repudiating, more reassuring than discouraging -almost as if I had finally been accepted as a member of something I had unconsciously coveted all along. I had not capitulated to something I had struggled against, but, instead of staring through its windows like a bewildered shopper, I was welcomed through the door.

But why? Why the initial reluctance to accept my membership in something to which I had always belonged? Some of the answers emerged in an online publication, Aeon, from an essay by Abeba Birhane, a cognitive science student at University College Dublin. https://aeon.co/ideas/descartes-was-wrong-a-person-is-a-person-through-other-persons

‘We know from everyday experience that a person is partly forged in the crucible of community. Relationships inform self-understanding. Who I am depends on many ‘others’: my family, my friends, my culture, my work colleagues… Even my most private and personal reflections are entangled with the perspectives and voices of different people, be it those who agree with me, those who criticise, or those who praise me.’

‘The 17th-century French philosopher [René Descartes] believed that a human being was essentially self-contained and self-sufficient; an inherently rational, mind-bound subject, who ought to encounter the world outside her head with skepticism.’ The only thing I can say for certain is that I am, because I am the entity able to conceptualize it. The rest of the world could be a dream -but not the dreamer… So this leaves the effects of anything else on us in a sort of limbo.

Of course others have tried to get around the problem: the 20th-century Russian philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin ‘believed that it was only through an encounter with another person that you could come to appreciate your own unique perspective and see yourself as a whole entity… Nothing simply is itself, outside the matrix of relationships in which it appears. Instead, being is an act or event that must happen in the space between the self and the world.’

I love that. It suggests that we derive our identity -our very existence as that identity- through our interactions, recognition and validation by others. Think of people in solitary confinement in prisons. ‘studies of such prisoners suggest that their sense of self dissolves if they are punished this way for long enough. Prisoners tend to suffer profound physical and psychological difficulties, such as confusion, anxiety, insomnia, feelings of inadequacy, and a distorted sense of time. Deprived of contact and interaction – the external perspective needed to consummate and sustain a coherent self-image – a person risks disappearing into non-existence.’

And it’s not just in prisons we can disappear. I met her at a bus stop -or, rather, she met me. I  happened to be the first person in a lengthy, but orderly queue waiting in the rain for a long overdue bus.

“I was actually first,” she said, staring at me defiantly. She was well dressed in a grey skirt and I could just see a frilly white blouse under her upmarket raincoat. Her short, dark hair was barely mussed in the wind and rain it was now enduring. “I was waiting over there… Out of the rain,” she added, as if to prove her point.

I smiled pleasantly at her as the bus pulled up. “I should have done the same,” I said, furling my embarrassingly inadequate umbrella.

“I didn’t want you to think I just came along, you know,” she persisted. “Sometimes people get really upset when they’ve been waiting in line…”

The way she said it made me think this probably wasn’t the first time she’d crashed a queue. “No, please go in front of me,” I said, trying to show I was not upset. “It’s raining and you don’t have an umbrella.”

She promptly boarded the already crowded bus, then signalled me to sit beside her on one of the only remaining seats. “Do you live in the city?” she asked as soon as I was settled. She looked anxious.

I nodded politely, thinking she was just looking for a way to start a conversation.

“A house…?”

I nodded again, but her eyes immediately landed painfully on my face.

“Landlord, or renter?”

“Excuse me?” It seemed like a trick question, and I was immediately wary.

“You live in a house,” she said slowly and carefully, as if I was hard of hearing.

I nodded, carefully.

“Are you renting it?”

This was getting uncomfortable. “Why do you ask?”

Her eyes scratched at my face for a moment, before flying off again. “Because the city is trying to institute rent controls.” She frowned as she said it.

I brushed her cheek with a quick glance before I stared at my lap. I still wasn’t sure why she was asking. “Do you think that’s a good thing…?” I asked, trying to seem tentative.

“Oh yes!” she hurried to answer. I could almost feel the exclamation mark hovering between us. “Landlords shouldn’t be able to take advantage of their tenants.”

“So, I take it you are a renter?” I said kindly.

“Of course! I’m a single woman now. I’ll never be able to buy a house…”

“Do you like the place you rent?” I asked, trying to change the subject a bit.

She blinked at me, probably wondering if I was trying to trap her, but she relaxed a little. “It’s a bit of a hovel, really. The fridge makes a noise and only one of the burners on the stove works. The walls need some paint, and the rug is frayed…” She sighed and fiddled with a button on her coat. “But it’s the only place I could find.” She looked at the person sitting in front of her for a moment. “I thought it had promise when I first saw it, though…”

I had obviously unleashed something.

“The landlord says he wants to fix it up.”

“Certainly sounds like it could use some work,” I said, smiling.

She glared at me for a moment, and then softened her expression. “That’s exactly what he said.” She glanced out of the window at the rain. “But then he said he would have to raise the rent to pay for it.”

“Do you think that’s fair,” I asked.

I could see she was about to say ‘no’, but she changed her mind and turned her head to look out of the window again. Finally, she shrugged. “We’re both caught, aren’t we? On the one hand, I don’t want to pay more, but on the other, I’d love to see the place fixed up.”

“But if rent controls come into effect, he’s also in a bind, isn’t he?”

She nodded sombrely. “I mean, they’re probably a good idea, but…”

“But they don’t work for you or your landlord…”

She sighed again, and then shrugged.

“Of course there is a way out, isn’t there?” I said, thinking I was just stating the obvious.

She nodded. “Let him fix the place, and pay more rent.”

“Could you not come to a fair compromise with him about the price? Or maybe agree to a gradual increase over, say, a year, or something?” I smiled conspiratorially at her. “After all, rent controls only kick in if you complain.”

I could see her eyes widen as she thought about it. She nodded her head, slowly, and a smile quietly spread over her face. “He’s actually a decent guy…” Suddenly she reached for the pull cord. “My goodness, we’ve been talking so much I almost missed my stop,” she said as she stood and squeezed past me. And then she turned to face me as she struggled through the people standing in the aisle. “I’m so glad I talked to you,” she said. “Thank you,” was the last I heard from her as she disappeared through the sea of dripping coats.

Sometimes it’s good to talk about your problems, I thought and smiled to myself, glad that I might have helped her. ‘A person is a person through other persons’ -wasn’t that the Zulu phrase Abeba Birhane had quoted in that article…?

Blow, Blow, Thou Winter Wind

There is a time, a dark time, when normal daylight thoughts are banished. A time when what remains are skeletal shadows, atavistic remnants of ancestral fears, unbidden fragments of anchorless dread which in the fullness of a sunlit day, are sheer cotton. -translucent at their best. It is when doors are left ajar and watchmen sleep. It is a time when filtering is impossible, and  vetting unreliable. It is the time of night when even the moon is asleep, or hiding…

And normally, so am I, but age and diet sometimes conspire to rearrange diurnal rhythms –shuffle the deck- and if I allow the shards of my imagination any attempts to organize unsupervised, the resultant patterns are not ones I would recognize in the light. Nor accept. It is an existential angst, a dark time of the soul.

A few weeks ago, I awoke sweating, and in the nocturnal silence of a moonless night, seemed trapped in an airless blanket of dread. I couldn’t see, and everything around me was still. Unmoving. Mute. If it had been preceded by a dream, I couldn’t remember it; all was numbed by the intensity of the terror, and I was helpless in the current swirling noiselessly around me. Suddenly, the sure and certain knowledge that I would be blinded from complications of impending cataract surgery gripped me like the jaws of an unseen, unexpected predator, and the ensuing silence convinced me of the extent of my coeval deafness. I was, and would be for all time, trapped in a silent darkness -solitary confinement on the authority of cast dice.

Of course the feeling passed, and my daylight remembrance of the event was suitably tailored in the sun, but the feeling lingered. What would it be like to be forever trapped in both silence and darkness, I wondered? What would be left of life? And for that matter, what would be the use of a gift I could no longer use? No longer experience… except as a living, solitary hell?

I suppose I’m being overly dramatic about a highly unlikely confluence of events, but even the possibility makes me shudder -makes me fearful about the fragile egg-shell in which I am encased, and the delicacy of the components it is charged with protecting. It is perhaps a wonder that we as a species –and more specifically, I as an individual- have survived at all, let alone this many years.

With this in the back of my mind, I am surprised I had not heard of Usher syndrome before, although perhaps my specialty of Obstetrics and Gynaecology quarantined me from an extremely rare condition that results in both blindness and deafness as well as a host of other non-gynaecologic impairments. But it was the subject of a BBC article that caught my eye and quickly brought back the horror of my panic attack: http://www.bbc.com/news/disability-38853237

It’s the story of a young girl, Molly, who ‘was born severely deaf and learned to lip read. But, at the age of 12, she was diagnosed with Usher syndrome, a degenerative disease which causes sight and hearing loss. Now aged 22 she has just 5% of sight left in one eye.’ The eye condition is called retinitis pigmentosa which progressively affects peripheral vision and results in night blindness as well.

And, as if deafness and blindness were not enough, she was also a teenager struggling like every other teen, to negotiate the serpentine interstices of social life. She did receive speech therapy, so communication was possible, but as she admits, ‘”I have to strategise everything I do. I am night-blind and so when I go out I would often ask to hang onto a friend. I will only go out with the close friends who do not make me feel a burden.”’

There are also mental health issues with Usher syndrome, not surprisingly, and Molly has a bipolar disease which can complicate her ability to cope with her disabilities at times. Also, ‘Her experiences are often dictated by the support she receives. While she says college restored her faith in humanity, she left university early due to a lack of assistance. “Lecturers didn’t have the time to understand my condition. Training and awareness sessions were set up for staff and nobody turned up. I just needed materials to be made accessible – large text, for lecturers to wear a radio aid that connected to my hearing aids – it’s as simple as that.”’

Some people are truly special, aren’t they? I suspect I would have sunk into an irremediable depression and yet ‘Molly has set up her own charity – The Molly Watt Trust – to support others with Usher and has spoken at prestigious institutions including Harvard University and the House of Commons [UK] outlining how capable people with Usher are.’

But perhaps the spirit soars, even in captivity –or maybe especially in captivity. I’m reminded of Victor Frankl’s book Man’s Search for Meaning and his thesis of ‘tragic optimism’: ‘How […] can life retain its potential meaning in spite of its tragic aspects? After all, “saying yes to life in spite of everything […] presupposes that life is potentially meaningful under any conditions, even those which are most miserable. And this in turn presupposes the human capacity to creatively turn life’s negative aspects into something positive or constructive. In other words, what matters is to make the best of any given situation. […]an optimism in the face of tragedy and in view of the human potential which at its best always allows for: turning suffering into a human achievement and accomplishment […] and deriving from life’s transitoriness an incentive to take responsible action.’

I suppose that it is difficult to judge a response like Molly’s from the outside, though; I suspect that true empathy –experiencing something through another’s mind- is nigh on impossible for most of us in her case. After all, it would require relinquishing all of that which we have come to accept as normal –sight for as many years as we have lived, and the sounds that have accompanied us through the years… An existence unimpeded -until now, perhaps- by significant impairment. The contrast between then and now would be overwhelming, I think.

And yet, as Helena says in Shakespeare’s All’s Well That Ends Well, ‘”Oft expectation fails, and most oft there where most it promises; and oft it hits where hope is coldest, and despair most fits.”’

Thank you Molly!