I didn’t sleep well last night – went to bed at 3 and woke up before my alarm rang at 8am. The problem is not that I am lonely. I have rejoiced at the pleasure of spending the last two weeks at home, constantly surrounded by loved ones, resisting the seduction of anonymous spaces: the cafés that don’t force us to be or do anything beyond what we already are, coffee shops that let us feel productive as parasitic observers, that idly facilitate the slow wilting of our dreams. I have not indulged my inclination towards such places. I have deliberately spent my time “at home” with the people that render that word meaningful to me. Which is to say, the nervousness that kept me tossing and turning last night was no conventional vexation of mine, and this was hard to name.
The physical act of traveling neither pleases not bothers me, and thus was likely not the source of my discomfort. Although there are bright spots to my experience in Oman, I will admit that the thought of my decreasingly remote return there turns my stomach. However, neither do I think that my existential disequilibrium regarding Gulf society is the problem.
Perhaps rather what I fear is returning to a place (Ghana), and thus revisiting an experience, that catalyzed irrevocable changes in me and my life. Looking into the chasm, between “what happened before” and “what happened after,” obliging yourself to face “what happened,” this is an intimidating prospect. As Louis Armstrong famously said,
There are some people that if they don’t know, you can’t tell them.
And if one is fortunate enough to, at some point, transition from one of these people into someone who, while they may not “know,” “you can tell them,” it is agonizing to dwell much on one’s former self. You no longer share a language – you renounce and resent the former you, and yet remain counter-imposed on, and inextricably linked to it. This is an unsettling realization.
Furthermore, as optimistic, delusional homo sapiens, I find that we have a tendency to try, over time, to rosy-up our memories of those painful, wrenching, transitional moments, the personal cataclysms of “what happened” that cleave us from our previous selves.
Yet as Rumi shrewdly observes,
The wound is the place where the light enters.
Change, transformation, these must necessarily be challenging, if not downright excruciating! We like to remember who we became “after,” or to dwell on our subsequent emotional or spiritual invigoration, rather than on the physical or material discomfort we suffered. One problem with this air-brushed model lies in the rare, but real, possibility of actually being able to revisit the formative experience. Such psychological repatriation is jarring, probes the same humiliating insecurities and raises all the old questions, most of which can be no better answered than they were before.
Is it dilettantish for me to even be here, creating no scalable or sustainable solutions? Am I exploiting those whom I purportedly care for? Am I being manipulated by those who care for me? Am I just selfishly satisfying my own emotional needs by being here, making a pseudo-pilgrimage back to a place that briefly meant very much to me, but whose stultifying poverty I always knew I had the privilege of being able to leave, if (and as) I chose?
Tina Thuermer remarks in her review of former Peace Corps Volunteer Jeffrey Tayler’s (obviously problematic) travelogue, Facing the Congo,
The inner journey all Peace Corps Volunteers face – what am I doing here, in my vanity, and how could I indulge myself like this in the face of people who have no choices? “The alien in Zaire had seduced me; the threatening had challenged me; and I had pictured its wilderness as a bourn where I could rejuvenate myself through suffering and achievement and conquest of my fear. But my drama of self-actualization proved obscenely trivial beside the suffering of Zaireans or the injustices of their past.”
These sentiments resonate. And while I do not have answers to the questions they raise, I know at least that I must tirelessly ask these questions of myself. And today, unlike four years ago, I am able to acknowledge the gravity and import of pursuing their answers, however elusive they may be.
So I guess that is why I could not sleep last night. What words do you say at your mother’s tombstone? How to express gratitude to those whom you owe everything, when you return to them empty handed?
Perhaps I should have brought frankincense from Oman. That seems to be a reliable Yuletide offering.