Why I won't date you
On universal interconnectedness and the human condition
A.: I am so happy to be on this business trip. Three days on the countryside are exactly what I needed for a change of scenery.
B.: Sure, the place is nice. It is a bit cold, though I still went for a swim at dawn. I was just too curious about the North Sea. That aside, we still are here for work, which means that most of our waking hours will be committed to what we always do.
A.: The trick is to have fun during those moments you are awake without being at the job. Just like your rather reckless excursion to the beach. “A bit cold” is a massive understatement. It is cloudy, the wind speed has picked up, and it looks like it will rain any moment now. Thankfully we are indoors.
B.: No worries: I got what I wanted. You are right though, I did not mean to sound negative about the fact that we are here. I am glad that we get the chance to change scenes. Besides, this is the first time we sit together without doing any kind of work. Weird, isn’t it?
A.: It is! I saw you walking by and just had to invite you to sit here. I have been here before. It is cosy and I like to feel its warmth, its comfort before heading to the office. Plus this is my chance to get to know you better. You are always so professional and discreet, seemingly detached from the world around you.
B.: It sure is a welcoming establishment. There must be a history to it. But I am not here for that. I accepted your invitation as I was simply walking around the area in search of nothing in particular. Would you care to elaborate on what you think contributes to my discreetness and professionalism? To this apparent aloofness that you have spotted? It will help me answer your questions about who I am. Is that not what you want?
A.: Do you feel comfortable being here?
B.: All good.
A.: Do you mind if I make some private questions and provide relevant observations? I don’t mean to be bad or unsettle you. It just is that someone has to make a start.
B.: Please go ahead.
A.: I have noticed that you never express any sort of interest in your colleagues’ personal lives. It is typical for people in our workplace to get to know each other by sharing their experiences. This happens at the coffee table, during lunch, or on Friday evenings and over the weekends in after-work gatherings… We are all friends here. You are the only one missing.
A.: Do you follow me.
B.: I am listening to every single word. Please continue.
A.: I hope I am not being pushy here. You are so quiet.
B.: All is good. Perhaps you are just not used to someone listening to you.
A.: Okay. I was basically saying that you are removed from the rest of us. You don’t drink coffee, so you never attend those short breaks. You prepare food at home and won’t join us at the restaurant. And I have not spotted you around in after-work hours, not even once after all these months, whereas I have met all the others. It is a small city back where we live, which leads me to believe that you withdraw into your shell. At this point, I would not be surprised if you also do not consume alcohol. While those may be your choices, which I would not judge, it seems you have a hard time adjusting to this life style and have not made any friends to ease the transition.
B.: You sure are perceptive. Indeed, I do not drink coffee and alcohol and generally am very disciplined and particular with what I consume. It would be impossible for me to think about all those things, from metaphysics to epistemology, to ethics, politics, and the human condition, and yet have nothing to say about those items which are essential to my quotidian experience: food and drink.
A.: I was aware that you are the philosopher type. Not from you, of course, but from your colleagues that work directly with you. Though the way you speak, your body language, makes this easy to spot. I know nothing about philosophy, so please don’t overwhelm me with it.
B.: No stress. I also don’t know anything about it.
[ Read: Why I won’t join your club (2021-06-15) ]
B.: I am here to answer your questions. And did I just hear that you will buy me a herbal tea?
A.: Oh yes, sorry about that! I’ll see to it. Please continue. You were saying that you are mindful of your consumption. What about socialising with us?
B.: The excuse is that I do not join your coffee breaks because I do not drink coffee. And I do not come at your parties because I do not consume alcohol. I could just leave it at that and tell you to simply take it for what it is. But the truth is that I feel no need to be with you all.
A.: You don’t like people or noise?
B.: Those are not the same. I do like people, especially when I am not paying for it! Ha! And I can tolerate noise.
A.: What am I missing then?
B.: You think that everyone is like you. That we all draw energy and excitement by being with others the whole time. Let’s say I ask you now about your private life. Any of those usual questions. What will be your follow-up question once you answer mine?
A.: Maybe “how about you?” in an attempt to keep the dialogue going?
B.: Exactly! There is an element of reciprocity at play. I will ask you, then you will ask me back. And when I provide an answer, perhaps one you do not expect, you will inquire as to why that is. Not only will the discussion enter into private territory, it will likely invoke comparisons with other peoples’ stories, which means that I will be hearing not just your account of events, but also a curated view of everybody else’s.
A.: That is how it usually goes. It is necessary in order to connect with each other.
B.: Then we can work our way backwards. If this is how we connect, and if I never join your meetings, it means that I am not excited by those kinds of conversations and do not think of connecting in that particular way as necessary or beneficial to me. Those talks tire me out, as I have to expend all my energy on topics I find uninteresting. I don’t care about your romantic escapades, not you right here, just the general “you”. And I most certainly have zero interest in the details of your sex life.
A.: I will not press on with that, if it makes you feel uncomfortable. Do you want to continue talking to me, or is that also troublesome.
B.: Let’s continue, as you consider this an opportunity to learn something about me. We will soon know whether you discover something new about you instead.
A.: I’m not sure what that is supposed to mean. Are you always cryptic like that?
B.: This is not a trick. I am just noting that a conversation can often shed light on corners of our world we are unaware of. It may reveal insights that have the potential to change how we approach certain issues. There is a chance that your life might move in another direction afterwards. The change might be barely noticeable at first, like a two degree adjustment in an aeroplane’s flight which ultimately takes it to an altogether different destination. The alteration in course might set in motion a series of cascading events that will manifest as a larger shift in attitude and outlook.
A.: That is still too abstract for me. I am more of an activist, working with actual people. Not to imply that your take is wrong or somehow inadequate. There is a contrast with what I do. That’s all.
B.: I am also interested in actual people. Have you found any?
A.: Another tricky question! Either you are teasing me all along or you have some other definition in mind. I meant that I work with people everyday and we deal with tangible issues. You know, their needs for shelter, a stable and fulfilling job, putting food on the table. That sort of thing.
B.: I understood that well. What I meant is that it is hard to find someone who is not behaving in accordance with the rules and norms that are specific to each place. Notice how we got started with this. You traced patterns in my behaviour that did not conform with the expectations you have formed at the workplace. For instance, you observed correctly that I do not drink coffee with you like the rest of the group. While you did not state it explicitly, that struck you as odd, as something being amiss. It triggered your curiosity until you eventually summoned me to your table. You wondered what may be contributing to that apparent non-conformity with the established norms of conduct. Those rules may be tacit, but you already understand them as present, as being in effect. And so you were intrigued when the seemingly universal law turned out to have exceptions to it.
[ Read: Why I never call you (2021-06-05) ]
A.: Yes, I noticed you were doing your own thing and wanted to know whether you had adjustment problems. I assumed it would be that, because you do not seem to hold a grudge or harbour ill feelings. Either way, I am here to help.
B.: In your case, you hypothesised as much. In general though, those inferences could vary considerably. What is constant in the multitude is the functioning of two magnitudes: (i) the severally and often passively enforced rulebook of sociability within the given milieu, and (ii) the assumption of irregularity when the rules fail to apply.
A.: Interesting. Where do you want to go with that?
B.: If I were to conform with the rules, would I be here holding this kind of discussion?
A.: You could be here now because we would have become friends sooner, rather than just being colleagues. Though I suppose we would be discussing other topics than what we currently cover.
B.: Let’s probe deeper into this theme. If I were to act in accordance with the prevailing norms, I would be behaving in a manner that was consistent with the applicable expectations. Right?
B.: Would that person, who would essentially be acting contrary to their own volition, be true to their self? Would I be me, if I were acting unlike me?
A.: Is this not a trivial issue though? Are you saying that a simple coffee break would affect your personality or something?
B.: We invoke the coffee break as an example. It is not the only thing that you had noticed. Apart from the coffee, we have lunch, the after-work gatherings, and if we were to continue with our search we would find all sorts of other scenaria that can be described in terms of those implicit “rules of the game” that I am alluding to. So please answer my question: if I were to follow the rules despite the fact that I do not express myself that way, would I still be operating like me?
A.: No, you would be something between your real “you” and the one that makes a compromise to sit at our table.
B.: Very well. The differentiation means that I would not be me. And if we were to extend this to every aspect of life, I would always be a “compromise”, as you put it, between my underlying self and whatever finds currency in the particular case.
A.: I see how that goes. Why are we discussing this?
B.: Because I was curious about the “actual people” you encounter in your day-to-day activism. If everyone is behaving unlike who they really are, then we have a problem of indeterminacy. What is the regular and what the irregular? Which is the real you?
A.: You have clearly thought this more than I. I just wanted to make you feel comfortable and be friendly. I now understand what you meant when you said you are interested in actual people. My immediate reaction would be that you are overthinking it, though upon second thought I feel you are up to something. I can already tell that you have better reasons to behave the way you do and are not simply struggling to adapt to life here.
B.: The two are not mutually exclusive. You can still be yourself and struggle to adapt because you face social pressure to fit in and behave like everybody else.
A.: I understand. Once you get started, things will improve over time. The key is to take it slow and be relaxed about it.
A.: Do you see that girl walking up the street?
A.: Do you know who she is?
B.: Does she?
B.: Don’t give me that look. I am just teasing you. I know she works with us. Nothing more.
A.: She is a good friend of mine. She can’t be with us right now as she has an appointment. We seem to be lucky in that regard, because our work starts a bit later in the day. Anyhow, we can join her later, if you want. Don’t you think she’s cute?
B.: I don’t know why you are already counting me in, but I’ll tag along since we are here.
A.: You didn’t answer my question…
B.: I thought we were talking about a human being and then you asked me if she is cute. To me “cute” does not trigger a response. A doll is cute and she is not one. A pet is cute and she is not one. How about “interesting”?
A.: Whatever works for you. Interesting in what way?
B.: It’s your friend and you are bringing her into this discussion. I will play your game though I am telling you in advance that I will not join you later. No hard feelings, I have already planned to visit some sites in the area. I won’t tell you which ones, as it does not add anything to our discussion. To your point. Is she merely cute or does she have something else that defines her? Maybe she enjoys books. Perhaps she is a long distance runner. She could be a comedian or a volunteer in her local commune. I don’t know. Is there something else about her as a person?
A.: She has lots of talents. Plays saxophone and writes poems. And she speaks four languages—all fluently.
B.: So why did you bring up cuteness?
A.: I don’t know, to be perfectly honest. It was spontaneous.
B.: You do, though you may have not realised it yet because all those coffee breaks—and I am being schematic here with “coffee breaks” to cut the long story short—have conditioned you to act in a certain way. You assumed another normality where people of a given gender are supposed to behave in a predictable way. You know what stereotype I am referring to. You looked at me and surmised that I am part of that group, and since they are all supposed to be the same, you reached an early conclusion. The train of thought led you to believe that I would be excited to speak my mind about her cuteness or the lack thereof. Then you added the bait: you mentioned the chance of meeting her later in the day, with you being her close friend, implying that if I found her cute I would be given the unique chance to act on that, especially in light of where we are, far from our base of operations.
B.: Take your time. I am not blaming you for anything. I just showed you a part of you that was hitherto obscured by your conformity with the socially sanctioned roles you assume in each case. I had already told you going into this discussion that you might figure out something about yourself and your initial reaction was that I was playing tricks and being cryptic. No problem, I get that a lot.
[ Read: On role and actuality (2021-04-15) ]
A.: I now realise that. And I can clearly tell that you are not the silent type after all.
B.: I am silent when the discussion is pointless and/or when no one is listening. You were kind enough to invite me to your table and buy me a cup of tea. I am enjoying the conversation we have. Don’t worry if you start to feel awkward about what you found out. Your confusion stems from the fact that you are not used to anyone actually listening to what you say and discerning the intent behind your words and the overarching framework that informs them.
A.: You have this way of talking in paragraphs about abstract things and I have trouble keeping up. I still don’t know what you think of my friend. Can we go back to that?
B.: I wanted to explain how her cuteness is irrelevant. By bringing that up you unintentionally reduced her to a fraction of her self. What kind of person would that attract? She is not a doll. She is a fully fledged human being.
A.: I just had to start from somewhere.
B.: I understand. Though I can already tell that you are contemplating what I have shown you and will think twice before starting from that point again.
A.: You are one stubborn fellow. Though in a good kind of way.
B.: Do you want to learn more?
A.: Sure. About what?
B.: About how you tried to present your friend to me.
A.: I apologise. She is my friend and I did not mean to belittle her.
B.: There is no need to be sorry about what effectively is a mimetic behaviour you were unaware of. You did what would otherwise be passed off as normal. Only you had the tough luck, or blessing in disguise if you will, to run across an immovable object. Just relax and let me regale you with my analysis of this.
A.: Well, I brought that upon myself, didn’t I? I thought I would avoid the philosophising by bringing up my friend. You evaded that and now have turned the discussion to where you wanted it to move towards. Please go on, but be mindful that I may have trouble with weird terminology.
B.: A fully fledged human being is more than just their appearance. They are a rich and complex world. Humans have carnal desires, like the need to eat or the sex drive. Your allusion to cuteness was a hint at the latter. The body pertains to our overall health and I would group it together with our psychological/emotional state as two sides of the same coin. So what we eat, think, breath are all relevant, as well as how we expend our energy and interact with others as the social species we are. Continuing, we also have an aesthetic side, which we cultivate by engaging with art, whether by taking it from others or producing it ourselves. Then there is the intellectual aspect, which we stimulate by reading, by thinking things through, and by adding structure to our thoughts. Finally, there is the mystical dimension, as a potentiality of ours that we need to develop considerably before it is rendered salient. In practice all those are part of us in a singular form, though I present them here as analytical constructs just so we may reason about them.
A.: Interesting. I am way out of my depth here. You have to take things slowly.
B.: That’s fine. You are eager to learn, which again shows something you may not be aware about yourself. The point is that every human is different. Think about one’s physical attributes. If you map them across dimensions such as strength, endurance, speed, you will find that some are inclined to score higher at certain metrics, while none are the same in terms of distribution.
A.: Obviously. We see it with professional athletes, such as in team sports. They are all subjected to the same training regime, but not everyone can perform equally across all those metrics.
B.: Correct. Well, the same is true about everything I mentioned. Some are inclined to connect with others at an emotional level, others have exceptional aesthetic sensitivities, while others are drawn towards intellectual pursuits. In practice, everyone is a bit of everything with permutations between those analytical extremes.
A.: What about carnal desires?
B.: I think those are powerful and probably potent in everyone; at least everyone who is not asexual. The need for food is unavoidable, whereas sexual drives may be possible to contain, if the presence of monks or hermits of all kinds of religions and persuasions is any indication. Regardless, my point is that we can work towards improving those parts of our self beside the basic instincts that already are the most developed. Think of it like training: at first you can barely perform the exercise but over time you get better at it. Some may be naturals in doing so, while others will have to put in more effort. As with the performance of professional athletes, not everyone can become the same, but we can all try to improve ourselves.
A.: So if I start reading some books, I will expand my intellectuality. If I listen to music, attend theatres, watch movies, visit a museum, pay attention to the architecture of buildings around me, recite poetry, etc. I can refine my aesthetic self. I get those can be combined, so that, say, reading literature will have a benign effect on both my aesthetic and intellectual dimensions. I think those are all clear, more or less. Except the mystical one. I have not heard about it before. Did you discover it in one of those books I assume you read during the weekends?
B.: You should know by now not to assume much. What better book than the world itself?
A.: The world itself? Do tell!
B.: We work long hours. On paper, we put in an eight-hour shift, though we both know that is not true. We start in the morning at half past seven to eight, depending on the agenda, and we stay until seven in the evening or later. And we do this every weekday. Add to that the fact that we live in a city, each of us in an apartment that we retreat to just to recharge our batteries for the morning after. I go to bed some time between nine or ten, meaning that I barely get any quality time after work. When Friday comes, I might stay up a bit longer, as I am eager to get back to what I really want to do. And this cycle repeats every week and month.
A.: I feel you. What is mystical about that?
B.: At some point, you start feeling exhausted, mentally depleted. You are not angry, just empty. You can sense that you are losing touch. It is not sadness per se, though you sense that simmering desperation which pushes you to search for an exit, for an alternative. Not knowing what to do, you run a quick search online which eventually ends with you boarding a train en route to the countryside. You are not sure what to expect on a Saturday morning, just that you need to move towards the hinterland. You arrive at the station and head straight to the nearby forest. What is even compelling you to behave in such a manner? No one knows for sure. As you walk into the woods, you already sense a different energy. You can’t describe it quite yet, but you start to feel relaxed. It is quiet and you keep walking, having already marked a spot to find your way back. There is no pressure anymore. You are alone in the universe, or so you think.
A.: Are you not afraid of wolves or generally of being on your own in such a remote place?
B.: Wolves are afraid of us after centuries of persecution and habitat erosion. The myth of the big bad wolf should be inverted to refer to the rapacious human instead. Same for sharks. Humanity slaughters them on an industrial scale, yet one shark attack gets amplified as if we are the victims in the grand scheme of things. But I digress. My account of the trip to the forest is just something for you to relate to the mystical part of your being. Back to my story and soon everything will become clear. You leave the forest feeling more comfortable than before. While you are puzzled at the chain of events that led you to that place, you suspend your disbelief and go back home, thinking about everything that transpired . Your work continues to exhaust you and you now have developed a habit of escaping to the trees. After a few visits you start hearing sounds. That place is not quiet as you had initially thought. It has a different rhythm. You were used to the frequencies of the boisterous city and were unable to pick up the subtleties of the wilderness. Now you are more attuned to them, to the effect that the original impression of emptiness has been replaced by an unmistakable feeling of ubiquitous presence. What exactly is that which is present you still cannot tell, but you are sure you are not alone any more. As you walk by a tree, you take note of an intriguing pattern. A large trunk with branches that reach high and wide conceals the sunlight from some smaller trees in its midst. How do those trees receive the sunlight they need to grow? You look around and are certain that they cannot take it directly. Yet they appear to be healthy.
A.: I am curious to see where this is going…
B.: You have already visited the place at various times during the day and across the seasons. Sunlight simply does not fall on those young trees. You look down and notice how they keep growing. You turn your attention upwards and take another close look at the towering tree in front of you. It has to be the parent tree and it must be channelling a portion of its vitality to its children. There is life here; life of an advanced sort. They are a family and behave just like the families of mammals do, only at a different temporal frame and within another spatial magnitude. What for us is a year, for them is a day or even less. But we are alike in some important ways. As you connect the dots, you look around and identify the siblings of those young trees and the society around them. The forest is like a human polity: all those complex relations give rise to emergent realities. In the human world, we have strictly intersubjective phenomena like language as a magma of meanings or the inflation in the economy. Those cannot be reduced to the individual level. The forest is the same. It is not just trees isolated from each. They build bonds between them and expand their network of communications.
A.: This is amazing! I had no idea, though it sounds plausible. So what is the mystical experience?
B.: The realisation that life is all around you. From the larger beings to the smallest ones. You can now find meaning in what was once insignificant, unnoticeable even. There are microorganisms everywhere around us. The space between me and you is filled with them. They also reside inside of us. Our relationship with them is symbiotic. Same principle for the trees. We would not be alive without the oxygen they release. And they would not be able to form their bonds without the help of other symbiotes, the mycelial networks in between their roots. We would not have this kind of planet if forests did not contribute to the climate in the multitude of ways that they do. And we can then begin to apply that to everything. You get the idea. It changes the way you see the world. The forest is no longer a resource for us to exploit. A heap mass unprocessed lumber, as it were. It is an organism.
A.: So the mystical is the ability to connect with something that is out there?
B.: In a sense, yes. It helps you conceive of the bigger picture, in which your ego is all but irrelevant. To be clear, this is not about forests as such. I am just employing this as an example to show you how you can escape from your default mindset of self-centred ignorance, self-centred obsession.
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A.: I am impressed though I would need more time to internalise all this and act on it. I expected the conversation to go very differently, but I am happy it turned out that way. Though now I wonder what happens when you stop being egocentric.
B.: It is not that you will get a notification on your computer or anything that shows a clear point of divergence. Those changes happen gradually. What takes place is a shift in perspective. You gain the ability to see things from another vantage point, a macroscopic level, where phenomena can be interpreted very differently than at the microscopic scale of your own person.
A.: Can you offer an example? The one with the forest did help.
B.: Have you every played with dirt as a kid?
A.: Yes, I used to visit my grandparents during the summer. They lived in a village and I would run around the house, cautiously exploring the great unknown that lay beyond. It was within a radius of a few meters from the house, but you get what I’m saying.
B.: Good. Sometimes while playing with dirt you spot a single ant. It is out there searching for food. If you toss it a breadcrumb, it will pick it up and take it back to its colony. If you throw a larger piece of bread and wait for a while, you will notice more ants showing up to carry the extra burden. They collaborate to achieve the same result, which is to collect food and bring it back home. And if you observe their patterns, you will realise how they seemingly all do the same thing. The term for that is “hive mind”, even though each ant can act on its own, their concerted efforts lead to something that is greater than themselves in isolation. It is as if they are one larger being.
A.: I have heard about that before. It is true for other insects as well.
B.: Indeed. And I would argue that it applies to humans, despite the obvious differences in complexity and scale. Just look around you. Cars are racing up and down the street. People are passing by. The waiter comes and goes serving customers. Some of them have just arrived, others are leaving. All this activity is but a tiny fraction of what is going on in the city as a whole, and that is still insignificant compared to the scale of operations at the regional level, and then to the country at-large, and the entire continent, and the rest of the globe.
A.: Yes, that is clear. Societies are contributing to some total output that would be impossible at the level of the individual.
B.: Not only in terms of sheer output, though. I am claiming that just as we can infer a collective consciousness that appears to be governing the ants, we can think of the macro scale of human relations as an emergent reality of its own. Another type of consciousness which connects the disparate and seemingly disorganised actions of individuals into grand designs that reveal patterns which we could consider efficient for the dissemination of information and for the joint quest for survival. From our micro perspective, this all sounds like a bunch of absurdities. Though we just need to refrain from our immediate, individualistic reaction and think carefully about what is obvious in every other aspect of life. Obviously, I know we can talk about what is wrong with our world in terms of politics and economics, though I am trying to outline how an organism may be conceived as a system of systems which may appear disconnected from each other when viewed from any of its micro levels, but are in fact bound together when examined as a whole.
A.: Fair enough. If I am getting this right, you are trying to suggest that by opening up our selves to be more aware of aesthetics and intellectuality and this mystical attribute, we can sort of understand that we are the living cells of a greater organism.
B.: Indeed. And then you can draw the same inferences with regard to every system within this planet and with the supersystem that encompasses them, and then further with the still greater system that holds them all together. Not only are you better prepared to connect with the world, but you become more sensitive to humans. You can almost see through them. You can read them like an open book. And you can feel them and understand where they are coming from.
A.: In practical terms, you will stop judging people and refrain from comparing and contrasting them to yourself. Right?
B.: I will let you find that out on your own. Next time you join those coffee breaks, pay attention to how evaluations of other people are made. You are perceptive, after all. I am sure you will figure this out. And then there is more to life where those insights can apply. Take it one step at a time.
A.: Oh, the phone rings. It is not a call. Just a reminder that we should be going soon.
B.: Work, work, work. Regardless, I must thank you for being so kind and patient as to bear with me.
A.: Meet you later?
B.: Yes, we have work to do. Not afterwards though. You still have not given me enough information to determine whether your friend is interesting. And I do not know anything about you apart from our job and today’s conversation. Perhaps you are interesting! Maybe I am interesting. Who knows? I won’t try to entertain those notions, as I still plan to visit those sites I alluded to earlier. Nothing can change my mind. You should be able to guess what they may be, based on everything I have shared thus far. What matters though is that you break the mould and seek to be treated as a fully fledged human being and become a better version of who you are. I think you can do it, slowly yet steadily. It is not about results, such as becoming more intellectual than someone else. There is no competition involved. It is the direction that is important, the overall shift in your attitude.
A.: I am happy that we shared those thoughts.
B.: Likewise! I seldom get the chance to do this. Usually the conversations are about the job’s trivialities.
A.: Let’s go.
Sometimes the paths of two people converge, only to never meet again. We are on a journey whose course we have not plotted. Now you are here. Tomorrow you may be long gone. Everything is made easier to parse once you accept impermanence.