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No land for you

A short story about role-playing and self-denial

Join me on this trip, friend.

You leave the office on a Friday at 14:00. This is much earlier than usual. It was quiet for whatever reason. Yet you feel exhausted, overwhelmed, depleted. As you take the usual 40-minute walk back home, you receive a message: “Plans for tonight? How about a gin-n-tonic?”

You don’t reply. You can’t muster the strength to explain why you don’t want to go out. It is not the other person’s fault. Who doesn’t like a drink in the presence of nice company? It’s not even that you quit drinking alcohol: a mere long drink is nothing compared to what you are used to. And the place is not that bad, either. What gives?

After 20 minutes, you pick up the phone and text back: “I can’t. Will tell you later”. You then switch off the device and change course. Instead of going home, you are heading to a forest on the other side of the town’s outskirts. If you are to hide, you might as well do it properly, right?

You are overburdened by troubling thoughts. The responsibilities of the model professional have taken their toll on you. There is this people-pleasing propensity to help everyone out, usually at your own expense. You provide assistance to them to receive some validation that you too are good at something. It is a token of recognition. Perhaps they might even like you!

Though there is something else: the growing sense of emptiness stemming from the realisation that nobody knows you. How is that even possible? You have literally hundreds of acquaintances plus all those who tell you how your “fame precedes you”. Please! Yes, there are those who work with you, drink with you, fuck with you… So what? They don’t know you. It’s all a trick of the moment.

No-one knows you because you don’t know yourself. What you show is an act. You have been leading a life of role-playing. Behold the “good worker” and “reliable colleague”! Everyone calls you when they need a good worker and reliable colleague. They aren’t asking for you, though. The call is for someone who fits these criteria, an avatar of the relevant expectations. You? You are only relevant insofar as you identify with that avatar. Otherwise you are replaceable, disposable, irrelevant.

How can you know who you are when all your experiences are contingent on that initial lie? You please others to feel better about yourself. Deep down, you are scared, afraid that no-one likes you and that if you dare answer negatively they will have no reason to ever be with you. You dread being rejected. It is not loneliness per se, it is the dismissal that brings about this eventuality. That is what you cannot face up to.

Come Monday, you have no plan to return to the office. You know they can and will replace you swiftly with another one of those “model professionals”. What’s the going rate for a dozen, anyway? You’re being torn apart by that false duty to please others, while your nucleus of self-preservation still urges you to quit.

Your dutiful part would like it to be just another Monday. Everybody goes to office at 09:00, but you are there at 08:00. Others leave at 17:00, while you stay until 18:00 or at least wait for everyone to leave first before making it to the exit. The secret desire is to be seen; to have someone think “now this is professionalism!”

What do those accolades give you? Comfort, of course. They feed into your narrative of selfhood. It is presumptuous, as it starts from the baseless belief that you are ugly and find no approval among your peers. It is biased: it conditions you to behave in a manner that seeks to win everyone’s approval. Hence the people-pleasing attitude; hence the insecurity of confronting the possibility of rejection.

A Monday like all others is yet another sacrifice to the altars of hypocrisy and self-denial. You keep performing the same ritual over-and-over as it provides a solid basis for your operations: a stable income, a fancy job, a decent apartment. It could’ve been much worse. You’ve been there and experienced as much, like those days you were begging to work for a second 8-hour shift just to break even. This sort of stability is worth the cost, it seems.

In truth, you persist on your routines as you harbour the hope that you will be discovered. The gem amidst the dirt, no? Your behaviour conforms with the tired trope of the powerless damsel who can only wish that the knight in shining armour saves the day. You keep acting to play it safe, to preserve this otherwise eerie stability, while secretly waiting for your own saviour: the “special one” who will have the clarity of mind to see past your charade and understand that there is a troubled and misunderstood person under all this apparent eagerness for work.

Many Mondays have gone by. Summer gave way to winter multiple times over. You dare not make the first move as there is always the chance of being rejected. Instead, you wait. Your 18th birthday was long ago and you insist on waiting. You are closer to your hair turning grey. But you are stubborn. Such are the boundaries of your comfort zone: please others, fill your actual emptiness with the placebo of superficial validation, and keep the delusion alive. The special one is right around the corner.

This walk is unlike the others: there will be no Monday after. It ends here at this forest. You left the office for the last time. Until this morning you were still thinking that there exists a more suitable workplace or some other milieu that will welcome you better. What does “welcome” and “better” entail? Perhaps to do more of the same with a greater degree of effectiveness?

Those fancies quickly fade away. You imagine the beautiful eyes you’ve never seen before yet already fallen in love with and think what you would do for them. Nothing. Nothing whatsoever! Cowards don’t just do stuff. You still fear rejection. Imagine being enamoured with someone you’ve never met, seen, or heard, and still fearing you will be turned down. What will that expose, really? This puts an end to your daydreaming… The eyes vanish. Their colour is one with the pond on this clear day.

You are no coward though. You have never hesitated to mark your own path. The problem is comfort, too much comfort. You mistook this stability for a benign equilibrium in your life. The money, the sociability, the “friends with benefits but come Monday I pretend to not know you”… Connected bodies in an experience akin to a drive-through. Superficialities! It was not going anywhere. You managed to fit in by mutilating yourself.

Now you know. You toss it all to the wind and discard the phone you just broke into pieces. There is no country in this world that will welcome you as somebody else. You will always be taken for who you appear to be, even by those with sincere intentions. Who are you, after all?

The plan has changed. There will be no Monday. It is time for a new beginning. You have no answers. Any such attempt is an exercise in prejudice, in claiming to know more than you actually do. Instead, you remain honest and thus silent. Your talking henceforth will come from a position of knowledge. You have no notion of what is to come. You just know that your life hitherto has been an elaborate lie. In this hour of crisis you have found what you always lacked: the fortitude to persevere in the face of uncertainty.

There is no land to escape to; no home to save you. Of course! How can the milieu be at fault for something that you have been carrying inside of you all this time? The dread of rejection, the insecurity of being alone. Whatever exit you make is simply a means of physically removing yourself from the Mondays. There is no delusion that you will find solace in some miraculous mountain.

The poison in the mind is what is making you this peculiar brand of coward: all those biases you have taken for granted, all these unfair views about yourself that you have woven together into a coherent narrative. They are biased and unfair because they are based on nothing but your aggrandised fears. This forest is where it all begins. The grand cleansing, the thoroughgoing reform, the remaking.

You are on the move, though in a deep meditative state. You know this is possible. It has happened before and will probably become the norm going forward. You are tearing down all monuments to the truth you had constructed. You shall learn to say “no” and will stop acting as selfless the whole time, for you are not self-less.

The insecurities are not yours. Now you recognise it. They are a learnt disposition, a burden you had accumulated through the years of denial. The insipid poison is the belief that you own this burden. There is a misplaced sense of duty towards it: to live up to the challenge of carrying it, to be strong, and to just do what you must. “Duty”, “must”… Who even decides those? To take them for granted is the sign of foolishness; foolishness of the highest order. Now you know that none of this is yours. The travels, the acquaintances, the kisses, the lies… Nothing belongs to you. It is alienable.

You still lack strength to conduct yourself in a way that is consistent with those thoughts. You threw away the phone and will not report at the office because you cannot take it all at once. That’s okay. The key is to take it slow and start small. You are now in the process of deconstructing all those edifices you had laboriously set up over the years. These are the products of a bygone era; an era of heteronomy (rule by another).

You are no longer searching for a promised land. It all happens here. The burdens will come with you if you keep carrying them. Abolish all such property, stop being invested in its preservation, and you shall find peace.

You are now home and are packing the essentials. One of the perks of having enough savings is that you can implement change rapidly. This Monday you will be far away from your usual location. Though not because you think of your destination as your salvation. No. The change comes from within. It consists in an altogether different disposition. You plan to be remade.

You are still weak and fragile, albeit with a newfound inexorable determination. Will there ever be another gin-n-tonic? No, not if it emanates from the same place as the last ones. No more drive-throughs! Any new event will either be rooted in honesty or it will not transpire with your consent.