There is a question in my life that keeps consistently coming back to haunt me. That question — always a product of much existential pain — demands a very simple choice from me: shall I talk or shall I fully embrace the solitude of silence?
It’s difficult to paint the full picture of the world — my world! — which keeps me repeatedly wishing to disengage and simply let the world go. But I shall try nonetheless. At the very least, it might help me clarify my feelings better.
Some of the more highly idealist people frequently ask: is it not painfully frustrating how divided the world is? Why can’t we just love each other? Why can’t we all forego our differences?
It is a natural reaction against the conflict in the world. I used to have it too. I wished for some sort of final agreement which would put the rancor to an end and let us love each other.
Then, gradually, I grew up. I matured a bit. In the process, I began to see that disagreement was unavoidable — people’s experiences and interpretations thereof could never align completely. And there was no need to, anyway. Different perspectives are an asset not a liability.
Yet, I began to see something else too. Even if homogeneity and agreement were impossible and even undesirable, that still didn’t justify the world as it is. The conflict, the wars, the disagreements over politics, religion, and everything else — these were more than mere intellectual disagreements. They were not driven by curiosity. Nor were they pursued in good faith. No one loses friends over curiosity. But I’ve lost friends over politics and ideology… and not in a gradual losing-common-interests kind of way, but in a off-to-the-gulags kind of one .
As intuitively appealing as the vision of us all loving each other might be, the world it depicts is probably impossible.
However, there are much lower bars to clear than that of universal love — for example, giving everyone the benefit of the doubt, understanding the other’s position before pronouncing any moral condemnations, reacting to people rather than one or two triggering words they might have said.
All too often when I choose to speak up, I get nothing but pain for it. I am told that my opinions are stupid and that nothing I think makes sense. And that’s only speaking about the times when I get engaged with…
It’s trendy today to complain about the harms of social media. And sure, for what it’s worth, I agree. There is nothing healthy about a place which whenever you choose to speak up is bound to tell you how much you suck. But this is far from a merely online phenomenon. People in real life are not somehow magically ten times more agreeable. It’s just harder to meet as many of them and simultaneously know about all of their positions which you’ll find controversial.
Of course, some of this is cultural and psychological too. I spend a lot of time in the English-speaking world online, so that’s what forms most of my experience. Maybe it’s different in other cultures?
To an extent — certainly! But changing the language and the culture can only do as much. In the end, every culture has its sacred and controversial topics. And since those are usually the most interesting ones (philosophy, politics, religion, even science), it’s hard to escape the moral outrage that makes real and interesting conversations painful. Besides, as the world is becoming more and more globalized, the vitriol and polarization are doing so too.
In any case, it sucks to want to talk so badly (why do I write otherwise?) and yet to be hurt time and time again. Most conversations I have usually all end up making me feel worse. I have always been disagreeable, but I wonder how much of it is personality and how much of it is being in a culture that admits and encourages nothing but ideological and partisan disagreement.
And thus, I often feel like it’d be better for me to just shut up. To let the world have its arguments with itself, with me watching from the side (if I ever felt the need to). Because, really, why engage? Why bother partaking in this mass parade of resentment and hate?
No one believes in Love
We hear a lot about love, especially in politics, but all too often the people who most champion the idea do only in so far as it serves their interests. As long as love is only a thing to pay lip service to, and not an actual praxis, then the west (and slowly the rest of the world too) will acquire the same crappy merciless vile attitude.
What’s that attitude? It’s the one that makes everyone disagree about everything and turns public spaces into battlefields. It’s also the one that puts politics over friendship. And it’s the one that punishes curiosity because even asking the wrong questions is already a crime. It’s the attitude that presumes everyone is guilty of the vilest thoughts and deeds and that every action they take is done in bad faith. Of course, the irony is, it’s usually the most vocal of the accusers that are acting in bad faith most of all.
Well, maybe that’s what a few activists have always wanted. To stir the pot and make it impossible or costly to counter their demands. But in so doing, they’ve make the public sphere (and increasingly the private one too) a living hell. In this context, I find myself making the effort to speak only to repeatedly and reliably end up disappointed, hurt and misunderstood.
The worst part is that sometimes it all happens because of me. I have gotten used to arguing so much that even when the opportunity for a real non-judgmental conversation might present itself, it is me that sometimes becomes too cautious. And consequently, I’m then the one acting in bad faith. Because I don’t know who is on the other side: the rare person whom I could trust or the (seemingly) more likely case of an intolerant judgmental combatant looking for either a comrade or an enemy. (and against whom I must therefore defend myself by disagreeing vehemently, not by looking for the non-existent common ground)
Speaking Up – the Pros and Cons
As I hinted above, I’m psychologically quite disagreeable. I don’t get along with people easily and it’s always been hard to let people in my world. Maybe it’s innate, maybe it’s a result of bullying I experienced in school or maybe it’s the related loneliness and the consequent vicious cycle it produced in me of always trying to escape the world.
I don’t know.
But it’s fact that the joys I have experienced have mostly been in solitude (and even the seeming exceptional moments with the occasional lover or the rare close friend I would still describe as solitary in the sense of away-from-the-world). On the other hand, much of my pain has come from speaking.
In a way, that’s hardly surprising. Solitude is straightforward. It’s completely guided by me — my desires, my interests, my needs. I can read the books I want or listen to the music I like. I have control. On the other hand, there are so many ways speaking can go wrong. It can descend into argumentation or it can initially feel pleasant only to ultimately take one unexpected wrong turn. It can be a nice distraction which leaves me feeling empty just like browsing social media does when I do it for too long. It can be an endless repetition of niceties and small talk. (which I later regret for wasting my time) And if I decide I’d rather dispense with the niceties and actually have an interesting conversation for once, speaking with others can fast turn risky, offensive, too exposing or reputationally damaging. (it’s difficult to be authentic when it means revealing how weird you actually are!)
To make matters worse, I have lived long enough by now to know that friends can come and go. And so, even the best of conversations, the ones that allow me most authenticity and freedom, can feel slightly dangerous. After all, how do I know the other person will not stab me in the back in five years time if we fall off in the meantime? How much do I really want to open up to anyone at all? How comfortable am I being that vulnerable?
It’s questions like this that keep me drawn to books and away from social life at times. Speaking is just too chaotic, potentially even dangerous. Books are not. Podcasts are not. Solitude is not…
Honestly, even in the moments when I feel that close friendships well justify the related risks and that the vulnerability is part of what makes the whole friendship thing worth it, even in these moments I am reminded that for every one close friend I make, I’ll need to speak with tens if not hundreds of people in the process of searching. And taking that added pain into account — the pain from all the wasted time, unfriendly disagreement, hurtful disappointment — I become less and less inclined to see friendships as ultimately worth it.
It’s not that deep friendships hurt per se. But the process of looking for the right friends hurts. And there is no guarantee of success. And even if you succeed, you’re still faced with the questions of how much you truly want to open up. Even the best friends can feel like strangers at times. Even the best friendships can end.
And It’s not just friendships, anyway. It’s every social interaction. Dating too has this weird flavor. A great partner might be amazing, but meeting all the wrong ones before them is not. Maybe that’s why some people today would rather keep any feelings off the table at all. At least from that point of view, casual sex makes sense — less potential for pain, less need to talk and argue, more lust and sex.
And yet, something always brings me back to speaking.
At times, it’s my desire for knowledge that hasn’t yet made its way to books and podcasts. I dislike small talk, but I like hearing crazy stories from the lives of others, for example. I also like the personal takes on life philosophies that people have. Speaking with the few amazing people, as difficult as it is to meet them, can certainly enrich one’s life in many unconventional ways. That’s why a part of me still retains the desire to keep trying to meet interesting people despite the frequent and overwhelming feeling that reading books is often much more informative than meeting people (even though it’s hard to compete with years of condensed research on an interesting topic, some people manage to pull it off nonetheless)
Of course, I could read blogs and listen to podcasts (and thus hear many crazy stories this way). But not everyone publishes and not everything can be published. We all self-censor the juicy private details and it’s them that make speaking in real life worth it. And besides, there is always the yearning for exclusivity which only a privately shared secret has. After all, what’s public is public and so can never truly be a part of you (for it’s also a part of many others)
But, of course, speaking brings benefits in academic settings too. The forefront of human knowledge is often in the heads of people much earlier than it is in books. So, speaking certainly helps in learning as long as you have access to the few brightest minds in the worlds. Which usually means never, but anyway…
At other times, I come back to speaking for normal human reasons — the need for contact, the need to feel connected, etc. But these can fast lose their appeal and bring me back to wishing for solitude once again. The world seems more interested in bickering about stuff than it does in building stable and healthy relationships that satisfy our shared need for communication.
As must have become clear by now, I feel extremely ambivalent about speaking. Sometimes it just feels right and sometimes it’s only a source of pain and regrets. Judging from the praises solitude receives from artists, I certainly am not the only one that judges their inner world more worthy of attention than the outer one.
Nonetheless, the outer world makes its demands on everyone of us. Taxes, policies and social norms all penetrate our worlds and demand us to do, say or think things that go well against our authentic will and self.
And thus — driven by the desire to rebel, or rather to be left alone — I am inevitably drawn to speaking time and time again. I am thus reminded that there is nothing perfect in this universe and so it is with seeking solitude and silence. As pleasant as it is to escape the pettiness and malice of the public rancor, that escape often means letting the enemies of freedom take control.
And so I end up debating politics, religion and everything all over again. Not because I like it — I don’t — but because freedom sometimes feels worth the effort and the pain. Frankly, even this at times gets tiring. It’s hard to make a difference in the thinking of others on any of these sacred topics.
The problem with those pushing for political and cultural change is rarely that they have never heard the other side present their case. Rather, the problem is that they’ve heard the opposition and they hate it with a passion. It’s unlikely anything could convince an activist to change course.
And yet, there is always the hope that voicing your opposition publicly will sway the undecided who are still looking for the truth. But even besides this hope, there is the fear that freedom will vanish if no one dares to speak up for it. Authoritarianism thrives when unopposed and when surrounded by silence. That’s why attacks on speech such as political correctness are so dangerous and so despised by people who just want to live their own lives.
In the end, I find myself at crossroads. On one hand, I really want to leave the bickering behind. I don’t want my life to be consumed by the intolerance of modern conversations. Nor do I want to wager all my privacy just for the opportunity to meet one interesting person. Oftentimes, solitude simply seems better. At these times, seeking friends feels stupid while following my passions feels right. And at these times, I think like the best friendships are the ones you don’t have to seek anyway.
But on the other hand, I feel like I have a duty, or at least feel the extreme compulsion, to speak up and protect myself from the groupthink of the mob. I might not like speaking, but I know that people who speak between themselves unopposed for too long frequently become dangerous.
It’s a strange position to be in. Albeit for different reasons, neither solitude nor total engagement seem to work. But one feels great while the other mostly brings pain.
And so I ask myself once again: is it worth speaking?
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