Are some people addicted to suffering?

Psychologist and Philosopher Soren Kierkegaard

“Sovereign of my heart, Regina, kept safe and secret in the deepest corner of my breast.”

I’m big on psychology theorists these days, and while searching for e-books for Rollo Reese May (since I failed to find any hardcopies in our distinguished book-stores across Cairo), I came across works by Soren Kierkegaard, Danish philosopher, psychologist and theologian. I decided to “wiki” him since I have to admit I knew nothing of him and the book that I came across had an incredibly sexy title (It’s called ‘Fear and Trembling’).

His wiki page touched upon his relationship with the love of his life Regine Olsen. The woman, as also several other pages claim, greatly influenced his work. He was briefly engaged to her, their love was “deep” according to records, but then he lost her. How? Well, he broke off the engagement. It was his doing, and then he suffered for it during his short life (he died at 42).

Why did he do it? The reasons are not clear. Some say it was due to his devotion to God and church (almost forced upon him by his father), others say to immerse himself in his work, while some said he realized he was not a man for marriage but the real reasons died with them. Olsen refused to publish her diaries (although an unverified account resurfaced later and was sold as her diary), while Kierkegaard referred to his relation only in his work. He and Olsen also corresponded, but his letters remains and hers are destroyed. Some accounts said that Olsen had told her friends that before the break-up Kierkegaard felt an immense sadness, and she suspected that drowning himself in work was a tactic to distance himself away from her.

Such a mystery, isn’t it? From her side, Olsen was devastated when seemingly without good reason her man left her. He refused to take her back even when she threatened suicide. In her despair, she begged him not to leave her. And in order to drive her away, Kierkegaard feigned coldness, telling her that perhaps in 10 years, he will take another woman to “rejuvenate him.” The woman was left in shambles.

Ironically, she moved on, got married but he didn’t. In fact, he was “shocked” to hear of her marriage two years after he had left her. According to a source, shortly after the break up, of her he wrote: “Not even here in Berlin has my, alas, all-too-inventive brain been able to refrain from scheming something or other. She must either love me or hate me, she knows no third possibility. Nor is there anything more harmful to a young girl than half-way situations.” He remained alone until he died, and four weeks before his death, he still wrote of his agony. “I had my thorn in the flesh,” he said. “And therefore did not marry.”

Their story is fleshed out in the introduction of Kiekregaard’s book The Seducer’s Diary — which is believed to be an account of his relationship with Olsen, detailing how he seduced her and how he left, masquerading as a “fictional” tale. The introduction and the first 23 pages of the book can be found here (Google Books Preview).

Of her love, he had written in his journal, “Thou sovereign of my heart treasured in the deepest fastness of my chest, in the fullness of my thought, there […] unknown divinity! Oh, can I really believe the poet’s tales, that when one first sees the object of one’s love, one imagines one has seen her long ago, that all love like all knowledge is remembrance, that love too has its prophecies in the individual.”

The question that begs itself is: What was that about?

I’m sure the pain and the confusion had turned into energy that fuelled his creativity and inspired his writings and made his drive and will stronger. But why make this hard choice to leave abruptly as such and suffer the consequences? Was it reluctance to live with the idea of choosing one person, a lack of responsibility towards this choice or a refusal to surrender to the idea of marriage? Was it cold feet, fear of commitment, fear of happiness? Or was it the realization that he was not meant to be happy or settled or with the person he loved? The belief that he must suffer for some twisted reason that only God knew what it was? Self-punishment? Or perhaps worse, a knowledge that even the person that his heart desires can’t make him whole. A chronic feeling of (and an impulsion for) loneliness or aloneness? Perhaps it was simply boredom. Or a desire to break away, to always be free. Not to be tied down to anything, even the objects of one’s infatuation.

The story touched me. I could see people doing what he was doing (and to be honest, I could see myself doing that despite knowing that women are usually reluctant to make such radical decisions. I just read that women are more reluctant than men to break up relationships even if they’re equally, or even more, miserable than their partners).

The story is not shocking, it’s a bit surprising but most of all it’s sad. Heart-wrenching actually. Because we do make similar choices. I wondered if some people are, by nature, convinced that they cannot and shall not be happy that they consciously (or by a curse of obsessive thought) create the melo-drama, place a verdict upon their lives in their heads and act upon it.

Regine Olsen source: wikipedia

Could it be? The idea scares me. I can’t help but think: What if I’m trapped in my own thinking as such that I might be stirring up suffering? That perhaps there’s a pleasure in being confined to suffering, to being a victim of circumstances. (Or that perhaps it’s easier). We’ve studied back in college cases of people whose lives (and failures) were prophecized by their thinking. Of women who say they can’t find love but keep rejecting it or scaring potential partners away, unconsciously and sometimes consciously. Of men who believe others will eventually hate them (if they see through the protective walls that they erect around them) only to provoke that hate through their actions, thus driving people to hate them and in turn validating their earlier beliefs. Self-fulfilling prophecy. Manipulation of events and others. A very forced way of proving you’re right — even if it hurts you and those around you in the end.

I would be interested to read The Seducer’s Diary in full, and try to search for answers to the question of whether or not some people seek suffering (or can’t do or create or be something without it) through this real-life story of heart-break and great accomplishment. Then again, Kierkegaard was a prolific writer, an influential psychologist and was known to be the “the father of existential philosophy.”

Yet, like many of us, despite delving so deep into human nature and what makes us who we are, he couldn’t be happy. He followed his heart. Then his mind. He hurt others. He hurt himself. He was disillusioned. He was confused. He ached. And perhaps, if my theory is correct, that was (secretly) what he wanted.

Listening to: Ahlam and Mohammed Abdu on Rotana Khalijiah
Mood: pensive, uneasy and slightly irritable

Do I come from a star?

I was reading through some of the posts on Evolver.net and http://www.realitysandwich.com, and this post reminded me of an old dream: discovering that I really don’t belong to this world, for some reason or another. Or at least that I don’t belong to the mundane version of it, which I’m living through right now.

Looking over my fantasies, whether that I discover that I’m a witch and get that long-awaited letter from Hogwarts, or to be hand-picked for a special league of chosen people (a select few who have access to the truth or who know better) like Neo and his buddies in the Matrix, or the fellowship of the ring in Middle Earth, or Alain Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen or the Watchmen, it was always about not being part of this life and not subscribing to this version of reality. Or not doing what other people are doing.

Perhaps it’s about wanting to discover a special talent, or a reason for living (an answer to the ages-old classic “why are we here?”).

But mostly, it’s also about being re-assured that my inability to adapt is shared by others, that there’s a reason for it; that I’m not anti-social, or a self-hating human, but that in fact I’m one of those few who were born different and shall live and die different, and who know something that others don’t. And of course, it all goes down to the chronic feeling of loneliness, which is bound to kill me some of those days if I don’t kill it. And to the conviction I’m always misunderstood, even by those closest to me.

The websites I was checking were all about changing the world, that “we are those we’ve been waiting for”, about sustainability, open-source economy, taking the human species to the next level, evolving our consciousness and connecting with nature. One of them is a social networking website that connects people who are part of this unified consciousness project. I didn’t understand many of the terms juggled between members, and I secretly smiled at groups carrying names like awakening the Divine Feminine.

Some of the members on it reminded me of a theatre professor that my sister loves to death. I remembered him because of his unique personal philosophy and unconventional religious beliefs. That professor, probably an atheist, believes that he’s among this unique breed of human beings who have migrated to Earth from another planet long ago for some mysterious reason, who are scattered across the Earth and who carry some sort of outer-planetary wisdom, and an invisible mark that they only can recognize. He’s not kidding. This breed is different, and they have the ability to know each other instantly, and the joy of meeting each other is incomparable, since their minds and their consciousness are enlightened, more evolved that regular Earthlings. He’s an artist, a dramatist, so this could all be symbolic, or not. If he believes he’s an alien, fine, as long as he doesn’t look down upon commons such as I (but he probably does anyway, and you know what? it doesn’t matter). The professor also believes that “his people” will come, from beneath the stars, to take him back one day, and then he’ll be at peace (Death?). It’s very poetic, and a wild thought sometimes crosses my mind, “perhaps I’m one of those aliens too. Perhaps that’s why I’m lonely. I haven’t found the others, my brethren, my people. Perhaps they will come back for me too.”

It’s a very condescending way of looking at the rest of the human race.

But tell me, have you never felt it too?

This feeling of exaltedness that comes with being lonely and being unable to fit in (on a global level), with being restless, with wanting to travel all the time in your head or physically through leaving the familiar places behind and treading where most people haven’t gone; this feeling of transcendence that comes with losing attachments, with thinking spiritually and philosophically about everything including your closest relationships, even your religion; with retreating and (as a friend recently put it), being an “observer of humanity” from a distance and only “occasionally socializing with humans.”

Do I come from a star?

I wish. It would explain a lot. It would re-assure me that there must be something out there to return to, to long for. Perhaps that’s why I love looking at the sky, perhaps when I do my mind wanders and my heart feels trapped not in wonder and not because I’m in awe by what the universe hides. Perhaps I’m simply home sick.

If you can relate, perhaps you come from a star too. Perhaps you’re one of us.

Listening to Gregorian’s take on My Immortal
Mood: indescribable

Decoding suffering

If you suffer, and you will (because who doesn’t?), then do it successfully, according to both Marcel Proust and Alain de Botton. It’s not the easiest thing in the world. Drenched in sorrows, it’s easier of course to stay in bed, jump off a bridge than write a philosophy book. If you plan on ending your suffering once and for all (through say, setting yourself on fire, or drowning yourself in the bath tub), then fine, don’t try and get creative with how to ache. But if you’re not, you might as well use suffering to your benefit, either by creating a blog to tell about your experience, writing songs that breaks people’s hearts as yours have once been broken, becoming a motivational speaker, researching your pain and what it means, being inquisitive about life and the ‘big questions,’ whatever, the choices are endless. Proust chose to write books.

Proust was often sick, was unlucky in love and romantically pessimistic, un-comprehended by friends, over-protected by his mother, ignored by his father, had a failed career in theatre, but all this, if anything, has made him sensitive to the pains of others, and most importantly creative. He wrote: “A little insomnia is not without its value in making us appreciate sleep, in throwing a ray of light upon that darkness. An unfailing memory is not a very powerful incentive to study the phenomenon of memory.” According to de Botton, “Proust’s suggestion is that we become properly inquisitive only when distressed. We suffer therefore we think, and we do so because thinking helps us to place pain in context. It helps us to understand its origins, plot its dimensions, and reconcile ourselves to its presence. It follows that ideas that have arisen without pain lack an important source of motivation.”

Proust says, “Happiness is good for the body, but it is grief which develops the strengths of the mind.” He adds: “A woman whom we need and who makes us suffer elicits from us a whole gamut of feelings far more profound and more vital than does a man of genius who interests us.”

I know what he means. During a bout of depression, I wrote a short screenplay that I still think could be developed and could perhaps stand a chance on screen in one of those days. When I’m grieving, my head is usually full of ideas that wouldn’t have otherwise crossed my mind. I can guarantee that most stories, poetry and songs that touched us hide wells of pain.

But what a price!

And this comes to mind when I remember tales of genius marred by conflict, manic-depression, drug use, unhealthy obsessions, suicide, heart-break and chronic grief. Virginia Woolfe, Antoine de Saint-Exupery (without his explosive on-again-off-again relationship with Consuelo, world war, loneliness, perhaps the Little Prince would not have come out), Hemingway, Picasso, Mozart, Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, and if you will, Kurt Cobain and Eminem (sorry, but his songs get to me).

This leads me to a question that I have asked many times before: do we have to suffer in order to rise? Is it the old story of dying on the cross in order to transcend our ego and flesh, and become gods?

But that’s not what de Botton means of course. I’ve strayed a bit here. I believe his argument is, if you’re suffering anyway, you might as well learn, grow and create as you do. He says, “The moral? To recognize that our best chance of contentment lies in taking up the wisdom offered to us in coded form through coughs, allergies, social gaffes, and emotional betrayals.”

In addition, now in the words of Proust himself, “Griefs, at the moment when they change into ideas, lose some of their power to injure our heart.”

Listening to Abbady Al Johar here (not for the broken-hearted or the distraught, lyrics beautiful tho) there, there, and there. This too (lyrics here) and finally this very heartfelt song (and words).
Mood: sombre

Recommended:
Alain de Botton’s On Love/Essays In Love
Alain de Botton’s How Proust Can Change Your Life

Brooding Sentimentalities

This morning, I found a grape in my shoes.

It was a red grape. And I had a suspect in mind: my youngest cat. He likes to play with our food.

It made me smile, because it was one of those small things that reminds me I’m not alone. I remember when I lived on my own in London several months earlier, everything would remain untouched in my room until I got back. There’s bliss in that. But it also confirmed every night that I had no one to talk to, except my neighbors at halls, who just like myself were not always around.

But now, my mom moves stuff around to “tidy up the room” (despite my repeated objections) and my cats love to ruin them for sport. They kick books off the shelves, show special interest in some of my belongings by scratching them to death or hide grapes in my shoes (for safe-keeping, I’m sure there’s a good reason). And when confronted, they always look up at me with those big round eyes as I tower above them, their stares carrying a mix of surprise and disappointment at being so gravely misunderstood.

And all these are little reminders that I’m cared for, that I matter, even though those closest to me never fail to irritate me. But these irritations, and even criticism and mockery, again confirm that I’m not alone. During an interview for an acting workshop, the trainer asked me if I had any friends, I said, “not really.” A day later, I recounted details of the interview to guess who? yup, my friends, and I received a deluge of jeering and scoffing, and of course the question that reared its head was “Then who are we?”

Cornered, I responded: “You’re not my friends. You’re my best friends. Different!” And all jokes aside, part of me was very honest about this. Those friends who have known me for years and years, sometimes since childhood, are not “friends” per se, they’re more like family, and with that comes the eternal commitment to being with them, around them, even if we’ve lost common grounds and even if we’ve got nothing more to talk about. The years bind you together. Being comfortable in their company is granted, but like with family, you can easily slip into that cursed feeling of loneliness even when among them.

When I tried to explain this, one of them suggested, “sometimes I think you’re lonely because you take your problems too seriously. You think too much about them. Other people may have the same problems but then their approach is different, so they become less sad, less involved in their own worries.” She may be right.

An article by Robert Rowland Smith on being lonely said that this feeling is actually healthy because it means there’s a need for people, it means we appreciate people and that “shares a root with compassion.” Sure, it’s all beautiful.

But then what? That’s not a cure for the chronic loneliness, that might or might not go away when you’re with friends, a romantic partner, a sibling, sitting, sleeping, partying, travelling. And I’m not the only one who’s complained. People, successful, with jobs and wives or husbands, always busy, have also complained of the same problem; it almost seems like a new universal malaise (at least for those like myself, who’re living in big noisy cities, struggling for privacy and space, but also for people to *see* them). Everyone is not happy, and everyone feels alone even among people.

Do we – the lonely- hold any solutions to this? Do we even want solutions? Or is it the new “artistically romantic” thing to be lonely? The lonely successful man or woman? A notion like the “misunderstood artist”, or the “sad clown”? Are we deliberately holding on to solitude and the emptiness that accompanies it to satisfy a certain image that has been associated with being sophisticated or independent in this modern age? Is it some kind of an escape? Or perhaps a motivator for escape? May be an adaptation problem? A good excuse for withdrawing and refusing to bond with others?

At this point, I should suggest an answer or say something wise but nothing comes to mind. So I’ll stop writing

Listening to: the news on (or more likely the buzz coming from the) TV
… and this is not a song. We got a new TV in our office
Mood: wavering between bored and brooding

High Heals

This was my first acting workshop. During the interview, I bluntly explained to the trainer that I have no acting experience, no interest in the art beyond observation and that I do not intend to become an actor. When he asked me, why I was there, I simply answered, “as a confidence exercise” and that was that.

I was on time for the first class, so were a few other participants. As we waited for others to arrive, a conversation with another participant, a psychologist called Maram began. She was there for “boosting confidence” as well, besides vocal training and blocking exercises, and I was re-assured I wasn’t the only one seeking this fleeting, almost abstract notion.

Maram said she specialized in psychosis but she’s also a relationship therapist; I’m not sure if that has a clientèle here in Egypt. I’d imagine that couples having relationship problems would opt for consulting friends, family members, websites and people like Marwa Rakha, experts only by trial-and-error and not by scholarship. But her clinic seems to be thriving, at least according to her.

She started telling me about how this was not her first stab at acting, that she began “drama” exercises first with a psychoanalyst called Dr. Sherif Fadel, who uses psychodrama as a way of therapy. She explained that a psychologist named Jacob Moreno had invented this method, using theatre for mental and psychological healing. I’d never heard of the method before, as she told me and the few others who were listening how people can overcome painful experiences through re-playing them on stage. “It helps you look at a situation differently. Some people have a breakthrough in the way they think as a result.” The situations and role playing are often based on true events, but they don’t have to be necessarily factual, there’s space for improvisation and interpretation. To be honest, I thought the idea was brilliant and I made a mental note to try and interview Fadel for a story. Another psychotherapist walked in, but this girl was younger, perhaps 24 or 25. I began to think about the people that this art attracts. I couldn’t make generalizations on the spot, and I’m glad I haven’t. In addition to the young psychologists, there was a model present (she chatted a bit about modelling in Egypt and how she eats all she wants but still manages to stay thin). As more people walked in and introduced themselves, it was clear that the group of ten, despite being all young, were more diverse  that I had initially thought.

The hall where we began the workshop was dark, as classic music wavering from thundering to soft and meditative, played in the background. The first section of the workshop was like a Yoga class. Actually, I felt more like I was in a Buddhist retreat, as everyone stood there in the darkness, in a circle, focusing on balancing their energies through breathing, humming and NOT thinking. Eyes closed, I could feel something flowing through me. In a long time, I hadn’t felt my body as such. It was a silent meditation on the inner space, a journey within, as you tried to feel your body, limb by limb, bit by bit, fingers, shoulders, hands, backbone, feet, legs, toes.

It felt like my body was asleep for so long, and that then it was awaken. I enterprised and imagined the energy as light moving through me, healing as it flows, shinning through my skin and that suddenly I was overflowing as others were with this light. My feet held me strongly, I felt my weight, but I also felt light (and light-headed). As if my head was up there in the sky (longing for it), and my feet were deeply rooted in the Earth. And I became unaware of space or time anymore, only of being. It was strange. And all my worries seemed to be in a past that I was disconnected from,  a past that might have well happened a hundred years before I was born. I was not there. I was here. Christian, Muslim Sufi and Buddhist-like chants reverberated across the room, and vibrated through my body as I took part in them. The sounds were coming from deep within me, and through me and around me. I wondered if you have to be a believer to feel this effect. And I questioned why I hadn’t meditated for long. When it was time to be “awakened,” I decided I’m absorbing this light back into my body, into this small bundle that I’m keeping within me, as a source of protection. I remembered a recent trip to Sinai, where at many points butterflies were fluttering around me (well, and probably others, but I chose to ignore that) and decided to believe the myth that butterflies come to healers, and so it follows that I was one.

Second exercise was about movement: how to awaken the body from this trance and control it. “If you can’t move slowly, if you can’t walk slowly, if you’re unable to slow down at will, then you’re not in control,” bellowed the trainer. I tried to keep the motion slow, but my knees started becoming wobbly and my body was not responding as I’d wanted to. It was indeed about control and at this point I realized that it was my head and body that were leading me, not I them. And it does look like I’ll need some training before I can be in control.

Next were eye contact exercises. Keeping eye contact. Locking eyes with the person for the purpose of knowing them, without body-language, without frowning or laughing, or moving a lot. Being comfortable with looking in the eye, in addition to watching the face, communicating without talking, which was also the next exercise; “send the person a message with your eyes. Speak. tell a story. Repeat the message.” I played with that for a bit. But for me, it was as much about communication as it was about observation. I barely remembered people’s names but watching them, I felt a little bit connected to them, and above all I appreciated them.

At that moment, I remembered my trip back from London, three weeks back, when I decided to switch between on-flight movies, watching the actors faces instead of the stories. I tweeted about it a day after I got back. And this is what I said back then:

“I relaxed, watched bits and pieces of different movies, watching the movement of actors, their faces, without really concentrating on story, thinking there’s something graceful about humans when they speak, cry, scream, smile. It’s beautiful to feel you can pay attention to this, and really take everything in, absorb people’s movement, watch it as if in itself it’s art. A touch of hand, a twitch in the face, and suddenly I felt I can relate to people.”

(The rest of my thoughts are here)

I felt something similar during the exercise. Suddenly, every single person that I gazed upon looked much more beautiful than when I’d seen them less than an hour earlier. Some’s personalities – or at least vibes- seeped through their eyes. Some looked away, couldn’t keep the eye contact, some were more daring. Some looked intimidated, some intimidating, some pained and some reluctant and hesitant. But it was all beautiful. It was like looking at a deep well, a store of secrets and non-secrets … or perhaps a painting, trying to understand what the painter is trying to say but also projecting your own understandings, insecurities, fears, likes, dislikes and questions.

Next was role playing, “proper acting”, all improvised. You had to go in minutes from pretending you’re doing final touches to your ‘best friend’s’  hair on her wedding day, to relaying bad news to a colleague, to trying  to act all girlish and soft while making up with your ‘boyfriend’ (always difficult when you barely know the guy :D) to consoling your daughter who just broke up with her fiancé and is crying her eyes off (I have to say the girl doing the daughter opposite me was very good) — all the while while trying not to give your back to the camera. It all went from difficult, to boring to hilarious, especially as people either laughed or took themselves too seriously. At points, my voice was obviously (and embarrassingly so) shaking. And at a certain point, I had to stop and tell the guy who was doing one of those two-minutes scenes with me to head this way so we won’t give our backs to the camera. And he did so, without getting out of character. By the way, I also failed to mention I was the least experienced, but this might be clear by now, and in some instances, I was ostensibly (and unashamedly) scared.

The class went on from one exercise to another, ending with the most difficult of all: recounting a painful experience, “something so painful that the memory could make you cry” in front of the group as they were instructed to cut you off, make fun of you, ridicule you and try to drown your words. “It’s all about concentration. No matter what your colleagues do, you have to tell your story, with the same intensity, till the very end,” explained the trainer. I decided to talk about body issues, the most personal of issues for me, and about how I struggled with my body image -and still do. It was liberating to shut off the noise. The participants apologized to each other after this exercise.

“Were we too hard on you?” asked one of them laughingly. Well, I didn’t even hear anything they said. “Would you believe me if I said I heard nothing of what you said?” Another one agreed saying that he too had to stop listening to concentrate.

The biggest struggle for me was not to shut off the sound, that bit was easy, but to go on telling my story as the noise continued. Because even if you don’t hear what people are saying sometimes, even if you shut them out, it’s still a struggle not to be forced into silence.

Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me, so the saying goes. The last was an exercise on precisely this.

To be honest, I can’t wait till next week.