“And once the storm is over you won’t remember how you made it through, how you managed to survive. You won’t even be sure, in fact, whether the storm is really over. But one thing is certain. When you come out of the storm you won’t be the same person who walked in. That’s what this storm’s all about.” -Haruki Murakami, Kafka on the Shore
I’ve never been a big New Year person. It’s position seems too arbitrary. Sometimes it fits, but often, like a poorly timed joke, it feels too late or too early, punctuating the calendar whether we want to celebrate it or not.
I think about other forms of time, like the slow waltz of geologic cycles or the Mayan Long Calendar’s b’ak’tun–the approximate equivalent of 144,000 years per cycle. I don’t mean to go full Rent, but the sense of days adding up to a pre-determined, arbitrarily assigned date feels a little bloodless to me. Abstract, even if its celestial and mathematical elegance has its own beauty. I appreciate the bringing-together mentality that each New Year offers, even though many countries don’t celebrate this crux between December 31st and January, but as an individual, I wonder if more valuable measurements exist.
To me, time has always felt topographic. In On Writing, Stephen King describes his memory in this way, with certain images rising from the fog, collected together around moments of significance, like hills and mountains on a topographic map. In ourselves, I think we carry our own calendars punctuated by these moments. Certain storms, as the Murakami quote describes, come into our lives, changing us. Some rush through in seconds–a particular phone call, a car accident, a sunset, or a conversation. Others stick around through months of depression, or recovery, or joy.
Jean Paul Sartre spent the latter section of his life writing ambitious biographies about French writers and thinkers, convinced that most people had a particular project, a unifying idea, task, or question–a telos, as Aristotle would call it–that drew life onward like an unseen current into a singular unity. As Martin Heidegger, one of Sartre’s major influences, wrote, “To think is to confine yourself to a single thought that one day stands still like a star in the world’s sky.”
While some people seem to have more narrative unity to their lives than others, I disagree with Sartre. Life is far too random, far too out-of-our hands. While we can control some things, enacting our agency, the storm, it seems, changes us in ways that defy plans.
This tug-of-war between things beyond our control and things in our control meet in how we make sense of either–and ourselves. Life lives on the slender tension of that rope.
Reflecting on my own life, I still have my own stages, but they may comprise multiple years–or a single year–or overlap in messy ways. Tracing back the past few years, I see middle school through high school as one stage, with my senior year breaking into the next one: pre-college. The former was a messy period of firsts, including my first run-in with structures of authority, my first bout with depression, the formation of a core friend group, my first romantic loss, my discovery of writing and philosophy. The latter period, pre-college, led me into theater, self-reflection, a summer job, and a stronger sense of self. Other periods also exist, like the period after my first major breakup or my Master’s program.
And through these stages, I look for my self, only to see it bleed into the changing contexts of each stage. Each time of life changed who I am.
But a tension arises, as I think certain indelible or near-indelible marks remain through these periods, whether a recurrent echo of genetics and habits of mind or a more conscious decision to maintain certain traits and avoid others. And each New Year, for many of us, the self comes back under inspection. We look to our selves or the selves of the past year and formulate how to etch a new one with the materials at hand. This may take more mundane forms, like working out more, or more abstract ones, like “being a better person.”
As I do the same self-reflection, I once again find myself on the rope between things beyond my control and things in my control, wondering what I can do and why.
But, at this stage, I don’t fully blame myself. Instead, I think it’s more a matter of timing. As I work through my PhD and live in this current time and space, I think that I’m still living in a particular phase that started this past summer when, after the first year of my program, a stage of self-care amid exterior stress began: trying to write creatively again, trying to get back in touch with certain people and feelings, and trying to take better emotional (and physical) care of myself after three years of neglect.
At the same time, with the election of Trump and the tumultuous tensions of this past year showing no signs of stopping–amid the demanding grind from PhD work–I’m not sure how that self-care will work. But this is the tension of life, and the tension of selfhood, trying to make sense of and direct our own being, even as it bleeds together with a given context. Though, for many, this can be particularly difficult.
And I think this lack of universality is its own important value. As standpoint theory highlights, our experiences, our knowledges, our suffering and ways of being differ depending on our background. Going back to Sartre, a tension always exists between the freedom of our transcendence and the limits of our facticity. The way we fit into our contexts differ depending on our embodied experience. Here, from an existential point of view, Franz Fanon took Sartre and others to the next level when discussing race. And I think this is true now, as ever, especially with Trump’s campaign rhetoric in mind.
So, hello 2017. Let’s see how this goes.
[Featured image: Painted Desert (2016), by the author]