I find questions much more interesting than answers. Questioning is like opening a book. You don’t know what’s in store. Answers are like closing the book. There’s nothing left to say. Even if you have more to say, there’s nothing left to say. The question has been answered.
My friends Martha and Carrot started a dialog today. I’m not sure they knew they were talking to each other. Martha was talking about how the pandemic has freed us from the need for “normal” socializing and how one writer pathologized this as “social anxiety”, while to Martha it is “introversion”. While she didn’t belittle the very real mental health issue, she noted that there are some things you just don’t do in a group. She mentioned her first novel. “I’d had this incredible experience that was impossible to share with anyone. I’d written a novel. I’d brought my story, my vision, for Martin (the character) into real life. I’d done the work, the immense research, all of it, the library time (back then). Because of my book, I KNEW people who’d lived in the 13th century. The experience catapulted me into a different Martha, but I couldn’t share that, either.” I will mention her rediscovery of herself as a painter and drawer this year. First the blog began to feature oil paintings. Lately, pen and ink drawings have graced its pages. Even the title of her blog changed (twice!) during this pandemic. Is she another “different Martha”?
Carrot posited a restaurant in which “the phrase ‘can I get you started on something saucy’ is as much about the dialogue as it is about the appetizer. The table clothes will be covered in questions and hypotheticals. Each bill will come with the quote du jour.” The food you are served would correspond with the table talk:
“Customer: Excuse me waiter, I ordered the gnocchi and pesto.
Waiter: Right, I’m sorry, it’s just that I heard you talking about your Instagram followers, so enjoy your Cream of Wheat.“
How do we ask the right questions? Ask the wrong question (one that cries out to be answered) and we get nowhere. “What’s your favorite color?” “Blue.” Now what?
Ask without questioning, and you only get an answer. “Who am I?” “George.” Done. Or “the guy who writes this blog.” Who was I before I wrote this blog? Same me, or someone else? Am I the things I do? the roles I play? the thoughts and feelings I hold? the sum of all of my experiences? my beliefs and opinions? my body? Or am I someone else, who “has” all of these, rather than “being” any or all of them? Am I the point of view from which I see the world? If I didn’t see literally, would my “point of view” change? Would I be someone else? Is my “self” additive? (The sum of everything I hold as “me”?) Is it subtractive? (If I take away everything in the world that I identify as “other”, is what’s left over “me”?)
Dalton Trumbo looks at the relationship between body and identity, and between how we see ourselves and how others see us in the novel and subsequent film “Johnny Got His Gun”. It is the story of a badly injured WWI soldier and his post-war life in a VA hospital. There is little left of his body and he cannot see, speak, or hear. Who is “in there” and does that matter if no one “out here” acknowledges his humanity?
I used to ride with friends every week and talk and then drink some beer and eat some dinner and talk some more. Before that, I would go sit in a hot tub with some other friends and talk. Before that, I worked in a neighborhood store that was the center of a community. In all of these cases, it was a community of people interacting face-to-face. For the past year I have seen my coworkers and patients, and my family. I’ve had little contact with most of the people I identified as “my community”.
But I found this other community (hey, I’m old…it took me a long time – my daughter has been in a number of world-wide online communities for years) that has grown as organically in its own way as the physical community. When I started this blog I got some tips from a music blogger I know. I found and read a couple of bike blogs and they led me to this world of climbers, painters, writers, musicians (and writers about music)…It was Carrot and The Dihedral who introduced me to Martha.
What is community and what is necessary for our mental health? Is an online community any less real than a physical one? Can you go out for a virtual beer or cup of coffee? When I return to in-person friends, how will I balance that with these online friends?
Are other people essential, or something you have to deal with to get through your day? If the ones you “have to deal with” were gone, would you miss them?
P.S. The day after posting this, I read Ask Amy, with someone concerned about returning to face-to-face interactions. The writer related a recent interaction and made the distinction “interacting with people from a place of compassion, treating people as human beings — not human-doings.“