Now that I have hit the road again, I’m suddenly meeting new people all the time. This is great, it gives me a buzz and is one of the joys of traveling, but after long months back home spent living in the countryside in relative isolation, doing solitary work, it feels pretty strange to be being someone once again. I don’t mean ‘someone’ in the sense of a popular or public figure, just an entity, a person, that people take an interest in. This is a renewed reminder that who I am is defined by the reflection of myself I see in the eyes of another. Without this mirror effect, is there still really a me? Or is it dependent on an opposite ‘other’? Satish Kumar suggests this idea of interdependence beautifully and succinctly in the title of his book, You are, therefore I am – a Declaration of Dependence.
At times, however, I feel more like an actor playing a part. In the course of getting to know people, I respond to questions about myself, where I’m from, what I’ve done so far in my life, but something about it doesn’t feel quite genuine – it’s really just a storyline, even if everything in it is fact. Even if the script is true to the plot so far. The self seems to appear only in contrast with others, rather like day emerging in contrast to night, or movement existing in contrast with stillness.
I love what Neill Ansell observes about this idea: Ansell spent five years living isolated and alone in a remote cottage in the Welsh hills, with no electricity, no running water, and not a single living soul within a twenty-mile radius. He writes, “During my years in the hills I kept a journal. For the first year it is a conventional diary; places I had gone, things I had done. By the second year it is little more than a nature journal; what birds I had seen that day, perhaps some notes on the weather. By the third year it is no more than an almanac, marking the turn of the seasons by the comings and goings of migrant birds and their nesting dates, interspersed by the occasional detailed depiction of a moment, perhaps the flight of a single bird. I am an absence, a void, I have disappeared from my own story.“
To a lesser degree, this is what I have experienced every time I’ve spent months in relative seclusion with little contact with people. But what does it feel like to disappear from your own story? The simple fact of being alone may not suffice, even in the absence of other people input from outside (television, newspapers, movies, magazines, the internet) constitutes ‘otherness’ and reinforces the ‘sense of me’ because it prods the mind into reacting – responding, imagining, projecting, indulging its compulsive habit to do a running commentary on everything, even itself, in which it gets emotionally involved. But this lessens over time, and as Ansell comments in his book, Deep Country, “alone there was no need for identity, for self-definition.”
In contrast, being surrounded by people, and especially making new acquaintances, (in my case an eclectic bunch of yoga students and backpackers) brings awareness of self-identity right back. Emerging from relative hibernation (yours truly) and being someone again feels a bit like dragging a well-worn costume out of the closet and dusting it off. And some of the ways people seem to perceive me make me feel like an almost fictional character. The sense of connection though is a welcome one to revive, and I’m enjoying the company. You are therefore I am – let’s enjoy the sense of connection.