139: The Haunting

Posted on June 13, 2018


I constantly want to have it all, haunted by all my lives unlived. It’s difficult for me to accept that there’s only one job one can work in, one city one can live in, one experience one can have at a time. I fear this tendency may affect the big life decisions to come. Thoughts?

Atulaa K

Hi Atulaa!

First, thank you for your wonderful, tender question. It has given me cause to reflect on my own feelings about this — which means that I’m now going to expound theories by presenting personal anecdotes and limited life experience as data, and the best I can hope to offer is warmth by way of commiseration, some perspective, and a bit more accurately, a suitable delusion or two that you could try on for size.

I believe this is a struggle for many of us. I hate to call what you describe FOMO, because I despise the casual, empty-of-nuance, vapid dismissal our age renders this impasse. (Or maybe I’m just a batty old lady who’s skeptical about its ironic use.) But dear Atulaa, take heart, because your haunting is the curse of imagination, the ache of optimism, and the weight that dreamers carry. I am certain this has plagued the human condition for centuries now, and was probably what drove explorers to discover entire new continents, new schools of thought and philosophy, and generally dream of happier times. I understand its intensity too. It is likely that this dilemma – both yours and mine, beeteedubs – just seems more inescapable in our documentation-obsessed times.

I see your situation as a two-pronged problem — that you don’t see yourself as leading enough lives, and that you feel your one journey isn’t, well, singular enough.

So, the first: how many lives can you stuff into your one life?

I’m not very good at Maths, but in your question alone, I have counted more than one.

You see, each of the things that you say you have resigned yourself to, that you deem as “just one”, is really each a parallel life. Your one job occupies a part of you that your one city does not engage with and that varies from the each one part of you that experiences each one of the things that you put yourself through. And that’s just all the ones you’ve framed in your question.

You’re (hopefully still reading, and) thinking, “But A, sure, these are each individual choices I have made. How do I know they’re the right ones? What about the choices I have eliminated?”

I suspect you know this already, but I don’t think we ever know about the choices we have not taken. We have never known. We will never know. And I find that a bit reassuring. You see, the question doesn’t always stop at, “What if?” Sometimes, the whole question is, “What if… I hadn’t done this? That means I wouldn’t have done << insert every. favourite. thing. ever. >>”

Look back at the deepest details of your history, and pause in wonder of how your imagination could not have possibly conjured all that you have witnessed and endured. It’s true. It’s real. You’ve made all of this happen. You fashioned it out of will and circumstance. Will – pretty much the only certainty you brought to the table. Circumstance – the shit you had zero control over. In every decision you’ve taken, there has been, best case, 50% certainty of outcome. Again, I’m not good at Maths, but as an estimate, that looks like you’ve pretty much winged things all the time. No matter how big the question, you prepped the best you could, ate your nails for lunch, and you made the decision — an event that was both relieving and… surprisingly empty — and what came after the decision was a Republic Day float titled Ad Fucking Hoc. It featured a few things kicking your ass, you emerging victor, and mid-braggadocious dance, you falling off the float, giving it chase, and inadvertently making yourself and that hyper Hindi commentator an internet sensation.

My point here is that every one of your decisions, big or small, has been a direction you took part-blindly, but has led to a colourful collection of surprisingly original minutiae. Yup. Every decision. You chose curtains with sheer panels for your bedroom window because you wanted to wake up to soft morning light every day. And then, one windy afternoon, you see sunlight dancing in white lines along your walls — a simple pleasure that you had never accounted for, and one that you now look forward to.

You have, largely, never seen much of life coming. And by that logic – you can actually never have an idea of what you’re missing out on. The haunting is a ghost who also does not know Maths, and so is unable to count neither what you have, nor what you can’t.

Now that you have your retrospection glasses on, you’re (hopefully still reading and) thinking, “Okay. I’m counting. Three in my mind, two on my fingers. Oh, wait. What am I counting, again? Does what I’m counting… count?”

This brings us to the next stop: the idea of how singular our lives are.

Let’s look at the opposite of that first. Just how similar are our lives?

Since we participate in a society and are a community-oriented species, we’re bound by several (rightfully heavily debated) coda – economical, social, moral, you name it – that dictate that our lives follow a systematic template for the betterment of our pack at large. While we have the choice to identify ourselves solely by our place in this society, it isn’t where we look for our individual-ness. (Though hey, this unit-of-the-pack you is yet another life that you have stuffed into your one big life.)

The reason the human species stands apart from most any other species on the planet – especially AI and the AI-is-the-future bros that come free with it – is sentience: intelligence that includes a steadily growing awareness of one’s self, and one’s individuality. And the same intelligence that kindles in each unit of our pack the, well, arrogance, hubris, and vanity that the unit is indeed one heck-of-an individual with free will, hot damn.

The good news is, this is the same preloaded human feature that gives you you. You, with your own idea of your personal history. You, with your passion and pride. You, with the most tender things you find endearing about the world. You, with your shame that you trust with nobody. You, with your very you shower-setting. You, with your contradictions that surprise you. You, the you you throw into everything even if you didn’t want to in the first place.

Having (hopefully) read my paean to ad f. hoc, you can probably guess I’m a *big* fan of this part of individualism. It is true, and I mean it in the most sincere, un-mocking fashion I can muster: everybody *is* singular, everybody *is* unique.

I can afford to make such a claim because I have not seen enough of the world, or met enough people, and I know I won’t ever cover all of humanity stationed in every corner of inhabitation – so even if the numbers (yup, still bad at them) suggest otherwise, I do not and will not ever know of two people who have the *exact* same personal histories, passion, pride, endearments, shame, shower-setting, contradictions… motivations, mental health, preference of GSM of paper, levels of personal hygiene — you get the drift.

This is what makes other people interesting to us: how they fill the gaps and lacunae of our blessedly limited life experiences. Other people are so wonderfully weird – because they are nothing like us, and offer us a chance at empathy, at multitude, at breaking the singularness that is our beings, bound to our bones. It is true – everybody else has led a vastly more interesting life than our own, because we can never have an accurate, full idea of the contents of their life. My flatmate, for example, has soaked some sort of alcohol with bhoot jholokia, and has adorably marked the steel flask’s head with a Sharpie-drawn skull and crossbones – to me, at every turn, a blatant display of how wonderfully her own her mind is. We are right in having a sense of envy that we are not capable of everybody else’s brilliance alongside our own. But it is important to remember – we are, umm, shucks, a bit brilliant too.

Really. Invert that sense of wonder onto yourself – that no matter how much you’d like to pigeonhole yourself, you are nothing like anybody else. Your life is, and never could be, like anybody else’s.

I’d said I see your situation as a two-pronged problem — that you don’t see yourself as leading enough lives, and that you feel your one journey isn’t singular enough.

I call your attention to, if I may, the truest crux of your haunting here: the word, enough.

You are enough. You have been enough. And you will be enough. Believe in this a little more, and your choices will do what they should for you: enough.

I wish you my share of luck with Maths, and I wish you well with everything else too.

Much, much warmth,

P.S.: If you’re still wondering how to pick stuff – try inky-pinky-ponky. When ponky falls on the final choice, and you realise that is not the choice you were hoping for, there you have it – what you really, truly want.

Posted in: Agony Aunty, Memoirs