I love a fantasy novel. As an introverted kid who grew up with little friends and a lot of time on his hands, characters like Christopher Robin and Harry Potter became the mates I never had. Figuratively running through forests and exploring the halls of imaginary schools shaped the person (see also: writer) I am today. That’s no different now. As an adult I daydream of learning from my reading rather than escaping in them. 2020 wasn’t exactly the year to do so.
One of my favorite series, The Kingkiller Chronicles by Patrick Rothfuss, has been a refuge that my mind has taken in one of the most uncertain times of my life. In the first book, our hero recalls his parent’s brutal murders and his young mind’s attempt to cope with this reality. Rothfuss writes of four paths our minds can take to cope with pain, describing them as doors through which the mind can escape. The first is sleep, an oasis for the mind to escape thought for a short while. The second is forgetting, a chance for the mind to let go of, or at least bury, painful memories. The third is madness, through which the mind leaves behind reality and the pain that it possesses. And the final is death, a place where we are told pain cannot reach us. According to Rothfuss these four doors are methods that our minds use to cope with suffering. Even as I read them this past month I took them for face value, something that a character in a book was experiencing. Nothing to do with me.
Though I didn’t realize it, and still haven’t discovered to exactly what degree, as I navigated the pandemic with fear and caution, I was using the first door to help cope with the fear for my health, the loss of what I thought was going to be an incredible experience moving to New York City, and the unsurety of my future among a mountain of other uncertainties. Different parts of my mind began to sleep. As my friends moved away from the city and my contact with other people became nonexistent, my ability to connect began to sleep as well.
When protests across the US ignited in light of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and Tony Mcdade and so many others’ untimely deaths I wept for the injustice and donated and attended vigils. But then the pain was too much and I let that feeling part of me become dormant, I allowed my emotions to be dulled. I read more books and watched mindless TV and became unenthused.
Things that once were my passion became less than an afterthought. News became something I became mindlessly aware. Another headline, another tweet, another outrage. I could barely consume anything that was tethered to reality. Starved of American Vogue when living abroad and once a beacon in my teenage years, the latest issue would begin collecting dust. Fashion shows reignited after the COVID crisis were unwatchable. Big parts of my mind were fast asleep and I learned to avoid those things that could wake me up.
It took a conversation with a close friend to realize how little I was actually functioning.
Sitting down with a girlfriend I hadn’t seen in months, her passion and ambition kept tingling something in the back of my head. We sat and talked about all the hard work she has put in and her plans for the future. It was as if I was also sitting with myself. I used to have plans. I used to be thinking ahead. Where had that gone? What had I even been doing? As we chatted I became more and more jealous of her plans, of her drive, her ambition. She is so proactive and I want to be like her - I used to be like her.
Meditating on that encounter after the fact, I remembered that we connected as friends so well because we were so similar. I had to ask myself why I couldn’t seem to find any of those things in myself any longer. Where was the passion? The craving for life? Then I remembered how difficult it has been these past few months and how much of myself I seemed to have lost.
Constant news of unchecked government corruption, more stories everyday of protesters across the country being kidnapped, a steady rise in American COVID cases, institutionalized injustice that will take generations of deconstructing to get anywhere close to systemic reparation, a global environmental crisis, rampant refusal from Americans to protect each other, a general feeling of ickiness. I’m not alone in these, but the weight of these issues, the sum of which is greater than its parts, drove me deeper into myself, farther from any desire to feel genuinely or think clearly.
I had to shut my mind down to cope with all of it and while it is more comfortable, it no longer made any kind of growth available to me.
To grow and learn and change I have to be vulnerable and aware and feeling. It isn’t easy to be these things, but the alternative is being stagnant.
In Rothfuss’s tale, music and passion woke that young hero from his mind’s hibernation. The pain of his reality was something he had to hold in his mind. Waking up led to his success.
So here I am, hoping I will wake up from my sleep slowly, steadily. Avoiding the first door my mind sought in a panic of uncertainty and misery, pointedly ignoring the other doors through which my mind could find other means of avoidance. Forcing myself through careful observation, meditation, and conscious thought to pursue that which I love to do, in order to make me feel that pain and uncertainty and allow me to thrive once again.
To embrace everything that is happening will allow me to challenge those painful truths and hopefully be a beacon of positive change in my own life and the lives of others.
It’s not going to be fun or easy, but I think it will be productive and useful.
So, here we go.