Friday, October 14, 2011

The Year of Shedding Fear

WHEN I was little, I was afraid I’d grow up to be a smoker.  Really, whenever adults warned me about some terrible potential future situation, I would worry about that exact thing happening. 

“Cigarettes are highly addictive and highly poisonous.”  Tim worries about somehow ending up as a smoker, despite being repulsed by cigarettes.

“An unwanted pregnancy means the end of your life as a free individual.”  Tim worries about knocking someone up.

“Ten years from now a large asteroid will have a one-in-ten-thousand chance of hitting the Earth.”  Tim worries about the extinction of humanity.

“Most people work jobs they don’t like / Men all have mid-life crises / Marriages are all unhappy / If you don’t do everything the right way you’ll never have opportunities in life / All these fools get sucked into empty materialism / etc. etc. etc.”  Tim worries about waking up at age 40 and realizing he’s wasted his life.


NOW, I don’t think I was really an anxious kid compared to others.  But I remember distinctly that feeling of being afraid that somehow I would end up addicted to tobacco or drugs or alcohol, even though I don’t have an addictive personality.  I guess I visualized some gang of delinquent kids catching me as I walked home from school and forcing me to become addicted to crack or something.  I’m almost 24 now, and I’m still not addicted to drugs or alcohol, I don’t have any children, and life on Earth still flourishes.

Of course, a lot of the more ridiculous fear-fantasies dissipated long ago.  At some point you realize that certain things will never happen unless you want them to happen—nobody’s going to make me get addicted to tobacco.  But some fears persisted.  Fear of failure, fear of making mistakes, fear of being rejected, fear of choosing the wrong path in life, fear of ending up trapped.  Maybe it’s those last two that stuck with me the longest.  They might also be fears that are especially powerful among people of my demographic: upper middle class, relatively educated, world-is-our-oyster types.  So many choices to make, so much opportunity cost to consider.  It’s paralyzing.  I think there’s been a lot of research done that shows that greater choice only improves happiness up to a certain point, and after that it decreases happiness.  My generation definitely lives in a world with frighteningly many choices to make.  How many chances we have to take a wrong turn!  How easy it is to be seduced by something fair-seeming on the way, only to realize too late that you’ve turned off the true path. 

Some people deal with this choice by framing everything in terms of obligation.  I have to go to college, I have to get a loan, I have to get a Master’s, I have to get a job that pays a decent wage, I have to have a car, I need to have a girlfriend/boyfriend, I have to socialize in the way that others socialize.  It’s easier to make choices (and live with the choices you make) when you don’t see things as choices at all.  All the way through college, I felt oppressed by that fear of choosing the wrong path, ending up trapped, not doing things the right way.  At the same time, I felt that social pressure was pushing me to live my life in a certain sequence, funneling me into the kind of colorless, cowardly existence that the deepest part of me has always disdained. 

So few people seem to be truly free.  So many people seem to invent limits to the world that aren’t really there.  Things must be this way, I must act this way, I can do this, I can’t do that, I have to do what others do, I have to care what others think.  This is the way things are done. So many people worship strange idols.


FOR the first six months after graduating college, I was in transition.  I moved to Europe to get away from things, think over my options, and look for direction.  I came to conclusion that it really didn’t matter what I chose, so long as I chose something and committed to it.  About a month before graduating the notion really hit me hard, all at once, that there are many right paths at any given time.  We are surrounded by them at all times, in all choices, and the fear of making a bad choice makes no difference to how your choices actually pan out.  Yes, caution is always merited, but fear and caution are not the same thing.

So after half a year in Europe I decided to apply to Peace Corps.  It wasn’t an impulsive action—the application process takes forever, which is good for rooting out the capricious types.  The two-year commitment seemed about right to me—it would be something tough and completely different, requiring long-term fortitude and not just the flaring passion of a twenty-something dreamer.  I did not see it as a flight from the real world into some fantasy existence.  I saw it as an escape from delusion into reality.

Anyway, the nine months between beginning my application and leaving everything behind could also be easily clumped into that “post-college transition” bloc of my life.  I had made the commitment, but I still wasn’t doing anything.  It was a long process of killing time and making mental preparations.  Of course, that isn’t to say that I didn’t change over that period.  Those fifteen total months saw some serious self-work.  I needed them to heal, get my head straight, and choose my next steps.  I was much more stable, secure, and resolute when I left for Asia than when I left for Europe.

On one of my last days in Florida I got a phone call from my friend John Kux’s mother, whom I hadn’t seen or talked to since high school.  He had told her I was leaving for Indonesia soon, and she called to wish me luck and share a piece of wisdom.

I’ve known people who served in Peace Corps.  I’m telling you, you’re about to go into the meatgrinder and you’re gonna come out on the other side a completely different person.

I wasn’t quite sure how to respond.  I didn’t exactly want to ditch the person I already was, and the image of diving into a meatgrinder wasn’t reassuring.  But I told her that I was looking forward to it, because personal growth was the whole point of doing this. 


SINCE getting to Indonesia, it’s as if everything has kicked up to warp speed.  I’m not sure I’d use the term “meatgrinder” to describe it, but something has happened.  And here my words fail me.  I don’t know exactly how to describe or encapsulate it.  I mean, obviously, I have learned a lot of things I didn’t know before and I have had many new experiences.  But the change is much deeper than that.  I don’t know what exactly precipitated it.  Something profound has sunk in. 

I’ve always been a confident person, and since I was a kid people have been telling that I have excellent potential.  Sometimes it takes years for things you know intellectually to take root in your soul and bloom.  This is the first time I’ve felt truly empowered.  Like some of that potential energy has been transformed to kinetic energy.  I feel strength in me—a kind of strength of spirit and mind that lets me look at the world without fear in my eyes.  And all of a sudden those old fears—about making the wrong choices and falling into traps and living in delusion—seem to have disappeared, and my reaction to them is the same as my reaction to the fear of becoming a smoker: It’s not going to happen without your consent.  There is nothing to be afraid of.

All at once, the future has become this unbelievably exciting idea.  In the face of the last half-year of challenges, my understanding of myself as a person—my values, my strengths and talents, my triggers and limits—has developed at incredible rate.  Those clouds and doubts about what’s going to happen next, the anxiety about getting a little older and having to finally “join the real world”, have disappeared.  There is nothing standing between me and the life I want to live.  It’s just a choice, and I’m already living it.


SOMETIMES I look back at the years and give them epithets.  2010 was Transition and Meditation and Healing.  2009 was Rupture and Trial.  And looking at 2011 (now that it’s approaching its conclusion) three names occur to me:

The Year of Shedding Fear.  The Year of Awakening.  The Year of Blossoming.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Circumcision, Repetition, Brainmelt, and Absorption of Wisdom

Last Saturday, my five-year-old host brother got circumcised. 

Normally Muslim boys undergo khitanan (circumcision) at age twelve, and it’s a big to-do.  I’ve gone to a pre-khitanan “party” in my village, and it’s much like any other social gathering that takes place here.  That is, a bunch of men gather at the house of the soon-to-be-foreskin-free youth, sit on the floor with their backs against the wall, and go through a certain catalog of prayers.  They may also pass around a microphone to ensure that everyone in a fifty meter radius can hear.  Then they all eat a plate of food, prepared by the host family, smoke cigarettes, and leave.

Fian—my five-year-old little host brother—had to get the snip because he was having trouble relieving himself, and that certain bit of skin was the culprit.  So on Saturday night his parents took him to the hospital, and the offending dermis was excised.  I was at home when they came back, carrying crying little Fian into the house.  Soon the living room was bustling with family and neighbors coming in to watch him wail, regard him with paternal pity, and grin at each other.  Kasian (poor thing)!

At five years old, the unanesthetized burning in your privatest part must seem like the end of the world, and the tone of his whimpering was pretty much exactly what you’d expect: devoid of anger, conveying only pain and confusion.  My host parents pulled the couch and the armchair into the living room and laid him down on the bigger of the two.  He was truly a pathetic sight, lying there with no pants on, sterile white medical bandage wrapped around his weenie, his diligent mother sitting over him, doing her best to ameliorate the fiery anguish with a handheld fan.  As I mentioned, family and neighbors came in to look at him and discuss what was going on, and most of them wore sympathetic but amused expressions on their faces.  One of them joked with me that it’d have to be me next (the second circumcision gibe I’ve gotten in a month). 

All of this is preface.  Every night since then, he has slept on that couch in the living room, and for the first few days he hardly ever got up to walk.  As I write this on Wednesday night (the fifth since khitanan), he is out there sleeping now.  The experience of the last five days has illuminated two aspects of life in the village that generate exactly opposite reactions in me.  First, the positive.  Every night he’s been out there, he’s been accompanied by both of his parents and his sister.  They all sleep in the living room.  Bapak falls asleep in the armchair, little Fian on the couch, and Ibu and Dela (his sister) on a mattress they dragged out from the bedroom. 

The whole family is together, ostensibly to make sure he doesn’t fall off the couch—though why he’s sleeping there instead of in his bed is also a mystery.  The whole thing is adorable.  I consider my (real) family to be close, but I couldn’t imagine all of us curling up on the floor and in chairs in the living room just so we could all sleep together in the same place.  The family here coexists without privacy and without the desire for it.  They just want to be close to each other—nobody, except perhaps the youngest, is thinking exclusively about his own comfort.  I wrote in an earlier posting about how impressed I was with the harmony and closeness I’ve observed in Javanese families, and this is a prime example. 

That is one facet of life here that has shone with clarity in the last five days.  The other one, however, is much darker.  Because the little one has been basically parked out in the living room, and his family is often sitting around with him, the television has rarely been turned off the last five days.  People here watch a lot of TV.  In my house, they switch on the boob tube at around 5:30am and—barring unusual circumstances—only shut it off when everyone’s gone to sleep, which can be 10:00pm or later.

As I see it, there are multiple things behind this, some harmless and some more ominous.  First off, this is just a noisy country.  People here are incredibly desensitized to sound.  In six months here, I have almost never heard anyone complain about sounds being loud, disturbing, or poor quality.  In fact, I think many people here feel strange if there isn’t any sort of racket shattering the peace of the air.  And that’s fine…there are plenty of Americans who need to have the radio on and can’t stand being in a quiet place. 

Beyond that, however, are some more troubling issues.  I absolutely cannot understand how groups of people here will sit in front of the television for hours and hours and hours, neither truly watching nor truly engaged in conversation.  To my eye, it looks like the worst mode of television watching.  That sort of television watching you might do with your roommates in the mid-morning after a late night party and you’ve got a hangover and you know there are responsibilities you should be taking care of but you’re too lazy and out of it to get started but you still feel bad because you’re not even watching the TV and really the programming is complete shit anyway so you feel even worse because some soulless daytime crap is your pathetic excuse for not doing actually important things.  I’ve watched some of the programming here, and it’s completely inane.  People may be momentarily entertained, but nothing at all is learned or gained. 

What disturbs me is the sheer amount of time that people spend in this sort of stupefied state.  They are 100% passive and not even really engaged in the thing that’s being beamed into their brains.  So many hours every day that could be spent in way more interesting or productive ways—reading a book maybe?—simply tick away.  In my house, when they’re not watching television, my family has liked to pop in the same two or three VCDs of dangdut concerts.  And they watch these things over and over and over, only without any hint of excitement.  I could almost understand it if these things really excited them, but they don’t even seem happy to be watching most of the time.  It’s just…something to look at.  A way to pass the time.  They kind of stare at the television and occasionally say things to one another.  Reminds me of the dropped-out-stoner types from college.

In moments of negativity, it can feel as if I’m surrounded by people who are simply bored as their lives tick away, with no motivation to change things up and really no concept that such a change might be possible or desirable.  Every day I bike to school and back to my house, and in both directions I usually pass the same people on the street, no matter the time of day.  There’s a set of people who are always sitting outside their houses, just staring at the road, making small talk with neighbors.  Some people sit and do nothing every day for years and decades.  How is that possible?  I mean, I’ve certainly fallen into slothfulness and laziness and passivity at times in my life, but even in those periods my brain is still seeking some sort of stimulus—reading a book, watching something I’ve never watched, staring at sports, getting immersed in some sort of storyline.  I just can’t imagine that kind of long-term stagnation not being accompanied by serious stupefaction.

I don’t mean to pick on Indonesians in particular, because there are plenty of people everywhere that live in this way.  I’ve just never felt it so strongly as I do here.  Everything is so predictable and repetitive.  I mean, shit, I think I understand better now why people are so incredibly excited when a foreigner comes around.  There’s so much monotony, so little impetus to change. 

Since arriving I’ve struggled with the uncertainty of how to judge the differences in the culture here.  Should I feel bad for people who live in such a tiny world, or is pity arrogant and inappropriate?  On an intellectual level, I try not to judge, because who the hell am I?  There’s nothing to say that an active and challenging life is, in a cosmic sense, more “meaningful” or worth living than a boring, passive one.  But on an emotional level I just feel sorry for a lot of people.  I could never accept such a passive existence, and in my heart I cannot accept that it is as meaningful as an active life. 

[Note&Disclaimer: This does NOT apply to all Indonesians, nor am I saying that everyone has to go volunteer in another country in order to have an “active” or meaningful existence.  I certainly have Indonesian friends and acquaintances here who are plenty active and whose outlook incorporates a concept of self-improvement.]

I’ve strayed a good way from the television thing.  This is the sort of track my mind gets after my brain is attacked for days on end by the sounds of SpongeBob reruns and dangdut concerts.  It seems like other people are sitting there as their brains melt and their senses and motivations and ambitions are dulled.  I physically cringe upon seeing my little host brother crane his neck around an obstructing person so that he can watch the same sports-drink commercial that he’s already seen dozens of time earlier in the day. 

The repetitiveness of life here can also make me impatient with people who ask me if I’m bored when I’m alone in my room. 

My internal monologue then goes something like:  Are you @#$%ing kidding me?  The stuff I do alone in my room is a million times less boring than the things you all do every single day over and over and over again.  If I’m in there, I’m exercising my mind reading or writing or actively listening to music or recording music or doing work for my job or having necessary venting sessions with my fellow volunteers, not just letting my brain rot in my head from lack of use.  Do you think I’m just lying on my bed and staring at the ceiling?   How can you be so inured to the tedium of routines here?
My external response:  Oh, no I’m not bored.  I’m usually doing stuff, and I like relaxing in my room.

And then my brain goes off in all kinds of directions.  Like, what would this society be capable of if people only blah blah blah, and how much time gets “wasted” every day just by people who blah blah blah, and is this tendency towards sloth and predictably an innate characteristic in blah blah blah, and a million other things. 

Being honest, one reason I wanted to live in a poor country is to see what sort of wisdom there is in poverty.  For all its wealth, there is a shallowness and immaturity in much of my native culture that leaves me yearning for other wisdom.  On the other hand, I was also guarding myself against accepting the wisdom of another culture simply because it was foreign, as so many New Age types do in the US.  Nothing is more annoying than the person who tries to tell you that Some Other Culture has “figured it all out”.  Coming here, my attitude was to look for the wisdom and the folly.  Up to this point, I feel like I’ve noted and absorbed a lot of both.

[End note: My little host brother is doing fine!  He seems very pleased with his new wee-wee, judging by the fact that he enjoys running around naked and staring at it/poking it/showing it to passersby in the living room.]