Last Wednesday I said goodbye to my family in Ohio, then boarded a plane for Boston. Beyond the cost-savings associated with flying internationally out of Boston Logan versus Cleveland Hopkins, it felt right for Massachusetts to be the penultimate step before launching into my Watson Year.
There is a certain degree of irony in this for me. It was only three years ago that I left my first year of Wellesley College after what felt like months under duress. Though I had made great friends—many of which remain my closest to this day—I spent the year feeling entirely disconnected from the environment around me. This feeling was so profound that there were often visceral pangs of not belonging…the same pangs that I now feel when thinking about the weekend bike rides I took on various paths in the Greater Boston area or the communities here that I’ve come to deeply know and love.
Each time I’ve felt this way, a quote from Jack Kerouac’s On the Road has come to mind: “What is that feeling when you’re driving away from people and they recede on the plain till you see their specks dispersing? – it’s the too-huge world vaulting us, and it’s good-bye. But we lean forward to the next crazy adventure beneath the skies.”
Bittersweet, inevitable, and largely uncertain, this feeling comes with no promise that you will be vaulted into a place where it becomes equally difficult to say goodbye.
I believe the feeling described by Kerouac is a near opposite of what the social work researcher and author Brené Brown dubs as ‘the lonely feeling.’ (On the Road, Brené Brown’s Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone… There’s clearly been a theme in my recent reading). While I imagine Kerouac’s feeling to be partly a result of the sadness associated with leaving a place where you feel sustained, Brown explains that ‘the lonely feeling’ is one of disconnection to those around you, to the place that you are in, or to yourself.
I’d never thought much about being disconnected to self until I struggled in the aftermath of a torn ACL—often feeling like the body that I was now in was not that one that I had always known. Illness and injury have the ability to make all that was formerly tacit suddenly taxiing, while also altering the range of possibilities that may have perviously informed an individual’s way of life. My experience was not unique, in fact the philosopher Havi Carel has written an entire book entitled Phenomenology of Illness which explores how an individual’s body, values, and world can change in serious illness or injury. Essentially, she explains how our own bodies can come to feel unhomelike.
Phenomenological thinking has also been used to describe the experience of grief. The beavered individual’s world is made unhomelike by the absence of someone that came to underpin so much of it. Time marches forward while everyday experiences take shape in unfamiliar ways.
The remedy phenomenologists offer to this disconnection is a remaking of the individual’s world, a refamiliarization so that the taxing may once again become tacit. One of the most powerful ways in which this can occur is through a shifting of personal narrative. Many individuals have written much more eloquently and persuasively about this than I will here (if interested, Arthur Frank’s The Wounded Storyteller is a good starting point), but the crux of most of their arguments is that in telling and revising our stories we can reestablish connection to them, and therefore to ourselves as well.
As I type all of this, I am acutely aware of how my temperament, biases, and culture have made this way of thinking the one I identify with most. I tend to favor things that are analytic and explanative; theories that would receive credit if applied in a blue book examination. This has been challenged to a certain extent this year as I doubled down on my interest in zen meditation, but I’d be remised if I didn’t mention that a large part of my attraction to phenomenology is because, in my estimation, it intellectualizes many Buddhist and contemplative insights.
In the ‘Getting it Right?’ guide supplied by the Watson Foundation they call on us to ‘find new truths that work for [us]’ through revisiting the assumptions, stories, and voices that guide us and trusting ourselves to ‘build new and resonate narratives.’ Beyond being open to the possibility of a changed perspective, I imagine that part of finding these new truths is accomplished through finding new ways to connect to place, people, and self.
With the year officially beginning later this evening, I am both excited and apprehensive. I expect that there will be moments intense disconnection as the language I’m used to crafting my stories in is challenged. But I also expect that the process of revisiting and revising my worldview will lead to a depth of emotion, insight, and connection that is impossible to imagine now.
I’ve said all of my goodbyes; I’m on the precipice of being vaulted. Time to lean forward to this crazy adventure.