It’s incredibly strange our obsession with time. We capture still & moving pictures, write things down, record music & sounds, all in an effort to stop time. We save copies of our time in books or little electrified metal and plastic boxes — in our possession or in the possession of corporations who like to call electrified plastic and metal boxes “clouds” — where we consider them safe from harm.
From the moment we’re born, someone is capturing bits of ourselves in time. Birth date & time, weight, length, hospital records, medical procedures, and our very first photograph as a newborn human, before we even gain metaconscious awareness of our life.
We record and store all these bits of time, but why?
To evoke a feeling within us? To capture the feeling of that moment, so we can relive it later on, or perhaps share it with others? To remember what we believe then we may need to recall later? To prove that we exist?
All of those things, surely. But is there something else?
What happens when the all these captured pieces of moments in our timeline start disappearing? Suddenly, pictures and memories we haven’t thought of in years become direly important. Frantic, we race to recover what is left of what we had saved but forgotten we had, and are startled to find that nothing is as it was left.
A few weeks back, I discovered that all my photo albums on Facebook were deleted. I certainly didn’t delete them, and unsurprisingly, multiple support requests to Facebook to recover that data which I am certain is somewhere on their servers have gone unanswered. Many of those photos are possibly the only remaining copies of some of the best moments of my life, some of my happiest memories, of moments I found important with people, places, and things I found important. Thankfully, some of those people also found some of those moments important enough to tag me in them, so not all is lost. Yet, this unexpected loss of data somehow felt like an existential violation of my identity, that my choice to allow those memories to exist in that space had been usurped by an unknown actor, with no reason and no recourse.
I loathe Facebook, and I hardly access it, except to keep those very photos and memories others have tagged me in. I resisted even getting an account until goaded into it in 2009, unconvinced of the ulterior motives behind such an endeavor. Considering the grand insanity that Facebook has become over the past decade as of this writing, it seems my reservations about it were valid, and now even this has turned into a lesson reminding me to be true to myself.
But the truth is, the person with my name on Facebook is no longer the person I am now. The young woman captured there was full of hopes and dreams of a future that I now see as shattered photons cast into a cosmic wind never to return. That young woman believed in so many people and things that ultimately would not live up to her ideals, the implicit societal expectations they bore, or the words and promises spoken or implied by the presence of emotional or genetic bonding. Perhaps it is the naïveté of youth that has given way to the austerity of aging, or the weight of many difficult situations bearing upon me at once, but I now feel as if I am a completely different person.
Coinciding with the mysterious disappearance of all my photo albums on Facebook is the corruption of one of my backup external hard drives. (The power flickered just at the end of typing that sentence. Very funny, Universe.) Ironically, some backups of those very photos from Facebook are among the files on that drive. About a year ago, I considered deleting my Facebook entirely, and while looking at the photos on it for the first time in years, thought I should save them somewhere else.
And now, here I sit, going through old files and photos, trying to recover what was lost, after a day spent cleaning out a garage with a few storage bins of physical personal effects I have saved but also not sorted in years. I found that some of those objects were not in the condition I left them in, and so they were discarded, along with the memory that those things were that important. The garage once held a car I no longer have, destroyed in an accident in October that has taken a piece of me hostage in the form of a concussion from which I am still reeling and wobbling, unsteadily facing each day with the bizarre, discomforting feeling of being foreign in my own body.
It feels as though the identity I spent a lifetime building has been irrevocably dismantled, and all that is left are these fragments of time, evidence of the path I once walked but now is only just a memory.
Who will I be now if I am not who I once was? If I am not who I once was, then was I ever really who I believed myself to be? Was I constructed out of fables and fairytales that were always meant to disintegrate just as I was accomplishing my goals? Just as I believed I would finally have my ultimate dreams come true? Family, education, friends, health, love — all at the same time?
Perhaps they did come true and it was me who could not withstand what that entailed. Perhaps it was me who couldn’t keep all of those things together. Did I simply collapse under the weight of my own success? Maybe I made a wrong choice, a wrong step somewhere, fell through a trap door? I must have, or else I would not be writing this now, right? But nothing is ever that simple.
Going through old files from my time in college, I find evidence of someone who is strong, who is encouraging themselves to believe they can do anything they set their mind to, who is doing all they can to succeed no matter what challenge comes their way. Physical, emotional, mental pain and turmoil awaited around every corner, yet, I persisted.
Reading now through things I wrote in the past — a valedictory speech, a winning admissions essay to graduate school, assignments and essays from my one incredible quarter in graduate school — it is like reading the words of a different person. I recognize the words as mine, I remember putting so much effort into writing them, I remember exactly where I was when I wrote them, but they sound and feel like someone else wrote them. I feel like some part of me is inaccessible, just out of reach.
Who was this person with such confidence and knowledge? Who argued for justice with such deliberate eloquence and sometimes fiery defiance? Where has she gone? Will she ever come back?
Even before this concussion, I have spent the last two years in a state of increasingly overwhelming extended shock. One by one, I watched every piece of my life fall apart despite all my best efforts. Family, education, friends, health, love — nothing is as it was just two years ago, one year ago, or even three months ago.
Everything my life was, that I had worked my whole life to build, is gone.
Of course, change is the only constant, and nothing ever remains the same, but to believe you had found the stability you always dreamed of only to watch it crumble into pieces is never going to be easy, no matter how strong you are. This is not an ignorant, selfish assignment of blame to any person or group, for I have changed as much as anything or anyone else.
Yet, as I read back all these words I wrote, look at all these pictures I’ve taken, they remind me that I have been struggling all of my life with all of these things. I’ve never had all these pieces together all at the same time, especially family. This was nothing new. That was the piece I wanted more than anything.
And perhaps that is why the taste of that gift, even if it only lasted for a few short weeks, was the greatest moment in time. Even if it could not last, even if it was never going to continue, it was truly wondrous while it lasted.
It felt like a dream, because it was.
The mistake I made was fooling myself into believing that I could rely on those who simply, regrettably, didn’t know how to be reliable. This sounds harsh, but I don’t fault them — it’s just what they know, it’s just what was handed to them, just like it was handed to me. It was solely my fault and choice to forget reality in place of a dream, a naïve, childish, but beautiful dream of a loving, consistently supportive family.
I wanted to believe that if I held this dream as an ideal in my mind strongly enough and did everything I could to make it real, that somehow it would become the shared reality with those I loved. This is the erroneous, childish, magical logic of a little girl.
But somewhere, deep down, I knew what risk I was taking. The little girl inside me wanting to be with my family at any cost had been silenced for far too long, and in a sheer act of will, became strong enough to silence the mature, adult part of me who knew better. The chance of having togetherness with family was irresistible enough to risk everything on, my entire life, no less.
I made a bet, and I lost.
But even this is too simple. Things may not have turned out at all how I’d dreamed and hoped for, but because of this painful reality slamming into me at full force, I got to know myself in far deeper ways than without this abrupt awakening. Despite everything, I know that I did the best I could with what was happening at that time, but I only know this when I see my loving actions in the pictures and words I captured during that time period. They remind me my sincerest efforts existed even if some cruel disciplinarian side of me would like to now try to convince me that I didn’t do enough, wasn’t perfect enough, wasn’t strong enough, even if the ones I love weren’t able to accept the love I was giving them. My love existed even if I live with regrets of what more I could have done, that cruel torturer of the mind, as convincing as it is unrealistic.
And maybe now, seeing that this has been my lifetime struggle, I can gift myself some leeway, relax the punishment I have been giving myself for failing to withstand what not many people would choose to or perhaps be able to withstand, indeed, what I have barely been able to survive. After all, I am not alone in these circumstances, and I cannot make decisions for other people. I may have had the dream of a child, but I did not dream other people’s choices into reality. It is the choices of others that hurts me most, not because they are doing anything to me, but because of what they are doing to themselves, which results in our fracturing relationship. No matter how rationally I may behave, it cannot and will not compensate for the irrationality of others, driven by their unconscious pain.
The truth is that I was behaving no different, driven to reconcile this deep heartache within me that only comes from the riptide of a broken family. I wanted to believe in the dream of a connected family so much that I let myself be blinded to the truth of our shared reality. I wanted to believe that if I consciously did everything I could to keep those I loved happy and satisfied, that everything would somehow work itself out.
But that is just not how things work. Reciprocity cannot be substituted. My own conscious awareness of a situation doesn’t fill in the gaps for the missing awareness of others. Everyone’s awareness is their own responsibility and is what they bring to the relationship. This dream was doomed to fail because it was based on the assumption of my ability to perform at an inhuman level of perfection, waiting on others to somehow “realize” what they were doing, if only I did everything perfectly enough.
As much as it hurts to accept now, it just doesn’t work like that.
No matter how much truth I see, I cannot see truth for others. I cannot heal the pain of others, no matter how much I want them not to feel their pain anymore. I cannot right the wrongs done to the ones I love most when they blindly hurt me in their wild defense mechanisms, unable to receive my love because of the pain someone else they love once gave them, who they cannot confront because they have already left this Earth. I cannot do anything if their pain prevents them from having the conversations that would bring love, healing, and togetherness with the ones who are still here.
My love cannot erase the memories of their pain and grief for them, no matter how much I understand where it comes from. These memories are etched into their very souls and hearts and minds and bodies, not in electric boxes of metal and plastic or bits of paper, but the electrochemical forces of neurobiological wiring shaped by epigenetic blueprints passed down from all our shared ancestors. These memories can’t be lost, but the conscious knowledge of the source of their pain is lost under years of burying their traumas. The choice to face our traumas and heal ourselves is a sovereign choice that only each of us can make for ourselves.
No matter how much we love others, they can only love us to the extent they allow themselves to receive love. Our capacity to receive love is directly proportional to the amount of pain we carry around love and what it means to us as individuals to give and receive love. The pain of giving love to someone who cannot receive it and wrongly interprets your love as a threat is an unbearable weight none should carry, but I suspect, many do, silently, in grief for those who still walk this Earth and those they could never face. This pain hurts me the deepest because I know such a response only surfaces when the ones they loved most hurt them in the same way. I wish nothing more than to take all their pain away, to somehow shake them awake and free them from this suffering. But to be human is to accept that our free will is both our greatest gift and most dangerous weapon, and I cannot choose anything that will relieve anyone of their choice to keep shadowboxing their ghosts. I can only choose for myself.
What is this world, where those who we come from cannot see our love anymore? Whose blood runs in our veins yet whose eyes cannot see our sincerity? Whose genes animate our being yet whose heart cannot feel our connection?
What is this world and how do I find my way in it? Why should I have so much love to give with no home for it to land within? Where does it belong?
Everything I worked so hard to accomplish in my life was to make my family proud, to show them my worth of being a part of our family, to defy the odds and win their love. And for just a moment, they were proud of me. Even though it was ephemeral, it meant everything to me, to the little girl inside me who just wanted to feel that love, that recognition, that rapturous feeling of belonging inherent in reciprocal love, even if it was just for a moment in time.
But a moment is never meant to last.
That is why we take pictures, and write, and record our lives as they happen — to remember what cannot last forever but what we wish will stand the test of time. To remind us of the love we shared for just a moment.