I Blame the Poets

It’s almost an year to the day since my last post – and what an year it has been! But this is not going to be one of those posts where I reminisce about past accomplishments and failures. Though the one thing I do regret is not writing in such a long time.

Some may frown upon my writing a relatively personal blog post on the company blog. My work and life are two inseparable facets that make me me. They are inextricably linked and blend into each other seamlessly. One cannot exist without the other. All my “work” writing has been about my personal reflections and opinions, and explorations into human behaviour. And so, I feel no qualms in writing on a topic that touches us all, influences our decisions, and makes us human.

The caged bird sings
with a fearful trill
of things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill
for the caged bird
sings of freedom.

All of us experience personal pain and heartache everyday. Sometimes it almost becomes a natural state to be in. We all want to find the reason why we suffer so. What is heartache? Which part of the body is afflicted by it? Where do we feel it? Since time immemorial, countless people have written and philosophized and sung and painted and sculpted about love and pain. In fact there would be no art if it were not for suffering.

If one really thinks about it, there is a simple explanation for pain. It originates from the fact that we are unable to deal with two incompatible ideas in our brain. Even the pain of bereavement arises because we want the person to be around (expectation) when they cannot be (reality). Disappointments in relationships, disappointments with colleagues, dissatisfaction with personal growth, feelings of failure, are all related to this dissonance in the brain. Anger, hate, grief, misogyny, homophobia all arise from this mismatch of belief and reality. We want, we believe, that things should be one way, that people should behave in certain ways, and when they don’t, when things turn out differently than what we expect, the clash causes our minds respond with negative emotions. Our brains cannot reconcile these two opposing ideas and it hurts. Some folks brood and withdraw, others lash out and get violent, and some get depressed and even suicidal.

If I was weak, forgive me
But I was terrified
You brushed my eyes with angels wings, full of love
The kind that makes devils cry

— George Michael and David Austin, You have been loved

Our beliefs are very important to us. We think that they define us. Our beliefs are our values. If we don’t hold on to our values, what else remains? These days we are constantly reminded to find our true selves, to be true to ourselves. Who are we, if not our values? We are adrift, we are bereft. It is very easy to lull ourselves into thinking that we are this unmovable, unshakeable, monolithic value structure.

Consequently, we lose our ability to absorb new ideas and assimilate new opinions. Change becomes a threat. Differences turn into flash points. New becomes anathema. Discovery no longer offers joyous wonder. And all this because of some chemicals in the brain, some synapses that refuse to fire, some neurons that resist new connections.

How should we like it were stars to burn
With a passion for us we could not return?
If equal affection cannot be,
Let the more loving one be me.

— W. H. Auden, The more loving one

How different would the world be if we could accept what is, rather than fight it tooth and nail? What if we could we put our expectations aside and welcome things at face value? We define our existence through anguish. If there was no pain, would we cease to exist? If we welcomed all that there is, would there be no conflict? Acceptance, would it end all suffering?

What does this have to do with poets?

I’m as guilty as the next person of letting my emotions get the better of me. I’ve suffered heartache and angst, pined and wept. That’s the other aspect of the human condition. Knowing something does not mean that one does anything about it. If that would be the case, we would all be eating healthy, getting exercise, quitting smoking, and staying faithful. We all know those things are good for us, and yet how many of us follow through on those new year resolutions?

Poets put idealistic ideas in our heads

Sometimes I think that I’m more susceptible to suggestion than I’m willing to admit. I can’t help but be moved by words, and poets, they are the worst. They create intense beauty and magic with their little verses and rhymes, and they embed these beautiful thoughts in my head. They make me believe in love and kindness, and joy and hope. They make me imagine the unsaid feelings conveyed through a single gaze. They set me up with anticipation and fill me up with longing, make me burn with desire. They make me think that everything is possible, and that the future is mine to behold. They assure me that success is right round the corner, that in perseverance lies the key to glories untold.

Poets make us believe in the impossible

I was influenced by suggestions that the eyes can express more meaning than words. I came to believe that integrity is paramount. Sacrifice and humility, minimalism and austerity became my bywords. Compassion, diligence, erudition, honesty, and honour are ingrained in my brain. Principles rule my life.

So here I am, full of impossible expectations, wandering through life, keeping the faith. While at every turn, disappointment awaits. Cognitive dissonance is now my constant companion. Disillusionment came on swift wings to catch up with me where I let these poets carry me away with their fancy words and fanciful ideas.

To be nobody-but-yourself — in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else — means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight; and never stop fighting.

— E. E. Cummings, A poet’s advice to students

I don’t mean to sound all maudlin, and the past year or so has been quite transformative. It makes me feel a bit like Holden Caulfield in “Catcher in the Rye”. It would seem a bit late in life for disillusionment. Maybe this is what a midlife crisis is about – a second coming of disillusionment.

However this time around, I think I understood it better. I was able to recognize what was happening and what I was feeling. Rather than be bitter and complain, I could observe it happening, may not be dispassionately, but without rancour. This is an incredible human capacity, metacognition, of being able to analyze ones own behaviour and thoughts as a third person. No other creature has this ability as far as we know. Imagination, reflection, and metacognition, these qualities are truly what set us apart.

Is there a remedy?

Before my sojourn into self-analysis, I railed against the poets and artists and crooners everywhere. “Why do they continue to perpetuate these falsehoods?”, I thought. “Why do they create these idyllic worlds, why do they fill our heads with expectations that can never be met? They are setting us up. They are crippling us, making us weak, unable to defend against the onslaught of reality”, was my refrain.

I'll close my eyes, then I won't see
The love you do not feel, when you're holding me
I can't make you love me, if you don't
You can't make your heart feel something that it won't

— Mike Reid and Allen Shamblin, I can't make you love me

But if we had no idea of it, if no one spoke of it, how would we recognize beauty, if we did perchance encounter it? I now realize that we all have the innate ability to perceive beauty. It shall not elude us. It is the expectation from others that is the culprit here. We must relinquish expectation of any sort to avoid disappointment. The key then, is to receive, to be open to receive, all that which comes our way without prejudice or judgement. It is inevitable that most of it will be unfavourable and unsavoury, and only once in while will life fling a golden nugget in our path, which will be all the more precious for its rarity.

As a wise person once said, “There are no good things or bad things, it is what we make of them that makes them good or bad.” And so I shall continue with fortitude, my meandering, my experimentation, my encounters with life, to weave a rich tapestry of experiences and memories. I will try my best to accept without resentment, and when I can’t, I shall examine why. Or maybe not. Will rational thought ever conquer feelings? Maybe instead of rejecting them, I’ll let the emotions wash over me, submerge me in their depths, and cleanse me as they retreat.

But most of all, I’ll stop blaming the poets. They are after all slaves to their own compulsion to create.