“Had I been blessed with even limited access to my own mind, there would have been no reason to write”. ~ Joan Didion
I was at my parent’s dinner table. Before me was a worn journal of thin and discolored pages and a neat script that was gently fading away.
It was my grand fathers journal and now belonged to my father. I never knew my grandfather. He had died in the months leading up to my birth, and had named me in his final days even though there was no proof that the baby to come would be a girl. In the expat life I grew up in, I never got to visit the home he had lived in, the places he had frequented and the people who had been a part of his life’s journey.
I was now about to enter his world, through the words that he had left behind. I smelled the mold of decades of wear and tear and touched the softness of the paper that had grown smooth with time. And within minutes, I was captivated by the power of the written word. It plays on the human’s mind’s capacity to time travel and carries us back and forth in a remarkable interplay of past, present and future. In the magical script before me, I was transported to another era, where guests arrived for no reason but to connect, and were forced to stay for dinner. An age where food was an everyday art, planned, prepared and enjoyed in the company of others. A time where people had the heart to pause their own lives in order to embrace each other’s struggles. All this was conveyed to me in the beauty of the words that flowed together to connect with the writer’s mind and understand the world they lived in. Reading the very words that my grand father had penned eons ago, I felt a strange kinship with him that stories about him had failed to impress.
That kind of writing seems to be lost on us today. The love for words, the agonizing over sentences and the ethical component of good writing that obliged us to pay certain kinds of attention to our experiences, seems to have succumbed to the speed of our times. We have gotten used to writing in bite-sized pieces for a public looking for ease and entertainment, and hungry for information. No wonder, there are nearly 200 million bloggers on the internet and a new blog is created somewhere in the world every half a second. Instead of adding to our collective wisdom, these writings are largely saturated with the vulgarities of human nature and the superficiality and impatience of our day and age. There are “3 easy steps” to whatever your imagination can conjure up, and endless trivial newsfeeds that shift miles in minutes and delude us into confusing meaning with information.
This deprives us not only of the skill of writing eloquent prose, it also inhibits us from delving deeper into what is truly important. Writing humbles us in a way that is vital for our character growth, by reminding us about the limits of the self and our appropriate place in the vast flow of life. Writing frees us from the tyranny of the ego, by helping us wade deeper into the unknown and making us comfortable with the unease of being stupid. For it is then that we let go of perceptions and beliefs that rein us in and truly open up to the magic of the world around us.
Writing also provides us with the courage to face what is happening while keeping our heart in the room. It allows us to choose suffering over safety like C.S Lewis inShadowlands. Because suffering is not suffering when it is helps us find meaning in our experiences and make sense of our world. It is in staying with the pain of unexplainable circumstances and asking the questions that seem to have no answers, that we often arrive at the best possible response. After all life happens in living it, and meaning emerges not in our heads but in our journeys.
I saw all of this in the writings of my grandfather. His inner journey as he survived the partition of the Indian subcontinent, suffered the consequences of broken trust more than once, and yet never lost hope in the goodness of the human spirit. And I’ve seen it again and again in the writings of the greatest thinkers of humanity, whose wisdom is largely off the very internet that we see as our sole source of information. Their writing reflects deep thought on issues of human importance, such that T.S Eliot wrote no more than 150 pages of poetry in his entire career and James Joyce wrote Ulysses at the rate of a hundred words a day.
By undertaking an inner journey and understanding our own inner worlds, we are reminded that beneath all the layers of psychosocial patina lies a common humanity that shares the same pains, delights in the same joys, and lives for the same purpose. As Sherwin Nuland remarked in How We Die, “the more personal you are willing to be around the details of your own life, the more universal you are”.
And we are reminded too of the wonders of the inner world. For when we spend time contemplating on it, we find that we are all here to do good. It is what ensures our biological survival and brings us spiritual pleasure, if only we were to stop and consider it amongst all our worldly distractions.
It is not a privilege, reserved for a certain population amongst us. After all, the search for meaning is a universal human quest. Luckily life is difficult, mysterious and hard to understand. Andre Gide won the Nobel Prize in Literature for his “fearless love of truth and keen psychological insight”. We may never win the Nobel Prize. But by reflecting upon our experiences with intensity and writing about them with integrity, we can answer the call of the soul with the best possible response.