But the World Has Never Understood Me

Disclaimer: Every year since 2011, I’ve posted a self-reflection on New Year’s Day, looking back and forward. I hope you’ll grant me this self-indulgence once more. It was a rough year.

I’m adaptable. I have to be.

It seems that every one or two years, I pick up, move, and live a totally different life. Since finishing grad school, I have been an editorial assistant, a communications writer, a professor, and an environmental compliance specialist. A Memphian, a Virginian, a Chicagoan.

The Brutalism of Chicago. Credit: Heidi Samuelson

I’m pretty good at rolling with these external changes. I have to be.

Humans dominate the planet by manipulating their environment, through agriculture and settlements, development and sprawl. Carving nature at its joints. Dreaming and building. Taking and selling.

But I’ve never seen myself as a taker, a builder, or a carver. I’ve always turned inward. I assume I have no effect on my environment or on other people. I actively try to pass through the world unnoticed. I wasn’t always this way. Experience has simply taught me that I won’t be heard or seen. I have to be okay with being a shadow.

The external world has never been mine.

Your world is always shaped by others. Most of your life isn’t determined by you or even by anyone you know. There are these amorphous things like language and culture and power that mold how you think, how others see you, how you see yourself.

In spite of this, my inner world is rich, thriving, even if it’s difficult to cultivate and manipulate. But at least my thoughts, my memories, and my knowledge have always felt like mine, reactionary to an external world as they are. My ideas are all I have. And I always thought they couldn’t be taken away from me.

This past year has challenged that certainty. Most days when I read the news, when I hear what people in the government and the media — the discourse-makers — are saying, I feel like I’m losing my mind. The world reflected in their ideas does not match the world I have lived in and navigated for more than 30 years. It is further away from my inner world than it ever has been.

And the gulf between inner and outer has always been vast for me.

The best way I can explain it is this. In a song titled “Always,” released last New Year’s Day, RM wrote:

I live to understand the world
But the world has never understood me
No, that half is missing
It’s trying to kill me 

And these words cut right in and flayed me. Gave a voice to something I often think but don’t say.


Credit: BigHit Entertainment (via SoundCloud)

I have always wanted to know everything in the entire universe. I think of life as a learning process. To me, it’s part of being a fully developed, mature, empathetic person, a global citizen. And so I actively try to listen and understand more of the world, more people, more cultures, more languages, more history, more politics.

This past year more than anything has shown how dangerous it is to narrow your worldview to a predefined community or, arguably worse, to dollar signs. To me, expanding my worldview isn’t an option, it’s something I have to do.

I would love to pretend that I matter, that I have autonomy, but I can’t. Thousands of years of patriarchy have made more of an impact on my existence than any so-called choice I have ever made. What can I do but try to understand why I’m a shadow, a swallowed voice?

The silver lining is that it’s a good thing, though, isn’t it? To be open to new things, to be open with yourself, to recognize that we do live in a shared world with billions of other humans, who are persons — not Other, not things. If people were more open, then maybe I wouldn’t feel so painfully alienated all the time, my only relief ever coming in the form of song lyrics.

It’s scary to be exposed and sometimes you screw up, but without learning you stagnate, and stagnation is the thing I fear the most. It eats away at me like acid. I’m not an adventurer or a traveler. I just feel like I’m rotting from the inside when I don’t have something new to learn about, to experience and obsess over.

The trouble is that I still feel pushed along. I never seem to move in the direction I want. I always lose — time, independence, friends —and  adapting never really feels better. I’m still struggling against an outside world that doesn’t understand me, want me, or need me in it.

I may never accomplish anything, create anything that matters to anyone else, or save anyone the way RM, Wilco, and a handful of others have saved me. But I have to tell myself that it’s okay to lose — layers, assumptions, jobs — because at some point all that will be left is something, or everything, the pure rawness of the world.

And there’s value in that. Someone has to remember, to see, to understand.

I have to believe that. Contending with rejection and silence from a world that’s just going to kill me anyway requires some careful coping mechanisms.

I don’t know what I expect out of the coming year other than more coping. Time is arbitrary, but I truly hope it’s not a flat circle. I would rather not bear witness to 2017 again. I’d like to pretend it never existed.

But I can’t do that. We have to own the past because it’s all part of now. I don’t like it. But someone has to do it. Even if no one ever bears witness to me.

All of these things I have to be, but none of them I want to be. In a world that doesn’t understand.

Credit: Anonymous.

[1] I’m not sure about the translation of the third line. It could mean something like “Not exactly half full.” The original Korean:

난 세상을 이해하기 위해 사는데
세상은 날 이해한 적이 없어 왜
아니 딱 절반이 모자라
날 해하려 하잖아

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