Understanding What Is The Same

It is a very clear feeling – the desire to talk – that emanates from one person to another. It is palpable. I am always surprised when I feel it coming across the air toward me, as though I’ve been momentarily mistaken for someone else.  But it comes all the same. And there is nothing to do but embrace the moment, for it is a kindness to accept it and a meanness or lack of feeling to walk away from it.

This happens to me more often than not with those who feel they are defined by, or at some point in their formative years were defined by, differentness or alienation – an innate but self-perpetuated seriousness about the condition of their life that sends them away from their peers and into themselves. I find this connection happens often. I could argue that it is me, that I connect with people who have a heaviness or seriousness of spirit. Or I could argue that I strive not to be a beacon for this connection and that I desire opposite – people with lightness, an appetite for fun, with easy-going interconnectedness. That it is a randomness of my life that this sort of person finds me. For simplicity sake and in order to get, let’s just call it mutual recognition.

This is how I came to know things I previously only guessed about one of my new colleagues. He is transparent, diligent, reserved. He has a reluctant but easy smile and a matching laugh like an innocent, stifled snicker – the kind produced from a secret joke told in the back of the classroom while the teacher is rendered momentarily deaf by the sound of chalk against board.

He remarked on the long lifespan of turtles and their probable scientific value for unlocking the secret to slowing aging. About his desire to re-live his childhood knowing what he knows now but his hesitation about dealing with those bullies again. About his desire to be free like an artist. About the actual and self-imposed hardships of childhood.

He has 11 siblings. I have one. He did not wear shoes until he was 14. I was wearing shoes before I could walk. He had one school uniform. I had a closet and dresser full of clothes. He grew up planting and harvesting vegetables to sell in the local market. I grew up not having a job.

I am not surprised to learn that we both were too hard on ourselves as children, that we both disbelieve the compliments people bestow on our work, that we both like Sylvia Plath and that we both raised ourselves as introverts, in part perhaps as a natural tendency, but also to differentiate from extroverted siblings and cope with a sense of irreparable inadequacy compared to our peers.

He says that in university his friends taught him to have fun. He says that in his first job he had to learn to talk to others. I learn that he sometimes writes his emotions in the hopes of avoiding living them. I learn that he thinks perhaps Hamlet and all those tragedies did more harm than good, that he wishes he hadn’t studied so much English literature, and that maybe his favorite poets were suffering from depression and their artistic expression should have been diagnosed rather than celebrated.

Two things strike me as the words flow precisely and easily across the table, carried by the breeze just as much by his voice. First, he is smiling the entire time he speaks. Second, though he looks directly at me while speaking, I could just as easily not be there. That’s not to say he wanted to talk with just anyone, but he did want to talk. I feel more like a conduit than a companion, and this is fine with me. I’ve often found that the desire to connect is different than the desire to be understood. While both are intimate activities, the former is possible with anyone if we try. I think the latter – to be understood – is the more difficult because it requires a kindredness, not just sameness.

This is simply a thing that happened today. I was leaving the balcony, having talked for half an hour with a colleague about drinking, the power of the liver and holiday plans, but then my other colleague stepped outside with a mug of coffee and a question about the springboks and turtles. There was something about the way he planted his feet and the nature of his questions that told me he wanted to talk. And so we did.

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