Here’s a story that doesn’t paint me in a particularly flattering light: part of the reason I chose my career was because of a slightly unhealthy obsession with the idea of “moments”.
To explain what I mean, let me tell you a tale about a thirteen year old boy who would grow up to have the most epic beard mankind had ever seen.
I met this guy when I was also thirteen and at a new school that I totally hated because teen angst was all the rage back then. While listening to Linkin Park songs with frightening frequency, I befriended a boy in my class whose knowledge of the band rivalled my own. We bonded over a shared earphone and a Walkman with the album Hybrid Theory whirring around in its innards. Later, we faced a tragedy that most first year high school students don’t have to grapple with; namely, our home class teacher killed himself. On the day we heard the news, my Linkin Park buddy threw an arm around my shoulders and asked me if I was okay. I wasn’t. It was fine that I wasn’t. He just sat with me.
Cut to about a decade and a half later and I still know that boy. Not because we kept in touch, but simply because we live in a town where that kind of crap happens on a regular basis because there’s really only two points of separation between anyone here. A friend of mine relayed a recent conversation with him wherein he’d asked how I was doing and they’d been discussing my upcoming camping trip. He had been worried about the idea of me hiking and camping alone because he knew that these days I suffer an autoimmune disease which would make such a task challenging to say the least (for the record, he was overestimating my ambition as I intend to camp out of my car, not hike with my camping gear). Apparently, he said that he’d be happy to come with me and carry stuff for me if I needed it.
Here’s the thing: the guy in question doesn’t know me all that well, or I him. The number of conversations we’ve had since meeting again in our adult lives, personified, would not make up a basketball team. And yet it didn’t surprise me at all that he’d made the offer. Why? Because of that moment when we were thirteen and he took the time to notice that I was completely lost and confused and asked me if I were okay.
Getting to know people is a complex business. I could count the number of people that I think truly know me on one hand, yet we have moments of clarity. There are these moments where I think we truly see who people are, or when people see who we are. That moment with that boy was one such example. I don’t need to know him better than I do to have the firm and fixed opinion that he is a good human being. That doesn’t mean he’s infallible and that I would be shocked to hear he did something wrong, but I would still, at the very least, believe that the net worth of his character still fell on the side of goodness.
For better or for worse, most of my memories are about such moments where I thought I saw someone or something with clarity, or where I thought someone saw me in the same way. But here’s the thing: memory is not objective. And using such memories and moments as the basis for your worldview can be crushing when you turn out to be wrong. It also means that you spend your time waiting for a meaningful moment to happen instead of realising that meaning is a puzzle constructed by a much broader array of pieces than the one you happen to be looking at right now.
Objectively, I know this. It’s why I love history. I love watching the threads weave together to form something you totally never saw coming until it was done. I love being able to go back and pull it all apart and see the individual threads that went into the huge complex product at the end of it. But that’s where the two overlap, because those moments often are the thread itself.
So that’s part of why I chose my career. I get to work with a lot of different people and a lot of my own moments in life came from random people who I’ll probably never see again – in short, I like the idea of making moments for lots of other people. In a similar vein, I don’t remember much about my younger years, but I do know that that’s where a lot of my clearest moments happened because we assigned so much more value to stuff when we were high on hormones, so working with young people adds to the possibility of helping create moments. I also like seeing those threads start to form a picture.
But it’s not a healthy way to live.
I once observed that I had spent most of my life wishing for the moment before. It was an ironic loop when you considered that when I’d actually been experiencing the moment I was later longing for, I’d been hating it and wishing to go back to a different moment. Nostalgia paints everything in this sepia-toned hipster picture of pretty Instagram perfect aesthetic. If you spend all your time clinging to those moments, assigning them importance, then you sometimes forget to keep moving forward instead of looking back.
And there are still more problems with this way of living. Many years ago, I had a really intense conversation with a friend of mine. Partway through our talk we fell totally silent. We locked eyes and in this few seconds that seemed to slow to nothing, we just got it. It was like all the bullshit was stripped back and we were both just standing there saying, “well, this is me” and “yeah I see that, and I’m okay with it” without saying anything. But here’s the thing: he was drunk, I wasn’t. I remember that moment vividly, yet I imagine it has blurred into one of many random nights for him. And while we still keep in touch, I don’t think that poor man has been able to understand me as a human being for a single second since.
So how many moments have I forgotten? How many people have I seen clearly but later somehow disregarded and misunderstood? How many moments have I misjudged and assigned meaning that wasn’t there?
Perhaps most importantly, how many moments have I missed while overanalysing and romanticising the moments from before?
Moments are dangerous things. Most facets of my life – the career, the writing, the travel, the photography, the pretentious philosophising, the conscious choice to not philosophise – all fundamentally link back into this obsession in one way or another. That’s not something I can change. But at least I can channel it. I write; I take photos; I ramble pretentiously; I read history and psychology and philosophy books with no apparent purpose; I travel alone to strange places – all as a means to channel that weird lingering teenage angst which compels me to believe there is meaning in moments. That those little things are the sparks in the sky that make up the stars.
Just don’t forget to step back and look up at the whole cosmos in front of you right now, rather than looking back at the collapses that made it up in the first place.