One summer day, I found myself sharing a bench outside Encina Hall with a stranger. In place of awkward silences, said stranger wanted to know what I was reading (Carl Jung). A long conversation about dreams and symbols ensued. And then, quite out of the blue, she asked:
“Are you happy at Stanford?”
Instinctively, I wanted to say “yes,” because 1) saying otherwise might require further explanation; 2) it is a standard answer almost expected of every Stanford student when a stranger asks (warning: duck syndrome); 3) it is not untrue.
“Yes,” I paused, “but I cry a lot too.” I thought back on the occasional nights when I cried myself to sleep, over heartbreaks, self-loathing, the general condition of being lost. “I guess I’m not out of the woods yet,” I said, seeing no reason to lie.
“Most people your age aren’t,” she said, “but it is especially hard for you Stanford students, as far as I can tell…” She had worked as a counselor on campus before. “In a generally happy place like this, there is not quite enough room for sadness.”
But we know there is no lack of that on campus; a recent survey by the Daily finds that 23 percent of the student population had considered attempting suicide. A surprising statistic for a place that many from the outside call paradise, perhaps. But I hardly think this is something exclusive to Stanford students; growing up and growing old in this wild and crazy world is just not the easiest thing we have to confront. Everyone has a secret sadness which the world knows not, and when that sadness isn’t given the attention it deserves, it turns into an internalized battle of ambivalences, of aggression turned inward. A human condition that has come to be known as depression.
The Czechs have a word with no exact translation into any other language. The word is litost, which is a feeling as infinite as an open accordion, a feeling that is the synthesis of many others: grief, sympathy, remorse and an indefinable longing. As Milan Kundera puts it, “It is a special sorrow, a state of torment caused by a sudden insight into one’s own miserable self.”
In our childhood we are neither privy nor subject to litost because we are capable of forgetting the self; this is why we do not see children groveling in their own misery, and why we are so envious of them. The coming-of-age brings to bear a new consciousness: We become painfully aware of our faults, our shortcomings, and, if we fail to come to terms with the general imperfectability of being human, self-loathing emerges from the excesses of litost to cast a long shadow over the self. This new consciousness descends right as we lose the ability to forget, and we become incapable of forgiving or forgetting ourselves.
The only effective remedy for this rather dreadful state, as 200,000 years of experience with human existence have taught us, is love.
“Have you found love where you’re at?” she asked.
“Do you mean to ask if I am single, or do you mean love in the way I love food and books?”
“I mean, have you found love for yourself? Love for who you are?”
An impossible question to answer, I thought. In that long, wide pause several muses spoke.
One can find love in many ways: In a person, in an undertaking, in the (always) understated beauty of the world. Of all things, love for the self is the hardest to do. It presupposes knowing who the self is, which is impossible to know in the present tense. I could only know who I was, and who I want to be, but only the future self can tell me who I “am.” By which time only the past tense would be appropriate. If the present self always evades definition, how does one love that which one does not know?
“Sometimes,” I replied.
I traced the genealogy of all the moments that constitute “sometimes.” Growing up has meant the loss of absolute identifications: The child learns that Santa Claus is a lie (though why we lie to children is a question that still baffles me), and, as she grows out of her comfort zone to confront strangers appraising her, that “good” means different things in different contexts to different people. The self fragments and longs for reconstitution. Love as a source of absolute identification provides a permanent measure, an antidote to the dreadful litost. It enlarges us, and gives even sadness an aspect of purpose.
But love doesn’t come easily, even though it is sometimes the most taken-for-granted thing in the world.
It is often said that one cannot properly love others without having first loved the self. I often think that the reverse is more true: One who is incapable of loving another cannot properly love herself. And we learn to love ourselves through simple acts of loving and being loved by others.
I recently learned why it is that I feel this strange joy when I cook for others. It dawned on me one day, while I was cooking a pot of curry, that it had everything to do with my mother: That had been how my mother showed me love, every day for as long as I was living with her. Cooking became one of the ways I knew to love, too. I seldom tell the friends I cook for that I love them very much (cheesiness is a crime these days), but I hope they felt the love in their tummies.
In the end, the correct question to ask is not for what we live, but for whom we live. Without others, we are inscrutable to ourselves. Who “am” I without all the ties by which I am constituted? In all our searching, the only thing we have found that makes the emptiness and litost bearable, is each other.
“I hope you find it always,” she said.
“And same to you.”
We left it at that. I began my trek to Trader Joe’s just as the cerulean blue in the sky gave way to a dusky red. It was almost dinner time, and it was time to cook.
Contact Chi Ling Chan at firstname.lastname@example.org.