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Friday, May 11, 2007

The Jump: From Chaos Comes Clarity

I have felt this before, a long time ago. The circumstances were different, but the feelings involved were definitely the same. After all, one does not easily forget such powerful emotions.

These feelings are not inherently powerful in magnitude, though at times they can get pretty intense; their power is in their duration – the feelings can linger for months, even years on end. And then, like magic, they can suddenly disappear, only to remain as quick flashes of emotional events suspended in a sea of memories.

* * *

So there I was, roughly eleven years ago, a small boy seated in the back of a station wagon, barely able to see out the back window. I remember looking up at the colorful store signs as we passed them on our way home from the airport. The letters on them were familiar but the words they made up were odd-looking and unintelligible.

I remember sitting in a classroom looking up at a blackboard with those same familiar letters making up words that I could not understand. I copied those strange words dutifully into my notebook letter-by-letter, careful not to misspell the secret code my teacher had put on the blackboard. Later at home, I would break the code with the help of my sister’s Polish-English Dictionary and derive the meaning of that day’s lesson.

I also remember part of a conversation I had with a newly-met friend – Rafael was his name – who was well on his way to forgetting the Polish language while I was just starting to learn English. I didn’t understand what a “report card” was, and I asked him to explain it to me because our teacher kept repeating the phrase in class. He couldn’t recall the right word for it in Polish (I don’t blame him, it’s quite the tongue twister: “Å›wiadectwo”) and instead said something to the effect of:

“It is a piece of paper with letters on it."
“Letters?” I asked.
“Like the alphabet. It has A’s, B’s, C’s, D’s, and F’s on it.”
“What happened to the E’s?”

Both of us were most likely starting to think that the other was pulling a joke. I was almost convinced that Rafael was describing a book, but then I thought: well, why don’t you just call it a “book”? The image of a report card (“Å›wiadectwo” to me) didn’t come to mind because in Poland academic grades are specified by numbers, not letters: 5 corresponds to A, 4 to B, and so on. I came out of this conversation wondering why certain books called “report cards” didn’t have E’s in them.

All I can remember from those earliest times are such random scenes of confusion. I had trouble communicating with my peers, and most of the time I ended up more lost than I was before I asked for help. Reading and writing in English was out of the question. Even the familiar letters ceased making sense after a while because they looked so alien when arranged in code-like sequences. I was – and felt – illiterate.

Can “illiteracy” be an emotion? Its closest synonyms would probably be: confusion, uncertainty, and a feeling of being lost in one’s environment; that’s certainly what being illiterate was, and is, for me. For a long time I felt uncomfortable and isolated because of this general lack of understanding of the English language, and my memories from the time are laden with such emotional pangs and mental chaos.

And then, all of a sudden the feelings were gone. I don’t recall a period of being half-confused, half-clear; there seemed to be no intermediate phase between “knowing” and “not knowing” the English language. At some point in time, something, like a missing piece of a puzzle, just “clicked” into place and I was able to put much of it together in my mind. The puzzle was far from finished, but I was finally able to make out and recognize the “big picture” – it became something concrete to build on, a solid foundation. It was as if after reaching a certain critical mass of acquired pockets of knowledge and experiences, I made a “quantum jump” from the plane of confusion to the plane of understanding, with no apparent transition.

What made such a “jump” to literacy possible? It certainly didn’t happen all by itself. It must have been the result of an elaborate process of learning, except this kind of learning is unique in its nature and scope, as all literacy-related adventures most likely are. At the time, I had no other choice but to struggle and work hard to learn the language of the environment I was now a part – it was the only route to any kind of success. This necessity must’ve pulled me through the long period of utter incomprehension and solitude. I was fully committed to finding a way of out the wilderness, and, as a result, I triumphed in my endeavor. The rest, as they say, is history.

* * *

The emotions were certainly the same then as they are now, though I’m not in the middle of learning a language, at least not one of the interpersonal, or “external,” kind. A feeling of uncertainty always lingers and intensifies whenever I focus my mind on my current undertaking. Am I really up to it?

Literacy of the Self involves, I now realize, a similar learning process to that of learning an actual language. To that extent, my past experiences of struggling to learn the English language have in a way prepared me for what I am presently going through; they also serve as a useful metaphor to those unfamiliar with what literacy of the Self might mean and what it entails. Learning to “know thyself” is like learning an intrapersonal, or “internal,” language, one which can be used to communicate with the Self – a kind of relay system between the subconscious domains of my inner thoughts and emotions and my conscious, awake state. As is the case with learning a regular language, obtaining literacy of the Self involves constant practice and perseverance.

The learning process involves voluntary attempts at objective Self-observation that, more often than not, lead to failure; it’s easy to give up and forget because all I have to do is shift my mind to something else and get lost in the happenings of the outside world. As such, this kind of learning requires tremendous self-discipline, and maintaining unwavering objectivity in my thought processes is one of the most difficult things I’ve ever attempted. The idea is to split awareness between the “external” world and the “internal” thoughts and emotions and to objectively take note of both environments without making any premature assumptions. The thought processes involved make use of the aforementioned “internal” language, only this language isn’t made up of words but rather of various sensations as they appear: images, sounds, emotions, and other data. The results can be quite fascinating: such self-observation, when successful, has revealed constructive information about me in various life situations that gave me a more factual and clear representation of myself than what I previously could only imagine.

For now, I can honestly admit to being Self-illiterate, and the nagging feelings of doubt and uncertainty persist. I cannot yet fully grasp my “internal” language nor do I have any clear idea of what it might be in its entirety. Perhaps I have not attained enough experience and practical knowledge to find the essential missing piece of my Self-puzzle; I do not have a concrete foundation on which to BE, only a loose idea of what it might consist of. In short, I have not collected enough data through Self-observation in order to make that crucial “jump” to attain literacy of the Self, and, given my current state of confusion about the whole thing, I may be a long way from it. However, if this endeavor is truly as similar to my experiences long ago as I have presented here, I am at least hopeful that through hard Self-work and determination I can someday attain a much greater understanding of who I really am.

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