Vacation days with no plans are a perfect opportunity to think about freedom. I have no plans, so I can do anything.
Anything I want. Within realistic limits, obviously.
But here is a question: Out of all the potential things I might want to do, are all choices equally free?
My answer is that they are not. And what I am only slowly beginning to discover and understand is that every time I do what I want to do, I may be fooling myself and I may think of myself as free when I am really not free.
Does that sound weird? Maybe it does.
But let’s start at the beginning: It’s my free day and I wake up.
Last Friday, something happened in the life of an old lady — I estimate that she was born in the 1930s — sitting at a bus stop in Berlin Mitte. The thing that happened involved me, but I was unaware of it. If she hadn’t made me aware of it, I would have no specific memory of her. But now I do.
Linguistic inclusivity has brought about a state of confusion where nobody knows anymore who they are talking about.
“Women-identified and non-binary folk”
Well done, you are on the safe side! You’ve included all the people that you are supposed to! Or have you?
Why do non-binary people need to be mentioned alongside women? Why do we call them “folk” or “folx” now instead of “people”? Why is it “women-identified” and not just “women”?
Are there reasons for any of this?
Asking that question is similar to asking if there is a reason why Christmas is celebrated. It is celebrated because there is a culture of celebrating it—not because it makes sense, not because it solves a particular problem, not because we’ve designed it to make people happy. There is no reason other than the continuation of a living culture of which it is part of.
Gender-inclusive language is at a similar point. There is a culture of using particular phrases—not because they are the best, most fitting phrases to use, not because they achieve, or at least work towards inclusion, but because a culture has added them to the vocabulary that people can use as evidence of their membership.
Is that good? Is it bad? Is it worth thinking about?
If we expect our linguistic choices to have specific positive effects, that endeavor can fail if originally intentional word choices become absorbed by a culture to the point where they are synonymous with declaring oneself a member of a certain group.
Words can lose their meaning. Anyone who cares about a social issue is well advised not to rely on words to achieve their goals.
I am a drop of water riding a wave. Am I moving, or is the wave moving?
As part of the wave, I am not moving within it. There is nothing in the wave that I am moving against. The wave is moving me.
If I am moving, it has to be in relation to an external something that I am not moving with: other waves, some moving slower, some faster, in relation to reference points that I think of as immobile.
As a wave, we are moving together, we carry each other. Inside the wave, being carried and carrying others are indistinguishable.
From a certain distance, the wave becomes a place. Its moving back and forth is constrained within limits. Zoom out more and the sum of all waves becomes a place—a system of internal movement that appears static when looked at from the outside.
Are we going anywhere or are we just marking the boundaries of a place? Am I moving? Who am I moving with? Who am I moving against? What is this place that we are moving within?
This morning when I was drinking coffee, my mind started wandering and I noticed how my awareness of myself being in the café I was at was overlaid with a kind of meta-awareness—an awareness of my awareness of myself being in the café. “Here I am, seeing myself as being where I am.” I looked out the window and saw people entering my frame of visibility from one side and exiting it on the other side and I took note of the fact that each one of them looked at the world through the window of their attention at any given moment in time.
“But there is so much more,” I thought. “There is so much more out there that evades our attention, even though it is just as real as the things that are more immediately accessible to us.” In my mind I zoomed out and looked at the city from above. All the noises were so much quieter, the cars so much smaller, the people so much closer together. I zoomed back in. “This is me paying attention to what’s in front of me. But why am I not paying attention to all the things that I can’t see?” The picture in front of me defocused and my senses opened up to reveal a world of pictures and sounds outside of my physical abilities.
I saw people sleeping in another time zone in one direction and people manufacturing clothes in another direction, thousands of kilometers away from me. I saw millions of unnamed humans following their attention, looking left, looking right, staring at their phones, looking at the sky, crossing the road, drinking coffee. “We all exist at the same time, in this very moment. In a sense, we all live in the same place. And yet, we are so separate from each other, separated by our limited ability to see beyond what’s right in front of us.”
As my attention shifted away from the noisy cacophony of the entirety of humanity, a different voice got a chance to be heard: the voice of a lone whale swimming through the ocean somewhere, in this moment. “This whale is alive somewhere on this planet. I know that whales still exist and so this picture represents something real.”
I took another sip of my coffee. The whale had no idea that I was paying attention to it. How could it. But it was alive. It is alive. It is out there even now as I’m writing this.
It needs to get out.
If I knew how to say it, I’d be able to free myself from the burden of not getting past the point that motivates me to get it out in the first place.
If I knew how to say it, everything would be so clear that I wouldn’t gain anything from saying it. But also, it is not guaranteed that anyone at all would gain anything from it either. The finished product may be so foreign that it fails to attract attention, fails to be recognized, fails to be seen and understood.
It is not a thought. It is the urge for a thought to be brought to completion, after which point I am freed from it.
It occupies me, lives off of the resources my body provides. It is transforming me into the next me.
It needs to get out.
Berlin, a brisk fall day. A woman enters a café and, in English, tells the person behind the counter that she lost her wallet and asks for a glass of water. Unimpressed, they roll their eyes and shake their head. “Please!” Watching the scene, I get the sense that the people running the place resent the high number of tourists visiting them every day. The woman asks again. Not even a glass of water? As he gets ready to leave, a man hands her a 5€ bill. “Oh my god, thank you.” He smiles and shakes his head. The person behind the bar looks away and cleans glasses.
Later that same day, I’m on the S-Bahn headed home. A woman walks through the train offering exactly one copy of the magazine Motz, typically sold by homeless people. Her dress marks her as Roma. She stops in front of every person for about 2 or 3 seconds before she moves on to the next. Visibly uncomfortable, every single person on the train looks away; some shake their head. As I hand her a 10€ bill, we look at each other and smile. After 2 seconds or so, she moves on.
What makes The Other human is the empathy that we extend to them.