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Life

Poverty of Perception

A meditation on time and perception, as reflected through my experiences of a childhood shaped by my father’s dominating presence.

a meditation on time


Objective

I used to imagine that I perceived the world reasonably objectively. What I saw, I thought, was what was.

Now, with the benefit of experience and perspectives, I see that was just a point of view. Not only were things not what I saw, the very way I could think of the world and myself in it depended on me and my experiences.

The funny thing is that for a long time, while I was in the middle of experiencing the world, the way I experienced it felt like the only possible way to experience. What I saw could not but be anything other than what was.

We

A digression.

When I was younger, Father often explained things he did or believed as what we, the family, did. We went to Africa. We came back. We left our dogs behind. We couldn’t afford to buy me a better tracksuit. We couldn’t talk badly about family, because the shame would befall us all.

In a way, this was correct. We did go and do things together.

In other ways, it was not. Though we might do something together, the power and decision rested unevenly upon us. For example, though we left our three dogs, Miša, Matilda, and Repa, in Africa when we returned to Europe, I had no say in that decision. I wanted our dogs to come with us, but I was 14. I had no money, no way to bring them across, nowhere to put them. And, honestly, for a long time I expected them to come over once the house was finished, to go through the quarantine, and then live with us again.

But, as Father explained to me, we left our dogs behind with good people and they would be well taken care of and we made the best choice possible.

In that case, and in many others, I acquiesced and agreed and accepted that we into my heart.

But, it was a poisoned we. It took my experiences, expectations, and perspectives, and squashed them into a little ball and papered them over and hid them from view.

The more often I accepted the we, the less I could perceive or even accept a me. If I felt a certain way, it was probably wrong. After all, we always took precedent and whenever I challenged it, I was left to look and feel a fool. Stewing in a mix of guilt and shame for even trying to suggest that I disagreed with what we had decided.

Want

My high school and early university years were very painful for me. Not only did I leave behind the only school and town and country I had ever really known, I also left behind the language and culture of that place. Coming to a Slovenian school, I went from someone fluent and skilled with language, to a weird kid with a weird accent who was shit at writing.

I have to say, the teachers docking me half a grade for every misplaced comma were really motivational.

That was sarcasm.

I have to say, the teachers trying to instil the dogma of the nationalist poet were, frankly, full of horseshit.

That was bitterness.

It wasn’t just the school, though. I came back to a small town where I was a stranger and a subject of gossip and stories, but also a town where my older brother lived. I looked up to him intensely, but he fobbed me off. He never introduced me to anything or anyone, and generally avoided me as much as possible.

Back then, I decided this was because I was terminally uncool.

Nowadays, I suspect it was his bitterness at our parents bubbling over, because he stayed in Europe while we went to Africa. Because of what came after. I don’t know. He never talked. Remember, we don’t talk about what goes on inside us or inside our family. That’s weakness.

It wasn’t just the town, though. It was also our family.

After we came back, something fundamental broke inside our family.

No, let me rephrase that.

Father broke something.

He moved out to Ljubljana where he lived his life during the week and came back home on the weekends for laundry and Sunday meals. Our dogs were no longer discussed and eventually the money also dried up. My mom took care of me and my brother and my grandmother with the little money she got from social security and the occasional allowance or loan she got from Father.

After we came back, after Father broke things, we also never went anywhere together anymore.

We still went as a group to do what Father wanted. To eat at pricy restaurants, to drive across the border and buy excessive amounts of charcuterie and gorgonzola and wine.

But we never planned anything beyond the day to day.

For three years I did not leave the small town we had returned to, not just because Father wouldn’t take me anywhere, but also because I couldn’t afford to.

In that situation, it helped to decide that I didn’t really want what I wanted. That maybe I didn’t want anything at all. That maybe it was easier to just live from day to day.

And go for drinks with the other cool high schoolers.

No Future Present

Now, looking back, I’m quite appalled by my dad’s blindness to the world and the people around him.

I’m also quite sad that the few times I expressed what I wanted, he quashed it ruthlessly because it wasn’t what we (he) wanted or needed or understood.

But, the interesting thing is how this affected my thinking.

First, I strongly deprioritised what I wanted. I accepted that what we (he) wanted was more important, and lived that way. I got so good at this, that I had a little we-model in my head to always replace what I might want or think or say.

Second, I abandoned thinking and planning for the future. I followed the framework of what I needed to do to succeed: do well in school, go to a good* university, do well in university, go to a good* job, do well in job, go to a … well, the framework broke down there, but I didn’t think that far.

*As judged by us (him).

The interesting outcome was that I struggled brutally with motivation. I procrastinated like hell and had no idea where anything I was doing led or could lead.

I was trapped in a permanent present. I lived life one day at a time, following an external timetable of school calendars and exams, and pretending to like what other people liked. I used relationships and friends to make and copy plans, since I couldn’t allow myself to have my own goals.

This inevitably lead to a big crisis, which came to a head in my mid twenties.

At that point I was very lucky to find a lay Franciscan relational therapist who, over a few months of listening and asking difficult questions, made me realise that what seemed to me was not always what was.

Great Recession

Then the great recession hit, my job evaporated, and I ended up moving back in with my parents. That’s a story for another time.

What I did experience was intense personal poverty.

It telescoped time in an unusual way. I looked back with longing, remembering a childhood of plenty (papering further over the discrepancy between we and me), and avoided looking to the future.

It was probably a combination of how I downplayed myself and the experiences of poverty that meant it took me a long time, and a lot of financial security, before I could start to make longer term plans.

I was tempted to write, “make longer term plans again,” but that would be untrue. I had followed long term plans (school curricula, for sure), but never made them before.

Now that I am making long term plans, I marvel at the freedom they give. They open up a space of imagination and possibility for one’s one life, places to visit, things to do, people to meet.

I am also filled with a profound sadness at the cringing, cramped future I—and, I imagine, so many other people—experienced.

And, I am filled with questions: how to set more human minds free to imagine a personal future? To chart the seas of a human lifetime, not just drift along, trapped in a we or a must or a plan.

Perhaps this is always personal revelation, that imagining and planning and navigating our futures is not just possible, but positive and worthwhile.

But, perhaps, there are also ways to teach and remind one another that [a life]time does not have only a past and a present. It also has a future—and that an unknowable future is a great gift.

Canine Absolution

I am deeply sorry that I could not keep my (our) three dogs, Miša, Matilda, and Repa, in our family.

I was a child and not strong enough to do anything about it.

Reka, the dog my wife and I saved from the shelter, is my small way of seeking absolution.

If we manage to have children, I hope to prove to them that a dog is family, and that in a family, nobody ever gets left behind. Whether dog or child.


—L.

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