Friday, September 11, 2020

Full of Meaning Rather Than Absence


I couldn't find my wallet, which was particularly worrisome because I always keep it in one of three places: my pocket, a narrow counter in the bathroom, or on the table beside where I sit and write blog posts. After looking in all of those places, I looked in those places again. Only then could I consider the possibility that I had slipped up and placed my wallet, or, heaven forbid, left it somewhere else. It would be another 15 minutes of fruitless hunting before I would begin to wonder, accusingly, if someone else had had a hand in its disappearance.

I hate hunting for lost items. It's one of those things, like cleaning out my email inbox or folding laundry, that gives me the miserable feeling that I'm wasting a chunk of my precious life. I don't care to look for lost people either, but at least those moments tend to be accompanied by the heart-in-your-throat anxiousness that lets you know you're alive. Hunting for lost items, especially run-of-the-mill things like wallets, keys, and phones, is just pure frustration for me, which is why I like to have designated places to keep them and also why, when they are lost, I tend to be at a loss. 

I know not everyone feels like this. In fact, I have one friend who insists that she actually "likes" looking for lost things. The hunt, for her, is a quest and she anticipates the feeling of accomplishment when she finally finds what she's been seeking. Whatever the case, there's no denying that trying to find something does a peculiar thing to your perception. In a flash, the world is turned into a place defined by an absence. Existence is suddenly reorganized on the basis of what is sought, giving it the quality of a ghost, glimpsed in the similar color of something else entirely, in the heft of something else in a jacket pocket or in the shape of that evocative bulge under a bedsheet. The lost thing lives in your mind, more real sometimes than when it was last in your hand. A world defined by absence is a narrower one, bereft of roses to sniff, less traveled detours to explore, and those quirks of randomness that often enrich our thoughts, words, and deeds. All that exists is what is not there.

I like my friend's idea to frame it as a quest, but I struggle to find satisfaction in it because, frankly, once I find the things I've misplaced, I know that I won't celebrate as much as feel stupid for the time I've wasted in hunting when I could have been doing pretty much anything else. Of course, I'm relieved when I find the lost object, not so much because it's no longer lost, but because I'm now, finally, free to go back to a fuller perception of the world, one that is no longer defined by absence.

Absence is as real as presence, I suppose. Indeed, it's how we too often define the world for school children, who are generally viewed as lacking. They are empty vessels that need to be filled with whatever the curriculum dictates, making their world one of things they do not know whether they want to know those things or not. Educators are to instruct and then pose questions with the intent of broadening the child's world, but instead they narrow it down to what must be found. Detours are discouraged. Discoveries not permitted by the curriculum are dismissed. Answers other than the approved ones are labelled as wrong. When children flag in their search, we try to trick them by "gamifying" it, reframing it, like my friend does, as a quest. It might work for a day or a week, but the treasure found is generally uninspiring and the only reward is another quest after an absence.

I finally found my wallet. I'd stupidly tucked it in the pocket of my bathrobe while carrying it that morning from the table beside where I write these blog posts and the bathroom counter. Freed from this mundane onus that had made my world one of mundane ghosts, I was now rid of the essentially meaningless make-work "quest" that had consumed a chunk of my precious life. I could now return to a quest of my own choosing, one full of meaning rather than absence.

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