Talking to part of a friend
Finding an authentic connection based on who you are now, not who you were in the past
The Empty Bottle, Théodule Ribot, ca 1876-1881
Last summer, two friends from high school visited the island where I live. When the second one arrived, we scaled the cliffs down to the sea where I sometimes find the carcasses of sheep that have fallen to their death. We sat late into the night talking.
When you meet old friends, there is sometimes a tendency to return to past versions of yourself, revisiting stale talking points, and reminiscing—and neither I nor my friends are particularly interested in that for more than an hour. This restlessness with the old gives our relationship the character of a puzzle. How are we going to make ourselves fit together this time? When we first met, we were in a similar space—we were kids in neighboring villages, roaming the forests, getting drunk, climbing to the top of grain storage silos, etc—so there was a natural affinity. But since we left school, our lives have followed diverging trajectories. And the puzzle we face is: how do we find a new and authentic connection based on who we are now, not who we were in the past?
The cliff I took them to is a nesting site for guillemots, seagulls, razorbills, starlings, and two peregrine falcons. In the dying, golden light, we could see the razorbills push out from the cliff and fall toward the ocean, pulling up a foot from the surface—sailing off. One of the guys had brought a bottle of gin (an old joke, referencing a video where someone asks Shane MacGowen if the pint he holds contains water, “No! It's gin!”). We shared the gin. The jokes became increasingly obscene and juvenile.
After an hour, one of the guys, perhaps feeling that the time had come to establish a deeper, more up-to-date connection between us, started talking about the breathwork he was using to manage his stress. He told us to find a secure position where we wouldn’t fall into the ocean if we got dizzy (”Seriously!”) and then instructed us to do an exercise that amounted to the most intense bout of hyperventilation I’ve experienced in a long while. My entire body filled with a stinging, bubbling sensation, and when I opened my eyes, the ocean looked impossibly rich—waves rising and falling, and on the waves, smaller waves rising and falling, and on them, smaller waves still.
In Kafka’s parable “Abraham,” the Biblical patriarch finds that he can’t stand the uniformity of this world. But, as Kafka writes, “the world is known . . . to be uncommonly various, which can be verified at any time by taking a handful of world and looking at it closely. Thus this complaint at the uniformity of the world is really a complaint at not having been mixed profoundly enough with the diversity of the world.”
This is definitely true when the handful of world you examine is the brain of a friend. The patterns inside of our skulls are unfathombly complex—synapses firing, synchronized networks forming and dissolving, hormones pulsing—it is like the waves with waves on them. You can never fully grip it.
The storms in our brains are so complex we can only approach them through metaphor. Through simplified images that let us point toward truth. The most common metaphor we use for this inner complexity is “I.” It is so common that it doesn’t even feel like a metaphor. But it is a metaphor, a reductive and partly false image. What are the neural correlates of an I? This isn’t to say that it is a bad metaphor. Saying “I have a self” helps us orient ourselves in the world, gives us agency, and lets us take responsibility. We need metaphors like that.
Another common (and good) metaphor when talking about the internal soup is “consciousness,” and its sibling “the subconscious.” Again—we don’t really know how these metaphors relate to what actually happens in there. But it is a pair of images that allow us to notice useful things about our minds. “Maybe I should take a pause from this essay right now and let my subconscious process it for a while,” for instance.