Humour and Solitude

I will long remember my time in Ireland—no, in Derry, specifically—by the geniality of people and palatable genuineness in our interactions. I learned very quickly that dry or sarcastic humour is often taken as quite rude (and I hope to keep the habit of removing it from my life going forward!). A checkout worker at the supermarket will take interest in knowing what I think of Derry, share with me a little “background” gossip on the goings-on and rumors at the supermarket, and be very happy to give me an honest opinion or advice about anything I might ask. Salespeople at stores seem more committed to giving an honest appraisal of how an item (e.g., clothing) would look on me, rather than make a sale (I can only speculate on this nuanced cultural difference in the retail business, where I worked for several years, back home). Most conversations with ordinary local folks, at the theatre, pub, park, or sidewalk, are hilarious and light, full of laughs and a deep friendliness without hidden motives—we are to simply enjoy each other’s company and will likely not meet again (or remember one another).

Derry, as a city and a society, is unique—for whatever reasons, shaped by its tumultuous history to produce a way of life that emphasizes certain elements. Variations on human trust, guarded optimism, and sharing one’s strong opinions stand out to me. So, too, does humour as a powerful vehicle to deal with tense situations.

Depending on how you regard these things, ‘tense situations’ could characterize many—most?—days in Derry. One just needs to turn on the radio to hear never-ending news about terrorism risks, angry dissident groups, and imminent attacks. The discourse is constantly framed around uncertainty, yet local folks take pride in proclaiming a lack of fear and a commitment to having their lives go on as normal. Even so, I cannot imagine parents escape from worry, perhaps kept within and not spoken aloud, about the daily threats that cloud their hopes of ‘normality’ (what is normal, anyways?).

Vocalizing these sentiments regarding a society, especially with my SEVERELY LIMITED outsider experiences, is not something my words can do any justice. It is obviously very difficult to express emotions, attitudes, and atmospheres of a large, complex society—so many of these understandings remain in the area between my head and heart, trapped by the bottleneck of my tongue.

One of the most meaningful things I was able to attend, however, was a stand-up comedy show at the Millennium Forum here in Derry on Easter Sunday! The show, Give My Head Peace, was specifically about politics, conflict, and other contentious aspects of daily life in Northern Ireland. Talk about a certain difficulty in expressing emotions and attitudes to a large, multi-sectarian background! But the show was absolutely brilliant, the crowd was kept laughing for hours. Humour really did have a powerful impact to “poke” at the issues here in Ulster, on all sides of the table. Some of the more tame jokes, as 80% were not suitable for reproduction on this blog:

“How many Derry women does it take to screw in a lightbulb?”
“None, they arrange a support group to deal with the darkness.”

“How many Derry men does it take to screw in a lightbulb?”
“None, they have their mammies do it for them.”

“How many Derry police officers does it take to screw in a lightbulb?”
“None, they hold their positions and call for backup.”

…I think you had to be there to hear these jokes—the crowd was rolling with laughter. The show was another invaluable look at the complex fabric of society here in Northern Ireland. Laughing at these serious issues of violence, fear, and cultural marginalization one studies in the classroom, sacrilegious?! Not really—it is realistic, and it is human. Moreover, I think people largely felt relief to laugh at these serious issues, so it could even be called therapeutic.

I can appreciate the importance of disengaging from the serious troubles of the world, and finding the ways and times to laugh and understand the world through a simpler lens. I found myself, a couple months ago, spending hours of every day reading news story after news story from both Ireland and the Middle East (and around other places in the world) that really got me feeling gloomy and upset. It became harder to focus on my schoolwork, and at times, I felt exhausted.

I decided sometime in March that for my own sake, I needed to disengage from reading these world news stories for some time. Immediately, I tightly regulated what I viewed on my computer; first I only read the news once per evening, then not at all. The ongoing events were happening at a time already of personal transition for me, and were making a further impact on my thoughts about what I wanted to do in life. I needed time to think, I needed freedom from the emotional burden of staying connected with the news and much of the outside world. I sought the freedom that can only be afforded by solitude and reflection.

That is where I have been for the past couple of months. I have not been doing much meditation on a grassy hill, though. I have been busy outside of philosophical thought: I have been working on a few hobbies and projects, and joined the Mitchell group for an enjoyable trip to/around Belfast, another to Brussels, and a smaller group of us went to Paris—and loved all of these trips! Daily, I have set goals for myself of things I want to do: read a certain amount, watch a documentary, write a certain amount, practice Arabic, and make plans for the future. It feels great making a list for the day and meeting those goals. And lately, I’ve been easing back to reading these news stories to attain a personal balance that works for where I am at right now.

Solitude gets a bad rap, I think. It seems to imply some sort of depression, but that has not been my experience and it is quite distinct from loneliness. I hope I have not scared friends telling them I have been enjoying solitude; I very much think of it as a positive, and remember being touched when reading about President Obama in Dreams from my Father who spent several YEARS in a monk-like state. He felt the need to reconcile his place in the world, as do I.

From these past couple of months, I think I have learned an important lesson, albeit inconclusive, about the dangers of hyper-connection to one’s social sphere. It could certainly happen in the old days in one’s community, sure, but now this hyper-connection connects us to an indigestible number of events thousands of miles away. Increasing ease of communication multiplies the danger of neglecting a certain personal privacy, contemplation, and search for purpose and direction.

I believe that reflection is necessary to make meaning of events and connections, and in turn, that process sometimes requires a certain [temporary] disconnect from rapidly unfolding stories and everyday human niceties, to attain a calm state of mind that can grasp at deeper meaning. That is my spirituality and my solitude, and I find it a liberating pursuit.

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