Spend time around a baby, and one thing becomes clear: they’re tripping all the time. Delighted by random faces, entranced by color, alternately troubled and entranced by sudden waves of realizing their fleshly incarnation.
Anyone who watched the British TV show Teletubbies was rightly stunned by the spacious psychedelic imagery of the program for the pre-verbal set. A benevolently smiling baby sun god. Rolling green synthetic hills. Entire segments built around dream-like, abstract errands that dissolved into giggles and painless collapsing to the ground.
Personally, I loved it.
Aside from the commitment to its tangerine trees and marmalade skies aesthetic, Teletubbies understood and conveyed the laughter and joy that precedes our emergence into personhood. The reality of the newly hatched human has been described as oceanic, an experience of the vastness of existence without the physical and psychic borders that define the being we’re expected to become.
My first memory, of asking my mother what I should expect the night before my first morning in kindergarten, reflects my anxiety over what was about to come. A life in the world: a name, a role, expectations, the constant effort of definition and presentation to the eyes of everything outside what I am.
In careful reflection on the emotions I experienced lifelong in my most private self, there’s been a strong discomfort from the disconnect between what I experience and what I think I’m expected to be. Amid the beauty and the struggle of existence, there’s been a compulsion to look over my shoulder: Is the truth gaining on me?
Is someone going to figure out that I don’t always feel like me? (Maybe I’m not me.) And what will happen then?
My memories of kindergarten are like a roll of film that has cracked and degraded with age, shot in the sepia tones of 1973. What stands out are moments that I have almost surely curated to tell myself the story of myself, explaining who I am from the raw stuff of where I’ve been.
That primary emotional reality is one of separateness, and differentiation. There were shared rituals: the chalk dust, the recitation of mathematical fact, the soggy fraying angle of the paper carton of chocolate milk before we brought it to our lips.
Things started to happen to me alone, though. I started to dread going to school because of the loneliness.
A well-meaning teacher marked me as precocious, or gifted, and I was scheduled for a test with a bespectacled psychologist. When I returned, a chalkboard in the kindergarten room declared a territory named “Quinn’s Corner.” From then on, I was going to be working on my own curriculum, while the rest of the class worked on something else. I remember tension in my face, the feeling of everyone looking at me, as I processed my sudden separateness as something akin to losing the protection of the herd. I felt exposed, unequipped for this.
A part of me stepped up to the fore and presented himself to the world: serious, unflappable, faking a capacity for effortlessly mastering any kind of change or challenge. I am as competent as you think I am. He was terrified.
I couldn’t figure out how this had happened. I knew it all went back to the test in the psychologist’s office. I had answered questions, built things out of blocks, played what seemed to be games. I started to suffer from intense headaches. I ended up at the university hospital, where my brain was scanned and imaged, looking for abnormalities. I looked at my brain backlit on a blown-up slide, all wrinkles and shadows.
There, I remember thinking, is where the trouble lies.
This began a childhood in which, seemingly every time I relaxed, I was taken aside into one-on-one conversations with teachers and authority figures. They would ask me if I was being sufficiently challenged. I had a file that followed me around, and it always seemed as though these grown-ups had just been reading it moments before I entered the room. I saw my name on the file tab edge, and wondered why everyone was so insistent on paying attention to that person (me) in this disorienting way.
There are practical problems with being tagged at an early age with high intelligence. For starters, good luck living up to it — it has a way of making every achievement feel inadequate, along with a compulsion to try to disguise the commonplace stupidities endemic to existence. The wandering in confusion like everyone else. The inability to understand why we’re doing what we’re doing.
But those things are OK, part of the bundle of traits and conditions that make up our individual experience. There are certainly many, many worse lots to be dealt.
What took many years to unravel was the perception of having individuality so violently thrust upon myself. I never learned the comfort of groups, the balance between the indivisible self and merging with the energy of others.
I experienced the self, much of the time, as a source of loneliness and pain. I developed an entire personality around coping with this.
Some Christian traditions define Hell as an eternal separation from the spirit of God. Setting aside the wisdom of worshipping an entity who would perpetrate such a state of affairs, it’s a pretty damned solid metaphor.
Eventually I came to understand that I had been given a gift, by no means my own alone, but one set in stark contrast. I understood that enforcing the prison walls of self was life’s primary source of suffering.
It would take me about half a century to begin to understand this, but it would point the way toward an understanding and meaning that would change the story I tell myself.
There was a reason why I didn’t always relate with the concept of being me. And that was more than OK. In a very real sense, I began to comprehend that I had never been alone.
But I wasn’t sure exactly who I had been, or how many of me there were.
Other stories in the Neutral Observations Project are here.