DRMacIver's Notebook

Parts of you are missing

Parts of you are missing

There's an article that was going around earlier in The Current Situation: That Discomfort You’re Feeling Is Grief.

I don't find the article itself very useful or interesting, but the title stuck with me.

There's an idea called Transactive Memory - often we don't remember things, we remember who to ask about them. In a team, or in a relationship, there are many things where we are offloading our memories to the people around us. The group as a whole remembers things, and we are able to rely on that. The group as a whole functions as an extended part of the minds of each person within it - I don't need to know the details of that aspect of the project, because I know who does and I can talk to them about it.

Couples in particular form complex webs of transactive memory, where they each remember details about their shared lives and responsibilities, and each delegate parts of that memory to the other. Some of these are very practical: One of you knows about the accounts, one of you knows what to do when the boiler breaks. Some of these are more emotional - one of you has a better memory for the places you've been, and when you share stories they fill in the rich details.

And then one of you dies, or leaves, and all of a sudden there are holes in your memory. Every time you reach for the parts of your memory that live outside your body, you find an uncomfortable absence. That discomfort you're feeling is grief.

It goes beyond memory. We are social creatures, and we integrate other people into our lives. Into our selves. We talk to each other, we help each other process our feelings. When we interact we join together, becoming more than the sum of our parts, and each of us brings part of that whole into ourselves. Being with others is an opportunity to be different versions of our selves, letting the whole create an environment that brings out a different aspect of who we are. Many of our plural selves only come out in environments that give them the support they need to be.

Oh, those other people who bring them out aren't necessarily gone. Certainly many people have died of COVID-19 or its social fallout, but that is a less complicated and more intense sort of grief. For most of us the people are there, and we're even talking to them, but it's not the same. We're talking to them over text, or phone, or Zoom, and that's good and it is good that we are doing it, but it isn't the same.

I talked about books before, and how wrong our ideas of reading are:

Reading is not an act conducted by a pure mind engaging with an idealised platonic flow of information. Reading is an active engagement between a physical body and a physical object. The purpose of reading is to engage with the content, but reading itself is a physical act.

If this is true for books, how much more so for people?

Have you ever tried to have a conversation where one of you is typing and the other speaking? It's almost impossibly frustrating for the typist. You're so limited in what you can say - it's slower and less expressive. It's like speaking in a language you understand but are not fluent in. Only a fraction of what you want comes through.

The minds we create together over the internet are interesting and powerful and they have many positive characteristics that it is hard to create in person, but they have many weaknesses over in person communication too. They lack some of the strengths that we need to support ways we could be in person.

Can you touch someone over Zoom? Can you dance with them? "Body language" is not just a metaphor - the presence of the other in your world is a key part of how we relate to each other. Long distance relationships are, of course, possible, but the longer we have been apart, the more our memory of each other's physicality fades, the harder it is to become the person that we allow each other to be. We try to hold on to it as best we can, but memory can only take us so far. The ghosts of our absent selves are a comfort, to be sure, but they are also a reminder of absence.

It's not even just people. A thing that is especially visible as a mathematician, but is true for most people, is how much of the work of thought lives outside your head. A mathematician without pencil and paper (or a blackboard, or an equivalent) is not a mathematician, they are merely the potential to be one. A swimmer without water cannot swim, cannot become the version of themself that swims.

When we shop, we become the supermarket. That part of you is missing too.

When we are cut from our environment, we lose the parts of ourself that the environment allowed us to be.

Some of the parts that are missing we will meet again, and it will be a joyous reunion. Some we are glad to be rid of. But they are still missing, and we can feel their absence, and the memory of what it was like to be them.

We are all, desperately, trying to find replacements for the parts of us that are missing - new versions of our self that we can be in the environment that we have access to. Some of those versions will be delightful new discoveries that we are happy to meet. Some of them will be mere shadows of the versions we would rather be.

But either way, they are parts that we had grown used to, familiar parts that we were able to embody at need, and every time we would want to slip into that way of being, and can't, we are reminded of that absence. Parts of us are missing, and that feeling of discomfort we experience from it is grief.