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Monday, November 24, 2014

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James Brennan: The fall

By James Brennan, Columnist
Published July 30, 2014

Normally I feel compelled to write, often jumbling my prose as I decide how to focus my arguments regarding a topic I find complex and interesting. The problem I normally find myself having is too much to say or too many topics I feel driven to comment on. This week, I’m at a loss.

I’ve gone over my notes labeled “Potential Column Ideas”, scoured my favorite newspapers and magazines in search of ideas, and listened to a half dozen TED talks. I can’t come up with any ideas that I consider legitimately creative and dismiss commenting on current events for lack of passion.

The last three years have been leading to this.

While I’ve felt the rest of my life coming apart — my mood, my motivation, my school work — I’ve still been able to write. But now, it’s all come to a head. I have been so emotionally drained and numbed that I can’t even do one of the few things that give my life purpose and enjoyment.

In my search for a topic, I began reading through The National Society of Newspaper Columnists’s 15 greatest columns of all time. These were all crafted by outstanding writers, no doubt, but the core of greatness that each of these pieces holds comes from experience. It comes from life; most often, life that the writer has actually lived rather than read about. The last four months — especially the last two — I have lived very little life.

I attribute most of this loss in my humanity to the intensive language classes I’ve been enrolled in, spending 8 to 10 hours a day, four days a week, learning and studying a language I have no interest in. This is a scenario I no doubt brought on myself, having spent three years putting off my language requirement — a requirement for graduation that I have concluded to be an unjust, personal attack crafted by the administration solely to make my life harder. Outside of class, the majority of my time has been spent writing a pair of longform essays, watching every episode of “Louie” on Netflix and reading news. I’ve had the occasional night out drinking or cup of coffee with friends, but the overwhelming majority of my time has been spent either in a classroom or alone. While class time is required, the loneliness has been a deliberate choice caused by apathy and anxiety.

A few weeks ago, it seemed like the entire world began to implode. Destruction continued its horrific march of death through Iraq while Detroit ordered water shutoffs to neighborhoods. Gaza exploded into war, with an equally bitter battle being fought in the opinion sections of every major news organization. New York Police Department officers were caught on video killing Eric Garner and another lethal injection was botched. In my solitary existence, my gaze was glued to the outpour of horrendous terror refreshing itself on my Twitter feed. If I wasn’t reading about the world’s great tragedies, I was usually alone thinking of them anyway.

I’ve always prided myself on the fact that I care more deeply about “meaningful stuff” (politics, helping poor people, important books, etc.) than frivolous “meaningless stuff” (sports, partying, girls, etc.). It gives me satisfaction that I’m so deeply invested in issues to spend hours stressing over and contemplating current events as if they were personal problems. However, this obsession with the “meaningful” has led me to abandon everything that makes me human.

It has been well over a year since my last semi-meaningful romantic relationship, one that ended too quickly, with too little explanation and too much scathing pain. The year prior, I had experienced crushing heartbreak from girl I loved and considered my best friend. Two years earlier, I began the worst grief of my life when my father died — grief that is still largely unsettled.

As I’ve spent my college years pushing these emotional burdens aside, trying to use them to fuel my work ethic and commitment to “meaningful” endeavors, I’ve isolated myself from one of the only ways to cure my pain: other people.

While I’ve made friends over the past year and seen girls here and there, I’ve closed myself off almost completely at any signs of love — romantic or platonic. I fear getting hurt again so much that I refuse to ever create a situation where hurt is even possible for me. I’ve abandoned pursuing potential relationships and alienated friends, generating excuses to avoid the dangers of attachment.

It all backfired.

Instead of a dignified and solitary commitment to “meaningful” things, I’ve become completely empty, numbing myself with politics and anger. I’m constantly sad, troubled to remember the last day where I felt truly happy. As I’ve thrown myself into my classes this summer, I’ve watched the last slivers of my humanity start to disappear, becoming increasingly isolated, unhappy and, now, barely able to write.

As Joan Didion once said, “The element of discovery takes place, in nonfiction, not during the writing but during the research.” The only research, and hence the only discovery, I have done as of late is in loneliness.

By my first column in the fall, I hope for that to change.

James Brennan can be reached at jmbthree@umich.edu.