Entry 5: It takes two to tango
It’s not a pleasant experience traversing into lizard brain territory, it’s a foreign place for me, distorted into jagged edges, unforgiving corridors, and oppressive darkness. Despite this, I scrape through a computer screen, fingers clawing the monitor, into a forbidden place.
‘You weren’t kidding when you thought to plagiarise The Ring,’ a male voice says, and doesn’t offer to help me to my feet. I help myself instead and crawl out onto an office floor, tipping the desk chair in my inelegant attempt to catch the floor. A foot is impatiently, and rhythmically, tapping at my eye level. I sheepishly lift my head to the figure looming over me.
A face not dissimilar to mine fronts me, but rather than sharp cheekbones, he has a thicket of unkempt facial hair that disguises the depth of his jaunt. It’s the boy version of me, and he doesn’t look happy to see me.
‘Is that how you greet all your guests?’ I joke as I collect myself and take note of my surrounding. We’re in a busy, messy cubicle with hundreds of sheets of paper pinned on the walls, a white board with ineligible writing, piles of empty takeaway food littered on the floor, an ashtray overflowing with cigarette butts. This place reeks. On the screen behind me I can see my grief processing my memories, adjudicating clashing opinions. Beside the keyboard there’s a microphone, I’m in half a mind yank it out of the system and smash it, censor the critic for good.
‘You’re no guest of mine, go back to where you came from, you have no business here,’ he shoves me, tries to forcefully lower my head into the screen. I twist his wrist in a vice like grip and pull him close to me. He’s sweaty, somehow crusty and oily at the same time, brazen and wired. I’d be surprised to learn if he’s slept a day in his life. His business shirt is decorated in food stains, his sleeves rolled up haphazardly and there’s a unique scent to him, almost like ammonia. The physical rendition of Wall Street working overtime.
‘I’m not here to fight. I just want to talk. We’re in crisis,’ I let him go with a warning in my expression. His arms go akimbo while he regards me up and down.
‘And I wonder who’s fault that is,’ he scoffs and pushes past me to his desk. ‘I have work to do, get out of my way,’ he sits in his chair, lights a cigarette, leans back and starts flipping through different scenes on his screen.
‘What is your problem? I am actually trying to help us, and rather than cooperate, you’re more invested in sharing your loud, live negative commentary to hurt us,’ I spin him to face me.
‘Hurt us…?’ He blows smoke straight into my face but it doesn’t deter me.
‘Yes, hurt us. You, you’re responsible, the relentless voice criticising everything we do,’ I blame.
‘Hurt us? I never hurt us. I saved us!’ He shouts with a spray of spit.
‘Saved us from what!?’ I shout back.
‘From you! You’re the one who doesn’t cooperate! While you were spinning up stories of fanciful futures, I was begging you to look at the reality, to work within our means, to have a bit of respect, but you wouldn’t have it!’
‘That’s not true.’
‘Isn’t it!? You remember what you want to remember, you change the past regularly. I remember you silencing me in the head, I had to go to the flesh. I had to scream from our guts, from our bones, but you were so committed to your delusions, you couldn’t see our own limitations! Great show, bravo, you convinced everyone in here that everyone out there would love us, if only they knew us! You had us all believe that we could love just about anyone, if only we gave them the time of day! You truly are committed to your bit, a fantastical spectacle you are! Bravo!’ He sarcastically claps. ‘Then you come in here like some hero as if I can’t see you’re villainous ways. Give me a break,’ he returns to his work.
I consider the implications with a long exhale and cross my arms. It’s a different perspective, that’s for sure, but I can’t determine what measure of truth there is to what he’s saying. In a way, we’re both right, because we both represent competing parts of our being, and in a way we’re both wrong because we’re both fabrications of our imagination.
’You don’t have to be an ape about it,’ is all I can say.
‘And you don’t have to be such a miscreant,’ he retorts. He’s going to be difficult to work with, I see that now, I have to actively work to keep my defences down, I have to be vulnerable if I want him to do the same.
‘Fine, maybe it’s true, maybe I did spin some delusions that misled us into blind optimism, but is that so wrong? Is it so bad to hope, to dream, to want? Our whole life we’ve survived, finally the opportunity presents itself to try for something more. Is it so bad to try for something I thought we could believe in? Must you be so cruel with your feedback?’
‘There you go again, exaggerating things to fit your narrative. You do not dream of something new, you dream of leaving us. You delude yourself to absolve yourself from the responsibility of improving our life, not to do us any favours, who do you think you’re kidding? You don’t take into consideration other parts of your being, you don’t integrate yourself, you don’t want us, you hope the rest of us will go away.’
‘There’s hundreds of us, how could I possibly integrate every passing thought, how can you expect that of me?’ I argue.
‘You integrate what you want to integrate. Keyfine göre.’ To your liking, is what he says, in Turkish.
‘What’s that supposed to mean?’
‘You have no trouble believing, chasing, making accommodations for false hopes, sweet nothings and empty dreams when they come from others. But those people come and go. We, on the other hand, are treated with hostility. Why shoot the message and the messenger when it comes from us? We do not ask for unattainable things, we do not send fake news, and we’re not so terrible we deserve to be rejected.’
‘Hostility! Rejected! That’s fresh coming from you because none of us deserve you coming down like a hammer. Nothing we do is ever good enough for you, these unrelenting expectations make life a hostile experience. You say everything terribly, I dread you. Every communication from you is backhanded, loaded with discontent. Why would anyone want to hear from you when all you do is make us feel like shit?’
He smacks his lips together leans forward with his elbows in his knees.
‘That is the consequences of your actions, not mine. Have you ever asked yourself why I have such a direct line of real-time communication to the consciousness, while you need concentration, contemplation, time, paper, pen, physical tools to materialise?’
‘Because you’ve been a thorn in our ass for as long as I can remember, and you’re better trained, more automated.’
‘False, you are just as old as me, just as innate, that is not what distinguishes our influence. The difference is that you think you’re more important than me, and as a result, you prompt your narrative as the most relevant reality and you rob me of my processes, of my refinement.’
I throw a confused expression. ‘I don’t understand.’
‘Have a look around, tell me what you see,’ he suggests. I step onto my tiptoes, pop my head above the cubicle walls to see rows and rows of empty offices.
‘Nothing. No one.’
‘Exactly. This department is supposed to be full of activity with busy bees fulfilling an vital role but instead we’re exiled and forsaken. Do you remember when you decided to criticise the critic? You said we were making you feel like we weren’t enough or doing enough. I contested your interpretation but you wouldn’t hear it. You convinced everyone that we were perfectionists and that we deserved to be fired. You had my whole department laid off. What do you think happens when there is only one left to do the job of a whole department?’
‘You do a shit job?’
‘I do the job in the fastest and most efficient way with no wiggle room for error, because I can’t afford to get it wrong, there’s no one here to pick up my slack. I don’t have time to sugarcoat things, that was for the refiners, there are many steps to the work we do here. Did you not spare a moment to consider where highly precise and analytical machines go when you forgo them of their purpose?’
‘…Where did everyone go?’ I dare to ask. He just shrugs and returns to his desk, his so-called important work. I take a closer look at the operation he has going here. Who would have guessed that criticism would have such a sophisticated system behind it. I try to imagine it, hordes of critics out of a job, a workplace, can they leave this consciousness? Or are they fenced in by identity? Does the subconscious clean them up once we have no further function for them? Or do they meander around, criticising anything that will listen? Is that why the outskirts of our grief was frayed and dying? Did I give rise to the melancholy, am I responsible?
I see mean adjectives on posted notes, stuck onto pictures of my most shameful moments. I see plans started but never finished, with more posted notes to explain my failures.
‘Who needs your department anyway!? Have you considered that perhaps you’re outdated, your purposes is obsolete. Since when have you given us anything but misery?’ Good riddance, I think to myself. He forgoes his cigarette to clutches his two fists together, bones crack and pop. He takes one final drag of his cigarette before he butts it out.
‘You really are a piece of work, aren’t you? What is it you think I do here, what is my role?’
‘You’re the critic, your role is to make our life a living hell,’ I answer. He smiles, shakes his head and scoffs at the same time.
‘You use words to make sense of things, but you miss and misinterpret so much because of that. If you actually listened to what I had to say, you would know that I am not the critic. There hasn’t been one for quite some time. Have a guess to what we call you in these parts.’
‘Enlighten me,’ I cross my arms that I didn’t realise I uncrossed at some point and lean onto his desk. This is getting interesting.
‘We call you the liar, not the storyteller. Because that’s what you do, you lie, lie and lie because you cannot stand not knowing and not being in control of the narrative. Rather than giving up a fraction of control, you will create an explanation to escape your feelings and anything anyone else has to say. Do you know what we call ourselves?’
‘…What do you call yourselves?’ I mumble and pinch my eyebrows tighter together to consider this alternative theory.
‘Coaches. We coach you to safety, protection, motivation, inspiration. We help get you to where you need to go, we keep you aligned.’
‘No, that doesn’t sound right, you put me down often, belittle me, you make me feel terrible, miserable.’
‘You don’t know what feelings are, you just write them down, you don’t actually feel them. Intellectualise this: what does discordance feel like? Who is responsible for it? Is it the one capable of making us believe just about anything, or is it the one who actually calls out when we’re moving out of flow? I do not choose our values or goals, I only ark up when we’re out of sync from our mission.’
‘But you must realise how awful this feels for our body, how unhealthy, how tumultuous?’
‘Our body? What about our humanity? Do you know what makes life intolerable? When the truth finally catches up to you, you don’t want to hear it. Guess what happens then? You teach us that we are not worth connecting with, you suppress us, and to protect ourselves from your cold neglect, we stop wanting things, stop hoping, stop dreaming, or we walk away all together. You call me awful, terrible, a perfectionist, a critic, but you’re the one who refused to visit the internal realms. I had to paralyse our body to gain a second of your attention.’
’So you admit to it then? You’re the reason we’re broken.’ I retort. He groans in anger.
‘Yes! You wanted me to meet you at your level, not at the level where most of us were at. Is that not perfectionism? What choice did you leave me? I have your attention now but what good is it, you still refuse to listen. It is no wonder so many of us ran as far away as we could from you.’
I want to recoil, leave this mean place, escape these harsh words but I force myself to face the music, though it takes all my restraint not to lash out. I thought we came here to have a word with the critic, but apparently I’m just as culpable.
‘I have delusions of grandeur. I see that now. Thank you for bringing it to my attention. But just because I’m not perfect, does not mean you’re off the hook. You can’t keep this negative dialogue up and rendering existence into a undesirable experience, you have to take responsibility for your part in making us feel worthless.’
‘I have never called you a name you haven’t called yourself before. Can you recall even one time where I said you were worthless?’
I try to remember a specific time, place, or event where it was suggested I was unworthy, I am almost certain there is a lack of worthiness somewhere, but I cannot find or remember it.
‘You’ve never said it, but I’ve felt it coming from you. Why else would I feel worthless around you?’
‘Because when you ignore me, I feel worthless. Because you are more committed to misinterpreting me than listening to what I have to say. I am your biggest champion, I have never suggested you are not enough, worthy or incapable. I have only supported you, cheered for you, investing in your success.’
‘But you’re so mean with all your feedback, how is that-’
‘How is that any different from you?’ He finishes my sentence, although that was not what I was going to say.
‘I am not mean, I don’t speak down at us. I’m kind, compassionate, understanding, forgiving, loving-’ I begin.
‘Where was your kindness when we were pleading for your attention but you gave it to people in the collective consciousness instead? Where was your compassion when you still prioritised the feelings of others even when they did not spare a single thought for us? Where was your understanding when you dismissed my whole department, took away our resources and left me alone to fix up your mess? Where is your forgiveness now, as I express any semblance of dissatisfaction with how you’ve treated me? Is this your version of love? Is this all your love is worth?’ I shrink into myself, my shoulders folding in. I don’t know what to say, I feel I’ve run out of words. I came in here with a script, ready to release all my anger in a string of sentences that now feel like they were written about me.
He continues. ’You cannot fault me if you’re the one suppressing your feelings. You don’t get access to the full rapport of emotions if you do not take the time to familiarise how they exist within you. If worthlessness is the first feeling you learned, and you stopped learning soon after that, you will mislabel the slightest discomfort as a form of shame or guilt,’ he glares at me something fierce, daring me to challenge him.
‘I accept what you’re saying and I’m sorry. But let’s get one thing straight, this,’ on the pinboard where there’s dozens of lines of yarn connecting needles to a post-it note, I rip off the note that has the most lines coming from it that write the word shame, ‘and this,’ I snatch off the other post-it note with just as many lines convening into labelled guilt, ‘we’re not doing these things anymore.’ The post it note are not written in my language but I’m familiar enough with them to recognise them for what they’re worth. He says he doesn’t shame or guilt us, but that’s a technicality. He uses those mechanisms as a vehicle to reach where he needs to go. If his messages were a car, guilt or shame would not form part of the car or his message, but it would be the fuel the car runs on.
‘Those are my most effective tools for being heard,’ he contests.
‘That was true when I was getting in the way and interfering with your work. But I won’t do that anymore. You must agree, we don’t deserve this, we have been through enough,’ I plead. He takes a long sigh and nods.
‘How can I trust you on your word?’ He asks suspiciously. I fall to my knees and rest my chin on his knee.
‘Because you will teach me. Come now Coach Critic. Coach me on how to be kinder, more compassionate, more understanding, more forgiving. Teach me how to love. I don’t want to fight with you, and I don’t want you to feel like I’ve neglected you. I’m not afraid of you and I want to accept you. Will you forgive me for the role I’ve played in hurting you?’ I ask. He considers me carefully, his face slowly wincing in indecision. He looks truly torn, like he wants to say no, but he can’t. That’s something I’ve learned about these parts of myself, they are reflections, they echo, they mirror, and the only way to feel connected is to be open and vulnerable with them. Should I try something rough, or hard, or demanding, they often return the same energy.
‘You don’t have to answer me now. I’ve broken your trust, I see that now. I won’t ask for it back, I’ll earn it instead. But at the very least, please agree to work with from now on, okay?’ He opens his mouth to respond, but instead of words, the floor is flooded with the sound of a siren. A red light flashes on and off from every direction.
‘What’s that?’ I ask, my senses frenzied by the sudden alarm and what it means.