“The more one was lost in unfamiliar quarters of distant cities, the more one understood the other cities he had crossed to arrive there; and he retraced the stages of his journeys, and he came to know the port from which he set sail, and the familiar places of his youth, and the surroundings of home…” ― Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities
GO TO THE PEOPLE
Leave the safety of home. Of your street, of your family. Abandon your neighborhood, your crew, your school and your job. Sleep like the monk on the floor of the train station, under the suspicious eyes of the police.
What are you doing standing there?
Only if you keep moving will you answer this question.
To know yourself you must know the people. You can start, today, in your hometown. Take the bus to a neighborhood on the other side of the city. When you get off from the bus at the subway station, think; “What is the same here, what feels just like back home? Does the evening sun glance off the rooftops in the same way? Are the stoops of the corner stores occupied by the same group of teenagers, fronting hard, smoking cigarettes? What don’t you understand?”
Ask someone “What do you remember about the street that you grew up on?” Then ask yourself “What are you surprised about now that you are here? Is it as different as you thought? Or is it also just like the street of your childhood?”
I started a conversation with a young woman waiting for the bus. As we talked the old man who works in the newsstand overheard us and chimed in. “Everything changed in the neighborhood. It’s not the one I grew up in. But I’ve worked in this newsstand since I was 19. There weren’t any junkies hanging out on this corner then” he lamented.
Soon the newsstand will be gone. The tarpaper roof will leak. One day men in a truck will arrive and disassemble the frail wooden structure, and there will be no where to buy lottery tickets or porn magazines.
You are ready for the next step. What happens when you go further and leave the confines of the safe city walls? Sooner than later, the world will bump into you. If you are lucky the collision won’t be too jarring. Many things you took for absolute truth back in the city will dissipate into nothing. Hardwired traditions and rules will fade into the night.
For millennia, human beings existed in small tribes, 30 or 50 people. You pretty much knew everyone, or at least were familiar with their faces. They weren’t going to try to kill you or steal your stuff. But the size of our groups was limited, and we couldn’t collaborate on a large scale.
Cities allowed us to coexist in larger groups. Culture, art, technology, finance all flow from within it’s safe space. You were protected in the city, which is a living organism that evolved over time to protect us.
But our cities grew. Some of them exponentially. In a fraction of historical time, we have megalopolises full of high rise apartment buildings. Freeways that carry thousands of people at once from place to place, each in their own vehicle. We have the ability to communicate with almost anyone around the globe at any time. Airplanes, instagram, iphones, nuclear submarines, self driving cars, crispr, 3D printing, nano robots, soon maybe AI. The list of miraculous technological development goes on and on.
The thing is, all these technological changes have happened in an incredibly short period. Tens of thousands of years later, despite these unbelievable advances, we retain many of our habits that we learned when we roamed the earth in small groups. We see these tribal instincts manifest today in the forms of gangs, political parties, nationalities, fraternities, your field hockey team, even our jobs.
This tendency too cling together too tightly is a problem. Its the reason that your street, or your city, or your job is all that you know. The prospect of knowing more presents a problem in itself. How to deal with this infinite realm of possibility and danger? Should you stay put? While you might feel secure staying in the city walls, the truth is that you are paying an incredible opportunity cost by not leaving and going out into the world.
But why take the risk? What do the people out there know that you don’t? They carry many secrets and rituals, often without being aware of their inherent burden and blessing. This knowledge is much older than you, and has existed since long before we knew how to write, long before we could all read. The people are the caretakers and stewards of ancient knowledge. Their traditions, for better and for worse, exist for a reason.
The people will make you see that some of the ideas you had, ones you believed to be absolutely correct, no longer seem valid when confronted with their knowledge. They will pitifully stare at you. The aggressive ones, staunch in their belief, will attack you, hoping to put you back in your place, to send you home.
Each new experience you encounter, every inviting glance from a stranger in a market or menacing scowl you receive from a gangster standing outside of a gambling hall will pierce a small hole in the armor that you spent years fashioning back in your city. The holes will accumulate. Eventually entire pieces of the armor will fall off.
This frightens you. You will push back against this inevitability, trying in vain to piece the defenses back together. It will not work (if you return home, it will become even worse).
The answer is counterintuitive. Remove the armor willingly. If you keep yourself open, before too long you will become completely free. If done with grace, you will not build a new suit of armor, instead you will face each new encounter with courageous trust.
Without the armor, you will be beat up a bit at first. Parts of your body that you didn’t know existed will hurt. It’s OK. Pain is a necessary condition for any learning or growth.
Before long you won’t become sore as easily. There are new things to learn, create and discover outside of the walls, and it is easier to active this potential while wearing no armor. People you don’t know, languages you have never heard and skills you have yet to realize. Had you stayed home, you would never even have the opportunity to encounter these things, and know that you too could interact with them. You become more nuanced, and learn there is a balance between the ideas you nurtured when you were safe within the city walls and the long standing chaos of the world.