Story 2

The things we do not show

Hi, I’m Vlad, the human behind this issue of Upstairs. I’m an architect by passion, web techie by nature, and I’m gladly wearing multiple hats if this expands my horizons and knowledge. I think of cracks as glimpses to deeper truths about each of us. 

This story sprang up while bouncing ideas with Oana, my colleague at Pixelgrade, and fellow storyteller. “Stories that make us better people” offers such a large playground that I felt stuck—so many things can help us become better people, often unexpected ones. Oana threw me a bone and encouraged me to talk about what drives me to constantly expand and update my knowledge of our world. Still wide, but a good, fertile playground.

I am a fairly avid reader, mostly non-fiction with the occasional sci-fi book to let my mind dream what other dreamers dreamt. Ever since I was a teen, I couldn’t get enough of documentaries of all kinds—those were the days when documentaries were about knowledge, not the gossip we get today from “reality TV” shows. I always enjoyed expanding my horizons by diving into disconnected subjects hoping that someday, somehow, that knowledge may connect in my head in meaningful ways. That is why I am not one to shy away from learning something way out of my comfort zone. My deep-rooted optimism compels me to give a chance to any information that crosses my path, exposing myself to potential gems that I wouldn’t actively search for.

While pondering at my motivation, I quickly realized I never really thought deeply about it. I talked about my perspectives, shared insights and information, but I never really dug into why I go to all this trouble of trying to understand the world. The irony made me smile while tensing my body and mind in anticipation of the bumpy ride ahead.

For a couple of weeks, I rummaged over what’s in it for me. Why do I bang my head against cultural walls? Why do I drain my mental energies, often to exhaustion, in trying to reconcile different worldviews? Why can’t I just be oblivious to all the complexities around me and live a serene, blissful life? It crossed my mind that I may simply have a huge ego coupled with a masochistic tendency. Albeit a surefire conclusion, that is not the man I see when I look in the mirror.

What I “discovered” in me is an insatiable curiosity and a hunger for truth. I like to think of myself as a homo sapiens gazing at the horizon, eyes wide open. This is what my inner visualization of me looks like—probably a bit heroic, somewhat too idealized, but it’s my inner world, so I get to call the shots.

What I want to share with you is one way I feed this curiosity-driven beast, one way I hunt for that succulent truth. The chase is always the better part of this process, as the truth is seldom as tasty as imagined. Let’s get to it then.

I don’t think so

A couple of weeks back, I’ve read in Neil Postman’s book Amusing Ourselves to Death a sentence that really stuck with me. I can’t remember if Postman was quoting someone or speaking his mind, but it went something like this: “To begin to understand is to first not accept the appearances of the world.” Pure bliss. And an anchor to understanding myself.

On many occasions, people told me they find it difficult to have a conversation with me. That saddens me, but I take comfort in the underlying cause: I challenge them and demand a significant cognitive and emotional investment. It’s not always appropriate to ask for such things, but when it is, I get all fired up and bring my best to the table. Naturally and mostly unconsciously, I expect reciprocity. People are not always willing or capable of matching my energy and willingness to pour my heart and soul into the matter at hand. With great difficulty, I’ve learned to cope with that.

In all honesty, it is not something I am willing to change about me. The quote above is too deeply ingrained in me to resist it. Every fiber in my body says it’s spot on.

First, I want to understand the truth about this world I’m passing by. Not a truth as a weapon to smash all those around me—a truth can all to easily play that role, but a truth that works as a stepping stone for more discoveries. This is one rabbit hole I hope never to see the end of.

Second, I am reluctant to accept “the appearances of the world” since they carry a perfume of falsity and often block me from gazing far into the horizon. I can ignore the daily shows we put on to get through life, but I take on the grand scale theatrical representations we put on as groups or societies. I may not win, but I am willing to try… and try again.

One perfect example is my approach to traveling, especially abroad. I don’t like stage-cities that do everything in their power to cater to me, the tourist, an intruder by any stretch of the word—in my book, Venice is the epitome of theater and lack of real life. I want to see how the locals really relate to me being in their mist: a perfect stranger walking their streets like he owns the place. I want to see how people behave when they don’t have to serve me an Aperol Spritz in the town center. That is why I strive to keep a low profile and dress like I would in everyday life, not some city-hiker ready to punch in his 20.000 steps. I don’t try to blend in, but I meet people half-way.

The things we do not show

Aside from the theatrics of our societies, there is understanding to be gained from things hidden in plain sight. These are often the most interesting to me since they are more actionable and readily available. I can find them in my neighborhood, in the city I call home, in fellow Romanians everywhere, or places and people I encounter abroad. The opportunities are endless.

I firmly believe that to understand our world one needs to consider the things that are too mundane to mention—those that each takes for granted, the things we sweep under the rug out of shame, guilt, or greed, the things we’ve forgotten about ourselves and our specific culture or society, stuff we consider done and sealed, the traits that are ingrained so deeply into our fabric that we’re afraid to raise questions about. So, to understand the world, I look for the things we do not show, as individuals and groups.

We put on a show for many parties, starting with ourselves. I often get into trouble in my relationships because I strive to remember the different “shows” and piece reality from the inconsistencies—nobody can maintain a perfect illusion for long. People sometimes perceive this tactic of mine as hostile or ill-intended and raise their defensive walls, while at the same time accusing me of focusing on their flaws and not minding my own. It’s a natural reaction and I try not to take it personally—often aggravating the conflict in doing so.

What people readily identify as their shortcomings, I think of as cracks to peek at deeper truths about them.

I don’t exempt myself from this game of smoke and mirrors. Through therapy, I managed to at least acknowledge the many scenographies I’ve erected for myself. Some have played their part and needed to come down, while others still have a role to play. I found this knowledge quite liberating. Not especially proud, but with a clearer understanding of what I stand on—and that is plenty, in my book.

When considering the things we do not show at a cultural or societal level, I found no sharper tool than history, especially through books. A couple of months back, I went on a reading streak of Romanian history. Nothing specific, just a nose-dive into the unvarnished history of my people. I don’t know why I haven’t done it earlier, but I pat myself on the back for doing it anyway. I was finally able to explain many of our traits, understand our shortcomings, and discover beauty and richness where I was taught to see inconsistency or inferiority. I was amazed at the veritable mountain we, Romanians, managed to hide in plain sight. It’s a feat in and of itself.

Round or flat?

Thus far, I managed to consider the things we pretend to be and those we forget or take for granted. There is a third way to split this hair: the things we actively seek to hide. I strive to factor these into my understanding, but it’s easier said than done.

When you talk to someone, there is always a play between what you share and what you choose to leave out of the conversation. The reasons are wide and far between. From maintaining focus on the subject at hand to protecting the person in front of you to projecting a better version of yourself, to more dishonest reasons, and downright malicious intents. We, humans, are hardwired to play this game. We do the same on higher levels of our societies. We do so with the past, the present, and the future.

As we progress, the side we show is constantly shifting and adapting in tune with the task at hand. This is fortunate as it allows for a fuller understanding, albeit over time. Think of it as a planet: you can ever see half of it at a time; thankfully, it spins around its axis; with enough time and distance, you can take it all in.

I like people, stories, and ideas that have a certain roundness to them. Actually, I can’t stand either people, stories, or ideas that can be understood at a glance. They lack the depth to make them interesting to me.

You can’t show everything because that is the moment you lose depth—you become flat.

Everyone and everything is flat when looked at up close and personal since it’s hard to peek around the edges from a short distance. While the level of detail is amazing, we lose on complexity and connections—our understanding lacks context.

Thankfully, I believe the world is quite round (sorry flat-earthers), filled with infinite details, ready to feed this insatiable curiosity of mine.

I am deeply grateful for that. As I am for the opportunity to share these thoughts with you. Writing all of this definitely helped me. I hope the same applies to you—hopefully, in some unexpected, cathartic way.

No pressure,

Contributors of this story: Vlad Olaru wrote this gem, Oana Filip edited it, Andrei Ungurianu put it all together, George Olaru designed it, Răzvan Onofrei was in charge with the development, Katerina Nedelcu took the photo.

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