A meditation on grief, virtual relationships and outgrowing the Internet.
There’s a paragraph in Ellen Ullman’s “Life in Code: A Personal History of Technology” about being a software engineer that best describes how it feels to grow up on the Internet and be a little too attached to our computers: “And cut off from the real body, we construct a substitute body: ourselves on-line. We treat it as if it were our actual self, our real life. Over time, it does indeed becomes our life.”
Out of all the books I could have picked to bring with me to Hanoi, I picked this one that also includes a chapter about an online relationship the author experienced that deepened over electronic correspondence. How perfectly timed. A few weeks ago I finally understood what it meant to be at the end of the road of a many-years-long relationship. I read the final line of that chapter before my flight, my eyes brimming with tears at the gate while passengers were invited to board.
The stages of grief that I went through for the aforementioned (mostly virtual) relationship went something like this: denial, bargaining, anger, then—acceptance. It took me more time than I care to admit that when I was angry, it was not anger toward any person, but toward myself, my ego. Catrina, you say you’re healing and doing “the work” but why did it still take you so long to figure out?
Nothing can prepare you for the reality of finally meeting someone you’ve only spoken to through the wires for more than ten years. Nothing can prepare you for the fact that despite many years of correspondence that you might have to “re-meet” them in person. Nothing can prepare you for the actual time it might take you to realise that you are not compatible as partners. Absolutely nothing can prepare you for the reality of coming to terms with where you are in your life and that in spite of all the time you put into the Internet and being a self-proclaimed “Internet Kid” that online dating is not for everyone, and not for the person you have become.
I made a concerted effort in the last few months to pour love back into myself as I sat with all these feelings. With the help and presence of friends in Singapore, Bali, New York and now Hanoi, here we are! I have been awestruck by the hospitality of childhood friends and how it has extended to new and rekindled friendships.
I chose Hanoi because it feels like home. I spent five formative years here, between 1993 to 1998. To this day, though I can barely speak Vietnamese anymore, I recognise it instantly. Whenever it's spoken, there is a part of me that feels comfort in its distinct cadence and vocal expressions. The city itself is difficult to describe. You can look out a window and there is so much to see and appreciate in one tiny scene. Fittingly, it is also the city where I first accessed the World Wide Web. Hanoi taught me to appreciate reality and what you can touch and observe, alongside the intangible, the magical land of the Internet. It is also where I learned to be versions of myself, constantly in search of my voice. But, that was then.
You grow up and realise that life cannot be 'practised'. Not in any instance. It would be cold to perceive online dating or interactions as merely a rehearsal for the in-person version. This is why catfishing and online bullying is cruel. Even on the Internet, we are interacting with real people and their feelings. As Ellen Ullman eloquently wrote, while these channels help us to reach one another, what is shared is “an odd intimacy, but intimacy nonetheless”. She also pointed out something I had to learn through this experience and that is how some of us come alive “through words on a screen”. Meanwhile, I learned that I come more alive in-person. And yes, that's possible.
In Nathan Fielder’s new show “The Rehearsal", he offered to set-up rehearsals for people before they embark on big life decisions or an anticipated crisis. The last episode (and hopefully this review won't spoil your viewing), is absolutely absurd and proves its point: no rehearsal can prepare you for the real. With my recent grief, I also learned that no amount of self-awareness, of regular emotional housekeeping and meditation or even intimacy (whether shared virtually or in-person) can predict or prepare you for the myriad of ways that human relationships unfold and how you might respond to things when they happen.
It's not through rehearsals, but being present and mindful in my body that taught me to meet grief when it arises, let it pass through, then eventually, move beyond it. I notice that the more time I spend with myself and my sorrows, the more easily I can smile in these moments. Then I am faced with simpler choices: to worry about what is not here, or to be joyful in the present and with what is, be it on a rooftop with a generous view of the sky or simply witnessing and accepting someone's kindness. To get on the Internet. Or go offline, and find adventure. There is joy to discover wherever life exists, even in grief. Plenty of it!