Coping and Learning

When I was in junior high school, I had already grown a shell of isolation. When we feel lonely, especially after a prolonged period of time, it is more difficult to reach out, even accept, the social interaction we need to warm the frigidity in our hearts. My school held occasional dances in the gym, at which I was a rare participant. Part of this abstention stemmed from an awkward self-consciousness of my body and my dissatisfactions with it. The other part of my absence can be traced to a counter-social reflex from feeling lonely.

One time, I happened to be staying late on the same day as a school dance. I don’t remember why I stayed. It could have been for other school work, but more likely–especially with the additional psychological introspection of more than a decade–I made excuses to stay in order to keep open the possibility of attending the dance. I imagined a crowd of friends, both potential and existing, welcoming me, laughing with me rather than at me, dissolving all the hesitations that I had heretofore felt in many social interactions.

A version of this fancy did come true, to my surprise. As I was walking around the gym for probably the tenth time, waiting to get invited in, some friends who had wandered outside did extend this invitation. At this moment, like so many times before, and like so many times thereafter, I froze. The paradox of loneliness–desiring connection and yet pushing it away–gripped me in indecision. I let the cold win.

Although I can’t say that this time was my first refusal, it was the first in which I felt the frozen weight that was to sit at the base of my chest, cracking my sanity, crushing me of any motivation or desire. When it begins, it feels like claws that grip my heart just loose enough to avoid the release of oblivion, but just tight enough to constrict the flow of warmth.

This time was also the first in which I explicitly practised a coping mechanism to deal with that wasteland of a world. After refusing my friends, I returned to my homeroom, taking in the empty desks and chairs, just hours before so full of conversations to which I would never be privy. On a desk, my teacher had laid out batteries for the upcoming electricity unit in science. I grabbed a battery kit, opened a textbook, and drowned my loneliness in an attempt to get a coiled wire between the ends of a battery to spin. I burned a finger, but felt a spark of joy when the wire twirled in tandem with an invisible force, creating a dance in which I felt comfortable enough to participate. This time was to be the first of many with this coping mechanism.

Years later, I became more cognizant of my particular response to isolation. While reading The Once and Future King, I came across this passage.

“The best thing for being sad,” replied Merlin, beginning to puff and blow, “is to learn something. That’s the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honour trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then — to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting. Learning is the only thing for you. Look what a lot of things there are to learn.”

The Once and Future King, T.H. White.

Merlin’s character exhibits a whiff of tragedy. Living backwards through time, he is a Kassandra by another name, cursed to know a future he does not desire. Unlike Kassandra, whose prophecies nobody believes, Merlin wields a fraction more power through the young King Arthur. By assuming the tutelage of a future authority, Merlin hopes to instill in Arthur the belief that power must be subordinate to principle. The use of power to dominate is the root of many an injustice, from the Middle Passage to the forcible dispossession of occupied land. However, despite best intentions, the constraints of a non-utopian world demand the occasional exercise of violence in the name of justice. The Round Table of Arthur is no exception to this state of affairs. The death of Arthur and the imprisonment of Merlin, although tragic, are but capstones to a larger tragedy: the difficulty of nonviolence in a world ruled by might.

The older I become, the more I relate to Merlin. His favourite companion amidst an eternity of sorrows was learning, whether for the wisdom to right future wrongs, or simply for its warmth and stability. I empathize with both of these reasons: the first for the chaotic outer world we inhabit, the second for the tumultuous inner world in which I exist. Indeed, our world’s tragedies are those of Merlin’s writ large.

Yet, the latter reason might appear strange; the world of books and learning seems far more distant than the social world of the people around us. This might be true in some settings, like the way in which much academic work appears or is presented, but in the whirlwind of a blizzard, even the Arctic Ocean can feel warm. But there is a better response. Through novels, I’ve come to inhabit so many other social worlds I would have never accessed otherwise. Merlin’s world is one example, and so are the worlds of Frankl, Huxley, Finch, Morpheus, Woolf, Hamilton, Offred, and Heathcliff, among numerous others. To characterize learning as just a coping mechanism impoverishes the concept of the richness of its experience.

I sometimes still feel the cold grip inside of me. Although I have certainly changed socially, and become more of a person through other people, Merlin’s lesson remains relevant. I wonder about the facets of our identity that have become so inextricably a part of us, so much the foundation for the rest of us, that no amount of time or experience will unlink them from our being. My coping mechanism might be one of them.

Alan Chan
Alan Chan
PhD Student

I’m a PhD student at Mila, where I think about AI safety. I’d be happy to have a chat!