Growing up, people would tell me I was (too) hyper and (too) excited, so I began to see myself as a sort of excessive personality. As the youngest of three, I learned a lot from my older sisters; from lessons on boys to old clothes, everything I know and own is a hand-me-down that I acquired through the art of anticipation. From my family’s semi-dysfunctionality, I quickly came to learn that “family” was something of a group of random people placed together by the hands of fate.
I found myself disagreeing with or diverging from my family members more than I found compromise and commonality with them. Maybe it was due to the tight walls of our various two-bedroom homes that we would jump to and from, but the distance we lacked in the physical we found in other ways. My worlds growing up — quasi-American schools, traditional Korean grandparents, from our two-bedroom house to our one-and-a-half bedroom apartment — they all converged and coalesced into a multidimensional cosmos that demanded one to see through all of its layers at once, never allowing for the isolation of a single universe.
My conception of family and community was shaped by missing pieces and crossed boundaries from the very beginning. I understand the word “family” in a fictitious, two-dimensional sense and in the quintessential, nuclear family type of way. But it has never been a word I found myself using often. When talking to others about my family, I would always either say “mom” or “dad” because, after a while, they ended up in separate houses, went to separate churches, and lived separate lives. Seldom did I utter the word “parents.”
The traditional meaning of community, one where I imagine a homogenous group of people, doesn’t really paint a clear picture in my head. Instead, they’re shaped from fragments of others’ lives, TV shows, or stories I’d read.
In high school, I never had that one friend group I would always eat lunch with or the group chat everyone would always blow up. Instead, I found myself hanging out with the drone club on Mondays, in the photography studio on Tuesdays, and with the kids who loitered around the campus tree on Thursdays. I was a different person to each group, and I had special relationships with everyone. But I didn’t really stay in one place; I was just scattered everywhere.
Still, it never fully occurred to me that my impulsive Irish exits and frantic flaking weren’t just due to intrusive thoughts or an untraceable spontaneity — that maybe it was an unconsciously learned disposition. Growing up in a fragmented sense of home and liminal stages of temporary belonging made finding “community” a completely new endeavor.
In college, I still struggle to find my footing, and the idea that I lack the traditional community to define me runs through my mind in fleeting moments. Once seated at the lunch table with all my friends, I feel a sudden desire to be somewhere else. Or having already planned a night out with the group, I realize I don’t want to live up to the vision. I had already pictured “me” within the “us” before actualizing it, and it was only a matter of putting it into motion. But because the definition of “us” was something I learned theoretically and not empirically, acting the scene out is a repetitive dance that I can never seem to master.
In “All About Love,” bell hooks says that love is our true uniting force. The desire for community stems from a longing to love and to be loved, but craving community can also be driven by the fear of being alone. This latter form of community, she says, is unsustainable and ultimately not rooted in love. Love does not denote a sense of absolute belonging; true love is defined by the conquering of violent struggle, starting from a place of non belonging and solitude. In romantic and platonic relationships alike, long lasting commitments mean we learn to fight the struggle together. But when we mistake our communion for absolute belonging and seek shelter in each other because we fear being alone, ironically, the only thing left to discover is loneliness itself. Only when we learn to be in solitude, can we fully embrace a community of love and commitment.
Despite all the sense my family unit didn’t make, our bonds are saturated with the most complicated, profound love that continues to stretch boundaries. Our lack of immediate community and coherence made it possible for us to reach each other beyond our divergences and differences. From the distance we see in each other, love emerges. And not only is it despite that distance, but partly because of it, that our bonds stem from a radical type of love — one that is engaged in a merciless passion and an excruciating depth, produced and reproduced through hardship.
In some ways, the struggle I face today with finding love stems from a fear of loneliness. Due to my naïve disposition nurtured since childhood and my habit of anticipating, I give parts of myself too trustingly in the moment, when it feels right. But when the excitement of the moment fails me, when I stay a little too long to witness its decay, I retreat into the hesitancy and doubt of contemplation.
Finding people who I have immediate chemistry with, falling as if a little in love, only to be met with the wave of disillusionment once again — it’s a taxing process whose sole purpose, it seems, is only to repeat itself. It’s hard to find genuine love, and I try to seek it in ways that’ll cultivate strong bonds. But the tempting picture of a traditional community pulls at my heartstrings every now and then, and it’s difficult not to imagine myself fitting right in, where everything finally makes sense; nothing is confusing or in multidimensional frames. My idea of the traditional community is one without struggle — easy love.
So, I’m back where I always am — I’m comfortable in this perpetual, transitory stage between “me” and “us.” Like a drug, the eternal state of anticipating pulls me back into its intoxicating grasp every time. Always waiting on someone to respond, to reciprocate, but leaving them before they get the chance to speak — so that I can constantly guess over and over what they ended up saying.
Maybe the idea that there’s always something more in this repetition means there’s still always hope. But what comes of repetition for repetition’s sake?
Perhaps this restless hope that fuels the excessive person only brings indeterminacy. And maybe hopelessness in solitude can give new meaning to spontaneity, community, and love; where strangers turn into fateful encounters, where community is found in the distance between us — where we’re no longer aimlessly looking for love but realize we’ve already fallen. When it’s finally too late to return to this restless repetition, we’ll have no choice but to love.
Kyung Eun Lee is a contributing writer for The Prospect at the ‘Prince.’ She can be reached at email@example.com or on Instagram @entertainmentkyung.
Self essays at The Prospect give our writers and guest contributors the opportunity to share their views and lived experiences. If you would like to submit a Self essay, contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.