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Day 11/07/2012

On the Things that Haunt Us




Who am I? If this once I were to rely on a proverb, then perhaps everything would amount to knowing whom I “haunt.”

So begins André Breton’s Nadja, perhaps the best embodiment of the spirit and attitudes of the Surrealist movement. It’s an interesting question, who am I? So much of how you answer has to do with who you are, and what you understand the question to mean. Is it whom I haunt? Or is it what I’ve accomplished; what I think I am; what I want to be; what others think I am; what haunts me? Who am I? It’s an eternal question and no single response can exist. But it’s worthwhile to think about because your answers mean so much to how you conceive of and interact with others and the world around you.

A few days ago we were writing about the absence of public collective spaces in which to reflect, as a community, on our experiences of self and existence in a deep, meaningful and productive context. Perhaps it is because we lack this sense of having a right, place and time to talk about our meaningful ideas and violent obsessions surrounding existence and humanity that we often resort to surface-level small talk when meeting new people. This is not to say that talking superficially about our education, our professional backgrounds, where were from, what we like to do in our free time, what sports teams won last night and what the weather will be like tomorrow are not interesting conversations, but they reveal so very little about how we truly exist in the everyday. Why don’t we discuss the ideas that matter most to us in those beautiful opportunities we have to engage with strangers? Why don’t we seek to have our models, ideas, beliefs and systems challenged by another’s perspective and collectively re-imagined in the course of these brief impromptu exchanges? Of course these conversations might not be well suited to the fleeting contexts in which they occur but that should not been seen as a barrier. Rather, it is a call to action to rethink ways in which to integrate the exchange of deep, meaningful ideas into short and spontaneous interactions.

It’s important to share how you and others experience the everyday, and we (cultural we) rarely do. How we live, what it means to be us, every day, to be human, to deal with our need for meaning, that is something that every single person on this planet grapples with. From the slums of Calcutta to the skyscrapers of New York, we all deal with being human every day.

Take a second and concentrate on what goes through your mind as you think about the word  PEOPLE.

For most of us, when we think of people, we think either of the individuals in our immediate reality–our friends, family and acquaintances–or we think of people as an abstraction–People, statistics, the billions of others we know share our planet but never see. And that’s very problematic because it reinforces the often perceived binary of humanity as unchangeably divided between we and them.

That imagined dualism is a big part of how we start to dehumanize them, the ‘others’–all those people who aren’t us, and who have problems, beliefs, and systems we want to ignore because they threaten our own model of existence and reality. When there is a we and a them how can humanity move forward? All hierarchies–social, cultural, geographic, economic, etc. are man made, they are systems to deal with reality in ways that fit the dominant definition of it. The need and desire for all to be aware and keep in mind that every single person experiences existence through our shared human condition and that we are all entitled to flourish, feel safe, nurtured and valued is not about institutions. It’s not hippie, communist, utopist, or other -ist propaganda, it’s a core belief that every single human life is equally valuable. It’s an attempt to move past all the institutions that govern our existence and to see other people as they are: so like us. We all have our unique mix of dreams, desires, needs, fears and characteristics but we are all human.

Perhaps by being aware of and remembering our own humanness–all our dreams, obsessions, all those moments, people and things that have haunted us and made us realize that we are part of something much larger, messier, more interwoven, complex and glorious than we are usually aware of in our every day–we will become more aware and focused on the fact that everyone else shares this quality of being human. By accepting the complexity and the similarities we begin to live out our commitment to empathy more authentically.

The connections between haunting and identity provide fertile ground for salient insights about the individual in the everyday. You can learn a lot about a person from looking at their stuff, all those things they possess. What kind of insights could emerge from looking at the things that people possess inside their heads–all those fragments of existence, that have touched them and which they have stored in some part of themselves? Stuff defined as the remnants of life, those moments that tangibly affect us long after the incident in time in which they occur has passed and that have changed, in whatever way, our perception: people, objects, memories, photographs, experiences, knowledge, rituals, sounds, images, places, smells, ideas, passions, beliefs, questions, scars, dreams, obsessions and desires.

We designed a questionnaire which aimed to foreground points of salience in one’s belief system and existence that one might not be consciously aware of in their everyday experiences. Our Index, once answered becomes a collage of the stuff (as defined above) that is meaningful to us. It becomes a reminder of the wonder of small moments and the joys of connecting with others and the world around us. By making us aware of the human qualities of our existence, it reminds us of our shared condition with other people and renews our focus on the role of empathy in living our lives.

Could the questionnaire also become a starting point for redesigning small talk to be more stimulating, productive and empathetic? A list of topics and ideas to choose from when chatting with strangers. Placed side by side these indexes of various individuals’ collections of things that have haunted them will, at the very least, present a beautiful, vibrant and diverse recording of humanity and the human existence.

Without further ado, an experience in self & empathy:


List and describe, in any format you chose-lists, essays, paragraphs, pictures, video, songs, poems, etc.,–the things, people and moments that have been most haunting in your life in the categories below. It is up to you to delineate and define ‘haunting’ in whichever way you choose.




Images (paintings/photographs/mental images)











What haunting means to you

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We’d love to know what your Haunting Index looks like. Share it with us in the comments section or if it’s too big or elaborate for the comments send us a link to your images/video/website/however you chose to represent the things that have haunted you and we will feature it on our blog. And check back for our own Haunting Indexes.

Last but not least, did we mention that the Index is a great memory generator. Let the memories flood as you try to think of what haunts and haunted you. Relive and see, like projections on the wall, old and gold flashes of moments that have really mattered thus far.

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