Exit West and Don’t Turn Back

In the novel Exit West, Mohsin Hamid writes a beautiful story regarding the migrant experience. The aspect of the story that struck me the most, however, was the emphasis on time and, more specifically, how to deal with the past. Throughout the novel, Saeed and Nadia frequently move from one place to the next, often in horrible conditions. Yet, despite all odds, they are able to move on and start their own lives without getting caught up in the past. I believe this is because they take the following approach: accept the past for what it is, value the aspects of it that deserve to be valued, and acknowledge that the past cannot be changed so it is best not to hurt yourself worrying over it.

The first significant move was Saeed and Nadia moving from their home country. That was a huge decision to make, especially for Saeed. They both had to leave behind their homes in which they had spent and dedicated their whole lives. Saeed even left his father, who had refused to go with them. They were able to cope with this traumatic departure by understanding that they had no choice but to leave, and still value the time they had in the country. Specifically for Saeed, he maintained his religious practice of prayer that was taught to him by his family, which allowed him to feel connected to his home even if it was in the past.

In my opinion, the novel’s most significant life development was Saaed and Nadia moving away from each other. I, being a rather nostalgic person, had trouble understanding how two people who cared for each other and went through so much together could possibly let go of each other. I realized, upon reflection, that if Saeed and Nadia had tried to cling to the past and stay together, it would have only been harmful. Splitting up was by no means easy for them, but it was the best for each of them so they could develop as a person and move on with their life.

I learned that, although there is value to the past, you can’t expect to live in the past and still successfully move on into your future. The more time you spend looking back at the events of your past unnecessarily, the more time you waste in which you could be growing as a person.

Radical Subjectivity is Unachievable

Existentialism encourages people to aim toward radical subjectivity or, in other words, the development of identity separate from social conditions and influence. Radical subjectivity, however, in its purest form, is simply not achievable. The issue is that people can not avoid being influenced by their environment. Our environment is, after all, a leading factor in what differentiates one person from another. Therefore, to a large degree, people act how their environment has shaped them to act. One cannot act separately or distinctly from their environment because their desire for these actions was, in fact, formed by the environment. It seems to me that the pursuit of Radical subjectivity is nothing more than a lost cause.

Now, if you believe that many of the things that most people value, such as family, morality, and relationships, are merely social constructs but also think radical subjectivity is not wise to pursue, you are in a tough spot. What I would recommend is just embracing the social constructs despite your lack of belief in them. This is no small task, but I believe the conditions of life will be better for everyone if you embrace the systems. I am not saying you have to always agree with the majority of people, but maybe attempt to buy into a few values that many people would claim to have meaning and you personally feel drawn to. This is at least a more desirable path to take than radical subjectivity. I will not go in depth but radical subjectivity would lead to some morally dark areas, especially if everyone attempted to pursue it. So as counter-intuitive as it may seem, participating in the systems of society is your best bet.

The Identity Crisis

The story “Drinking Coffee Elsewhere” follows an incoming Yale student, Dina, and her struggle to function in society. As the story progresses, we learn more and more about Dina’s personality and why she is socially recluded. I feel that the reason for her poor mental health stems from her lack of acceptance and understaning of who she is.

The main social factors that affect Dina are her race–she’s Black–, her socioeconomic status, and her sexuality. All of these factors also contribute to identity. During orientation, Dina quickly realizes that she is racially in the minority. She frequently will bring up and contrast White culture from Black culture, emphasizing how she does not fit in. Furthermore, she doesn’t feel that she even fits in with the other students that are Black. Dina says: “Not that I understood the Black people at Yale. There was something pitiful in how cool they were”. My interpretation is that perhaps Dina did not culturally relate to her Black peers, and, therefore, did not feel comftorable in attempting to be friendly with them.

Another part of her identity that Dina struggled with was her economic background. She came from a poorer family, which is referenced all throughout the story. When talking about an instance in which she was walking home from the grocery store, a boy with nice shoes offers to help her with her groceries. Because she “didn’t want someone with such nice shoes to see where [she] lived”, she ended up panicking and running away. I feel that this implies that she feels very self-conscious about her financial situation, which prevents her from reaching out and making connections. Even to the extent of pushing away help.

The final social factor that I want to note is her sexuality. While reading the story, there is enough evidence to make a strong argument that Dina is gay, despite her insistence that she is not. I think that her intimacy with her friend Heidi indicates that Dina is attracted to women. However, once Heidi comes out as gay, Dina pushes her away and ends whatever their relationship was. It’s safe to say that Dina is at least confused regarding her own sexual preferences, and her first instinct is to disconnect with anyone or anything that is close enough to her to possibly cause her trouble.

Among other factors, the driving causes of Dina’s need to separate herself from other people all relate to her identity. She feels isolated at her school due to her race, she is highly self-conscious about her economic background which causes her to be anti-social out of a sense of embarrasment, and she does not even understand her own sexuality, leading to extreme insecurity. And Dina, in response, does what she is most comfortable with and pushes people away. Dina failed–probably justifiably due to her background–to put herself out their because she was not confident enough in who she was. Maybe if Dina can come to terms with her economic status and understand her own sexuality better, she could more confidentally open up with people.

To be Lessened is not to be Lesser

Why should he not do or say weird things or look strange or disgusting…Why should those he loved not lift and bend and feed and wipe him, when he would gladly do the same for them? He’d been afraid to be lessened by the lifting and bending and feeding and wiping…and yet, at the same time saw that there could still be many…drops of goodness…ahead…and those drops…were not—had never been–his to withhold

Tenth of December, 249

George Saunders’s short story “Tenth of December” tells a tale of an elderly man suffering from a terminal illness and his fight for survival alongside a young, peculiar boy. Don Eber–the elderly man–begins the story on a mission to end his life prematurely. His illness has rendered him partially disabled and causes him not to be himself at times. Furthermore, Don’s father had the same disease and left Don with a considerable amount of childhood trauma. Finding it extremely difficult to cope with his condition–especially since he sees how it plays out through his father, he sought to wander out alone in the cold and escape the pain of feeling like a lesser human being.

However, Don finds himself saving a young boy’s life despite significantly unfavorable odds. This interaction restores Don’s will to live, and he ends up getting saved by the boy’s mother. As he reflects on the meaning of his life and what is important to him, he has a pivotal realization. Just because he has lost the ability to properly care for himself due to his illness does not make him any worse or less of a person. He thinks of his wife and kids caring for him, and how they know he would do the same for any one of them. He realizes that it was more the fear of being inept that was weighing down him rather than actually being less capable. If both Don and his family can accept the reality of the situation while also realizing Don’s human dignity and value remains untainted by the disease, Don should be able to live his last days with a degree of comfort and contentment. The story fortunately ends with no one being seriously harmed and Don and his family on a emotionally healthy trajectory.