Portrait of an earnest young man

The difficulties and questioning of an earnest young man who doesn’t fit in society, revealed in a chance meeting while out walking.

Earnest young man

The young man came striding across the expanse of wild grasses in my direction, one hand raised in salut, his shoulder-length hair framing an ardent expression animating an otherwise gaunt face. No smile, but an intensity that was both engaging and repelling. Casually dressed, in browns and greens that blended well with the surroundings, he was tall, taller than me. Probably influenced by earlier encounters when he’d spoken of his faith in religion, I could picture him starring in a film about a modern-day Jesus.

“Dreaming and fantasising are not the same,” he insisted with force, keeping abreast of me despite the narrowness of the path. “What you fantasise can’t happen. It’s in the mind.” It was clearly a subject he’d long rehearsed. With some reluctance, he admitted, “It’s sexual.”

I agreed that the kind of fantasies he was talking about were characterised by being separate from the world, often omitting their more disagreeable if not repulsive aspects. I agreed less that they were necessarily sexual. Maybe ‘desire’ would have been a more appropriate word. Fantasising is necessarily an expression of desire.

“A dream, in comparison,” he went on, “is something we strive to reach.”

I was tempted to ask what his dream was. Not to contradict what I saw as his narrow perception of the concept, but out of curiosity about this person who spent so much time wandering the paths along the lakeside, pondering complex questions. I hesitated, but finally asked about his schooling. His questing for sense seemed profoundly intellectual, although somehow unschooled, coming up short on structure.

“I went to school like anyone else, but now I’m aided by social services,” he said. “I tried to get a job but employers said it was too difficult to employ someone like me. Too much paperwork. And anyway, I couldn’t get a job because I needed to have a relevant paper and I have none.”

The need for a certificate as proof of competence found me on familiar ground. I’d written a lot about the world of work allied to schools and academia as a market place for buying and selling a supposed token of knowledge and competence. “People want certificates because they are easier commodities to buy and sell,” I commented, pursuing my own thoughts. Judging from his grunt, I think I lost him.

In an effort to return to his considerations, and the idea that dreams offered a goal to reach for, I asked him, “What would you do if you could get any job, and there were no such limitations.”

Without hesitation, he shot back, “I’d be a philosopher or a soldier.”

Surprised at the juxtaposition, I said “They seem rather far apart.”

He didn’t agree. “Both fight,” he replied. “One for his country. The other for his ideas.”

It made sense, although I had my doubts about philosophy being a ‘fight’ for ideas. Thinking so put it on a par with religion going to war for its beliefs. Not a good prospect either. I was reminded of a book by Marc-Alain Ouaknin (1), in which the author insisted understanding could only come from caressing ideas, not trying to seize them and tear them apart.

I could hardly imagine this gentle-spoken, apparently considerate being marching, machine gun in hand, as a soldier bearing down on the enemy, but he went on to talk of the martial arts he practised, forcing me to revise my opinion. When we finally parted ways in the centre of the village, he thanked me for the conversation to which I replied, “See you soon.” It was the conventional thing to say after a long conversation, but I was left with an uncomfortable feeling. Not that of the loss that often follows a meaningful exchange. But rather the absence of engagement on either side, just an exchange of ideas, even if those ideas were important to each of us. It was almost as if we’d never met.

(1) Ouaknin, Marc-Alain, Lire aux éclats. Éloge de la caresse, éditions Points, 1989.

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