She stared at the keys of her laptop. It wasn’t that she had nothing to write about—so much had happened. Her mind had effortfully packaged the ideas into words that were ready to be transmitted. However, her hands, which rested upon her keyboard, remained unresponsive, deaf to the requests sent by the mental authorities, or perhaps merely pretending to be deaf, already acting in allegiance with a subversive, subconscious agenda.
Her treasonous hands sparked her curiosity, triggering her instinctive reflex to experiment. Here, lying in her bed, she had none of her normal equipment: no electrodes, no MRIs, no statistical procedures that provided the requisite pretense of rigor. But reflexes have no care for the best practices one has carefully drilled in; they simply grasp for whatever is at hand, desperately trying to resolve the trigger. So, she unapologetically latched onto the only tools she had available—her imagination and her awareness—because of first and foremost priority was fulfilling her primal urge to understand.
Her hands had already made it clear that they were opposed to what she had intended to write, so instead she tried imagining something as far from it as possible, some sort of silly made-up fable. A cute, boisterous rabbit searching in the nearby bushes for carrots. As the rabbit jumped around, bouncing from one bush to another, she felt the tension in her hands pour out from the bottom, making space for a warmth that poured in from the top, collecting in her palms and spreading until it was present everywhere from her wrist to the tips of the fingers. Movement was restored.
Next, she began to move her focus back, began to imagine her original intention. Patterns of neuronal activity rearranged themselves, and like the way the magma flowing in the Earth’s mantle pulls upon the tectonic plates it supports, as the patterns rearranged themselves, they also rearranged higher- level, human concepts. But humans, whose awareness is too weak, remain oblivious to the complex motion that supports the ground they consider solid, only recognizing it when they are forced to, when the plates collide strongly enough, producing a quake that cuts through their abstraction. In the same way, despite her best efforts to apply her tool of awareness, she would have had no indication of the processes supporting her context-switch, if not for how forcefully the incoming concepts pushed through the pastoral imageries and prancing rabbits. The collision of these incongruous concepts and their incompatible feelings gave rise to numerous quivers and shakes, visual flashbacks that lasted a fraction of a second.
The day she started her PhD, sitting in the office of her academic hero, and soon-to-be advisor, marveling at the rows of books, impassioned by the mountain of knowledge she had yet to glimpse, and secretly, just momentarily, noticing the half shelf still empty, and wondering whether there was any space for her.
Her friendly labmates waving, trying to catch her attention from her monitor, leaving to go home for the night, already used to her not taking their offers to walk with them, and lingering for a moment with eyes of sympathy (pity?) before exiting as usual.
The growing list of publications, awards, and invited talks on her website. Scroll. The headshots of her students, each accompanied with a short biography of their passions and dreams. Zoom in on one student. Brightly smiling, a promising 2nd-year student who “aimed to understand”.
The same student, not with his bright smile, but his conflicted face a month ago when he had sought her out, nervous and ashamed, but still confiding to her, as a desperate last attempt, that he just could not see—he paused—what was new. And her opening her mouth, ready to give her normal motivational spiel, but suddenly her neck muscles tensed, vocal chords unresponsive.
Finally, the surprise and confusion on her department chair’s face as he came to her office to question her out-of-the-blue request for an early sabbatical. Her looking at him, then looking around her office, looking at her bookshelf, secretly glancing at the minuscule section she made up, looking at him again, and shrugging.
In the same second it took to pass through the past fourteen years of her life, the warmth occupying her hands froze into solid ice. She shivered.
She needed to isolate further, to test something in between. She tried to write it again, but indirectly, padded with fluffy, protective layers of metaphor. Her hands were choppy, but they moved. She wondered if this was what the patients with prosthetics felt, who were in possession of hands that were ostensibly their’s, but which would every once in a while—whenever the user got too comfortable —throw a jerk here or there, reminding her of who did or did not have autonomy.
But why? She still did not have a satisfying explanation. Once again, she retreated into her mental laboratory. She again imagined writing the original prompt. She listened, sensing for what associations this stimulus triggered. A knot in her stomach and a tightening in her chest. Panic? Anxiety? But why? She continued replaying the stimulus, slowly going over the data, smoothing out the noise, searching for the key difference, until finally a pattern struck her. Obvious in hindsight, but so infused into everything that it had been difficult to extricate as a potential cause: “I”.
I. I. I. Every use of the word conjured up images of herself. She saw herself from the outside, delivering a keynote at a podium, a translucent blanket of respect and admiration enveloping her. Yes, she had accomplished something. I have done something. I have done something. I am doing something.
But done what? She saw herself again, this time from her own perspective, in a vast desert, toiling day by day under the hot sun, carefully probing at the ground with a tiny shovel, brushing away dust in swift, controlled sweeps, probing again, until finally she uncovered a tiny finger bone. She held the beautiful, delicate thing up to examine and felt a wave of ecstasy roll down her. (How absurd!) She turned it over again and again, relishing the discovery, admiring its shimmer, basking in its novelty.
As night approached, however, her focus, which during the day stretched like a belt to tighten and subdue the core parts of her mind, began to falter in strength, no longer fueled by the day’s minutiae. The core, taking advantage of the weakened state of its oppressor, pulsed against the belt, generating waves that struck against her skull, asserting its presence to her in the form of a throbbing headache, until finally it burst through the barrier, and the reservoir of angst was released. Wasn’t it obvious that the finger bone would be near the hand? The distal phalange was after the intermediate phalange after the proximal phalange. It followed trivially. She had simply known the proper angle, the proper force that was required to officially unearth it.
But far worse than the insignificance of the finger, was the fear that clutched her and made her pane her gaze across the rest of the desert. The fear that it wasn’t the finger, nor the hand, nor the rest of the body, the fear that it simply wasn’t the right spot at all, that the real spot was somewhere else out there, elusively hidden under untouched, pristine sands. She (a version of her) jumped into the remaining landscape, ready to maniacally dig at random. But she (another version of her) held her back, repeatedly whispering the odds, i.e. ~0, she would discover anything.
These two were in constant friction, frequently colliding with enough force to ignite a powerful fire, one whose territory stretched to the boundaries of her mind, and caused all other operations in the dysfunctional town to halt. Until finally, one day, an innocent townsperson, no longer able to take the ever increasing burden of mediating the war between the two, let a suppressed scream loose: “Fuck it!” Turning to the first she said, “Fuck you.” Then she pointed to the second and said, “And fuck you.” And then she went on, “And fuck everyone. Continue digging up the goddamn fingers and be a success that no one remembers. Or go wild and rogue and be a failure that no one remembers.”
The oil had been thrown—the fire roared up, shot high, asserted its dominance, irreverently burst through buildings, melted down long-standing frameworks, embraced the inhabitants with a hot and deadly smoke, until finally, everything had been consumed, and the crackles pittered and pattered, becoming quieter and quieter, until softly, slowly, the fire retracted back down into nothingness. The only sign left behind of the chaos was the absence of any sign at all.
Finally, her mind had recognized what her hands already had. Her right index finger rested at ease upon the letter “I”, unable to press it, but no longer tense. Finally, she had found the paradigm shift she had longed for. Or to be more accurate, it had found her, grasped her by the throat, told her to fuck off, and left her scrambling to repair her core. It was unfair. As a scientist, you could wait, only switching once an alternative became available. But as a person, she was not offered that basic courtesy. The “I” was gone, but without any replacement for her to embrace.
All her hands could do was end as usual: Future Work.