photos: Keith Telfeyan
People say Berlin is a city of lost souls. You can feel the drifting energy, black-clad and disembodied, the streets at all hours full of ghosts and zombies… There’s a prevalent zeitgeist of Sisyphean searching. You can drink cheap beer all day, never opening your eyes beyond what is necessary to obey the crosswalk signs. You can cut off all contact, drift away into total obscurity. Berlin: where young people retire, or: How to disappear completely.
Of course you can also get a job, start a family, normalize just like anywhere else. But there is a difference in Berlin… And first, in order to find yourself, you have to lose yourself, or at least recognize that you are lost. It tends to be a theme in this town.
Perhaps you fall into the epic pit of hedonism, losing all concept of self through party drugs and orgasms. Followers of Dionysus understood the deeply spiritual aspects of mind alteration, and clubs in Berlin are called ‘churches’ for this reason. Within the trance of hard techno, it’s easy to lose your identity, and hopefully meld with something greater than it. There’s something real about this sort of cosmic energy. Some stay here forever, finding a perfectly functional persona in party culture.
Maybe, in your search, you fall into an even more popular mode: existential ennui. It becomes apparent to you that the world is essentially meaningless. You sit half-naked in your apartment, preferably under blankets. In the winter abyss, it’s especially easy to detach from old friends, to cordon yourself in whatever online essays and YouTube holes capture your interest. Maybe here, away from the judgments of mainstream society, an individual might find her peace, her deepest connection with what she’s been seeking – even if it is quite nihilist.
I think the key to finding your way comes from getting away from it all. I came here from New York, where I was plugged into everything the big city represents, and America and the West generally. I couldn’t shake the idea of typical success: money, the perfect career, family. This isn’t to say I don’t still grapple with this, but in Berlin, I’m able to consider exactly what it is about this stuff that’s so appealing. Berlin is a global city, but it has the effect of a meditative retreat. I see now how fragile things in life are, how constructed. I really have to investigate in myself what drives me, and from which direction I want to face it. I have to interrogate my desire, really discover my own yearning.
Solitude is good for self-reflection, and Berlin offers this more than most big cities. Berlin lets you be. You can throw yourself into any fathomable interest, pursue any attraction or distraction (as the case may be). Berlin is like a Masters degree. The bars and cafés are good for talking about passions and ideas with like-minded spirits. The drinking culture isn’t one of drowning sorrows, forgetting the workweek. It’s a little more revelatory. Honest debate can be had. Minds can meet. You can be challenged, invest in one thought, incubate it, change directions. The mind is malleable here, and with keen interest.
I’ve had three years of this. Can I say I’ve found myself? Hmm. Surely growth happens, change over time, evolution. I can say I’ve found new opinions, new beliefs, new perspectives. And perhaps I’ve found more of a core of who I am, more self-awareness. I am a dreamer, a slacker, a warm-blooded man, a writer, an artist. I suppose I’ve discovered what I’ve already known, but with deeper awareness, and maybe I know more clearly how to focus my interests, and what really makes me tick. I have more conviction, if not focus. Maybe what I’ve found is self-acceptance. I’ve also written a novel – a creative endeavor I didn’t quite realize was in me.
I’ll continue my soul-searching. But now I wonder: Is there such a thing to find, and how much is it actually worth finding? I want to be soulful, but I’m also just happy to ponder the topic. Toward this aim, Berlin suits me. It’s not obsessed with achievements. It’s not intense; it dials into whatever your own balance is, and it really lets you think. It’s a city to find – if not “yourself” – then something like peace.