Perspectives on Quiet Withdrawal and Collective Learning


Kamal Abdul Malik

October 08 2022

A friend of mine is about to retire after decades of academic work, and is starting to write a book detailing his life.

He was aware that the most attractive biography is the one recorded by its owner, and people read in it a rich record of the owner's long life, and his many human experiences.

He acknowledged his intention to continue his academic work until the end of his contract with the university.

He taught by day, and wrote his autobiography in the dark of the evening, he told me that he finds it difficult to write his autobiography in broad daylight, and explains that there is something about sunlight that interferes with creativity;

And makes him write in the darkness of the evening when the world floods the light of the moon.

“I have a feeling that our authentic Arab culture is lunar, and I find that I write better after sunset, and when I am in view of the sea,” he said with a smile.

He added that during his academic life, he studied five languages, and none of them found this funny feature that distinguishes our Arabic language: the presence of solar and lunar letters.

He has a feeling that Western culture is solar culture, but he doesn't know why.

The Corona pandemic came, and the transformations of the fierce virus followed, and it found itself, like many, thinking a lot about “quiet withdrawal” from work and public life.

While there are many explanations for what this means, and how it began, at its core it is an understandable reaction to the isolation and exhaustion he has been experiencing over the past two and a half years.

Like this friend of mine, some people around me feel isolated, and want to see who appreciates their achievements and contributions, and who shows confidence and respect for themselves and their work, but at the same time they also want to maintain contact with others, and a sense of belonging.

Some say that contact with people is what is needed at the moment.

But real connection means more than happy hour to chat with friends and enjoy a cup of coffee with them.

Exploring different perspectives, shared experiences - even shared pain - brings people together, and helps them feel part of something bigger than themselves.

He asked me: "How can this be achieved?"

I replied that we as individuals can achieve this by taking the time and space to learn together. Serious, interactive group learning reminds us that we are not alone, and opens our minds to new ideas.

I invited him to participate in a literary salon in a café in Cairo, where he met new people, chatted with them and got to know their way of thinking.

There is no doubt that learning together by reading and discussing books deepens our capacity for empathy.

It is an important tonic for the isolation and uncertainty we live in these days.

The good news is that the skill of empathy is learnable, able to reduce our feelings of fatigue, increase our sense of belonging and deepen our relationship with the people around us, at which point the desire to “quit quietly” may begin to wane.

If we do that, the world will be a better place.

Visiting Scholar at Harvard University 

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