justin hadad

the shadow of things: oxford 1/2

September 2023

the good

I just finished Herman Hesse’s Demian. The core idea of the novel––no spoilers, though nor is it a recommendation––is that each of us has an inner self who knows the “truth” about our identity, and our outer selves navigate the physical world to discover, if we desire, what our inner selves are saying. Sometimes, the book suggests, we are like babies who aren't yet ready to understand the language our mind is using to communicate with our body.


I’ve been writing my whole life. It’s so good for me, in so many ways. It’s so good! But––truly––for the longest time, I never embraced that. It was an exception that I couldn't explain with the other parts of my life.

One spring night, the Rhodes House put on an open mic, where its scholars could sing, read, dance, et cetera, for everyone to see. In a spur of courage, I read something. As these things go, I blacked out on stage and resumed life from the seat from which I went up. And then, in that blink of two minutes, my program advisor approached me. Come see me in my office next week.

She, of course, was alluding to the fact that what she just witnessed was totally incongruent with what I had recently told her, that I don’t do anything too creative, and that my gig for the upcoming summer––writing economics course notes––was my, erm, “dream job.”

As requested, in the middle of the following week, I went to her office. She asked me if I considered myself a writer.

No, I’m no writer, you know, but I like it, and I wouldn’t consider a career in it, because, you know, and so much to read, but oh! have I shown you this, this newsletter, that my best friends and I have, where we write about our lives, once a month? and yes, I did start it by mistake, yes, by writing to my friends, and oh, yes, I did have that 45-day period where all I really did was write, yes, it was some of the best times of my life, and yes, I did write a lot while traveling around, and, I do write quite a bit, yes, every day or so, I do love it, and oh look at this one––

And, scooping my soul with her eyes:

Writing is not even hiding in plain sight. It is staring at you. It is smacking you right in the face. Why are you avoiding it?

(Paraphrased, I think.) And it was precisely at that moment that one big wave of Oh coursed through my body and out my mouth, and I knew then what I had always known, that I should love and raise and embrace my writing like one does a baby.

the constructive

Two of my best friends in the world are Eron (UNC) and Nick (Oxford). In July, Eron, as the best friend he is, visited me a second time, and once again, we were lying around my room that resembled that of a hospital. This time, Nick was there.

As usual, we told stories and joked and laughed. After some brief silence, Eron asked Nick: What makes you feel alive?

Nick and I shot looks at each other.


Before turning, say, 23, I got close to all my best friends surprisingly quickly. Like, generally in a speed that transformed good to meet you bro to I love the shit out of you in a shade over a week. It’s a mix of fortune, vulnerability, and probing questions. What makes you proud? Alive? Depressed? Are you depressed? Do you love your mom? Your body? Who died when you were a kid?

Truthfully, the conversations mostly suck––here’s the mistake I made, here’s when I got hurt, here’s who I hurt––but the conversations are really never useless. There’s some depth you’re striving for, where it’s obvious to each other that you love them not in spite of, but alongside their life. It’s a way to say to that person, hey, I hear your pain and suffering, and I love you.

In my first several months at Oxford, I strangely changed on all of this. Of course, I started out the same, but I quickly (and then constantly) felt the depth was being feigned. In conversations, I felt people look over their shoulder, over mine, rush in and out of the room––in and out of my life––because the relationships, to them, were not the ends, but the ticket they needed to reach the ends. It was like I was being cracked open for a competitive sport.

And so I felt myself wane on questions like What makes you proud? and swapped them for a pint and a narrative. I made easier stories to tell, gave one-liners on life experiences. I really never divulged how I felt about my life.

Over the course of the year, I unraveled my personality, reconstructed my outer self, and realized only then that my outer self was growing more disconnected with what my inner self knew: that I really, really liked––and needed––deep, genuine relationships.

And so when Eron asked Nick that question, each of us new, indestructible Oxonians, making the same slimy, sinuous trail of thought, realized (1) Eron is the best for asking that, and (2) we really, desperately needed to change how we engaged with the outer world. Who are we to do anything with our best friends but live, at times, like a baby, unadulterated by the culture of things around us?

I hope I go back to provoking the world, taking the world seriously and myself unseriously, and I plan to use my words as a tool to do that.