Twas the night before..

Flying out tomorrow to Massachusetts.  Have most of my stuff packed.  Am looking forward to a nice visit with family for Christmas.  It’s always weird “going back.”  There’s all the questions it raises — the question of belonging, as in where do I belong, where would I be happiest.  There’s the question of me — who am I?  Texan or Massachusetts guy?  This open question thing has been there awhile.  Before Texas and the doctorate and teaching and research, it was Iraq and Germany and the Army and deployments.  What is home?  Before that it was switching towns, switching schools, new this, new that.

The answer I settle on is it’s all water flowing in the river.  There is nowhere to “go back” to, because that place is gone.  The longer I live the more I believe that.  And it isn’t just “out there” that is changing, it’s also inside.  I’m not the same, and couldn’t have stayed so if I tried.  Can’t even remember that much, sort of like a comet with pieces flying off the main body and drifting out into empty untraceable space.  Just have a few things that come to mind if I try to remember.

What do I remember?  I guess usually the same few things, with the occasional recent addition.  Sort of a candidacy period with a new memory.  See how it hangs.  Anyway, the standard memories are shameful things for the most part, sort of a moral to-do list, though for most of them there isn’t any obvious thing I can do to fix.   So they linger there.  Some of them will be reinvigorated, more up-close-and-personal, being back in Massachusetts for a bit.  One thing that draws me back more than anything is a hopeful curiosity that something in these visits will change or transform these lingering memories into something different, less dead-end.  Probably won’t even notice for some time if that ever does happen.  Hard to separate it all out.  Lots of moving parts, when a part of your perspective is altered, and something that used to bother you doesn’t as much anymore.

On a brighter note, going back is an in-between-chapters-of-real-life sort of experience.  In that sense, it’s a sort of freedom, similar to Schiller’s idea of play being a sort of freedom.  It’s when everything becomes less determinant, less logical and serious.  The flow of “the river” slows down, and you’re suddenly just floating there, a comet coming to rest.  Disorientated.  Out of place.  But also free in a way.  Real yet still, simply, coming into being.

Loosening the Grip of Anxiety

We are thrown across the ground, and some of us land in good spots, others in bad spots.  We are scattered.  Where we find ourselves is not often where we want to be.  We would rather be somewhere else, somewhere much better.  Failing that, we would like to escape from where we are.  Escape away.  Unplug, unhook, and float away.

You could call this frustration, or anxiety.  The feeling itself can be dull and then spike.  Duration has a multiplying, paralyzing effect.  Each added moment contains a loud, screaming assertion of the unbearable now.

You feel caught, and it is easy to lose faith in a way out.  There usually is one.  But when you’re paralyzed, you need a pivot thought.  Something that creates some space to move.  For me, that thought is that this is how things are (temporarily) supposed to be, that the good I want is blinding me to the good that is available.

Your soul needs pleasure, but pleasure is a delicate mystery, always dancing within us and around us.  Your soul will lead you to it, help you unlock it, access it, if you can muscle out some thought on the opportunity of your situation — this strange spot you landed in when you were thrown across the ground.  If you lose faith in the presence of opportunity, you can fall into the trap of desperation.  Then we get forceful in indulgence, destructive of ourselves, welcoming of a quick escape, a joy pulse, and a subsequent numbed recovery.

We need to worry more about the trap than the relative apparent advantages of where we have fallen to and come to rest.  Embrace the freedom of denial and confusion.  It is just a transition, a uniquely human transition, to a uniquely human moment of insight into this mysterious existence.  There is special pleasure there, and it’s waiting for you.

Protecting your Heart from Itself: A Response to “Let’s Talk?”

There is a real tension between talking and doing.  In the present election cycle, establishment politicians are the talkers, and who are the doers?  Well, Trump and his supporters, who are going to “make America great again.”  But notice that just as politicians have their reputation for not getting anything done, Trump and his supporters have their reputation for being unthoughtful and inarticulate.  You have to be one or the other, you can’t be a talker and a doer.

The Bible says that there is a time to gather stones and a time to scatter them.  There is obviously a time for talking and a time for doing.  Talking implies delayed action.  When action is needed, somebody needs to declare that the conversation is over.  On 9/11, Todd Beamer said to his fellow passengers “Let’s roll” before taking on the highjackers of Flight 93.

When people are in danger or pain, it is hard to argue that the conversation should continue.  Pain demands a response.  Pain demands action.  If my arms are full of groceries, and I suddenly feel an ant biting my ankle, then I’m dropping those groceries, milk and eggs be damned.  If I’m addicted to drugs, and my addiction generates extreme pain when I’m off the drug, then I’m taking the drug.

Conversation is an activity of the mind, while doing is an expression of the heart.  It is the heart that needs to be convinced by the mind, not vice-versa.  The default mode is to do, and to do immediately.  If the mind can make a compelling case that action should be put off, that more thought needs to be had, then patience can be achieved — for a while.  But if the heart has to wait too long it loses faith in the ability of the mind to deliver on its promises, and the heart will go it alone.  It can be tragic when this happens.

The saying is true that love is blind.  The heart might know what it wants, but it has no idea how to get it or to keep it.  The heart wants love and affection, but without the mind the pursuit of love and affection from another can become creepy.  It’s a turn off for the beloved.  The mind says wait, the heart says go.  The mind says settle down, the heart says reach out, demand, force.  The heart reveals its own desperation, its weakness, its vulnerability, its willingness to give up everything.  The heart is a self-destructive beggar.  The mind of the beloved asks: why give this beggar my heart?  What here is worth wanting?  The world is indifferent, it says, “that’s not how this works.”

All lasting love is led and informed by the mind.  This is why communication is so important in marriage as it is in politics.  In marriage, our hearts want love, but our mind says first be worthy of love, be virtuous.  This is frustrating, and tests the trust between the heart and the mind.  In politics, our hearts want happiness, but our mind says first have a successful marriage, have a great job, have dignity, have respect.  This is frustrating, and generates resentment after resentment as marriages fail, jobs are lost, and with them, dignity and self-respect.  It gives charge to the self-destructive beggars within us, with frustration giving way to recklessness, failure, and a nod towards death.

We need to protect our hearts and ourselves by being patient and open-minded.  There are ways–some clever, others straightforward–to satisfy our hearts and sooth our frustrations, but we can never make the best use of them if we close ourselves off from the wisdom of the world.  This is why talking matters, in marriage and in politics.  It takes us from quick and easy assumptions to a winning strategy that can go the distance.  Isn’t that what we all want?

GUEST BLOG: By Margarita Ramirez, “Let’s Talk? Why Some Traditional Relationship Habits Still Make Sense”

Communication. The art of expressing to others your ideas and thoughts. It seems so easy, yet I bet there are hundreds of books written about improving communication skills, good communication practices. What appears as something completely straight forward as talking, is for me a struggled. Sometimes I feel it is an ability I plainly missed. Maybe it is just a “me” thing, as I do not have blue eyes I do not know how to communicate, yet I believe it is also a way in which we women are programmed in traditional families.

Equality-feminism

I have the hardest time communicating about issues when there is a tension between what the traditional role should be and the modern. i.e.: house keeping, ways to handle our daughter, weekend plans… As a consequence, I have a hard time asking for favors that involve these tasks. Traditionally, it is either “his” role and I am not supposed to get involved, or it is mine. When it is “my” role, I should have all the jurisdiction and say about it. So being brought up in a traditional family, I find it unnatural to communicate. I feel anxious when something arises that I will have to bring up. I would rather not have any new thoughts or information so I do not have to say anything, especially when I feel the issue might have the potential to create a traditional vs. modern clash.

 
I personally find the structure of the traditional family in this sense very handy. Here is why. In a traditional family everyone has their roles. This means that all the members of the household know what are their duties, what to do and when. As a consequence, each member does their own thing, and the house runs smoothly (for the purpose of this exercise lets suppose that all the members do their part without shirking). It’s like a soccer team, the “James” knows that he has to make a goal when he sees the opportunity. When he has the ball, he does not slow down and stop to talk about it with his team members. So why bother talking? Shouldn’t little cues here and there be enough?

 
As I see it, the need to communicate in a modern family structure is too cumbersome. If roles are not clear, of course there is need to speak in order to communicate. But, wouldn’t it make more sense to talk beforehand, set the roles, and from then one save time and potential problems? And this is only with regards to household things. Yet, I also find problematic the need to share every experience or feeling. Sometimes I just want to hold the feelings to myself. I follow that sharing one’s mind creates intimacy. Yet maybe in sharing one’s mind you end up opening up a pandora’s box of contents that now are out on the loose. That is very scary to me. Again, maybe it is just a “me” thing, maybe not. I can remember my mom saying “there is no need to tell your husband all your personal things or all your family matters.” I do not exactly know what is the rationale behind it. I will ask her.

 
Side note: One of the things that surprised me the most from my previous guest post was to see that those that identified with my thoughts were mostly Latin women that had lived outside of Latin America. In addition, while I have such a hard time with the stiffness of the status quo in my mind, and the way I am programmed, there are other women for which the tension between traditional and modern family roles is non-existent. I find this fascinating!

Response to Ms. Ramirez’ “My Family Roles”

I love the topic of family roles for my blog because the family unit is such a fundamental element of society.  Outside of public institutions, the family is primarily where good neighbors, voters, and future parents are formed.  What came through in a conversation with Margarita after she posted “Family Roles” is that the clash between traditional and modern is really a clash over who knows best.  Modern culture suggests that we know what is best for ourselves as individuals.  Traditional culture suggests that what is best for everyone is revealed in the patterns of common experience.  So whereas Margarita’s experience is real and concrete, I just want to offer a couple of thoughts, viewing the issue somewhat more abstractly.

First of all, there should be no denying that older people are more experienced, that they have learned lessons we have yet to learn, and that the knowledge that age brings with it is invaluable.  Yet we often do deny it, and the main reason why is because we younger, more modern, generations believe that their knowledge is unimportant for several reasons.  We think much of their knowledge is circumstantial, and that what worked in the 1970s is not necessarily going to work in the 2010s, yet they push it on us anyways.  Their views are seen as prejudicial, rooted in an older worldview that is insufficiently appreciative of diversity, tolerance, and authenticity.  And they understand life itself incorrectly when they mock the necessary explorations and experimentations individuals must all personally engage in if they are to discover what truly makes them happy.

On the other hand, while these critiques certainly matter, it all comes back to the value of experience.  Yes, experience has to be properly interpreted, and there are quite enough of “old fools” out there to prove that age does not automatically bestow a crown of wisdom and virtue.  But the present also has to be properly interpreted, and there should be little argument that it is the here and now that is harder to understand correctly than is the past, if only because we have had less time to think about it.

The other overwhelmingly important consideration is that in the here and now, our passions rule.  Before the expression “love is love” became so popular, I used to hear “love is blind” far more often.  And there is a tension between the two sayings.  If love is blind, then sometimes love is headed in the right direction, and sometimes it is not.  If love is love, then the implication is either the neutral claim that love has no “right and wrong” to it, or the more optimistic view that love always moves us in the right direction.  Both of these seem off to me.

What our traditional culture is trying to do when it pushes its wisdom regarding love and relationships on us is to impart sight into a largely blind force.  It is to reject the often misleading thought that “love is love.”  It is to save us from our near-sighted, impassioned selves.  And, even if sometimes misguided, it makes sense why it is trying to do so.  It is itself an act of love, an expression of the hopes and sympathies felt by the older for the younger, and especially the good will, concern and protective instincts of parents for their children both young and old.