Monday, November 19, 2012

To Love Strong and Do Right: Or, When I Nearly Peed My Pants

This post feels hard to start. I can't let on to too many details (which is already part of the problem) but I hope to write. I need to write. So let me try.

For the past couple of years I've been thinking and writing about many of the same topics: Academic philosophy. Graduate school. Relationships (that start and end). What I'm doing with my life and what I want to do. Where I'll be when I do it. About a year and a half ago I noticed that the nature of my posts was starting to change. Rather than reflecting on the philosophy that I was reading and writing about how it relates to real life, I started to simply write about real life. This blog went from somewhat academically-informed to pseudo self-help insights from a twenty-something-year-old.  That slow distancing from academic philosophy in my blogging reflected a slow separation from academic philosophy in my personal life.  I stopped reading philosophy because I got bored with reading philosophy. Even the stuff that was aimed at me--as a member of the target audience of academic researchers interested in Nietzsche, rhetoric, and writing styles, for instance--was painful to get through. When I would force myself to go to public talks or conference presentations, I found myself getting frustrated and angry. Even the stuff by feminist philosophers seemed to be too insular, too arrogant, or the comments and questions that followed too self-aggrandizing or too antagonistic (and I lost all hope for other philosophy that didn't even try or pretend to be relevant to life and interests outside of academic philosophy). The summary of my relationship with philosophy over the past year goes something like this: I haven't been feeling very inspired. Like a stale marriage, philosophy, it has seemed, just got too far removed from my life. I'm around it all the time. I force myself to keep working at it. I try to make it exciting and plan fun activities whenever I can. Overall, though, we're probably heading down the path toward a divorce. But that's not the part that's hard to write.

In the past couple of weeks my life has taken an unexpected turn. It's not the kind of turn that would immediately change everything in my life like a terrible car accident, getting married, or winning the lottery. However, it could have been. And nevertheless, this event has changed my life in a different way. On the surface, for those who aren't receiving phone calls from me every few days, it very likely appears as though nothing has changed at all. But for me, something very, very big has occurred that has forced me to look deeply, carefully, and lovingly at my life. I've been taking stock of where I am, what I am doing, where I am going, and where I want to be. Same old, same old, right? Wrong. Because this time it's serious. Rather than just musing about the possibilities in a free-floating kind of way that is kept afloat by a low-level, ever-present anxiety about the unknowns of one's future, this is is a type of reflection that takes priorities, values, needs, goals, and dreams very seriously into account. It's the kind of thinking that functions as if you just realized that you're heading into some rapids and you don't have a raft. You start thinking, "How the hell do I get a raft?" or "I need to get off of this river."

These types of moments call for a real practical kind of reflection. One person referred to it as a moment for "course correction." You realize that you are in a place where you don't want to be and never wanted to be. And you come to the painful realization that instead of boldly walking toward your next goal you have been timidly dancing around in circles like a child who has to pee. My apologies for taking this image too far, but these past couple of weeks have been the metaphorical moment when I nearly pissed my pants. Fortunately, I found a really nasty bathroom. It was unpleasant to say the very least, but I'm lucky I could find a bathroom before it was too late. Again, no one need be the wiser about the fact that I almost peed my pants since I'm not walking around with that embarrassing mess all over me. In the public eye, when things are smoothly humming along, "going to bathroom" is one of those things that we have the privilege of forgetting that everyone does. But my goodness, now I know for sure that the next time I'm dancing around in circles it better be out of joy for putting my skills to good use, following my passion, living each day filled with gratitude, and having confidence that if I ever have to pee that badly again that I've already cleaned up my own bathroom, installed a skylight, and decorated the counters with fresh wildflowers. (Sorry. I've been known to take metaphors to the extreme.)

This delicate little branch has been around my neck for over a week now. In that time, it's taken on a symbolic meaning as a reminder to love strong and do right.
With great surprise, and also an unexpected amount of relief, my recent experiences have reinvigorated a deep appreciation in me for philosophy. After all of my years of doing philosophy while saying that it can be incredibly helpful and therapeutic by providing ways for people to think through their experiences and understand them in new ways, this return to philosophy was almost instinctual. In fact, I might even say it was necessary. I started to talk and process and think about what I was going through in ways that called into question the cultural values that perpetuate a kind of shaming silence about our experiences (and how this silence reinforces politically and ethically problematic structures that also maintain an unfortunate--if not unjust--status quo). Suddenly, I was very grateful that I had the tools within myself to understand my own situation in a philosophical way that helped me see how there are identifiable reasons that would typically seem "unrelated" but that are part of why this has been such a difficult situation. Thankful for my own ability to see a picture that went beyond pitiful-ol'-me-who-unexpectedly-had-to-pee, I was reminded that there are many, many, many important issues that affect lots of people's lives in profound ways. Rather than embracing the notion that "ignorance is bliss" and acting like these things don't affect us or the people we know and love, I remembered just how important it is to raise awareness and encourage a kind of public discourse that empowers, supports, and honestly addresses people in thoughtful and helpful ways. In short, thanks to the difficulty of recent events in my life, I have suddenly felt very much inspired to do philosophy.

As part of my effort to build up a better bathroom for myself and others, I'm refocusing my energy on what I'm good at, what I value most, and how I can best use the skill set that I have been gifted through my experiences. (Did I say I would quit with the metaphor? No. Is it confusing if you don't know what I'm talking about? Probably. Here's a hint: "bathroom" refers to a number of things so don't think about it too hard. Just keep reading...I'm almost done anyway.) I don't know if this means that I will be doing professional academic philosophy. But I really want it to mean that I find a way to help people think about their experiences in ways that inform practical ways of living that are empowering, therapeutic, and transformative on social, political, and personal levels. In other words, my goal is find a way to keep doing philosophy that remains true to the real reasons why I got into it in the first place. That way may be known by a different name but I want philifesophy to be at the heart of it.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

True Story: Is This Real Life?

An unusual even happened a couple of weeks ago. I watched two movies in one night. Although I'm not much of a movie buff I do have a clearly demarcated "genre" of movies that are likely to get my two thumbs up--I love comedies like Matilda. Liar Liar. And dark dramas like Magnolia. The Squid and the Whale. As it turned out, Goats fell right in line with my favorite sort. Then She Found Me isn't the best movie ever, but I conceded to watch it for the second time in my life because it contains one of my favorite scenes of all time....

If you can't already identify some running themes, these movies are the kind that address relationships, especially family relationships, and highlight the drama of building trust, enduring let down, and struggling with abandonment. One thematic angle often reveals the selfishness of childish parents that puts pressure on the children as they grow up. The wounds these children incur from primary relationships during their formative years provide the hook of vulnerability cum hardness that evidences itself even if the children are five or fifty-year-old grown adults. In any case they are often forced to grow up too soon from having to deal with the unfortunate consequences of the decisions made by those around them and out of the need to take care of themselves when no one else can or will. For this reason, and because I think it is sometimes the case that maturity comes with experience, I can't help but feel a bit of sadness for the more precocious type of child-characters. While the wisdom, resilience, and confidence that some of these characters embody can be judged as character strengths, the subtle thread of hardness (which is sometimes, I think, misidentified as strength) that has held it all together --the story, and them--can also be seen to affect their other relationships, present and future, in rather predictable ways. The effects of being a child-who-had-to-grow-up can still be identified through  interactions with friends, romantic partners, and their own children such that one begins to appreciate how the "story" continues and extends beyond the written plot of the movie.

Look at us 1st grade kids. So young. So fresh. So much to learn.

However, if the movie is any good, it is typical for another theme to be slowly uncovered. The delicate exposure of "the other side of the story" reveals that another truth has been developing in tandem with those of the children all along. One learns that sometimes, or even most times, the parents were actually trying their best. Either they didn't know what to do, didn't have a whole lot of options, were stuck dealing with the intensity of their own painful struggles, or their efforts at being "the good parent" and doing "the right thing" were thwarted by others. Internal and external forces can be overpowering. In some cases, with a twist of responsibility, the presumed deceivers and betrayers, the absent fathers, the aloof mothers, those who upon first glance are the most irresponsible and detestable characters were actually deceived, betrayed, or simply portrayed by others in ways that made them out to be that detestable. When their attempts at reaching out to the children were denied, dismissed, and never mentioned, they simply appeared to be absent. Or, faced with pressures from others who had more control and power over them, they had to make decisions which seemed selfish but were actually chosen, in good faith, under the assumption that they would promote whatever was in their child's best interests. What others, including their children, see on the surface of their actions hardly depicts the depth of their own experience. Maybe it is the case that they simply are, to the core and for whatever reason, lousy parents. But maybe not.  If nothing else, a good story will involve characters who, often incapable of being described as clearly "good" or "bad," are complicated.

Here is my terrific father.
And this is my lovely mother.

The stories of supporting characters are even more difficult to fully present. With so much time and energy dedicated to filling out the complexity of the main characters' emotions and experiences it is hardly possible to retell the histories and thoughts of those who remain on the periphery of the main plot. Though they may remain underdeveloped, the secondary characters are by no means insignificant to how the story evolves. For example, did Miss Honey ever date anyone? Was Jerry always so awkward? And what choices were made in Goatman's life that led him down the path of becoming Goatman? Since these aren't the main characters of the stories, the answers to these questions are hardly provided and they appear to be fairly irrelevant anyway. Of course, one should assume that there is an entire back story that informs the motivations and reactions of these apparently two-dimensional figures, but those are things that good actors have to figure out in order to be compelling. For the audience to understand their stories would require a whole different movie (and that's why there are such things as prequels and spin-offs). Such unknowns just have to be taken for granted in an effort to appreciate the specific story that we are trying more fully understand as we watch it unfold. Nevertheless, what should not be overlooked as that understanding develops is that the roles of these supporting characters are very relevant to the lives of the main characters. Regardless of how or why they got to be the way that they are, their choices, words, and actions still have significant effects.

This meta-movie analysis seems helpful for understanding how real life works. Taking the movie as a metaphor for life, we can see that we each have our own story, that our stories are shaped by those around us, who also are the main characters in their own stories, and that even "supporting characters" are significant to us. Furthermore, we, as supporting characters in the lives of others, should appreciate the effects that we can have on shaping the experiences of someone else, even if we never become intimately involved in their story. And obviously our "supporting characters" can change. At some point those on the periphery of our lives can become central figures and vice versa; the most engaging, significant, meaningful, and central people in our live can eventually fade into the background. On one hand, the cast of extras can seem to walk through a revolving door, just passing through for the time being. In that time they might share with us conversations, insights, pains, challenges, wisdom, and memories. On the other hand, the change can be concretely seen in the characters themselves.

For example, I've been consumed lately with thoughts about previous influences in my life, people who at one point in time were central figures in my story and whose presence, even fifteen years later, is still felt on profound levels. One of these people was a kid when I knew him best. But, as one should expect, he grew up, got married, and is now a parent himself. Although common sense and everyday experience consistently demonstrate the simple truth that things change, this didn't mitigate the shock I felt when I finally learned that things really had changed. Over the past number of years while we were out of touch it almost felt as if our stories froze where we had left them. But that doesn't happen. It took catching a glimpse of him now, and not simply seeing him in my memory, that forced me to reckon with that harsh and wonderful reality that life does go on. People change. These shifts do not necessarily mean that people become more or less significant to our story on the whole, but they may be related to the changes that occur to and within us as our story changes. We change, and as we do, the roles that people play in our life change, too. Perhaps we should remember that those changes need not, and should not, be resisted. (To help prepare us for these things, perhaps we should also remember that in life there can be no such thing as a spoiler.)

In addition to thinking back on what I was like as a kid, the other kids I knew, the various parental figures who surrounded us then, and how we kids are now becoming parents ourselves, my attention has also shifted over the past few months to some children I haven't met yet but for whom I really want to eventually play a positive, supportive, and loving role. I've become even more sensitive to the narratives that these children might be forming regarding their own experiences. If there's any chance that they feel like that have to grow up too fast, I wish for them to know the truth of how the situation that they are in right now has come to be. And I desperately hope that if they don't understand or feel it now that someday they will be able to appreciate that the people in their lives were doing the best they could. But in the likely case that the "truth" will never been understood in full, thinking about these children in particular has helped identify a deep hope of mine. I want for these children to somehow, at sometime, appreciate that lesson that takes many people a very long time to learn: parents are people, too.

Being involved in the everyday life of their father who lives a few hours away from them, I exist on the periphery of their stories in a way of which they are hardly aware. This situation has helped deepen my appreciation for the lives of parents. Our parents have complicated stories filled with many unique scenes, characters, and turns of events. Not yet being a parent myself, it's something that I have grown to appreciate in relation to my own parents. I think it's amazing to have also gotten to a place with my parents where they talk to me about their experiences with their parents. I've also talked with my grandmother about her experience as young parent to my mother. I think these types of conversations help build understanding and compassion, and I think they help strengthen the love and bonds that define what it means to be a family.

Our family relationships may not be picture perfect (although they actually are often the type of relationships that we see in the movies), but they are very real in the sense that they involve real feelings and shape us all in real ways. Since we are all some one's child, no matter what the nature of our relationships have been, I hope that each of us can, in some way, come to this level of understanding, which can happen even if the whole of our story or theirs can never be fully known.

This notion of appreciating the complexity of the characters who influence the story of our lives has helped me hone in on a few things that we should already know and live by. We can take care of ourselves by taking care of our stories. With our children, parents, friends, and acquaintances, we know that people care about us when they show that they really care to know our story. We should surround ourselves with people who love us as our stories, who want to watch, listen, and understand us for who we are, as we are. And we must strive to never forget that everyone has a story of their own. As we struggle to understand our own experiences and how they affect who we are, the stories of so many others constantly surround us in their unarticulated silence. That they are unknown to us does not mean, however, that they are insignificant or of little consequence. The opposite could not be more true. So, when we can, we should try to learn, listen, watch, empathize, and imagine the stories of others. It is clearly impossible to know and understand every one's life story, but if we are granted the opportunity to participate and witness even a scene of their lives, we should take it in with as much compassion and understanding as we can muster. Regardless of whether that scene in their story is lovely, disturbing, romantic, frightening, funny, difficult, confusing, or poignant, it is an important part of their whole life. At that moment when we can learn about and participate in the lives of others, we are placed in a position of deep responsibility, for in that moment, we can take care of another by taking care of their story.

Finally, I want to highlight one important implication about the nature of truth that has been animating my words. When we think about the narratives of our experiences we are engaging in a kind of story telling. This creates a complicated status for the truth of our experiences, for our stories are important to us as stories. They are not necessarily the archives of real events. Or, at least we need not think of them in such terms. Instead, we should see that we can only ever tell always-incomplete stories that are riddled with gaps, ambiguities, and many unknowns. We might try to fill in the holes and narrate over these lapses. Sometimes therapy sessions are helpful for filling in the gaps with insights about how and why things happen in ways that we might not be initially inclined to see. However, as is frequently noted in conversations with one of my best friends, the need for "coherent narratives" can serve as a type of defense mechanism.  We say things like, "If I can explain how and why I did something or responded in a particular way, it helps me feel more in control." It's a way to rationalize, organize, compartmentalize, and "clean up" the messiness of our lived experiences. My favorite philosopher, Nietzsche, is quick to argue along these lines. He notes that the degree of our need for coherence is often a sign of our weakness. We often fabricate--read: falsify--the nature of our experiences in ways that help us deal with life. Simplification through falsification may "help" us such that error, ignorance, and deception may not be unfavorable things, but this of course changes the nature of "truth."  Hence Nietzsche's famous question, "Why truth?" and his inquisition on the value of truth.

As we listen to the stories of others and tell and retell our own, we may fight at times over what one person claims to be true. But arguing over the truth of another person's account does not resolve any real issues, for the phrase, "There are always three sides to any story--yours, mine, and the Truth" is totally wrong. When it comes to down to it, there is only yours and mine. I think this idea is best captured by Tim O'Brien in The Things They Carried. In the section titled, "How to Tell a True War Story," O'Brien writes, "In any war story, but especially a true one, it's difficult to separate what happened from what seemed to happen. What seems to happen becomes its own happening and has to be told that way. The angles of vision are skewed...The pictures get jumbled; you tend to miss a lot. And then afterward, when you go to tell about it, there is always that surreal seemingness, which makes the story seem untrue, but which in fact represents the hard and exact truth as it seemed." In war and life, there's no arguing with the truth as it is experienced, as it seems.

I guess this is why I love those hard, dramatic, emotional movies about relationships. Although they are just stories that people are paid to write and direct, the best of these movies manage to convey experiences that we actually have in real life. They capture the truth of our own stories, why it is important for us to tell them, to have them be recognized by others, even in their incompleteness. As O'Brien explains, "I want you to feel what I felt. I want you to know why story-truth is truer sometimes than happening-truth."