Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Let "Hearts" Be Still and Listen to the Mind

This is the first stanze of a poem that appears in one of my old college yearbooks as the work of a student, Rekha Ohal:

Were truth an antidote not so unkind
And honeyed lies more dearly bought, we should
Let hearts be still, and listen to the mind.

I was in the same class, but didn't know Rekha Ohal well enough to be sure that this is her web page. The face looks similar...and when I think I've recognized someone I've not seen for thirty years, these days, it usually turns out to be a younger relative.

Anyway, the idea wasn't exactly fashionable thirty years ago. Back then we were still feeling sorry for "all the lonely people," the Eleanor Rigbys and Father Mackenzies of this world who had denied their emotions and were therefore doomed to a lonely old age.

Funnily enough I don't think I ever actually met one of those people. Maybe my Irish emotionalism scared them off? What I've met dozens of were people, like the young couple Charlotte Kuchinsky has in mind here, who've messed up the present and immediate future parts of their lives by listening to their "feelings" when their "feelings" went against the sober, logical, analytical, judging part of their minds.

Day before yesterday I wrote that some of us could avoid violence if we could accept our "feelings." Maybe what I'm writing about here is the Irish-American Way to Inner Peace. Accept that feelings happen, yes, but don't let them control our lives. It's okay to laugh, cry, yell, tremble with fear, have spontaneous orgasms if we've been blessed with the capacity to have them...and then do the rational, sensible thing anyway.

Sometimes it's good even to keep our expressions of those feelings we accept to ourselves. Young children don't need to watch their parents crying...but the everyday example that came to mind was belonging to a car pool in which one of the cars is an old clunker with a door that always needs to be slammed, and one of the other travellers never slams it hard enough on the first try. One day you feel that that constant routine, CRASH, "It didn't latch, try again," CRASH!, sets your teeth on edge. Of course you could share this feeling without hurting the other people's feelings...but do you really need to share the feeling, considering that the obvious solution that will come to everyone's mind is for you to drop out of the car pool? Wouldn't you rather go home, sit with the feeling for a while, and see whether it goes away, or turns into a general feeling of irritability that's really more about something you ate yesterday?

As a young student with undiagnosed gluten intolerance I was constantly badgered to share, vent, and "heal" feelings that other people wanted to believe had something to do with them, when in reality these feelings had more to do with the wheat-based diet we ate at Columbia Union College, and I would have been much more comfortable not thinking about them. But that was a long time ago and is not the topic of this reflection. What I want to share with you readers now is how often I see people failing to achieve what they say they really want because they let themselves be distracted by "feelings."

Oogesti says he wants to keep his house and car during his old age. (He's one of the senior citizens of my home town who have to start thinking, after age eighty, about a remote possibility that one day they may become old.) He even says he knows that the most efficient way to do this is to hire a housekeeper. He was monogamous while his wife was alive, and has no "romantic" notions about any friend their own age. All the women he talks to are between twenty and fifty years younger than he is...potential housekeepers, not wives. The ones who are still interested in men are interested in men their own age, and Oogesti knows this too. He knows that, any day now, he might find himself disabled and fall into the legal custody of a grandson whose main concern is making sure he doesn't have to share the estate with any step-grandmothers...which means putting Oogesti in a cheap nursing home. But Oogesti likes the "feeling" that, as a prospective employer, he's free to "date around and play the field" with twenty or thirty women, of whom none, so far as we know, has ever expressed any interest in marrying him. Back when he was young enough to be eligible for marriage "just for love," he wasn't rich, popular, charming, or good-looking enough to date around. I suppose he's compensating his ego as he looks for True Love with women younger than his children. Meanwhile, the cheap nursing home lies ahead of him.

Grandma Lockhorn said she wanted a better relationship with her husband while he was alive. Now she says she wants better relationships with her children. And it's not that she belongs to one of those cultures that believe it attracts bad luck to say anything good about your children. She says lots of good things about their looks (which she thinks they inherited from her) and what promising babies they used to be. But whenever Grandma Lockhorn failed to get her own way, all her life, she's always tried to enlist everyone in the neighborhood to take her side of the argument, frequently distorting and exaggerating a quarrel to make herself look better. Somehow her children failed to get as good jobs as Grandma Lockhorn thinks they ought to have...or marry as well...and Grandma Lockhorn doesn't imagine that any of her complaints about them had anything to do with their not being as successful as their friends whose parents believed in keeping family secrets private. That cheap nursing home is probably holding a bed for Grandma Lockhorn too, and also, since she has a long history of making exaggerated accusations that didn't hold water, any abusive types on their staff know where it will be safe for them to dump their hostilities.

When old people mess up their lives this way, what can we expect from young people? Like e-friend Charlotte Kuchinsky, I know literally dozens of women who may accuse me of sharing their story if I write about "April," a bright, cute, promising young woman who said she wanted a stable marriage and a secure home for her children. She knew "Marco" was a few levels below her in several ways, but she felt attracted to him at the time. Like most rattlesnakes, Marco probably gave some warning of his nature. April brushed it off: "Maybe he abandoned his first wife and her children, but he had a reason. I won't give him a reason." But the reason was specious--Marco's real reason was that he just doesn't like babies. Many immature males don't like babies. So when he started seeing April's beautiful body temporarily hidden behind a layer of baby flab and, most of the time, an actual whining, drooling, diaper-soaking baby, Marco stopped having "feelings" for April. He started having "feelings" for Amber. By now he may well be the Deadbeat Dad in four or five households.

Of course, this isn't what Marco always wanted out of life either. He wanted "success" and all its trappings, the lovely trophy wife (e.g. April) to ride around in the luxury car and entertain the "distinguished" guests in the showpiece house. He even wanted the pleasures of fatherhood--the pretty daughter he could offer every silly fad her half-grown heart might desire, but especially the fun he could have with a son who'd be just like him, only richer, and thanks to April's genes better-looking, and therefore more popular. He just never came to terms with the fact that somewhere along the path toward this goal there would be babies. Escaping from the babies has cost him the car and the house and, most of the time, the fun he could have been sharing with his son. Marco resents this. He'd actually like to have custody of at least some of the children with whom he's required to share his income, and feels indignant because each of the women in his past wants to keep her own children and not the others'.

Then there are the people whose "feelings" have done them more harm than that...I think of a fellow I used to date. I think I met him in cyberspace, just a few years ago, posting comments that contained phrases I've heard him say many times. The part of his legal name he never used in real life was "Craig," which was the screen name he was using as a troll. Craig was the only person I've ever known who really did seem to have serious "problems with relationships" in general, rather than a problem with a specific relationship, or even kind of relationship. He was always running from one job, or social group, or place, or woman, to another, always telling people how he was going to love the latest person or people he was associating with, and always, after a few months of actual acquaintance, becoming totally disillusioned.

We met just as Craig was leaving Washington and thus remained long-distance friends for years, even during the Gulf War, which was when I think I realized what a loser this brilliant, promising scientist was going to be. By that time he was calling me from Pittsburgh to tell me how much he hated Pittsburgh. When "non-essential personnel" were warned to leave Washington, he rented a room for me in the same house where he was renting a room, apologizing because now I was about to find out what he'd been enduring from all those mean ol' Yankees.

During the next six weeks I remember noticing (1) that the scenery in Pittsburgh looked better, to me, in winter than in summer; and (2) that the people did undeniably have peculiar accents; and (3) that all the young people killed in combat, in the Gulf War, seemed to be from Pittsburgh; and (4) that the adults who were still in Pittsburgh seemed to be mourning; and (5) that the ones I met all seemed to be trying very hard to be polite and pleasant, even when they were actually crying--which, when a news report about a death would come in on the radio, I saw more than once even in a store.

Of course, I was shopping, sightseeing, and working with an urban mission, rather than competing with anybody on an actual job, so I thought that maybe that explained the hostility Craig was getting. No such luck. We didn't go out on the town often, partly because he'd been fairly deep in credit-card debt even before he'd rented an extra room and I was trying to buy food with my money and save his...but whenever we did go out, I always thought the service was adequate if not excellent, and he always complained. He had just made up his mind that he didn't like Pittsburgh and nothing anybody did there was ever going to please him. I started to feel that I owed the whole city an apology. Most Southerners are not like Craig.

This guy had grown up with an overtly abusive alcoholic father and a sweetly toxic church-lady mother, so I don't think he even realized how hostile he often seemed to be. Like me, he'd learned sneaky verbal attacks as a "polite, mature" alternative to overt insults...and, unlike me, he hadn't read any of the Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense books and started practicing better alternatives. He was also a very large man with an alpha-male temperament. The friction that's inevitable in any long-term relationship probably appeared sooner, and more overtly, for him than it did for most people, and he never learned any way of dealing with it except to become angry, blame the other person or persons, and run blindly toward what he hoped would be a friction-free relationship. He did eventually get therapy, but no points for guessing...he soon turned against his therapist.

Our relationship wouldn't have lasted long even if therapy had worked for Craig. He happened to have been the first man who found me attractive while I was recovering from viral hepatitis. As soon as I recovered enough strength and energy to find men attractive again, I noticed that I found a few dozen of the men I knew in Washington more attractive than Craig. Still, employers were attracted to his talent, and for all I know other women might have been attracted to his body for their sake I hope he's finally stopped running. He had a brilliant scientific mind, and might still become a great scientist, a True Green leader toward real progress, if he ever starts applying that analytical talent to relationships with co-workers rather than careening through life at the mercy of his "feelings." But when I last heard from him, he'd burned every bridge with practicing scientists and scholars, and was still running from fundraising job to census-taking job to temporary-labor job.

Men like Craig, or women if there are any, don't need to hide behind clumsy jokes about "nerd genes." They may not even need psychotherapy. All they need is to read a good book (the author now recommends this one first) about communication and start studying their communication scientifically. Record a few conversations, if necessary, and analyze where the hostility begins. By all means keep on doing things that are essential parts of who you are, even if they put some people's backs up--but look for things you don't need to do, and can change, that may be alienating people much more than your race or accent or blue-collar background. Then make a scientific study of ways to reduce the hostility, stop running, and get a healthy adult life. Let your feelings be still, and listen to your mind.