Recently, upon saying goodbye to a family member I had an insight which has been going round and round my head ever since.
This particular family member has a rather large set of interpersonal peculiarities that more often than not leave me to propose theories of explanation to my husband once we are alone together. Which, of course, reveals more about me than him. Part of what I realized during our last meeting is the precise characteristic that I share with this person. You know the old line, the reason that somebody drives you nuts is because you share a similar trait with them, and that trait is exactly what annoys you?
A large part of why I started this blog is because I am usually overrun with thoughts and ideas and I really need an outlet. Over the years, I’ve learned that there are only a very few number of people who are interested in talking through these ideas with me in a way that is mutually fulfilling. I think that there are a few reasons for this. Sometimes, it’s just deeper than people want to delve into the human experience over appetizers at a social event. Sometimes there is really other work to be done and there simply isn’t time or space for the expansive discourse of philosophical banter. And sometimes people just want to talk to me, and not hear all the ideas floating around in my head.
Given that I’m nearly always in the company of a 14+ month old toddler these days, currently that last reason is the most informative and resonant. To really hang with my little one, I’ve learned that I need to be present. When I’m present, I am available to truly relate to him.
Here’s my big insight: relating is a very different thing from philosophizing. Which I guess really isn’t that big of a revelation, but for me it was. Because, now that I have banked lots of hours being present in the company of another person, or put another way, now that I’m experiencing more intimacy than I probably ever have before, I can see this common problem that a certain kind of person tends to experience much more clearly. And when I say a certain kind of person, I mean the kind of person that I am. It all boils down to what we do when we are in the company of other people. Do we share time and space in a meaningful and authentic way through truly relating to each other? Or do we exist in proximity to each other while spouting philosophical reflections or our own personal reactions to experiences that we have had or anticipate having? My kind of people struggle to achieve the former and default to the latter. We are natural philosophers with too many ideas swirling around in our heads and perhaps some early traumas that affirmed for us the notion that it is better (or safer) to think than to simply be.
For many years I would notice the uncomfortable dynamic which would arise when I would begin to talk in a certain way in the company of others. Usually the topic would be political but that’s really coincidental, I’m realizing now. The important characteristic of the topic was that they were abstractions of rather common human experiences and so allowed me a degree of authority in how I could express my thoughts. I make this point because in these abstract topics, there is often no one present who can definitively dispute whatever point someone is making.
As an aside, it’s much easier to have a sense of authority with respect to an idea when we really don’t know very much about it. I’ve noticed that the more I know, the more aware I am of the complexity of pretty much any given topic and consequently, the more I realize how difficult it is to be definitive, or alternately, the more I am inclined to say about it, which isn’t particularly conversational.
Returning to the topic of uncomfortable discourse, I often reflected on how my behavior would contribute to these awkward social situations and it seemed apparent that it was the tendency to make statements in an argumentative style when the nature of the relation was friendly and non-defensive. (Perhaps I would have appreciated the outlet of debate club, but I didn’t ever give it a try.) For a long time, I considered the problem that I was experiencing as a result of speaking style.
Now I feel as though I’ve come to understand another layer of the problem. Perhaps the fact that these days I don’t really get too much time to talk in adult company because I’m often on toddle duty. Regardless, I think that my insights will help me to make some changes so that someday when I sit in the company of others I will be more likely to relate to the people I am with rather than using them as sounding boards for the thoughts in my head.
There is another thing that happens in this all too familiar scenario that I am describing and that is that in order to entertain the thoughts in my head, I must depart from the present moment. I must consider things out of the context of reality. Which again, makes it easier to speak with some degree of authority for there is no one present to dispute something that is not there. Hindsight and Foresight are 20/20, and the more we focus on those illusions of perfect vision, the more our vision in the present is clouded and unreliable.
And yet, without the practice of reflecting or predicting, we are left without much to occupy our minds, nor propel us toward a more optimal living experience. It seems to me that we should have a time and space for considering the big ideas of our human existence, but that we should be very careful about preserving the unified experience of being present and in relationship with others. The two are essential for our individual and collective growth.
Which gives me yet another sense of why it is important for me to have this space for reflecting on my thoughts. While I don’t presume to have insights that are particularly important, I do realize that sharing ideas is an excellent way to spark more of the same. And I figure that the sheer fact that I have these ideas pressing against the limits of what I am personally capable of doing on a daily basis means that I must put them to some sort of use. And so I share them with the hope that they serve some sort of higher purpose.
This sharing is a delicate matter. While I’ve willingly asserted my authoritative voice over topics far beyond the scope of my small scale life, I have always been uncomfortable with the premise of doing so. Which is to say that despite my pompous tendencies, I do possess a fair measure of humility. I think that the main reason that talking about big ideas with an authoritative voice makes me uncomfortable is that it is not rooted in reality. The very thing that grants me the freedom also makes me question it.
I write all this to make what I consider to be an important point about the crossing back and forth between the “land of reality” and the “land of philosophy.” It all begins with the real world. I go out and I see somebody do something, or someone says or does something directly to me. Usually I experience some sort of reaction on either side of neutral. And then I get thinking. In summary, what I experience in the real world serves as a point of departure into abstract thought about who we are, why we do what we do, and the possibilities for transformation. As I already pointed out, I think that there is a good reason to entertain abstract thoughts on topics which are real. Obviously. But I think that we have to keep a careful balance between what goes on in our heads and what goes on in our lives. Those of us who tend to really enjoy mental diversions can get into trouble.
Furthermore, I think that problem can get really out of hand when large groups of us start to collaborate around a purely mental concept. On the personal level, I can think of a couple examples that I’ve experienced recently: taking a parenting book too seriously or choosing to spend the limited and therefore valuable in person time that we have with people we care about talking about people’s reasons for certain undesirable behaviors instead of relating to the person that we are with. On the social level, I think that our collective tendencies to over-schedule our kids may illuminate this tendency of ours. I will explain. Collectively we’ve intellectualized a notion of success and happiness. In that process of abstraction, we’ve charted out the steps to achieve said success and happiness. We foist these abstract goal of success and happiness on ourselves, which is problematic in and of itself because we are then likely to make personal choices based on abstractions rather than reality. But it seems even worse to lay abstraction upon others under the guise of kindness and compassion for their best interests. If we are keeping the goal of optimizing our human experience in mind, I think that our only chance of doing so lies in a fully integrated personal agency. What I mean by this is that only when we are fully integrated (the oneness of our bodies is the predominant experience from which we act) do we have a chance of making the best possible choice. When we are all in our heads, or all in group think, or all in our physical bodies, we have a chance of making a good choice, but I think a much larger risk of making a bad choice.
I’ve kept this discussion abstract for the purpose of getting my thoughts around all this straight. But I would feel disingenuous if did not make the obvious point that all this relates to people. Because really, other people is what we are often talking about, right? Why so and so did such and such. These are the nagging questions for those of us who don’t shy away from digging into the depths of the human psyche for the fear of being accused of gossiping or some other dishonorable pass time. Hey, somebody’s got to think about this stuff and put words to it. It’s not as if we are the only ones having the experience, after all. We’re just the ones who don’t mind stepping beyond the boundaries of taboos.
But the logic of my argument stands on this topic too. The more we are actually in relationship with ourselves, the more we realize that to be definitive about much of what goes on in our minds and hearts is impossible. Perhaps I am again revealing my naivete, but I don’t believe so. I believe that while we each have the capacity to be truly and wholly ourselves, most of us are most of the time, not doing that. Most of us are carrying around a lot of extra baggage in the way of stored away traumas, fears, and self-limiting patterns of being. So there is first the problem of being in relationship to ourselves. And then we have the problem of being in relationship to others, which looking and hearing as I often am prone to doing. It seems that there’s a lot of space sharing and not a lot of intimacy going on amongst ourselves.
This lack of authentic relationship in our lives leaves us free to pontificate on each others’ behavior. While I’m not convinced that this is a bad thing, I think that in doing the pontificating we should remember that what we are really doing is digging in our own pile of dirt. Because talking about people who we aren’t really in relationship is really just talking about ourselves. Because if we were really in relationship with the people in question we wouldn’t be talking about them; we’d be talking to them. I don’t know about anybody else, but there are a few things that make my skin crawl. One is talking too much about somebody else without acknowledging to myself and the person that I’m talking to, that, clearly, this is all theoretical with the only anchor to reality being a moment in the past or a little something that somebody said to spark some train of thought in my own mind. The other is when I hear that people are talking about me more than they are talking to me.
Our little family of three was walking along our street shortly after I finished writing this and we passed a few men who were deep in conversation about another person (presumably somebody who wasn’t present) and I realized another little aspect to this topic of discussion. A point which I feel is important again for the sake of encouraging authentic communication and relationship. What I heard was some sort of description of a person’s behavior which was portrayed as negligent and therefore indicative of a certain degree of ignorance on the part of the actor (my interpretation, of course). Here’s the realization that was sparked for me: in the “land of philosophy” we are often also prone to construct entire theories of a person based on single actions. Again, I make the same point, that while this may be intellectually stimulating, it really doesn’t tell us much, if anything, about the person. We are each so complex and why we do whatever we do is so varied and layered that to pinpoint an explanation seems like a complete waste of time. That’s a hard pill to swallow for the truth-seeking scorpio, and yet I believe it to be true. I suppose that the perhaps this particular brand of truth seeking could be used for self analysis, but only in small episodes. Better still, I think would be to use the desire to dig deeper as a tool for fully experiencing the present moment. For just as we humans are layered in complexity so is the world in which we live. Each moment provides us with an opportunity to delve into that wonderful complexity with much higher returns than most purely intellectual pursuits could deliver.
I love reading John Holt because I enjoy his humanistic lens and the way that his observations are really about us all in various ways. As I have been mulling all this over for at least a decade and more intensely in the past few days he mentioned the very point that I’ve been attempting to make here in a discussion of mental facility. On page 124 of How Children Fail, he pointed out that a particular discussion was one that existed “only for purposes of talk; it does not exist at the level of reality”
While I am definitely blessed with the gift of the gab, I also strive to enjoy meaningful and lasting relationships with people for whom I care and respect. And so I must find a way to temper my tendency to meander into amateur oratory and instead practice the art of being present so that I am able to authentically respond to whomever I am with. I share this because while clearly not everybody has my tendencies, I’m certain that most people know somebody like me. And it seems that thoughtful compassion goes a long way toward relating to those who are different from ourselves. So if these insights of mine strike a chord in somebody else, I’ve taken what is a challenge for myself and made good on it.
A day’s worth of good work, I say. Thanks for reading.