Sunday, May 16, 2021

Three Blogs From One Prompt, Part 2: Boundaries

 (Source material for this entry is this very long interview between Ezra Klein and Agnes Callard)

There is just so much meat here.

Callard relates an anecdote about her middle son:

[T]here was a period in his life where we just had to go over to every homeless person we saw and not just give them money, but there was this elaborate negotiation. If they had a dog, we had to give them money for the dog. And we had to explain to them how much of the money is for the dog. And later, he’d talk about it. It just wouldn’t be over. With a homeless person, it’s like, you want to give him the money, and then you want it to be over. And it would never be over. And I felt like I was facing this thing, this unjustified suffering, in a way that I just normally don’t. I normally find a way around it, right? So we find 100 ways around it even when it’s right in front of us.

Ezra Klein, in response: 

One of the really profound and profoundly sad things in life is the way we learn to close ourselves to suffering.

I didn't walk up to homeless people to give them money. They were strangers, all of them, and "stranger danger" had been drilled into me with my mother's milk. Also, they all had that affliction which so terrified my mother: poverty. I sincerely believe my mother felt poverty was contagious, and even acknowledging it might invoke it somehow. When you grow up lower middle class, you learn to clutch that class-ladder in a death grip. 

Later, Callard says this about her OLDER son, and she may as well have been describing me when I was much younger:

[W]e lived in Berkeley, California. And the playgrounds had toys. They were sort of covered with toys that people left there for the kids to play with. And there was a period where he never wanted to go there, except when other kids weren’t there. Because here’s how he put it: the other kids take the toys away from me. But here’s what actually happened. He’d be sitting there. He’d be digging with a shovel or something. Another kid would walk up. And she would maybe glance at the shovel. And he would walk up to her and hand her the shovel. And his narrative of what happened was she took the shovel away from me, right? Now what was going on there? Well, he could sort of see that she wanted it, right? And he didn’t want to give it to her. But he kind of felt like he had to, or he didn’t know what’s the rule for when you have to, right? He didn’t know about property rights, you know? And I would be saying things to him. Like, it’s your shovel. You don’t have to share. The other parents would be looking at me, like it’s obviously a playground shovel, you know? And be like, just keep digging. You can ignore her. I would be saying things like that, right? What am I trying to do there? I’m trying to give him a sense of the boundaries between himself and other people. And I think children have to learn that. 

I'm not going to say that exactly the same thing happened with me. I don't remember every minute of 1975, you know? But that sounds so much like something I would do: reluctantly hand something to someone who so obviously wanted it, and then tell Mommy he "stole" it. 

Boundaries between myself and the world. Knowing what you know of me, I'm sure you can imagine what trouble I had with those. Every once in a while, I still do. On a spiritual level, I am convinced we're all one, but we "individuate" to experience a predetermined (by us) set of circumstances in each incarnation. I have no scientific support for this whatsoever: it has a good beat and I'm dancing to it, okay?

Given this mindset, it becomes imperative to wall off a part of yourself from the suffering you see. I have put a great deal of blood, sweat and tears into the construction of mine, because the force it must contain is crazy strong. Sometimes that wall isn't even enough! 

Canadian author Spider Robinson's books, almost all of them, are broadly similar. They're full to overflowing with puns, laughter, and love. Almost all of them. His last two published works before his wife and daughter died within a year of each other were called Very Bad Deaths and Very Hard Choices, and they were something of a departure. Considerably more tightly plotted than most of Spider's output -- his books usually feel more like party nights with beloved friends than anything with a real storyline -- these are murder mysteries involving the total antithesis of a Spider character: a truly, almost impossibly, evil fucker. It's as if Spider took everything he knew about love and light and life and inverted it. 

I've had to do that. I've had to create a shadow-me, into which I periodically cast every hateful thought I have.  I call him Htennek.

Htennek is the backwards of me. He's taciturn, emotionless, and fiercely territorial. Mostly what he is is cold, cold, cold. Plane crash on the other side of the world? So what. Man de-weinered by his girlfriend? Kenneth physically winces at the pain, while Htennek will ignore that magnificently and rant instead about how you really can't call her a "girlfriend" after she's butchered the beans and filleted the franks, now can you? 

Htennek's purpose is to counteract my overpowering empathy when my mental dike springs a leak. It's pure self-preservation: without him, I'd be dead by my own hand several times over by now. (In 2014, when I very nearly did attempt suicide, there was no sign of Htennek: I sometimes imagine my clinical depression found him, overpowered him, and locked him away where I couldn't access him.) 

If you meet the guy, please forgive me. I try to keep him quiet. But if he does come out and say something to you, you're apt to recoil and wonder what got into me. It's not what got's what I'm trying to keep out. 

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