Parental Anxiety And Its True Subject

In ‘What The Childless Fathers of Existentialism Teach Real DadsJohn Kaag and Clancy Martin write:

Why do we put limits on our children? Why is a daughter not allowed to climb that tree or jump across a river?…Why are neither daughters nor sons allowed to run away? Father knows best….virtually all fathers think that they are operating in their child’s best interests, but we have been at this long enough to know, if we are honest or authentic, that most of us protect our children, at least in part, because we are avoiding or coming to grips with our own Kierkegaardian anxiety. The more we argue that it is about the kids’ safety, the more obvious it is that it is all about us. [link added.]

Kaag and Martin’s insight here is available to most parents by the briefest of introspections: examine your feelings as your child comes to harm, or even approaches it; pay close attention; what you are averse to is that terror you experienced when you first let the full range of possibilities that awaited your child fully sink in. ‘Don’t ever do that again!’ we say, but sotto voce, we continue, ‘Because I don’t ever want to feel like that again.’

Interestingly enough, I had an inkling of this aspect of parenthood as a child, when I witnessed my mother’s reaction to my brother after he had injured himself at the playground:

My mother’s face blanched as she saw my brother’s face. But she said nothing as she raced to the medicine cabinet and returning with cotton wool swabs, a mug of water, and some antiseptic solution, quickly got to work. She efficiently cleaned and wiped and medicated. And then, one of her swipes revealed that the blood on the face did not conceal a gouged out eye. My brother had not been blinded; he had gotten away with a cut above the eye.

At this point, my mother slapped my brother. It wasn’t a hard blow; but a stinger across the cheek, nonetheless. My brother, quietly undergoing the patchwork till then, stared back at my mother, astonished and hurt….Watching this little drama go down, I wasn’t puzzled at all. My mother must have been petrified when I had brought my brother home late, a bloody mess. She loved us, powerfully, a love that often racked her with deep fears that we might ever be hurt in any way. But she had suppressed every other reaction of hers in favor of immediately providing succor to him. With the most immediate wounds cleaned and shown to be non-threatening, her relief had combined with the anger she had felt at my brother for subjecting her to that terrible anxiety.  That slap followed. I felt sorry for my brother but I felt for my mother too. I knew why she had snapped. And slapped.

Perhaps I’m overstating the knowledge I possessed at the moment, but not by too much. I was about seven or so years old and I had had ample opportunity to study my mother’s  interactions with us. Her anxiety about us was transparent in action and word; as mine about my daughter is to me now.

Broadchurch’s Grieving Mother And Our Reactions To ‘Victims’

Viewers of the BBC’s Broadchurch are subjected to a trial of sorts: we have to watch, in some excruciating detail, the reactions of parents, and in particular, a mother, to the violent death of a beloved child–at the hands of a malevolent, unknown actor. Paying close attention to our reactions to what we see and hear is instructive.

In Broadchurch Beth Latimer’s reactions to the death of her son, Danny, cover a wide range: there is incoherent grief and bewilderment and shock, and then, unsurprisingly, rage and resentment too. (Her husband’s infidelity, disclosed as a result of the homicide investigation adds further insult to injury; it is a miracle that the couple is still together at the end of the second season. This is especially so because we are aware of the grim statistics pertaining to the high likelihood of couples separating after the loss of a child.)

Beth’s anger–sometimes directed at her husband, sometimes at the pace of the investigation, and therefore, the homicide detectives, sometimes at other residents of their town, and later, at the wife of the murder suspect–is volatile, threatening to immolate those who come within its ambit. The viewer–like those in the show who come into contact with an angry Beth–instinctively shrinks back; this is not a rage to be trifled with. In the second season, in particular, Beth’s rage at DS Ellie Miller becomes particulary pointed, and at one stage, veers into unkindness and ungraciousness. My deployment of these latter adjectives should give some indication of the reaction her rage may provoke in viewers: we start to become impatient with Beth and her grieving.

Indeed; as Beth’s rage continues, we start to lose some sympathy for her; we find ourselves wishing she’d find it within her heart to forgive and forget; to ‘move on,’ even if only for just a bit. The moment we do so, of course, we reprimand ourselves: How dare we tell a grieving mother to get over it? How dare we set up a timeline for an appropriate period of grieving? How could we possibly attempt to circumscribe the nature of how Beth expresses her sense of loss? And so even as we reproach ourselves, we acknowledge the conflicted nature of our reactions to her.

These reactions are illuminative. We feel sympathy and perhaps some empathy for a ‘victim’ but these sentiments are limited; these limits become all too apparent when the ‘victim’ is not a passive recepient of her fate. It would be far easier to tolerate Beth’s reactions if she did not rage so and merely retreated into a grim, brooding silence, though even then, were she to continue to interact with others in a noncommittal, sullen, uncooperative fashion, we might find ourselves tempted, a little too easily, to tell her to ‘snap out of it.’  The uncomfortable truth here is that the ‘victim’ makes us uncomfortable; we are reminded of the ever-present contingency of our lives, of our success in life’s sweepstakes, of the fragility of fortune; ‘there but for the Grace of God go I’ is not an easy reminder to take on board; we wish the ‘victim’ would cease and desist, thus pushing away these grim reminders from our awareness.

These considerations are relevant to the reactions often on display in political discourse, in the reactions made to those protesting past wrongs and demanding redressal. Sympathy and empathy are possible, and sometimes even extended, but they are not easy to sustain; the protester bids us face uncomfortable truths we would much rather not deal with. The protests grate; we find faults with their form and content all too easily; too loud, too long, too shrill, the list goes on. Pipe down, move on, get over it; admonitions spring easily to our lips. After all, if we could find reprimands for a grieving mother, when her cause for grief lies so close by in space and time, then what chance do we have when confronting those who are protesting injustices and crimes which began a long time ago? Even if those have continued into the present? Their vintage provenance seems to drag them into the past, and that is all the excuse we need to justify our impatient and irate reaction. Enough already; keep moving; my resources are limited, and I can spare no more for you.

If the personal is political, then we should not be surprised to find, in revealing reactions like these, glimpses of the many subterrenean forces that animate our political stances.

Gabriel Rockhill On Never Dying

Over at the New York Times’ The Stone, in ‘Why We Never DieGabriel Rockhill writes:

Our existence has numerous dimensions, and they each live according to different times. The biological stratum…is in certain ways a long process of demise — we are all dying all the time, just at different rhythms. Far from being an ultimate horizon beyond the bend, death is a constitutive feature of the unfolding of biological life….I am confronting my death each day that I live.

Moreover, the physical dimension of existence clearly persists beyond any biological threshold, as the material components of our bodies mix and mingle in different ways with the cosmos. The artifacts that we have produced also persevere, which can range from our physical imprint on the world to objects we have made or writings like this one. There is, as well, a psychosocial dimension that survives our biological withdrawal, which is visible in the impact that we have had…on all of the people around us. In living, we trace a wake in the world.

[O]ur physical, artifactual and psychosocial lives….intertwine and merge with the broader world out of which we are woven….Authentic existence is perhaps less about boldly confronting the inevitable reality of our own finitude than about recognizing and cultivating the multiple dimensions of our lives….They carry on in the physical world, in the material and cultural vestiges we leave, as well as in the psychological and social effects we have on those around us.

I’m fond of saying that my parents ‘live on,’ that they are ‘still alive to me.’ By this I do not mean that my parents are biologically manifest in this world. Nor am I ‘merely’ speaking metaphorically; rather, I think I’m deploying ‘alive,’ and ‘live’ in ways that are sensitive to the multiple meanings and dimensions of our existence that Rockhill is alluding to. One way in which I understood this dimension is based on a experience I had during my boarding school years. In those days, I missed my mother terribly; I was away from home for nine months. One day, while walking through campus, I looked up to see one of the glorious sunsets that my campus’ mountainous location facilitated; as I admired the exquisite display put on my for enjoyment, I suddenly felt comforted by the fact that the same sun shone down on my mother, hundreds of miles away at my home. At that moment, the physical distance between the two of us felt insignificant; my mother was not ‘biologically’ or ‘physically’ present, but she was present in other ways. In memory, in thought, in a placement in my life that could only be described by the word ‘presence.’ She was no longer a ghost without substance. That perception of her presence in my life has not changed with her death: she influences my actions and thoughts; she informs my various decisions, moral and political; she serves as inspiration and moral guidepost. Her letters to my father, the books she read; these continue to inform me of who she was and the life she lived. My memories of her animate my relationships with my wife and my daughter; they provide me guidance in those vital spheres. My evaluative sense of myself is often based in large part on reconciling her perceptions of me with my perceptions of myself. I could, with little difficulty, make similar assessments of the presence of my father in my life.

My parents are not non-existent; they are biologically dead, but they are not ‘artifactually’ or ‘psychosocially’ so.

Standing Back And Letting The World And The Child Do Their Thing

Last summer, I met an old graduate school friend after several years. We chatted and exchanged notes about the intervening years and all the issues that had consumed us in that interim: finding an academic position, the dreaded tenure and promotion process, writing, and of course, bringing up children. Because I came to fatherhood late, we found ourselves talking about very different phases of parenting. At one stage in our conversation, while talking about her teenaged son, she remarked that she had been struck by how–after a certain age, perhaps as early as five or six, her son had, in a manner, grown up on his own with little ‘direct input’ from her; she had watched, in some amazement, as her awkward little boy, thanks to his own peculiar and particular interactions with the world around him, and consumed by his own curiosity and drive, had blossomed into a supremely interesting and ‘switched-on’ young man. She had brought him into this world, but he had built his own relationship with it, found his space within it and partaken of its many offerings, utilizing them in his life as needed, bringing to fruition his own interests and desires. (Forgive me, ‘J,’ if I’m not reproducing your observations with the appropriate fidelity.)

I listened with great interest. I realized that, as part of a thought related to some observations I offered here about parenting, I had often hoped for the world to ‘support’ my parenting; that, exhausted and anxious about whether I was ‘doing it right,’ I had worried that my partner and I were not going to be able to do this bringing-up thing by ourselves; we needed help. What ‘J’ had been experiencing and reporting on to me, was precisely that kind of ‘help.’ For the right place to look for aid with our parenting, for support in our efforts to ‘raise’ our child as best as we could, was at our child herself and the world she encountered: what she would do on her own, in the world she saw and experienced, with her own perspectives and orientations and interests. ‘J’s observations resonated with the kinds of statements I had heard other parents make: they were often amazed and surprised by what their children ‘brought home’ with them, by what they had learned on their own, and indeed, how they had broadened their parents’ horizons in so doing.

It’d be entirely dishonest of me to say I experienced anything other than relief at hearing ‘J’s remarks. Perhaps there was some hope in this parenting business after all; perhaps I didn’t need to be so intimidated and oppressed by the thought that I would transmit my dysfunctionalities and incompetences to my child; perhaps I needed to wait and watch as much as I needed to intervene and guide; perhaps, to let myself be guardedly optimistic as well consumed by my usual despondency, I should prepare myself for the pleasant surprises that await me as a result of the forthcoming interactions between my daughter and the world we’ve brought her into.

Some Parental Wisdom, Easily Dispensed

I’ve been a parent now for some 1281 days. In that time, I’ve learned a few things and been disabused of many misconceptions. Here is a potted summary:

  1. Parents are important, but they aren’t the only game in town. Your child is being exposed to a great deal else: other children (the dread ‘peer group’); non-family caretakers (daycare workers, school teachers); the sights and sounds of your neighborhood; the rhythms of your household and the relationships it contains. Your child takes all of this in, and her reactions to it all help construct her self and her experience of her life. Do not fall for the bullshit notion that your relationship with your child is the most important of its life or yours; it’s one among many. This can be both frightening and empowering; keep these in balance. If you can.
  2. Your child will always remain a mystery to you; and you, in turn, will remain a mystery to your child. Do not try to know more or possess more; recognize and respect the limits of this relationship. Think iceberg; think how much happens away from view, hidden in inaccessible recesses of body and mind. Deal with this epistemic barrier.
  3. Remember your own childhood; remember that you had a sense of your life that was quite independent of your parent’s conception of it. Remember the distance between your life and your parent’s; that same distance exists now.  Do not try to make your child learn everything about you; do not try to learn everything about your child.
  4. For fathers: mothers have a distinctive relationship with their children. Respect its specialness, its distinctiveness, derived from a very particular physical bond, further cemented in some cases, by extended, intimate, nurturance.  Do not be grasping; do not be envious; do not strive for that relationship. It is what it is; leave it alone. You have your own relationship with your child; find out what about it is peculiar and particular in its own way, and help develop that aspect on an ongoing basis.
  5. Human beings are difficult; relationships with them are challenging and prickly. Your child is a human being; and it is all too easy to imagine you have some special understanding of its needs by virtue of some special talent. You do not; you have to work as hard as anyone else. Recognize that you will often be left floundering for help as you deal with your child, trapped in morasses of your own making, unable to safely navigate treacherous shoals of misunderstanding, resentment, and emotional confusion.
  6. You will always compare your child to other children; no matter how much you are told to accept your child as it is, you won’t. But that’s because you don’t accept yourself for what you are either; so understand that acceptance of your child will become a little easier if you are a little more accepting of yourself. Otherwise you will project your failures onto your child. Don’t go there. Leave your child out of it.

I don’t have a top ten list. Six of the best is good enough for now.

‘The Spring is The Autumn’

In ‘Henriette Wyeth: Scenes from a painter’s life’ (from A Certain Climate, Wesleyan University Press, Middletown, 1988, pp. 164) Paul Horgan makes  note of, and subsequently quotes Wyeth on, the wellsprings of her work:

Ideas added to feeling, then, inform both her still lifes and portraits, and the most constant impulse is the desire to record that which must change and go.

“The reason I paint flowers is that I see them fading. This reminds me of the eternally renewed, the spring time, all of that, because I feel death and disaster lurk right behind them.” Her work is testimony to the enduring power which abides strongly in certain forms of fragility. In a flower detail of a still life, in a child’s wrist, she makes a little essay on mortality, but one reclaimed from morbidity by its celebration of present beauty.

Shortly before my mother passed away after a five-year encounter with breast cancer, she began writing small bits of poetry: fragments of poems, solitary lines, couplets. She wrote these on scattered pieces of paper, sometimes the pages of a notebook, sometimes the margins of a magazine–as and when thoughts, reflections, came to her. She wrote with pen or pencil, as either came to hand; she wrote in English or Hindi, retaining the form in which these thoughts were cast. She told me she did so without ever directing me to read anything she had put down on paper. I did not ask to look at her work, presuming she wanted to keep her thoughts to herself; she, for her part, gave me no indication she wanted me to do so. We might have collectively presumed–at some only dimly sensed level of intersubjective awareness–that I would read her work ‘later.’

But she did tell me about a line that ran through her head once, as winter rolled away and spring moved in, as her treatments for a metastasized cancer entered their fifth month. Then she had seen, on one of the short walks she took in the early evening, glimpses of the coming full bloom: buds and blossoms making their first tentative appearances. In response she had written a single line: ‘the spring is the autumn.’ (The emphasis on the assertion of identity is present in the original formulation–in Hindi.) As my mother put it, at that moment, as she saw a fledgling leaf pushing its way up, poking its head out, she saw it too, as fully grown, and then again, a little further on, she saw it change color and form, yellowing, wrinkling, and falling, drifting down; the new leaf wore its life on its sleeve; the inevitability of its eventual fate was present at the moment of its birth. That, or something like it, was what she wanted to say as she wrote that line down.

I never saw that line written down in her handwriting. But I still remember it–in both its original and translated forms–as it was said to me that day.

 

Cancer, Medical Marijuana, And A Personal Account

This page at the website of the National Cancer Institute, which describes some of the medicinal effects of cannabis and cannabinoids in cancer treatment regimes serves two salutary purposes for me today.

First, it confirms for me, yet again, that opposition to the War on Drugs and advocacy for the legalization of marijuana are A Good Thing[tm]. Indeed, knowing what we know about the War on Drugs and its implication in the mass incarceration monstrosity that stalks American life, opposition to the legalization of marijuana marks you as a, how you say, racist tool.

Second, in a kinder and gentler dimension, it reminds me of a great interaction with my mother three weeks before she passed away from a metastasized breast cancer (she had been in remission for four years before it returned.) On hearing from my brother that matters were not looking good for her as far as her treatment was concerned and that the ‘terminal stage’ was possibly around the corner, I had flown back from the US to the Indian Air Force station in Pune, India, where she was receiving treatment. (More precisely, she was being treated at the nearby Military  Hospital while staying with my brother on the air force base.) One day,  at home, between treatments, I was lying next to her on the bed she was resting on and chatting about sundry topics. At one point, as my mother described some of the pain and nausea that were now her lot, both before and after her chemotherapy treatments, I said to her, “You know mom, marijuana is supposed to be really helpful with that sort of thing. It reduces pain and helps combat nausea too.” My mother looked at me and said, “Have you tried it?” I replied, “Yeah mom, I’ve smoked it a few times.” She then leaned over, poked me in the ribs, and said, with a bit of a twinkle in her eyes, “Hey, we should go to that Osho Ashram [the central ‘offices’ of the organization affiliated with the Indian mystic and teacher Osho, which were located in Pune] and pick up some of that charas [hashish] they are always smoking.” We both collapsed in a fit of giggles. Honestly, if I had had the time, I would have scored some for her. In edible form, baked into fritters and consumed with tea, she would probably have been able to enjoy a great snack, and get some relief from her suffering too.

Meanwhile, medical marijuana has become legal in New York state, but unfortunately, it has been introduced with so many restrictions and bureaucratic hurdles that a) many sufferers from uncovered ailments will continue to not find relief and b) the state government will enable its own self-fulfilling prophecy that there is not enough demand for it. The folks in the New York state administration who have dreamed up this scheme stand indicted of the same charge I made above against those who oppose the legalization of marijuana with the additional knock of being indifferent to the sufferings of the sick.