The Hidden Pain Of Others

A few years ago, as I walked down the street that I live on in Brooklyn’s Ditmas Park, toward my home and my waiting family, past a row of restaurants and coffee shops with their happy and contented consumers, I spied a pair of friends and neighbors of ours. They were sitting outside a local eatery, waiting for their wood-fired oven pizza to be brought out to them. The husband sipped on his wine while his wife chatted on the phone, smiling and laughing as her conversation ensued. I stopped and stared for a second, wondering whether I should stop by and throw out a quick hello and make some small talk. I moved on; they looked busy and preoccupied, enjoying their meal, each other’s company, and the fine late summer weather. They looked, for all anyone could tell, happy and prosperous and content. Elegant glasses of white wine; outdoor seating at a not-cheap restaurant; they looked exactly like the people who were supposed to be living in my neighborhood: Brooklyn thirty-somethings, successful and intelligent, well-educated, with adequate privilege and comfort underwriting their lives.

But I was in the possession of some knowledge about my friends that complicated the sunny picture above. For a few months prior to this spotting, they had lost their only child, their daughter, a toddler scarcely two years old, killed by a piece of falling masonry from the eighth floor of a building in Manhattan. It was the worst parental nightmare of all: the loss of a young child to a freak accident, one that you could have done nothing about. It had devastated them with grief and regret and anger in ways that I could scarcely comprehend, and yet, here they were, seemingly oblivious to this fact of their own lives. They would so easily have been the targets of envy at the moment I espied them: good-looking, happy, content, well-fed, prosperous enough for leisure and good cuisine and wine, connected with friends and family, savoring life’s gustatory pleasures. Someone might have congratulated them on their good fortune: “You guys have got it all!” But they didn’t. They were like all of us, who don’t have it all.

It was time, obviously, to relearn some old lessons. We imagine all too easily, that others are happier than they are (the chief cause of our unhappiness, as Montesquieu famously said.) We wear masks all the time; we are brave, more resilient than we imagine; the surfaces that are presented to us, and that we present to others, in our daily lives and social interactions, offer the barest hint of what lurks beneath; we should never presume too much about the happiness that we find exposed to us–for it sits alongside a great deal else–anxiety, fear, grief, self-hatred–in those interiors that we have no access to. Every life when viewed from the inside, as George Orwell said, is but a series of small failures; viewed from the outside, we are prone to imagining that life as enjoying the fortunes that passed us by. The truth lies elsewhere.

On Not Recommending One’s Choices

Recently, all too often, I catch myself saying something like the following, “I took decision X, and I have my fair share of regrets and self-congratulation about it but I would not recommend X to anyone” or “In all honesty, I couldn’t recommend that you take decision X as I did.” Or something like that: I took this path, and I’ve reconciled myself to it, but I cannot recommend that you do the same. Even with the express caveat to be prepared for mixed blessings, which would seem to provide all the ‘cover’ needed.  (The kinds of decisions I have mind included some of the most momentous of my life: immigrating, choosing a graduate education and then an academic career, entering a monogamous relationship, and having a child.)

Some of this hesitancy is, I think, quite straightforward. Many of these reasons–cultural, intellectual, psychological–are familiar and infected with a favorable assessment of ourselves and others. We are reluctant to preach and proselytize; we are modest, and think it inappropriate to convey the impression of having gotten things right; we do not want to oversell the good and we do not want to understate the bad–we do not want to brag, we do not want to whine; we want others to take on the terrible responsibility we felt when we took those decisions; we value the boundaries of the autonomous protective space that others have built up around themselves (see: ‘reluctance to preach…’ above.). And lastly, I think, a less exalted, but related, reason: we do not want to saddled with the burden of having pointed out the path to someone, we do not want to be ‘blamed’ when things go wrong.  (There are dozens of web sites, or at least pages, which are dedicated to getting ‘modern, sensitive’ parents to overcome their loathing to preach to their kids, urging them to ‘just do it’ and ‘say something’; don’t be afraid of being a ‘hypocrite’ or a ‘preacher’ if your child’s safety is at stake, and so on.)

I experience my hesitancy as grounded in all these reasons, of course. But there is also another quite fundamental grounds as explanation for my–and possibly others’–failure to preach. I am never quite sure if my interlocutor and I are talking about precisely the same thing: too many dimensions and facets of their existential choices remain hidden, unclear, or ambiguous to me. I do not know whether all the paths of conduct that are entailed by these decisions are understood as such by them; I do not know if they mean, or refer to, the same objects and states and affairs as I do. These differences, always minor in the context of conversations with most we know, acquire an added facet when we encounter something like a truly crucial choice–made by someone else, another possessor of a unique, only partially accessible perspective.

That is, much like in another state of ignorance that I described in an earlier post about not interfering with others’ self-conceptions, I am reluctant to act for fear of blundering into an unknown space with inadequate navigational aid.

On Not ‘Interfering’ With Others’ Self-Conceptions

Sometimes, when I talk to friends, I hear them say things that to my ears sound like diminishments of themselves: “I don’t have the–intellectual or emotional or moral–quality X” or “I am not as good as Y when it comes to X.” They sound resigned to this self-description, this self-understanding. I think I see things differently; I think I see ample evidence of the very quality they seem to find lacking in themselves. Sometimes, I act on this differing assessment of mine, and rush to inform them they are mistaken. They are my friends; their lowered opinion of themselves must hurt them, in their relationships with others, in their ability to do the best they can for themselves. I should ‘help.’ It seems like the right thing to do. (This goes the other way too; sometimes my friends offer me instant correctives to putatively disparaging remarks I make about myself.)

But on occasion, I bite my tongue. I have heard this assessment too many times from this person. My previous interjections and interventions have had no effect. They are caught up in this conception of themselves; when they look in a mirror they know what they see–or want to see. And this recalcitrance of theirs makes me wonder whether my swooping in on from high will have any efficacy, and even more fundamentally, whether it is even warranted or desirable.

My friends are complex creatures, as all humans are. We encounter diverse personas in them, tips of icebergs we too often mistake for the not-visible mass that lurks below the water. They have constructed their selves over an extended period of time. Its components have been assembled by a process whose details are unknown to the rest of us. The self-assessments they offer me are their glimpses of this self, and they are part of this ongoing process of self construction. But my view is a partial one, occluded by all kinds of boundaries and barriers–physical and psychological. I do not know what role is played by this kind of self-assessment in their psychic economy.

Perhaps they use this kind of lowered ranking of themselves as a spur to improvement, as a warning against complacency, as a spark that lights some fuse. Perhaps making this concession, here, to a nagging doubt that they have entertained about their self-worth, allows them to offer more inflated assessments of themselves in other domains, ones in which a more exalted rating enables more of their lives’ ends and purposes to be realized. As therapists–and their patients–are fond of saying, we are the way we are because in some shape or fashion this is how we choose to be; this is what works for us, even if not for others. Some value of ours, even if it is not one esteemed by others, is preserved by so doing. Perhaps there is a payoff visible to my friends who talk thus, even if not to me.

And so, I wonder if I really should rush in to interfere with this project underway, a unique and distinctive one.


Shyness, Introverts, And Receding To Older Personas

A few days ago, I wrote on my occasional avoidance of company and/or conversation–with friends, acquaintances, and implicitly, of course, with strangers. In concluding, I wrote:

On those occasions when I do carry out such deft evasions, I am reminded that despite writing in public spaces and despite taking up a career that requires me to stand in front of groups of people and talk, I retain at the core of my being, traces of a self quite familiar to me: a shy person who often prefers the company of a book to that of a fellow human.

This “shy person” was far more visible when I was a child. Then, I was considerably uninterested in entering my peer groups, and was also reluctant to spend much time in the company of adults other than my parents. My friendships were almost invariably made, not with groups, but with other lads who seemed similarly afflicted with a case of shy-itis. Two years spent in a boarding school forced me to emerge from this self-imposed shell, inducing a change that was visible to many who had previously known me as  a tongue-tied resident of social margins. (c.f the stuttering phase of my life.)

Moving out from home and migrating–two events that were rolled into one for me–further imposed a veneer of extroversion upon the older introverted self. I was forced to advocate for myself, to seek new relationships, and of course, I responded, with varying degrees of self-consciousness, to explicit and implicit pressures to assimilate.

But I don’t think I ever felt wholly comfortable with these changes. Even if the transformation which they seemed to have induced was so comprehensive that my suggestion that I was ‘essentially’ a shy person was invariably greeted with skepticism and disbelief. And more unkindly, as a kind of posturing.

Over the years, I have noticed a creeping exhaustion with the effort required to maintain this persona–which you would only describe as being ‘inauthentic’ if you insisted on being reductive–of the gregarious extrovert. Even if that maintenance brought in its wake many goods. For instance, I have made some very good friends, relationships with whom have endured over the years;  I have been able to enter into a long-term, stable romantic relationship (which is, obviously, challenging, as these things invariably are); and of course, I have been enriched a great deal,  intellectually and emotionally, by the many conversations and personal encounters that I have experienced over the years. (Almost all of my academic work is co-authored; my collaborations were essential to my work. I find myself thinking aloud, in company, in ways unknown to my solitary self.)

But these ‘gains’ have not been earned easily. And much like an athlete might find it hard to persist with high levels of excellence in her performances over the years, so do I find myself disinclined to push myself as hard as I  once did, to persist with an older energy, in a kind of ‘social performance.’ I look, occasionally, at the sidelines, at the benches, where some relief from the burdens of social expectation awaits. I feel, ever so gradually and yet distinctly, an ebbing, a receding, a return, to an older place of repose and comfort.

This does not mean, again, that I disdain human company. I think it just means that I’ve become more selective about the avenues where I will expend my social energies.

Laurence Olivier on the Indispensability of Personas

In his autobiography, Confessions of an Actor (Penguin, 1982), Laurence Olivier writes of an unforgettable mentor, and reveals a great deal about acting:

[Miss Fogerty] gave me one unforgettable, very special word of advice, which has been imprinted forever in my memory. I can’t think of when, if ever, I had heard or known such a penetrating foray into the hazardous area of an actor’s psychological weakness. During my recitation I had noticed her shading her eyes top and bottom in order to peer at me with greater intensity. She now leant towards me and said, “You have weakness…here,” and placed the tip of her little finger on my forehead against the base of my remarkably low hairline, and slid it down to rest in the deep hollow of my brow line and the top of my nose. There was obviously some shyness behind my gaze. This was a thing I comprehended so completely  that it shadowed my first few years as an actor. I am not imputing to Elsie Fogerty the responsibility for a psychological block–it was simply not like that, I knew it was true, there was a weakness there. It lasted until I discovered the protective shelter of nose putty and enjoyed a pleasurable sense of relief and relaxation when some character part called for a sculptural addition to my face, affording me the shelter of an alien character and enabling me to avoid anything so embarrassing as self-representation. [pp. 37-38]

You wouldn’t consider actors to be shy folks. But many of them are. One way to overcome that shyness, of course, as many acting coaches tell their wards, is to simply get ‘into character.’ After all, once you are busy being someone else, you are too busy to be shy or embarrassed, emotional and psychological states that belong to your older self; you are now someone else, you inhabit another persona, and this one certainly is too busy doing whatever it is that your character requires. You have a new persona.

But sometimes actors, the shy ones like Olivier, or even those that are not, have to be reminded they inhabit another persona. The easiest way to do this is the oldest: the mask (from which the word ‘persona’ is derived); it enables the easy slipping into, the taking on, of another personality, another self. The disguise it afforded was all the cover required to transcend one’s awkwardness in an old skin; it was a putting on that enabled a shedding off. But as Olivier points out, you don’t even need anything as elaborate as a mask; even simple nose putty will do. The essentials are then in place; a physical barrier is placed between ‘in here’ and ‘out there’; and now, comforted by this separation, this distancing, the previously discomfited can get on with the business of being someone else.

Representing ourselves is always a tough business; we are not quite sure what to bring forth, what to suppress, what will meet with approval, what with dismay. The mask, the persona can provide some much-needed cover and calm for this state of psychic confusion and bewilderment.