Thanks to Jhumpa Lahiri for penning this sentence: The essential dilemma of my life is between my deep desire to belong and my suspicion of belonging. The winner of the 29th PEN Malamud Award for Excellence in the Short Story, Lahirir, born in London UK in 1957, now living in the U.S., has touched on one of the least understood dilemmas faced by humans.
Erich Fromm once told his readers that the essential dilemma of being a human being is that at one and the same moment we are both subject and object of any sentence. We can conceive/conceptualize of ourselves as the central figure doing the action of a situation, or the person upon whom the action of the moment is being imposed. Pulled, as we are, in at least two directions simultaneously, humans live in the midst of tension, or as Hans Selye puts it, between good “stress” and bad “stress”. Jung posits that we live the first four-plus decades focused on the extrinsics or the externals of our lives (education, career, income, property, status) and in our mid-forties, we transfer our attention to our inner, or our intrinsic life (our spirituality, our meaning or purpose, our belief system, our intimate relationships and our relationship with a deity). It seems, however, that all of these tensions are in play, to a greater or lesser degree throughout.
Developmentally, our conscious awareness begins with our becoming aware of our hands, the sounds in the room, the faces around our face, scents of our dogs, the music of our family and continues in every widening circles into the play-pen, the play-room, the back yard, etc. And as we move through various events, frustrations, falls, “new steps” (of all different varieties) we accumulate a memory bank of experiences, both “friendly” and “unfriendly” depending on our environment. Some events, like deaths, divorce, serious injury, set-backs in our own health or the health of those close to us tend to take on a prominence that exceeds the ordinary mundane level of a spilled bowl of soup, or a skinned knee. The universe, in its own way, unfolds before us, as well as within us, in that our perspective, or our perception, is shaped by these early events in ways in which we are both conscious and unconscious of, through some dynamic of our own participation and our passive reception.
Into this “stew-pot” of our person/life, add our private reflections, our personal reading list, our associations and our capacity to integrate both success and failure. And, in a general way, we discover both our warm feelings of being valued, accepted, admired, supported and even loved (if we are so fortunate), and those feelings of discomfort that accompany our scoldings, our punishments, our agency in the disappointments of our families, and our fears…some of them “borrowed” or adopted from our parents and siblings, some of them seeming to bubble out of our own consciousness. “Others” then take on an ambivalence which both replicates the tensions within our consciousness, and which emerges from the stimuli of how others “come” to us. We like some “other” more than another. We dislike some more than another. We are indifferent about some more than another. The innocence of our crib and our play-pen is gradually confronted with its own demise as we integrate both our positive experiences with those we consider more negative, or at least less positive.
We watch cartoons, in which good “guys” are often at the mercy of “bad” guys, both in fun and in situations that are less playful and more threatening. We get a somewhat divided picture of both the world and our place in it. And as these patterns grow, (or the ‘tapes’ are recorded on our memory) the evidence, and our interpretations of it continue to interact with each other to develop, not only a language that tells us and others ‘who’ we are but ‘what’ we expect, like, dislike, accept or reject. We meet teachers, coaches, sometimes clergy, and friends who tend to “fit” or “not” into our picture of a healthy universe, one that includes or excludes us.
We join a group, a choir, a band, a team, a scout/guide troupe, and we learn some new skills, while we also find ourselves in new situations that challenge us to discover our limits physically, emotionally, intellectually and psychologically. And just as, or perhaps even more, important, ethically.
Throughout these early encounters, reflections, readings, and challenges, we are learning about what “others” consider to be “right” and “wrong” and how we ‘feel’ about those respective guideposts. Schoolyard bullying, directed specifically at us, or not, rears its ugly head, sometimes unpredictably, sometimes after much warning. If we are the “butt” of that attack, we are frightened, isolated, alienated, and confused, especially as we may not grasp any potential motive for the attack. If we watch such events played out against others, we “feel” compassion, and a new feeling of empathy for them and for their plight. Similarly, when we read in novels, or watch in movies or television dramas, the perpetration of injustice, we recoil and withdraw from such danger, perhaps develop some strategies that we might use if we were in such situations, and dig more deeply into our curiosity and reflection, to discern the real nature of the world.
As we grow into adolescence, we are exposed to the natural world, through science classes, or hobbies like hunting and fishing. We watch predator animals like the fox gravitate to a spot in the field, where suddenly they leap into an opening and retrieve a field mouse for lunch. (And we are suddenly conscious that there is no fixing or cleaning, no hot over in which to “cook” the mouse, for the fox. This is “raw” nature!) Or we watch a falcon swoop down on an unsuspecting small bird to feed himself or his/her family.
And as we continue to experience new situations, we develop a repertoire of pictures of people, words, activities and even weather forecasts that we come to trust, and another file of those agents in which we have less trust. Our coach will promise to “play everyone” in every game, and then leave us sitting on the bench for the whole game without explanation. Our parent will promise to “have time” for us on the weekend, and when the weekend is over, and there was no “time” for us, we learn that those words were not “real” for that parent on that weekend. And while we “know” that the house we live in is not specifically one we might choose, there are others outside that home we do make choices to befriend or not.
And all the while these people and events are showing up on our personal horizon, there are things happen within our minds and our bodies that foreshadow a kind of risk-taking behaviour. We have watched others take risks, and we have a vague sense of the ‘rush’ that accompanies some risky behaviour. This new pattern will also have limits that have some direct and/or indirect connection to the kind ofrisk-taking behaviour that comes out of stories of our families. A “crazy uncle” that no one seems ready to discuss may hold some of the clues to this legacy. A grandparent who risked his/her life in some military conflict, or a serious earthquake or some other natural disaster will command considerable interest, as will many characters we meet in novels, movies or television dramas. In fact, from literature, we are offered many otherwise unreachable experiences, stretching our imaginations and our aspirations.
And have we all noticed that a ocean-liner full of endorsements and kudos can seem to be erased with a single nasty and penetrating insult or act of exclusion? “Positive psychology” clearly has its place in incubating a reservoir of affirmations that contribute to our self-esteem, and in modelling messages from others that we can include in our own self-talk. And this reservoir can and does cushion some of the shock of a personal conflict, or a rejection or an unfair and slanderous piece of gossip. Yet, it can rarely neutralize its toxic impact on our sensibilities.
And this vacillation, tending to wanting to belong, and then to being wary of any close connection, and the uncertainty of ascertaining who is a friend who can be trusted and who is clearly a “friend” in name and convenience only, begins a life-long repetitive process. This latter kind of transactional friend, who considers all relationships to be analogous to that of consumer/retailer, or doctor/patient, or lawyer/client, dependent merely on the mutual assessment of each side meeting the business needs of the other, and able to be dispensed with and disposed upon a whim or a minor glitch.
So, into this already growing complexity of expectations, add another significant, and potentially uncontrollable variable.
Sometime between fourteen and nineteen, it happens, for both boys and girls!
Someone so special and so captivating and so endearing and so attractive and so memorable jumps across the threshold of our consciousness and into our “poetic heart” as the “one”! And, being a mere adolescent, (no matter how mature) we are totally unaware that much of that “image” of the other is a projection of our “ideal” partner, a figure of our own imagination, (as we are for them) and yet we are pen and vulnerable and seemingly helpless to stop thinking about that person. We are, in a word, consumed by our obsession; we hang on their every word, and wait by the smart phone for their next text; we imagine being anywhere and everywhere with them, and with them alone. And we lose sleep, sometimes even lose weight, in our complete entry into the womb of this new “relationship”. This all happens with or without the open and willing participation of the other person.
If s/he is willing, the experience is both more “real” and also (although we are totally unaware and unaccepting of this potential) much more dangerous to our emotional security, at the time. And potentially for a longer time too!
Our first real venture into a significant experience that has risk at the beginning and as the relationship grows and even more risk should it founder on some shoals like a move away to college, or a new “interest” to either party, or a family trauma, or a business or career failure…..and depending on the circumstances, we could be emotionally devastated. And that goes for boys as well as girls. (Let’s be candid: boys have especially deep feelings, some of which can be dubbed pride in our important ventures and this is clearly a very important commitment.
In other social situations, we may find ourselves in both leadership roles or in more “followership” roles, all of both kinds provide insight into the gifts and the costs of each. We can easily reconnoitre as to our “relative popularity” and what the requirements and benefits of belonging are. As David Brooks has written, we are social animals, gravitating to others as both a support and in search of some form of refuge and yet….
With every entering into a new social situation, at any age, and among any group of peers, professional acquaintances, neighbours, service clubs, churches, we are exposed to the full range of motives, our own and those of each other person in the circle. And not all of those motives are exemplary, empathic, compassionate, or even minimally supportive. Some motives, based primarily on insecurities of one kind or another, are competitive, vindictive, bullying, destructive and dangerous. Depending on the degree of maturity and sophistication of the group, and its capacity to envision paths to manage conflict, estrangement, alienation, and isolation (all of these hopefully diminishing as we get older, but that too could be another pipe-dream), our experiences of belonging can be enhanced and stimulate our appetite for additional belonging adventures.
If we were to join a tightly knit group such as a military corps, we will surrender much of our individual autonomy to the leader of that group in exchange for the support and “protection” of the other members of the group. Yet, somehow “belonging” to such a battalion is very different from “belonging” to a personal friend, date, lover or life partner. And the differences are large.
For example, discerning what to say to whom and when, depending on the anticipated level of trust one “conceives” to be present, will vary greatly in the workplace, on the sports team, in the operating room, and in the board room. Depending on the openness/closedness of both the ‘room’ and the individuals within, one draws one’s own boundaries. On the other hand, while at home, at least theoretically, there can be no withholding, and secrets shared with intimate partners add to the stability and the longevity and the promise of such a relationship. However, just as in the public arena, if and when something occurs, or fails to occur within the intimate relationship that are considered “deal-breakers”, then, just as in the previous adolescent slights, we tend to withdraw possible temporarily at first, and if those experiences are repeated, then additional separation takes place.
The culture, no matter the size of the town, city or village will want to offer aphorisms to help: “
· Gather more flies with honey than with vinegar
· Watch out for sheep in wolves’ clothes
· Play you cards close to your vest
· Don’t put all your marbles in one basket
· Your kindness is wonderful, but be sure to set boundaries
· Your icy mask does not become you
· Half measures will not cut it, if you want in, you have to be all in
· Friendship, like wine, is best enjoyed in small sips
· People who come on too strong are far too needy to be good friends
And there are likely many more, all of them cautions against the risk of full engagement. Many of these also surface in a culture that is readily and justifiably described as “politically correct”.
And on the other side of the coin, we also know that we are hard wired to be socially engaged, for many of our significant needs and opportunities. Generosity, compassion, altruism, teaching, mentoring, coaching, doctoring, lawyering….many of the human experiences simply require others to be feasible and effective. And we also need both the tension and the growth that tension generates if we are to fully flower as creative, and integrated individuals in a variety of situations. No single situation is ever excluded from our engagement in all others. And no social “spanking” is ever forgotten as we attempt to wend our way through the many mazes, whirlpools, shoals, frights and nightmares we are to meet.
The bottom line question seems to be, “How can/do/will we manage our profound fears of alienation, abandonment, isolation and aloneness?”
Some (like Bowlby, the British psychiatric researcher) have spent their lives exploring the premise that each of us suffers from some degree of abandonment, and we spend the rest of our lives attempting to return to a “home” where we are demonstrably and unquestioningly safe.
And for this scribe, the only way to continue the pilgrimage to return “home” is to vow to myself never to give up on the journey. Given all the reasons not to continue, the reasons to continue area far more likely to offer experiences, insights, feelings and the courage that comes with each to continue to grow emotionally, intellectually, socially, culturally, and especially spiritually.
With my last breath, I will give thanks for those, like my life partner, who have supported, empowered, encouraged and even challenged me to get back into the “melee” in spite of those old ‘tapes’ telling me that I am risking again the chance of being hurt, especially as my apprehension and adoption of the many social graces that others expect is so limited.
That side of me, too, can and will only develop with continued engagement.
So, with all of the caution of a canary, and all of the bravado of a bald eagle, I fly on, sure that this canary will sense, smell, hear, see and intuit many of the dangers on the horizon so that another coalmine disaster might be at least given a warning cry if not a full prevention. The cry of danger is too often fused with the cry of change in the ear of the listener, a cry to which many are either deaf or resistance...and who is to know the difference in silence?