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Description v. Prescription in Polyamory September 9, 2014

Posted by shaunphilly in Polyamory.
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In the past, I’ve talked about whether monoamory or polyamory is better, and concluded, essentially, that so long as we are aware of either possibility and we pursue our desires authentically, I’m not concerned where we end up. Today, I’d like to take a look at a set of issues within relationships which fall under the same logical structure, and tease out why I think things like rules and promises, especially when they are intended to remain in place indefinitely, are not only unwise but may be self-defeating.

 

Negotiation as an Ongoing Process, and not a Scripture

DeMilleTenCommandmentsDVDcoverOur culture has a handy trope for a rule which is set “in stone.”  Whether the image come from the old Ten commandments movie (or the Mel Brooks version), or from the Old Testament itself, we understand what it means to create a rule or promise which is not designed to change. The idea is that some person or group has handed down a rule which is meant to be kept indefinitely. It is either thought of as a moral commandment or an agreement with no defined end. In other words it is treated, in some cases, as scripture.

The absolutism of this set of circumstances is comforting, at least to some, but it has an air of moral absoluteness which simply does not fit with the nature of relationships (or anything, really) which depend upon communication, growth, and adjustment to change. The stability and structure of such an agreement might be comforting, but this comfort is an illusion and is often short lived.

Such rules can take the place of agreements, requests, or demands but in any of these cases the same fundamental problem will arise. Of course, the issue of coercion, abuse, or simple fear might also play a role, but at bottom all of these situations suffer from the simple mistake of thinking that it’s possible to create a set of rules which will be relevant after new experiences, growth, and changed circumstances have thrown aside all of our assumptions and intentions.

If we make such rules, we must keep in mind that as we experience more, as the circumstances change, and as we grow (both in our set of desires and our ability to handle new situations), the rules we made might not be relevant anymore. In some cases, the rule might end up no longer being necessary, and yet many people hold onto them out of habit. Because it’s the rule. Because it became scripture, and as many people can attest to, scripture sometimes just stays even after you don’t have any need for it.

In other cases, the rule might end up becoming a crutch upon which we lean in order to avoid facing the fact that the circumstances have, in fact, changed or that the rule was a smoke-screen for some fear. But the bottom line is that the rule may not match up with current needs, desires, and relationships, and so it might be better to see that rule as a temporary agreement to be reconsidered now or in the future.

Especially people new to polyamory, the tendency is to create some hard boundaries, rules, etc in order to create some sense of safety or protection against all sorts of things. But as time goes on, relationships form and new desires may arise which run against these rules created early on. So, what do you do? Do those rules become scripture or do you re-evaluate, re-negotiate, and possible change the nature of your relationship as a result?

 

Prescription versus description

Thinking of rules as a means to protect ourselves is problematic, at best. No rules we can create will protect us from the things we fear, because the things we fear might always happen no matter what rules we adopt.  Fear needs to be dealt with directly, and not through defense mechanisms. Rules, in this case, are often more about identifying what our fears are, and making such rules absolute seeks to avoid dealing with that fear as much as actually avoiding harm.

As any monogamous person likely knows, the rule to not have other sexual or romantic partners does not necessarily prevent our partners from the interest in other people, which is the real source of the problem as much as the potential acts themselves.  When polyamorous people employ similar rules about levels of intimacy, the difference is one of quantity, not quality. Making the exclusivity limited to one person or a few does not solve the problem of fearing the loss of intimacy. Trying to defend this intimacy is absurd; if they want to give it to us, they will regardless of whether they also give it to other people.

So, what if we thought about rules as a description of an idealized reality rather than a defense? What if we thought of it as a guideline to staying on the path or achieving the kind of life that we want to live? That is, rather than a defense or a set of ways to protect ourselves, what if we thought of rules as a means to keeping ourselves pointed in the right direction and not distracted by road-side attractions along this path?

That’s certainly an improvement over looking at rules as absolute dictates and Hobbes-esque defenses against harm (although guidelines will be this as well), but what if we went even further than this? What if we stopped using the model of prescribing the direction we were going, and adopted a model of exploration? What if instead of defining where we are going, where we will be, and what the destination were to look like, we were looking towards the horizon and discovering what we found?

What if, in our relationships, we are map-makers rather than law-makers?

Laws have to be changed, reinterpreted, and often simply scrapped in order to keep up with our lives. Laws and rule are, in many ways, fundamentally conservative and traditional approaches to reality. Necessary for many reasons, but they are not a force for change or growth in themselves.

In order to change, we need to be explorers, curious and skeptical. As Nietzsche said, we need to be attempters in life (cf Nietzsche, BGE §42 and §210) reaching for the possibility just beyond us. Rules may be relevant for a while, as explorers, but eventually we will run into a new land where the rule simply does not apply. Eventually, we will have to start being ethnologists and adopt a new perspective, and realize that not only is the land upon which we walk different, but the walker is different as well. As we explore, we will change, and the person who left our home shores with notions about right, wrong, civility, etc might no longer exist.

Carrying your civilization into another and remaining the same misses the point of traveling. The point is to grow and change, not to carry your old self to new lands. We don’t want to be imperialists, do we?

 

An example; Primary and Secondary

Consider this; the difference between the rules set up in monogamy and the rules polyamorous people set up around primary and secondary relationships are usually logically similar. In monogamy, you surround your partner with a metaphorical fence and say “no more in here,” while with polyamorous relationships you might say “only one, maybe two or three, in here. The rest of you are relegated to second-class relationships.”Why prescribe this hierarchy? Why go out of your way to define it as such? If someone feels at home in that fence, why would you make a rule saying they can’t come in?

When we set out on our journey of relationships, if we define these roles beforehand we might find a couple of things could happen. First, we might find that it creates unnecessary distance and feelings of inadequacy for “secondary” partners. It’s one thing to actually be less intimate and close to someone, it’s quite another to be defined as such regardless of whether it’s true or not.

Meeting someone, dating them, getting close to someone is already a complicated enough without having artificial boundaries set on how important that person is allowed to be to you in addition to all that. If someone defines my relationship for me, as would be in the case if I were a relegated secondary, it would not change how I would feel about my new partner but it would make me wonder how close I’m allowed to feel or how close I’m allowed to be.

I’m just not sure if “allowed” is a relevant concept when it comes to how we feel about people. Rules, in many cases, attempt to define how we are allowed to feel in addition to how we are allowed to act. Setting boundaries and rules on actions is one thing (and is important). Setting rules about how we are allowed to feel is quite another (and absurd). So the question is whether things such as relationship status is a function of actions or feelings, primarily.

Are statuses–things like being primary, secondary, etc–things we  prescribe or are they things we describe? It’s probably both, but I think that how we actually feel is the primary factor in the nature of a relationship. And so no matter how much we may want and try to prescribe that from the start, how we actually feel will be the primary factor in how close a person is to us. Holding someone at a distance merely because of a rule is, in my opinion, not a decent way to treat another person. And it feels shitty when it happens to you.

Further, you may find that no matter how much you try and pre-define a relationship, that rule might be impotent in terms of actually preventing a person from getting really close. This can lead to situations where someone calls person A their primary, but person B (relegated to secondary status) might end up being equal or greater in terms of intimacy in the long run. Trying to prescribe these statuses thus simply seeks to create rules about territory you have not explored yet, like trying to decorate a room you’ve never been in. You don’t know how close your partner will be to their new partner, and trying to set a rule about it will have as much effect as defining how many chips you’re allowed to eat from the bag.

Clearly, there will be distinctions in terms of how close you are to a person, how much time you spend with them, etc. Clearly, terms such as primary and secondary are useful terms to describe how relationships actually are right now, and I would not try to argue for any “relationship anarchy” which would attempt to argue for use ridding ourselves of labels.

But just like how the dictionary does not prescribe meaning (they simply log use of words, and reflect the world rather than define it), labels such as primary, secondary, etc are descriptions of the nature of a relationship more than a pre-ordained rule about what role someone will play in our lives.

Conclusions

It is undoubtedly true that some relationships are closer and more intimate than others. Insofar as words like primary and secondary have use in the context of relationships, they should be descriptive terms. But these descriptions are not chiseled in stone, and in 2 or 5 years things might be different. We must be aware that this might happen, and that when it does we have to be allowed to re-define our relationships to reflect reality, rather than impose our preferred reality onto our relationships.

The feelings we have for people will exist no matter what labels and rules we have.  Prescribing our relationships is, at best, a conservative attempt to maintain the status quo of the intimacy we have with someone. But that intimacy will remain, grow, or diminish not based upon any prescription, but instead upon the actual changing nature of the relationship. And as relationships change and grow themselves (and sometimes they grow apart), we should view the journey as an exploration, and we should be map-makers, not law-makers, of our lives.

In short, we should be curious, open, and skeptical of the new terrain which is the future and not merely carry our assumptions, preferences, and comfortable spaces with us. Let our experiences, and not our presumptions, define us.

 

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Obligation is a derail: some thoughts on negotiation in loving relationships August 18, 2014

Posted by Ginny in Polyamory.
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You probably saw that spreadsheet of reasons a wife declined to have sex with her husband, a couple weeks back. As these things do, it’s generated a fresh round in the continued conversation about sex and obligation. The conversation goes like this:

Feminist bloggers and commentators: “Nobody ever owes anybody sex for any reason.”

Less-feminist bloggers and commentators: “What, never?”

“No, never!”

“What, never?”

“Wellll, hardly ev– no, actually never.”

All this is well and good and needs to be said and re-said until everybody gets it. But at the same time something’s been troubling me about posts that talk about how the whole concept of withholding sex is flawed. They’re not wrong; the very idea of “withholding sex” implies that sex is something granted by default, something a person can take back as a hostile act, rather than being always and every time a gift each person freely chooses to give the other. But. I also know people who have suffered in relationships because their partner was never choosing to give them the gift of sex, and in a situation like that, repeating, “Nobody is obligated to give you sex” does not really answer the issue. Nor is it just about sex. The post that I linked argues that it makes just as much sense to talk about withholding baking cookies for your lover, cookies being another way of expressing affection and care that is not in any way owed within a relationship. Nobody is obligated to bake you cookies, have sex with you, kiss you goodbye in the morning, stay in touch during the day, or hug you when you’re sad. And because our cultural dialogue is so warped around sex particularly, and because a lot of people do feel that there’s obligation around it, it’s really good that posts like the above are being written and spread around.

That being said, though, when we’re talking about a loving relationship, I think the whole question of obligation is a derail, if not an outright red flag. True, nobody is obligated to provide their partner with sex or cuddles or kind words or a certain amount of time, but in a loving relationship, obligation is not really the point. If my lover says, “I would like X from you,” where X is any form of attention or affection or caregiving or really anything that would meet their needs or make them feel happier, and my response is, “I don’t think I’m obligated to give you that,” that indicates that there’s a fundamental problem in the way one or both of us thinks about loving behavior.

The problem might be on my lover’s end: they might be in the habit of demanding things from me on the grounds that as their partner I am obligated to give those things. Sex. Cuddles. Making dinner. A ride to the airport. Whether they’re doing it knowingly and intentionally or not, if they tend to make requests with the attitude that it is something that I owe them, that is a problem. This is the side of things that the whole “no such thing as withholding sex” dialogue is coming from, and it’s an important one.

The problem might also be on my end: I may be using “obligation” as a handy way to justify not caring about my partner’s needs and wants. Especially if my lover is a self-effacing type who is easily convinced that they’re not worth effort and care (and so many of us have those voices within us), the exchange of, “Baby, I would love it if you did this,” “Nah, I don’t feel obligated to do that,” can completely shut down the conversation, and make my lover feel guilty for even asking.

Putting obligation behind a request is a means of coercion: it’s a way of attaching moral value to a person’s answer, which is a very coercive thing indeed for those of us who like to think of ourselves as moral. Putting obligation (or lack thereof) behind a denial is a way to make someone feel unvalued, uncared-for, and not worth the effort, while retaining the moral high ground for yourself. Nobody could fault you for saying no to something you were never obligated to do! Case closed, no need to consider further. And that does its own kind of damage.

Obligation is a distraction from the real issue, which is, “Do I feel that making you happy in this way is worth what it will cost me?*” Sometimes the answer is no, and that is an acutely uncomfortable thing to say, which is why we shy away from it and use “obligation” as a screen. We are social beings and most of us are taught that caring for others is a virtue, while refusing care in order to meet our own needs is a suspicious act that must be justified. (Women, in general, receive this message about 2-3 times as strongly as men, but everybody gets it.) Just saying, “No, I’m going to prioritize my own needs here” is incredibly difficult for most of us, and we often feel a strong impulse to justify it, by invoking obligation or another concept that gets away from the central question.

Sidebar, but an important one: some people use the “obligation” screen not because they’re uncomfortable with prioritizing their own needs, but in order to mask how little they actually care about the other’s happiness. “Caring for you isn’t worth it to me” over and over is likely to get the other person questioning why they’re even committed to the relationship, why they’re investing so much in a person who is manifestly uninterested in meeting their needs unless it’s convenient. “I’m not obligated” pushes it back on the person making the request, highlighting how unreasonable they are to keep asking for things, and encouraging them to make themselves and their needs smaller and smaller. It’s a tactic for emotional abuse, and I recommend running very fast in the other direction if you see it in play.

Back to the realm of relationships that are sincerely caring, but have some toxic beliefs swimming around (which is most relationships). It is important for everybody in a relationship to really internalize that they get to have needs and wants. That the presence of other people’s conflicting needs and wants does not obliterate their own. That it is okay to prioritize their own needs and wants, even if that means denying the other person something that they want. That my need to not have sex right now, to not make you dinner right now, to not drive out in the cold to pick you up right now, is just as valid and worthy as your desire to have me do those things. This is essential, and it’s hard to grasp.

But the conversation doesn’t end there. It can’t. Because if my needs and your needs are in conflict, at least one of us is not going to get what we want, and the way those conflicts play out makes up a goodly portion of the overall health of the relationship. For some people, bringing in obligation seems like the only way to resolve the standoff. I want X, you want not-X. Let’s ask Obligation to arbitrate and decide which of us gets what we want! But, as I said above, this just brings in an aspect of moral coercion and guilt, which is super not conducive to long-term relational and individual health. (I lived the first 25 years of my life under heavy burdens of moral coercion and guilt. I know whereof I speak.)

To resolve the situation in a way that’s going to strengthen the relationship, you have to look head-on at what’s really going on here: Person A wants something that it will cost Person B to give, and Person B is judging whether the happiness or relief it would bring to Person A is worth the cost. Sometimes the answer will be yes, and sometimes the answer will be no. Sometimes you need to do a lot of talking through the situation in order to reach the answer that will be best for both of you and the relationship. (Because this post started out talking about sex, let me point out that submitting to sex you don’t want to be having is usually very costly; a partner that is comfortable with their partner bearing that cost is likely either uncaring or unaware. On the flip side, for many, going without sex for months or years because they are in a monogamous relationship with someone who isn’t inclined to have sex with them is acutely painful. Again, a partner who is both caring and aware will not be complacent about this situation.)

While both parties may be tempted to control the outcome of this conversation, by bringing in obligation or guilt or consequences (like, “If you don’t do X, I won’t do Y for you in the future), any of these entities are going to do damage. What the conversation needs to center around is both people understanding, as deeply as possible, what the request really entails for the other person. What feelings lie behind the need, and the cost? What fears and insecurities, what unresolved baggage is attached to it? What joys and hopes and satisfactions go along with having the need met? What symbolic meanings does each person attach to this action?

The most productive conflict conversations I’ve had always happen when each of us cares deeply about the other’s happiness, and trusts that the other person cares deeply about ours. When you trust in someone else’s love for you, you don’t have to manipulate and threaten and guilt them into doing what you want. You don’t have to bring in Obligation to arbitrate. You can lay your need or wish before them, and explain to them exactly what it means to you, and you can listen to their explanation of what the cost is for them, and what that means to them. And you can work together to resolve the dilemma in a way that makes both of you feel loved and cared-for.

Another part of this is accepting that sometimes you will do something that causes your partner pain, or decline to do something that would bring them happiness. One of the valuable things about poly is that most of us have to grapple with this pretty regularly. A very few of us are lucky enough to have partners that never feel jealousy, but most of us have to cope from time to time with the fact that our new love is causing another partner some pangs. It is so, so hard to say, “I see that this is hurting you, and I choose to do it anyway,” even when that’s the choice our partner wants us to make. It is much easier to get angry with our partner for feeling hurt (I’ve done that), or to feel guilty for even wanting the other thing (I’ve done that too), or to construct sets of rules that delineate what each person has a Right or No Right to do, thus again bringing in the moral weight of obligation to distract from the reality of feelings (I’ve done that less, because I started my poly life with an experienced partner who stayed away from those pitfalls.) It is easier to do those things, but it is healthier in the long run to be able to say, “I love you, and I see your pain, and it hurts me, and I am choosing to prioritize my need in this case.” (This is made significantly easier when the partner can say, “Yes, it hurts me, but I want you to have this joy and freedom and I am willing to bear that cost.”)

Here is the final piece, and for some of us it’s the hardest: the decision has to be made together, and sincerely together, with both people’s full input. I have been in conversations that look a lot like the one I recommend two paragraphs up, where both people are talking about what they need and want and the feelings that lie behind those and seeking a mutually agreeable solution, and it seems at first glance to be a healthy discussion, but in reality one person is controlling the conversation. They may be telling the other person what they’re “really” feeling, or they may be casting the other person’s feelings as wrong or invalid or harmful, while their own are rational and correct and embody what’s best for everybody. Nae good. That’s another “run very fast in the other direction” situation.

But another, more common dynamic is that one person will look at the dilemma and decide for themselves that their need is not worth what it would cost the other person, without even expressing the need to the other person. I do this all the time, and so do most of my intimates, because we tend to be giving and self-effacing to a fault. “I want to go out tonight with Lover, but that means Spouse will be alone and sad, so I can’t.” And Spouse never even realizes that you’ve given up something you wanted for their sake. Over time, if you’re me at least, this leads to a feeling of resentment and entitlement: “I’ve made so many sacrifices for your emotional comfort!…” And you will at some point become upset when they ask you to absorb some emotional discomfort for their own enjoyment: “…how can you not be willing to make the same sacrifices for mine?” (Because they never even realized you were making the sacrifice, dumbass. Meaning me, on many past occasions.) Or you might decide abruptly that you’ve earned some guilt-free enjoyment, and get frustrated when they still express pain over your choice because OMG, can’t you ever do anything for yourself? (When, again, they didn’t even know you were choosing not to do things for yourself on other occasions, and are likely to feel some nasty whiplash at your sudden, unprecedented, and highly defensive selfishness. And yes, I’ve done that too, and it sucks.) Or, in a specifically poly context when making a sacrifice for Spouse’s sake often involves some sacrifice on Lover’s part as well, your bond with Lover may dwindle because they are never being prioritized.

Asking another person to bear some discomfort or pain or inconvenience for our sake is hard. So, so hard. I can barely bring myself to do it unless I feel completely justified (see again: Obligation and its dysfunctional uses.) But I know my loves love me, and desire my happiness, and that there will be times when they’re more than willing to absorb a little cost to see me happier. After all, I do the same for them all the time, and it’s insulting to behave as if their love is weaker than mine or their ability to handle some discomfort is lower. (Sometimes it is… but not usually as much lower as my private decisions would imply.) And I need to give them the opportunity to do that, by asking for what I want. And I need to do it in good faith, without invoking rules and justifications and obligations. If I am truly loved, the fact of my feelings, my needs, my wishes and hopes and desires, is enough to make them at least consider giving me what I want. And if they decide the cost is too high for them, it’s not because I don’t deserve happiness or because it was wrong of me to even ask: it’s because sometimes, the cost is too high. That’s okay. By talking out our different needs and feelings, we both understand each other better, and can continue to love each other well.

*This sentence is adjusted slightly from the originally-published version, which read, “Do I care enough about making you happy in this way to accept what it will cost me?” Midnight Insomnia Brain threw out the revised sentence, which is a better expression of what I mean.

Family as a Ka-tet: The Dark Tower as a lesson in living well August 4, 2014

Posted by shaunphilly in Skepticism and atheism.
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dt7-12So, I really love the Dark Tower series. I’ve read the books twice (I read the first three before the 4th came out, then read them again when the fourth came out, and then all of them again before book 7 came out). I’ve listened to the audio books, twice, and am listening to them again on my work commute. I’m currently on book three.

I also own some of the graphic novels, but am more interested in the earlier ones, which filled in the gaps of the story, rather than the ones which re-tell the story in graphic novel form. I’m not a huge fan of the graphic novel style, and prefer the details of the books.

As I was listening to the audio book this morning, something occurred to me. There are many reasons I love the story, the universe, and even how it ended (I know many people don’t like many things about how it ended, or even the direction Stephen King went with the later books), but something else poked it’s head out at me about the series which has, perhaps unconsciously, created a set of expectations about how the concept of family has formed for me.

I will not give any major spoilers, but if you plan of reading the books, graphic novels, etc in the future and don’t want to be spoiled at all, skip this.

 

Ka-tet, Vulnerability, and Family

Starting in book 2, we start seeing the formation of Roland’s little pack of gunslingers, on their way to the Dark Tower. We meet them, as they are drawn into Roland’s world through detailed and often deeply life-altering ways which expose the dark corners of these characters. Each character has to confront major personal struggles in order to find their way on the path of the beam, and each of them finds inner strengths through their adventure together.  It is a metaphor, I believe, for the intimacy which people must share to truly be a part of another’s world, at least as much as we can be a part of each-other’s world.

This is a story of people drawn together by what in the mythology of the universe calls ka, and is related to the concept of fate. As they become entangled into ka’s web, they become ka-tet.  They are more than friends, more than family, and they are intimately connected in ways that only the closest of friends, family, etc ever reach. Any of us are lucky if we ever have one person who gets this close, and some people may have a few people who become as close as these travelers become in Stephen King’s fantasy.

darktowerkatet

If you understand why this image pangs my heart, remember well all the times you find true love and success, and say thankee sai

They, in short, are completely vulnerable with each other, sharing their lives, thoughts, minds, and bodies with each other in ways which defy distance and secrets (as well as actual possibility; it is fantasy, after all). In the end, they are as close as people can be to each other. There are moments of anger, regret, arguing, intimacy, victory….and defeat. But whether they will all reach their goal or not, whether their heart-breaking story ends well or not, all the while they were together, they were vulnerable and intimate with each other in ways that draw me closer to them, and has inspired me to become closer to the people I love, especially myself.

They were all in, withholding nothing.

 

Taking lessons from fantasy and real research

Related to this, I have just started reading Brene Brown’s Daring Greatly at the recommendation of a friend, who daring greatly, recently reached out to us to reconnect. This book, and other resources of my continuing project of allowing myself to simultaneously find my inner ability to love myself and make myself more open, intimate, and vulnerable to other people, are stepping stones to a better me and a better life. And as I was reflecting on these things over the last few days, I suddenly became aware of another facet of love I have for Stephen King’s magnum opus of a series; the concept of ka-tet.

The characters in this story of The Dark Tower are imperfect, complicated, and all have traumatic personal stories. They overcome shadowy pasts of various kinds to find within themselves strengths that they needed each other to cultivate.  They have all made mistakes, have the capability to do so again, but their relationships are built upon a level of sharing and honesty which has few parallels in our culture. This leads to a level of trust, respect, and love which acts as a mysterious goal of my own–a destination not unlike Roland’s Tower.

We, in this culture, are not trained to be vulnerable, and so when we see true vulnerability we may admire it but find it difficult to do ourselves. Vulnerability, like responsibility, is an attribute admired in others and feared in ourselves. In reading Brene Brown’s book, I’m seeing that the values which our culture holds in esteem are counter-productive for mental, interpersonal, or social health. These are concepts I have been aware of, at many levels, for many years, but seeing it articulated in such a compact, vulnerable, and honest way is refreshing and perhaps a little bit of a slap to the face.

In a world (this real word) where there are no gods, no actual ka, and no Dark Tower weaving our fate, what are we to do? There is no actual ka-tet; no overarching and unavoidable power forcing us together in circumstances where intimacy is almost unavoidable. We will not literally experience the inner minds of others in order to draw them to our world, like with The Dark Tower’s second book, but we might be able to take a few pages from book three onward into our own lives.  Whether it is shared traumatic experiences, overcoming uncertainty and fear of our capabilities, or facing death together there are things which we, as real people, can relate to in book three and many other examples of literature, mythology, etc.

JericoHill-HileForwardIn walking our own paths towards our goals, we find ourselves together and have a desire, almost a need, to share our stories, find strengths and skills encouraged by each other, and to dare (greatly) to achieve successes together we will inevitably create bonds. These bonds may be rare, but however many of these deep bonds you have in your life, for your father’s sake appreciate them and cultivate them well. This is what family is. This is the only refuge of the meaningless, cold, empty universe which cares not if you are happy, sad, or bored. It is only with the people we walk the path with that make the difference between living well and living poorly.

There is a moment, I believe it is in the early chapters of book three (it’s all a blur), where Roland is thinking to himself about what he has done (there was a boy!/there was not a boy!) and the tension for his quest for the tower and the relationships he is forming. He is reminiscing how many have fallen next to him in his quest. In a sense, he has sacrificed them all, and this haunts him. He’s thinking about the balance for the ultimate goal and how he treats the people who walk with him.

It occurs to him that this developing ka-tet provides him with an opportunity for redemption, to change his ka. Whether he succeeds in this redemption is up for debate, but the moment of realization holds powerful emotional potency for me. He stands at a cross-roads, of sorts, looking back at the many people lost in his path of the Tower. He has sacrificed so many others for his quest, and the moment when he becomes aware that he’s gathering more sacrifices, like a snowball rolling down a hill gathers more snow, he decides not to be a monster. For if he were to become that monster, he would sacrifice everything that his quest represents.

Would he hurl his friends, like weapons, at anything in his path? Will his ka-tet be another means to his ends? Such is the future; all of our futures. The ends, he realizes, do not justify the means. Utility, consequentialism, and all other mere goals are not enough to rationalize the path he could take. He recognizes that in the quest for his goal, he is almost certain that these people will almost certainly die like his Hawk, David, which he chose as a weapon in his very first step in the direction of the Tower (whether he knew it then, or not).  But he decides, in that moment, that he will not use his new ka-tet as mere tools, as weapons. He will make them partners, and share a goal with them.

All the while knowing that they may all die, in this quest. As we all, eventually, will.

 

Stopping to smell the crimson roses

tower_rosesIf you have not read The Dark Tower, but you want to, I want to alert you to something. There is a point, late in the last book (book 7), where Stephen King gives you a choice. He tells you to stop reading. But before this, earlier in the book, he also asks you to stop and appreciate a moment of victory. He reminds you to stop, take a look around, appreciate the circumstances you (because you’re invested in his characters, hopefully) are in, before moving on. Later, he simply asks you to stop reading.

In both cases, you have a choice. In the first, the choice is whether you will take a break in your reading at that point and reflect on the gathered ka-tet and appreciate them, or simply turn the page. Later, your choice is whether to keep reading at all. King actually suggests, knowing you will almost certainly not do so, you to put the book away and not finish the story. The reasons for this are not important for us here (it’s also a spoiler), but it is this kind of moment which stands stark against the wall of eternity, for me.

We need to stop, occasionally, and recognize what we have in our lives. We need to halt, take stock, and appreciate when there is something to appreciate, so that we can look back later and see those moments for what they were; beauty, love, and good feelings. But there may also come a time, in our stories, where there may be nothing left to see. There may be times when you should put the book away.

And yet we do not, much of the time.

The first time I read book 7, I actually did put the book down, and didn’t continue immediately. I thought, seriously, about taking the advice and not finishing the book. I walked away, thought about it, but inevitably picked it up again. I wanted to know, needed to know–burned to know–what would happen. Many uncertainties and blind-spots in my life are represented by this metaphor, and no matter how much I might know that it’s better to walk away, I feel the pull of curiosity and (sometimes) hope. What happened next in the book, in both cases where I paused, was hard to read even if it was necessary and compelling.

We all have our Dark Towers to climb, I suppose. Perhaps it is better to not open that door, when we get to it. Perhaps we would all be happier if we simply took in the sight of reaching our destination, then moved on. But as Eve learned (metaphorically, of course), the fruit is too tempting. And just like Eve, warned against tasting the fruit, no matter how long you may be warned against the consequences of such an action, eventually, in all of eternities (and eternal returns; yes, even Nietzsche is relevant to The Dark Tower) you will eat the fruit, open that door, and climb that Tower.

Imagine Eve, obediently avoiding the fruit for years, decades, millennia! Eventually, curiosity will get the better of her. Imagine a reader, at the end of a 7 book series, poised at the edge of the secrets of the story and never finishing it (I imagine at least a few have done so…so far). Gods! No creature capable of curiosity can withstand such a temptation forever, if forever were given to us. In eternities contains all things, I suppose.

We want to know. We want to understand. We can avoid looking for a while, but eventually, we must peek.

tet2I see the inner lives of people the same way. My tower is understanding, of myself and of others with whom I  walk the path of the beam. Many have been lost from my path, whether through death, enmity, or because we were questing for different Towers, ultimately (“Go then. There are other worlds than these”). And each meeting and separation is a moment of choice, where we have the choice of putting the book down or to turn the page. Sometimes, I turn the page and experience the heart-break that follows, and sometimes I put the book down. Sometimes, I turn the page and find my tower where intimacy, vulnerability, and love welcome me in. And perhaps, worst of all, sometimes I put the book down, and leave the hope of all that is beautiful behind.

We don’t know what is inside each Tower, and whether we open them, walk away, or stand with curious grasps at the handle to that great door with indecision, those moments tell our stories. I look forward to the many quests for towers I will find, and I hope that those who walk the path with me will not sacrifice me, or be sacrificed by me, on the way to their own towers, because that way lies madness. Because we are the only real towers, dark or not. All the other towers are illusions, idyllic distractions, and ultimately vanity.

Just like the Dark Tower series, the beauty is in the quest itself, not any hypothetical goal. All the goal will do, ultimately, is put us back on the path where we will either make the same choices or try something else. As Nietzsche observed, if we look at any moment in our lives as a metaphor for all choices, as an option to do this again, eternally, how would we behave? With such a perspective, does the goal matter? If we are forced to reflect on this life and all its choices, would we do the same? As we approach each Dark Tower, each person, will we open it? Will we walk the path with them? Will we hurl them as weapons? Will we sacrifice them for something else?

There is only one final destination we will all approach, either suddenly or with clear foresight. That “clearing at the end of the path” is the only goal we all must travel to, and no Tower lies there. But what friends, family, and ka-tet we bring with us to the edge of that clearing will allow us to look back at our lives with the complexity and unambiguous reality. What we see there may cause us pain, a smile, and most likely both.

It’s only what happens before that which matters. Make the most of it.

We are not all swimming in the same river October 26, 2013

Posted by shaunphilly in Skepticism and atheism.
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When I was younger, I really wanted to be wise.  I had a vision of me being the kind of person that when I became old, other people would respect me and come to for life advice.  I was fascinated by books such as the Dao de Jing, by the historical character of Confucius, by Socrates, and many other figures who are considered wise.  I tried to cultivate a cultured and educated manner.  I tried to be intellectual. It was not all pretense; in fact, it was mostly genuine, if not sophomoric and (as Gina would say) “full of shit.”

Over the last few years, I have begun to understand this drive from a different point of view.  I have come to realize that this motive comes from a combination of the desire to be loved, respected, and to not become the kind of person that people avoid, rather than come to.  In short, it was a reaction that people often had to me, and for good reason.  There are people who are no longer friends of mine and who want little to do with me, and in many cases the fault is mostly mine.

When I was introduced to the concept of Borderline Personality Disorder by a therapist a few years back, it led to a set of realizations.  When I was younger, back when I wanted to be wise, I was struggling with feelings of confusion, fear, and guilt about my erratic behavior.  Other people didn’t fly off the handle, yelling and throwing things, when they got angry.  Something was wrong with me, but I didn’t know what it was.  I wanted to be the opposite of out of control, so I wanted to be a symbol of control.  I didn’t want to be seen for what I was (a violent and unpredictable boy with a tendency to be moody and sullen), I wanted to be seen for what I valued (intelligent, rational, calm, and likable).   So why was it so hard for me to do so, when it seemed so easy for so many other people?

Because I am swimming in a different river.

And as I started to reflect on this over the last few years, another angle of this became clear.  It was struggling just for normal, acceptable, behavior.  It wasn’t so much that I wanted to be some wise guru, living on a mountain (perhaps next door to Zarathustra) who everyone respected, it was that I was struggling against a current that other people didn’t experience.  I was simply trying to appear normal while struggling frequently.

But before I started to understand this, I had built up so much resentment, anger, and frustration at seeing other people so easily deal with emotionally trying circumstances (compared to what I often did, anyway).  I didn’t understand that they weren’t actually succeeding in struggling against the an overwhelming current of virulent emotions like  I was.  I didn’t understand that such a current of emotions was rare for them, rather than constant and overpowering.  But I was so angry, ostensibly at them but really at myself, about it that it has led to many deep wounds and scars that I still have work to understand.  There is still work to do.

See, for so long I thought that at some moral fault, rather than simply dealing with a shitty situation.  I thought that when I got angry and made a scene, I was the only one in the room who had not succeeded in stifling the urges.  I thought everyone else around me was struggling with these feelings, and doing it better than I.  And so I strove for that power to restrain and repress it, to appear calm while hurricanes blew in my head, and to appear calm.  And so I built invisible armor for myself, holding in the feelings i assumed everyone else was having and restraining as well.

And I did this for years, until it became habit.  I did it for a long time, with periodic explosions as the armor shattered against the pressure.

Anyone who meets me for the first time will probably assume I’m relatively non-emotional.  I’ve been told this by many people, including some ex-girlfriends (before i started to become comfortable with my emotions, which is still a struggle) even up until quite recently.  I appear robotic, hyper-rational, and even cold sometimes.  It is a defense mechanism that I have built over many years, and deconstructing that wall is not easy.  It may take the rest of my life to do so, assuming I ever can.

(I hope I can)

But now I understand that most people aren’t walking around with a chaotic storm within them.  Most people don’t have frighteningly violent thoughts several times a day, aimed at people who are guilty for minor annoyances.  Most people aren’t swimming against a current that sometimes takes all of their mental fortitude to not be pushed back by or drowned in (because depression is a thing).

And yes, there is another side to this.  There is the overwhelming feeling of love and intimacy that I am capable of as well.  Of course, the problem is that especially in the beginning of a relationship, it is terrifying to show this.  I’m afraid that, much like the potential harm I am capable of, the level of intimacy I can show would be too much for someone, especially when things are new.  I’m afraid of pushing people away.  i was, in some past selves, the guy who was too into that girl after one date.

But you know what is even more terrifying, to me than all of that? Intimacy with other men.  And, I know, this is common in our culture.  I also know that part of this is due to my relationship with my own father, who is a sort of foil for me (the Darth Vader to my Luke Skywalker, as I sometimes think of it).  Men are hard because they reflect myself too much.  I see the same fear in them that I show, and I hate it because I hate that part of myself.  I hate that we keep doing it, and that I don’t know how to fix it.

It’s easier with women, because the sexual and romantic feelings open the door to other kinds of intimacy.  Perhaps it would be easier if I were bisexual.  Perhaps not.  But either way, this lack of intimacy can lead to the problem of relying too heavily on sexual and romantic desires becoming too prominent when befriending women, but for the most part I have been fairly good at mitigating this.  But with other men?

Terrifying.

I have no interest in the machismo game of our culture.  I don’t want to play dominance games, and usually simply avoid them for the sake of peace and not escalating into a situation where I will very likely lose control of my temper (which, to macho men, probably seems like weakness.  But man is it hard sometimes…).  I am a little amused by such games, but I feel more sadness at it.  I feel sad because it is so often the source of the barriers that men put up between each other, this machismo and dominance games.  Sometimes I’ll walk away with a smirk, feeling superior for not playing, and other times I walk away feeling angry, for ‘letting them win.’  Neither are the right attitude, I don’t think.

I think the right attitude is to come away from such things feeling sad that another path could not have been taken.  I think that in such games, nobody really wins.  I don’t win by being emotionally superior, and they don’t win for having me back down.  There simply is no winning there, only loss on both sides.

So, have I become wise? Will I ever be wise? I don’t know.  At this point, I find the whole question to be a rationalization for a conceit.  That isn’t to say that I no longer care about being wise, but that this caring is fading over time.

I hope, one day, that I can stop trying to be wise, so that perhaps I can just be content whether I’m wise or not.

ah, just more conceit….