Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Thank you, Mrs. Spit


Read history, thus learn how small a space

You may inhabit, nor inhabit long

In crowding Cosmos — in that confined place

Work boldly; build your flimsy barriers strong;

Turn round and round, make warm your nest; among

The other hunting beasts, keep heart and face, —

Not to betray the doomed and splendid race

You are so proud of, to which you belong.

For trouble comes to all of us: the rat

Has courage, in adversity, to fight;

But what a shining animal is man,

Who knows, when pain subsides, that is not that,

For worse than that must follow — yet can write

Music; can laugh; play tennis; even plan.

Edna St. Vincent Millet

Mrs. Spit may not realize what a rabbit-hole she sent me down when she mused to me about 'the Problem of Suffering.' She articulated a concept that I've experienced, but was never able to find words for. I feel as if I've suddenly been gifted with a new language, one that permits expression of emotion which isn't permitted by my native tongue.

In some sense this absolutely was a test - in the sense that a test is often, at some level, binary in nature. A test is the idea of choosing. And so when I ask "why her, and not me?", it is obviously a test in that I have to accept that I probably would have been a good mum, and she was, at least in the brief moment I saw her, a bad mum. And she had 2 children, and I have none. There is a test in the idea that she has, unjustly what I want.

And that leaves me with a few options. Perhaps it's my political science and philosophy, but I am reminded of the problem of pain, as CS Lewis put it. Pain leaves us in a place where we either have to accept there is no God, because there is pain, There is a God, but he doesn't care about us, and has left off active participation in the universe, and that's why there is pain, or that there is God and there is pain, and the reasons and explanations of how both exist defy my explanation--Mrs. Spit

Instantly I'm reminded of Schrodinger's cat, in Schrodinger's box, where the cat is either alive, or dead. The situation is binary in nature. But...there is that place--before we look, where he either is, or isn't, alive or dead.

I think it's beyond the power of the human mind to conceive. When I contemplate it and try to juxtapose the two, I get a sensation of two like poles of a magnet repelling each other.

It's the collision of 'what is' with 'what should be'. The fact of a Basic Need, denied. By 'basic' I mean inherent: something we are born into this world programmed to expect. Food, water, shelter, touch, intimacy. When these needs are denied, either by being withheld or simple absence, our need doesn't go away. What 'should be' is that humans' basic needs be met. 'What is' is frequently the barrier our needs hurl us against, again and again.

I've met this place, over and over again, in the most mundane of circumstances, to the most profound. How many among us have been stuck on hold on the phone, awaiting answer to a pressing question, loath to hang up and go to the back of the queue, but caught between: "they're never coming back--my call has been dropped" and "They're about to pick up any second and if I hang up now I'll miss it"? For me it can be excruciating to be in that place between.

This place appears in my dreams. I've dreamed about going to Sharon, my counselor, with something important to tell her, and there are people there. I am caught in the space between where it is unacceptable for me to speak intimately in the presence of these people--yet it is unacceptable to leave without sharing these thoughts with her. I've dreamed of being kept waiting in restaurants, where the wait becomes unacceptable yet leaving and finding another restaurant seems futile too. Maybe my turn is next and I'd be leaving just before I'd get what I was waiting for. Very trivial inconveniences in a world of profound losses and suffering--yet what's in common is the tension between a need (on), and the lack of its fulfillment (off).

And perhaps it is this tension, this very suffering that carries the transformative potential. Perhaps this is the place where light hits a lens, and emerges transformed from the other side. A kind of beauty in its splintering. This is where atoms transform into molecules, where the gap is bridged between the two.

It seems to me to be human is to experience this place as a consequence of living. The posts I've been writing about frustration in children are descriptions of this place. We've encountered it early, and often, from the breast that doesn't arrive when we want it, to the toy some other child has just walked away with, to squirming from the discomfort and boredom of being trapped in a long line, and so on.

It occurs to me, that this is the Place that's pivotal to our ability to move on in our development as human beings, to borrow a concept also first posed by Mrs. Spit. She proposed it, and I've been running with it ever since. The usual response to childish frustration is to punish it, patronize it, attempt to gratify it. We learned early that part of growing up is learning to manage the feelings that happen in our bodies when something blocks fulfillment of a heart's desire. Some of us learned that our expressions of pain inconvenienced people who matter, and we were considered to be maturing to the extent that we could keep unpleasant emotions to ourselves and not bother anyone with them.

We are most often left alone in that excruciating place, with no skills to cope with the painful feelings there.

And it occurs to me that this is the place we need someone to abide with us. This is what we need from other human beings, and when we receive it, we grow. We need someone there to model the transformative power of these overwhelming feelings. This is part of the very foundation of our Souls. Incident by incident, having someone to abide with us in that binary place lays down a solid Self from which we emerge and stand; from which we launch ourselves into the world. Without it we still develop and grow, but there is a core hollowness in those bricks that build our infrastructure. Most of us carry this hollowness inside.

Oftentimes people marvel at the Power of having someone abide with them when they are suffering loss, and pain: not trying to fix the pain, or minimize it, but just be there as Witness. It is powerful because it fills a deeper need than Doing ever could.

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