Friday, June 18, 2010

An old debate

Several years ago my FIL sent us this video.  What was remarkable to me was seeing what really happens.  I had no idea that the water inside the balloon retains the overall shape of the balloon, even as it falls.  It amazed me to see the speed with which the "skin", the latex, contracts, leaving the water naked.  I remembered basic high school science when we talked about "adhesion", and "cohesion."  Adhesion is the quality of one substance adhering to a different substance, like water drops on a wall.  Cohesion is the force that holds like elements together, like the water in that balloon.

So what defines an object?  Its "skin", or the turgor of what presses against the skin?  The skin proves structure and shape, but the interior also shapes the skin in pushing against it.  It reminds me of the argument about form vs substance.  It's also a metaphor for the debate about externals vs internals ("Beauty is only skin deep").

I've mused about this off and on over the years, and sometimes find situations in life that exemplify that conflict:  the container, or what it contains?

I know a woman who I thought I was on the way to a deep friendship with.  After a time though, I found myself more reluctant to pick up the phone to call her.  I noticed a sinking inside when there'd be a message from her obligating me to call her back.

So I tried to track down the source of this resistance.  And I realized that I didn't like a feeling I had when I was with her.  As a mother, one of my relief valves is to air my perplexity at my childrens' behavior.  I love to hear the thoughts of most of the mothers I'm friends with, who often have some insight and enrich my perspective.  I realized with this mother, though, that the quality of conversation was different.  She would advise me, tell me what I "needed" to be doing.

I had not been asking for help.  And I sensed it would be very uncomfortable if I was to say so.  Something in her tone, her body language, seemed to send a message that 'no' was not an option.  This is a feeling I've often sensed from my MIL when she'd give gifts or offer favors.  Essentially she was asking us the favor of allowing her to feel generous by accepting whatever she was offering.  Except it wasn't an offer; the feeling was it was mandatory to "accept", and the consequences of not would be her feelings would be hurt and it would be our fault.

I used to wonder if it was something mean-spirited in me that caused me to feel that initial revulsion when she gave us something she wanted us to have (newspaper articles, magazine articles she'd clipped and written notes on).  How could I feel that way about someone who only wanted to share of herself?

I think the key is in the nature of the threat.  The threat is that she will be 'hurt' if we don't do as she asks.  She has an image of herself, a role, as it were, that she needs supporting actors to reinforce.  Therefore, her actions in character require corresponding actions of people around her.  Particularly the ones she's related to.  Furthermore the role requires not letting on that you know your role is to bolster her sense of self esteem.

There was a similar feeling with my friend.  She wanted to help, but her helping required me to be one-who-needs-to-be-helped.  Maybe it's more accurate to say she wanted to be a helper.  She too, has a role for herself that requires complementary responses on the part of Others.  I think in both of these situations, my MIL, and my former (now distanced) friend, there is a sense that not acting accordingly is an existential threat--their very self-concept is threatened.

I have dear friends who don't require a role from me to support an image of themselves.  These are people I can easily say 'no' to, if necessary.  There isn't a feeling of impending catastrophe if I do.  All that is required of me is that I treat them decently and respectfully, and keep my agreements.

I believe it is the life within me that pushes out against my skin, that gives me substance and solidity.  Press against me, and you feel a response, that of my life responding to yours.  This kind of life force can no longer be constrained into a role that is too small for it, in order to protect someone else.

Form gives shape to substance, and substance gives meaning to form.  The relationship between the two is what is essential.


Wordgirl said...

God Ex,

I love your writing -- the depth and thoughtful sustains me in my otherwise desert-like intellectual surroundings lately.

It's summer (ugh) and so I'm balancing a ten year old at home with another ten year old over to play and trying to keep a baby napping so I want to comment again when I've reread and thought about this -- but I just wanted you to know I was here.



Sheri said...

This is a very thoughtful post. I related to the part about feeling revulsion about being given something from your MIL. You asked: "How could I feel that way about someone who only wanted to share of herself?"

My MIL does this as well. And although I believe her outward intentions are good, I perceive a message that says, "you could be a better person if you knew what this article contained."

Note too that my feelings began after one of her first visits when she cut out and left an article about how to clean up clutter. Ug!

Great writing. Thanks for the insights.

excavator said...


no kidding, ug!!! It would have been different had you asked. Funny how this kind of rudeness is supposed to be excused, yet letting on in any way that she had been out of bounds is forbidden. I would augment the message to read "you could be a better person like me if you knew what this article contained."

And this was on one of her first visits? Way to make yourself welcome again next time!

(I hope your hubby is supportive of you in things like this)

Quiet Dreams said...

I have also experienced that feeling of guilt when I have been uneasy with someone or not "liked" them as much as I thought I should. And, yes, it is generally when boundaries aren't clear.

Wonderful post.