5.12.2014

Negotiating the Abyss Between Us

Recently, my son has been experiencing some intense anxiety. He usually rolls easy. He's funny, talkative, popular, socially adept. But his aunt died this past Fall and he witnessed his father's ugly grief and now the boy is wrestling this thing called life and death.

As his father, it's very hard to watch. I see his pain, his fear, his sadness and I want so desperately to quiet his storm, remedy his suffering. I think of all the things I could say that might be the salve (and the solve), those magic words that will sort his pain into bliss, redistribute his anxiety into peace.

And so I say this and then that. I try to be so so loving, understanding. Then I try to be firm and stern. Then I try to explain rationally. Then I offer some big picture philosophy. Then I get angry. Needless to say, none of this works. In fact, the more I come at him with suggestions, words, concepts, punishments and rewards, the more anxiety he experiences. 

Alas, it is not a problem I can fix. This is all him — his life, his body, his mind, his psyche, his issues. Sure, he's only 10 but that's irrelevant. He is his own person. I can't make him be calm, make him understand, make him eat. I can encourage and discourage but I can't force squat.

What's absurd is that I feel like I caused his angst — my ugliness, my poor parenting, the way I wailed and moaned and snapped as I watched my sister die. No kid — no person — should have had to witness that. The fact that I had to witness it was awful enough.

But just as I can't fix my boy, I didn't cause this, either. Sure, he's responding to me, to his environment. How could it be otherwise? But I didn't cause it per se as that would be impossible. He responds as he responds. Yes, we're always already interacting with the world, always connected, but we are alone in the moment of response, alone in how we react. That responsibility lies with each of us.

This is one reason I am not a fan of a certain psychoanalytic discourse: the all too popular notion that our parents are to blame. Sure, our parents are to blame for various things — for yelling, over indulging, hovering, ignoring, beating. Which is to say, they are to blame for their actions. But they are not to blame for how we respond, for how we are now. That is on you, on me, on all of us. 

Anyone who has ever taught knows this abyss, this yawning gap, between people. This is what inspired Socrates' great epistemological dilemma: How can a teacher ever teach anything new? If it were new, how could the student even know how to ask a question about it? How could the student get even the slightest foothold into grasping the material? If the teacher were teaching anything truly new, it would pass the student by, invisible. We can't make students learn; that is something they have to do on their own. 

None of this is to say we are fundamentally alone. That would be silly as we are all connected, necessarily. It is to say, however, that we are alone in our responses, that no one can finally fix you or teach you anything. You can only learn on your own, by yourself.

There is something, however, I can do for my son. I can not try to say the right thing. I can not try to dissuade him in his anxious reasoning. I can let him be. I can stand back calmly, gently, and simply be there with him as a peaceful presence. 

I say "simply" but, man o man, it's hard. Everything in me screams that I screwed him up so I need to fix him. Everything in me keeps screaming to try something. Everything in me keeps searching for an answer, for the answer, for that magic sentence or magic pill or magic action that will dissipate his pain. 

But that's not the way communication between people works. I can say all kinds of things but, usually, those words will either make the situation worse or else drift into the ether. I need to communicate through my actions, not through actions I do to him. I need to be chill, cool, calm, collected. I need to provide the environment for him to find his peace. I need to model the behavior of calm, not feed his anxiety with my own anxious search for a salve. 

This is for teachers, too. I could explain all kinds of wacky ideas to my students, explicate esoteric texts word by word. And that might be nifty. But, in the end, I realized that it was not my job to teach them Deleuze or Nietzsche, that teaching such things is impossible. All I could really do is model a certain relationship to books and ideas, model a certain joy in thinking and writing and talking with ideas. I had to stand back rather than lean into them (I was always terrible at that.)

I want to turn to words to explain myself, to solve problems, to teach students and lovers and friends and parents. But that is egotistical of me, narcissistic. And, more importantly, ineffective. The best communication is to stand back, shut up, and live a life of peace.  

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