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I love that moment of reconnection, of mutual smiles of pleasure, when I meet my husband or my daughters or my friends again. It is a recognition of my self in the Other, and of the Other in my self that is deeply affirmative. We exist in each other.
Yesterday I collected my daughter from the station after a long day’s work experience at a veterinary hospital. I left the car and stood at the ticket barrier, scanning the steady stream of people coming through for my daughter, looking out for her bright blonde hair. And recollecting the moment I saw her now, I smile. Short words of greeting, a touch on the shoulder, and we walk to the car together and make for home. As we drive, her day pours out of her. All that she has done from the food she bought at Marks & Spencer at the station to the friendly veterinary surgeon who proceeded every request for a scalpel with a “please”, to the cat whose throat muscles had to be cut and reconnected whilst removing a cancerous tumour, to the geeky trainees vets with childish fringes and flowery clips in their hair.
For now the traffic is all in one direction. Her news being downloaded into my memory. Afterwards she will listen while I tell her about my (first) experience of a physiotherapist. How the electrical pulses in my arm produced endorphins so quickly, how my tolerance of the pain increased so dramatically, how the pain subsided. How the pain in one part of my arm was caused by another part of my arm not functioning properly and so how the first pain is only a symptom of the second.
And so we each are enlarged by the experience of the Other.
My husband comes home, and we sit with a glass of wine in the courtyard outside our back door, and there is more toing and froing. Like synching an iPod, I think. Until everything he has done is part of me, and everything I have done is part of him, and the screen tells us we can eject the device. Our daughter sits with us, and re-tells her stories to her father, and he tells us about meeting up with our younger daughter’s friend and bringing her home and trying to get her to help with the crossword. He shares some of the clues he found difficult, some that she didn’t get and were obvious. And so it goes on.
This need to have a witness to our lives goes to our core, to our very existence. There are many times when my family and I experience things together, at the same time. Then I want to tell someone outside. I cannot tell my husband that I went to a play yesterday if he came with me. I cannot tell my daughter that someone almost broke into our house if she was woken up too.
Parents often continue to perform this function for as long as they are alive. I haven’t got any parents who are alive or interested, so I need a friend as a witness instead. A good friend who will listen, who will hear us and let us know that we have been heard. Who will affirm our existence outside the family. Who will encourage us to share ourselves. Who will show interest. Who will ask questions.
I am not alone in my needs, but it is a need that I am very aware of. It is probably a need that was not adequately fulfilled when I was younger. My mother never seemed to hear me. My voice was never heard, but often batted back unlistened to. There was no empathy, no ability to get alongside me, and, as a result, I struggle with the need to be heard.
I found this:
Heinz Kohut, Vienna born, Chicago transplanted psychoanalyst conceptualized the concept of a psychology of the self. Kohut posits humans, beginning at birth, need to be empathically ‘heard’ and have a ‘mirroring’ effect in order to develop a strong and healthy sense of self. Here are the guidelines for measuring empathic listening–communication.
0 – Unresponsive–The person shows little interest in others–merely waits for their turn to speak.
1 – Indirectly unresponsive–The person makes a cliché response–“You shouldn’t feel that way…” “I am sorry to hear that….” etc.
2 – Free associating, self referential–“Oh, yeah, that reminds me of the time when I….”
3 – Free associating–The person goes off on a tangent, making only indirect reference to what you said.
4 – Impersonal, non-nurturing–“Yeah, that’s the way the cookie crumbles….” “That’s too bad.”
5 – Superficial–“Yeah, I know what you mean.” Then diverting the conversation to him/herself.
6 – Neutral–The person indicates she/he heard what you said, but does not encourage you to expand upon your statement.
7 – Responsive–The person indicates she/he heard and encourages you to expand. Expansion is created by asking in-depth questions.
8 – Resonant–The person indicates she/he resonates with what you say and shows through questions and body language that she/he is interested in hearing about what you experienced.
Last week, before I read this list, I was experimenting. Sometimes I meet someone – I might call them a friend – and we converse, and I listen. I generally give people an 8. After the conversation has ended I realise that they have given me a 0, and I feel sad.
Being me, I wondered whether this was my fault. Perhaps I did not volunteer the information myself. How could I expect people to hear me if I did not speak?
So I took one guinea pig who always wants me to listen, and, instead, I began by talking about things I had done. Nothing. Brick wall. All my balls bounced back. No questions. No interest. So I won’t be playing with her again.
Another “friend” blew me out for the third time in a row, and then sent me a long email about all her troubles with no sincere apology and no interest in me. I gave her a 4 – “Things can only get better” – because there was no point wasting an 8 on her.
I realised that I am generally very good at judging what response I am likely to get, and that is why I often stay silent. It hurts less to say nothing than to get a “0” when you need an “8”. But I am much less good at keeping my precious resources for those who will feed me in return, and so I allow myself to be bled dry. I give out what I wanted my mother so much to give me. An 8. But she could only ever manage a “4” at best.
“Lift not the painted veil which those who live / Call Life”
My philosophy tutor recommended The Painted Veil a year or so ago. I finally watched the film yesterday and have been mulling things over since then. The film is adaptation of a novel by W. Somerset Maugham and is set in the 1920s.
It is perhaps simplifying things too much, but it does tend to be the case that we find we make relationships with people who either “complete” us in that they are very different to us and have what we lack. Or we choose as our friends those who are quite like us. What we like in them is what we like in ourselves.
It is likely to be true that the latter friendships are less problematic, less challenging. For, although it is possible to conceive of the former as entirely positive relationships of completion, it is also true that those friends or partners represent those characteristics which we would like for ourselves and do not possess. We can find ourselves in an internal battle in relation to those people where one part of ourselves (how we are) fights the other aspirational part (how we wish we were). These relations of opposites can also feel sublime as one defective half merges with another half and the two make one. Seducing as this is, it is like two birds, each with a broken wing, trying to fly together.
The Painted Veil is the story of an unlikely couple with a beginning that does not bode well. She is being pushed out of her family nest, her mother irritated by her indolence. He wants to escape his internal island. The background is a cholera-infected China where every British ex-pat is an exaggeration of the types found at home.
He is a self-contained doctor who lives for his work. And how virtuous that is. Saving lives, no room for anything else. She is a warm, sexual party animal who enjoys tennis games and wafting around uselessly in beautiful clothes. They have nothing in common. Abandoned, a work widoew, she is adulterous, finding a steaming lover; he is just as unfaithful to her. For he has no regard for her. He is not interested in her. He does not see her except as His Wife. He cannot see beyond to the person she is, to her needs. They are two strangers parading a paper marriage that is too fragile to last.
Yet only her lack of virtue is criticized. She is the shallow, superficial one. She is the one who wastes time. She is the one who lacks a vocation or a cause whilst he haunts the ghastly wards of cholera hospitals doing important good things. He is the embodiment of The Good Man as, eventually, she discovers when her boredom drives her into his world.
She moves towards him and he then begins to see his own brand of virtue reflected in her and falls in love all over again, but this time with his own reflection. Stupefied by drugs and in mad bout of sexual passion, they find each other. And then he dies.
So, it’s a bit like the insects that mate once and then die. The bliss of union is too much to be borne without the self dissolving. Somerset Maugham wrote
“I have most loved people who cared little or nothing for me and when people have loved me I have been embarrassed… In order not to hurt their feelings, I have often acted a passion I did not feel.”
He could have been describing the two characters in The Painted Veil. And yet the film hints at a moment when the dance of distancing and pursuing is resolved and, for a short moment, there is stasis.