Tuesday, March 16, 2010


As I start to speak, I watch her face go blank. Her face has grown more expressive, more revealing, with age. She used to be able to keep an expression of bright interest through several of my sentences. Now it goes dull at once. I finish speaking as quick as I decently can, and normal conversation resumes. But anyway, I've done my duty; I've been sociable. If I say one or two more things in the course of the evening everyone can say it's been a good time. She has never actually wanted to hear anything I say, of course, but it does make me a little melancholy, having it made so obvious.

I'm the wrong son for her. Slow, inarticulate, and unexpected. Sometimes when I get in the car and turn on the radio, I find that I've left it on the classical station: I listen to that when I feel up to a challenge. But if I'm tired and seeking comfort, hearing those slow tempos and unpredictable sounds come on makes me almost savage. I want the familiar, comfort-sound. Old rock-n-roll. I think that's what it's like for my mother when I begin to speak. I'm always difficult, a quarter-tone off, unnecessarily complicated, agonizingly slow. No wonder her face goes slack and her eyes wander slightly out of focus when she hears my voice. She follows what other people say with interest, most of the time, anyway; though gaps have become apparent with them too. Always her attention has had a way of snapping off suddenly and completely. Like a light going out. And if you're a child, dependent on her for your sense of self, it's like the whole world goes suddenly, utterly, and inexplicably pitch dark.

I read a book once, ill-written and not very smart, but passionate, about growing up as the child of a narcissist. I didn't find much about it that was illuminating, but I recognized at once the shared experience. It's like living in a theater: either you're under the floodlight of intense attention, or you're forgotten, and there's no transition between the two states. You're either the most important thing in the world, or nothing. Onstage or offstage.

It gradually becomes less confusing as you learn that the light and dark have nothing to do with you; they're coming on and off according to the internal needs of the parent, and that they are useless as navigational aids. You also come to learn that there are people who aren't that way, people for whom you don't disappear as soon as you leave their field of vision.

The worst of it is that you yourself are prone, and will all your life be prone, to narcissistic habits of thought. Dewey makes a great deal of infants learning object-permanence: what the child of a narcissist needs to learn is person-permanence. They're still there, even after your attention leaves them.

Maybe this psychological damage is part of why the Buddhist conception of multiple lives and permanent relationships has been so important to me. Buddhism teaches that there is no such thing as a temporary person, no such thing as a one-off connection. Sure, bodies and personalities are impermanent, but persons are not. Karma, the unfolding of the consequences, is inexorable. The web of connections has no loose threads. Every single relationship you have ever had will have to be worked out, healed, made good, eventually. It is the exact opposite of the narcissistic world-view, in which phantom people float into view out of a vast nothingness and abruptly vanish back into it.

Is the Buddhist view true? Probably not. But the narcissist view is not either. The conception of other persons is probably the most complex and most human thing our brains do, it is at the very limit of what human consciousness can achieve, and we no doubt are very bad at it. Having confidence that I really understand what – for instance – my mother sees when she looks at me would be silly. Exactly how and why we exist for each other is a dizzyingly complex problem, and whatever conceptual scaffolding we set up to work on it, we had better recognize it at once as flimsy and inadequate.

All we can ask of a view of reality is that it give us some traction. What we are really dealing with is probably beyond our understanding. But anyone can tell the difference between having something solid in their hands, and grasping at air. The permanence of persons gives me something to work with. I'm still working blind, but there is real stuff under my fingers, which responds to my touch. That's good enough for me.

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