Wednesday, October 26, 2011

And Then There Is Me

As a gay male on the cusp of seventy-one, I want to reflect on my current life-experience from the perspective of what I have written concerning older gay men. I'm very conscious of the fact that, even if musing about my own life holds little interest for most people, nevertheless it is productive for me. Writing about the present is difficult to do; more difficult that writing about the past. Just as an important value of therapy is to gain perspective on your life from another person, not involved in your personal life, so the simple fact of time-passing provides somewhat of a perspective on your own past life. While I can look at the past and see some of the narratives I think were guiding my life, it's more difficult for me to discern what narratives are constructing my present.

Certainly, one narrative that has been formative since my college years and continues to inform my present life is the value of reflection on life and the belief that one person's reflections can have resonance for another. As a therapist I have found that almost anyone, no matter how uninteresting their lives might seem from a superficial perspective, becomes interesting, even gripping, when seen in its most intimate details. The most ordinary lives involve universal human conflicts and reflect the project of attempting to give meaning to experience; they are instances of the human ability to be aware of and to reflect upon those needs, wants and satisfactions that form us as a species and which, as a species, we all must share.

While other animals share the ability to recognize what is of interest to them in their environment, they simply do not attend to what is not of interest.  Our ability to name what is of interest enhances the awareness of what is not so-named, of what is other. We humans attend to the other. Naming forms the foundation of the awareness of categories or groups; for example, naming a particular fruit that is eatable, opens the space for the categories of what is not that fruit and, further, what is eatable and not eatable; ultimately, opening a space for what is the same and other; for what is good and bad. As in the Sesame Street jingle, "One of these things is not like the other. One of these things just doesn't belong."  The first exercise of naming opens the potential upon which we construct our identities of self, selves and other, others; the narratives that inform our lives; an evolution as a species that we repeat in our individual lives; often destructively.

One of the skills of a good novelist is to introduce us to the particular physical self, formative experiences, relationships, conflicts, choices, constructions of meaning that form their characters. I find that in a really good novel, it is usually impossible or irrelevant to make moral judgments on those characters; the more we see regarding how a person has been formed and what meaning they have imposed on their experience, the more interesting they become as persons; the more interesting they become as persons, the less relevant it seems to label those persons as in some way "other" or "bad"; the more we see ourselves in them, which is what empathy is all about.

So, I not only enjoy reading novels and biographies that read like novels, I also enjoy, as a therapist, listening to people telling their stories. The more I know about a person, the more I find them interesting; the more I find them interesting; the more I tend to like them. I tend to like them more because I see and feel in them similar conflicts and projects that we all experience as a species.  It becomes increasingly inapt to label them as "other", "bad" or even "boring", which are often just dimensions of other. All of that to provide a rationale for believing that some people may find my story interesting; giving one reason for my blogging; and, at the same time, performing a narrative that continues to inform my life. That narrative could be named by the injunction of the oracle of Delphi, which I first encountered reading Plato's dialogues as a first year college student: Know Thyself; despite the fact that I don't think it is even theoretically possible. On the other hand, Socrates' statement that the unexamined life is not worth living provides a related and achievable goal.

It's not so much some final objective of knowing myself that's important for me in my life's narrative, it's more the process of examining; a large part of what therapy is about. I'm sure you've heard ad nauseum that it's not the goal that is important, it's the journey itself. It never ceases to amaze me how words of the wise are often trite and predictable. Listen to the Delai Lama or any other purveyor of wisdom and it's difficult not to gag or laugh. Trouble is that truths are often simple and, yet, we need to remind ourselves of them, which is somewhat embarrassing for the sophisticated. Therapists, for example, often overflow with such platitudes, because they somehow seem appropriate in the context of a therapeutic conversation, remarks such as: live in the present, only the present is real, that was then and this is now, the rest of your life is in front of you, guilt is corrosive, how you feel about yourself is most important, a journey begins with the first step. do what you can until you can do what you want. I imagine you could provide many others.

In addition to that, rather theoretical, component of the narrative of myself, which informs both my profession as a therapist and my blogging, is another component: narcissism. I feel I have things worth saying, based, partly, on my experience of life. You have to be somewhat narcissistic to have that impression of yourself; just to think that your life is interesting, worth reflecting upon and sharing. Instead of calling that characteristic "narcissism", it could be nicely reframed as a positive regard for the self. Naturally, there is a self-deprecation, a negativity, in tension with that positive regard. Just as there is internalized homophobia in gay people, there is internalized ageism in the elderly. Often, as I write this blog, I say to myself, "there's no fool like an old fool." It is the part of myself referred to by positive self-regard that resists that internalized negativity originating in the dominant culture; replying, "Yes, but what you're saying isn't foolish"; though I'm not the best judge of that and I'm comfortable with the reality that, sometimes, it might be foolish.

Speaking of platitudes and the Dalai Lama, another narrative to which I am drawn is the belief that the unitary self is an illusion. What composes the self are diverse narratives, emerging in response to different experiences, contexts and relationships; different selves that coexist; sometimes harmoniously and sometimes in tension with each other. Those components of self are held together as a unitary thing by the physical body and its body of experience as it has passed through time and space; without the body there could be no self; a reason why there must be a resurrection of the body if there is be personal immortality.

My body, which binds together the various narratives of the self, also, simply through its physical form, lends itself to the construction of the particular meanings composing my self. Standing, at six feet, five inches, much taller than the average person, I'm accustomed to being noticed; entering a waiting room or a subway car, for example, I'm aware that people look and, sometimes, comment to friends; in fact, I feel uneasy when for some reason I don't notice people noticing. Undoubtedly, that experience contributes to the belief that I'm interesting. Much research shows that, simply by being taller, you tend to be perceived as brighter and more capable than an average size person with the same capabilities; a life experience which could lead me to believe that what I have to say is more of value than it actually is. I, quite literally, look down on most other people; a perspective that is readily extended to a non-literal significance; producing a tension between feelings of superiority and a more nuanced, sensitive appraisal of self.  Finally, it's my experience that being either shorter or taller than average lends itself to an interest in both domination and submission in sexual expression; perhaps because the experience of contrast often has a role in the excitement of edging.

So, my body is more than a frame, a unifier, of selves; it also influences and performs the narratives of self it embodies.  It is, as far as I'm aware,  a surprisingly healthy body for my age; it almost never gives me pain and, sometimes, gives great pleasure. It is exercised regularly, is slim and strong for its age. However, being quite tall , it has had, since youth, a tendency to slouch; a tendency nourished by the desire to communicate, to establish eye contact, to hear and be heard; all of which means bending down towards the other; making myself more equal, accessible. Slouching is, as well, a simple product of physics: gravity has an increased impact on taller objects. Throughout my life I have attempted, more at some times than others, to resist the impact of the force of gravity; attempting through various means at various times to stand up straighter; with age that struggle has become more difficult and I am resigned to the fact that, ultimately, it is  gravity that will win.

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