I’m a curious mix of provocateur and introvert. In many ways I’m quite shy and keep to myself, and in many other ways I seek the spotlight, to control and push conversation. To some extent it depends on the circumstances, but exactly when I’m which way is hard to know or describe. Sometimes, when those closest to me would most expect me to want to jump out into the open, I prefer to hide away, and vice versa. Similarly, some of the times when I appear to be either comfortably front-and-center, my inner experience is more introverted: I hide, so to speak, in plain sight. Over the years, this has made it hard for me to recognize some of my fears and limitations, and, even as I’ve come to recognize some of them, it’s also made it hard for friends of mine to recognize them in me. To say, confidently and eloquently, that I am afraid of this or that, seems almost self-contradictory. If you’re so limited, why are you so able to articulate it?
This is partly why I’ve come to embrace provocation – in some contexts. I learned that expressing a feeling like sadness can result in, at best, consolation from friends. Some will just try to escape the discomfort of someone else’s sadness. Others will respond to “I’m sad” with something like: “But you’re doing so well!” These kinds of consolations are well enough meant, but they tend to miss the point. If I am sad, or frightened, or ashamed, or disappointed, often there is a need that is not being met, and it’s that dynamic that needs to be responded to and remedied, not the painful feeling itself. (Actually, if I’m sad, often the sadness itself is the process of healing the fracture; mourning the loss, etc. Sadness is the consolation to the loss it mourns. Fear, on the other hand, needs a response, but often logic fails.) Hence I’ve come to express my joy and gratitude at feeling all sorts of “negative” feelings. Even feelings like shame and fear, which don’t feel good and are often pernicious, are good to feel, because otherwise they afflict us without our notice. I’m grateful to feel fear because then I can actually begin to respond to it, even if feeling it is painful and difficult. Otherwise I’m forced to try to infer its existence and power through a kind of deductive logic. In other words: it is a fact that I experience fear, and that fear affects my life; insofar as I don’t consciously feel and recognize that fear (along with its causes and motivations), I am unable to remedy it; if I feel the fear, this means that I can begin to know and understand the fear, and hopefully start to move through it and move on. But to say, “I’m so grateful to feel my fear,” is, naturally, quite provocative. It’s only when I fully explain exactly what I mean that the sense comes into view. (I’m not grateful that I am afraid; rather, given that I am afraid, I want to fully know and understand it so I can stop it.)
The value in this kind of provocation is that it momentarily upsets our habitual outlook. The logic behind my gratitude is not remotely as strange as the initial statement “I’m grateful to feel my fear,” but the initial statement is the rupture that allows the logic to strike the deepest possible point. My hope is that the provocation, and the ensuing dialogue, helps my friend to see me a little more clearly, and maybe to look into themselves slightly differently, even if only for a moment. I also hope to repeatedly provoke myself into upsetting my habitual outlook and increasingly infuse it with the provocative, skeptical, and loving outlook I try to cultivate. It is my contention that we cannot love ourselves through positive feelings alone. Given that we experience, consciously and unconsciously, a whole host of negative afflictive emotions, it is imperative that we feel these feelings in order to learn from them. Our “inner world” is not hidden from us, it’s just encoded in the language of emotion – a language most of us have never been taught to interpret very well. To love myself means, in part, not to feel ashamed of myself. But I can’t just convince myself to do so. I need to understand the extent to which I am ashamed of myself, and undo the knot in which that shame is bound. In other words, in order to love myself, I have to feel my shame. There may be another way, perhaps unraveling the causes and conditions that perpetuate my shame can be done without going directly to the source, as it were. But as I’ve yet to come across any such method, I’m content, in the meantime, to keep trying to feel my feelings, try to understand what they are telling me, and respond accordingly. It’s a long, messy project, but nothing else strikes me as nearly so important. So I persist.
One of the more provocative of these sorts of ideas of mine is that I oughtn’t have been born. I don’t say this often, but I find that when I do, it tends to bring up tremendous fear, shame and guilt in my friends. It almost feels like something one isn’t allowed to say. We must be grateful to have been born, and then proceed from there. But what if our parents, in bringing us into the world, were acting foolishly and irresponsibly? What if they really were failing to exercise compassion for us, their as-yet un-conceived/unborn child? I can feel grateful to be alive without being grateful to have been brought into existence, but this requires a relinquishing of very powerful guilt we feel towards our parents. It feels as if, if we say we oughtn’t have been born, it either means we hate ourselves, or we hate our parents, or that life isn’t precious… How can we sort this out? I suggest that, for some of us, in order to love ourselves it is helpful to accept, to feel, that we oughtn’t have been born. I, for example, feel that my parents, from before I was born, failed to recognize their responsibility for me, and were incapable of exercising compassion for me to the extent I needed; if I feel that, despite this, they were right to bring me into this world, then, especially according to infant’s and child’s logic, it must be some fault of mine that kept them from meeting my needs. Perhaps my needs were too much and I shouldn’t be so needy; perhaps I am defective in some way. Painfully, these sorts of beliefs about ourselves often, as we get older, fit neatly side-by-side with our frustrations with and grievances against our parents. They annoy us and anger us, and yet, hidden – in plain sight, as it were – beneath this veil of anger, we remain loyal to them, putting ourselves down in order to avoid the painful truth: they made a mistake. I know I’m treading on thin ice here, so let me just say: in addition to my conflicted and afflictive emotions, I also think I’m a pretty good person who has a lot to offer my friends and the world. I’m grateful to be alive and have a chance to cultivate healthy and beautiful relationships and try to do some positive work in the world. I love my parents, even though they continue to annoy me sometimes, and I have consistently sought, over the last several years, to better our relationships, to make them more honest, more loving, and more present. The provocation I am seeking is not depression; I am not trying to express or cultivate hatred or loathing for myself, my parents, or my life. What I see as the radical step I am trying to take is that seeing my birth as an unfortunate mistake does not mean seeing my life as an unfortunate mistake. How exactly this equation works is a tough question; I’m still working on it. In the meantime, I’m just trying to occasionally shake myself out of habitual beliefs, to try to see what they are and what hides behind them.
A final provocation, then, for now: could things have turned out differently? I once wrote in a poem that “there is no way to keep this / from turning out like this.” I more recently wrote about becoming one’s parents. We can’t wait until we have a child to find out whether that destiny can be altered. Instead, we must cultivate the skills and habits now that will help us recognize then the blossoming of lessons, patterns, feelings and beliefs ingrained in us from age zero. We owe it to our children – even if we choose not to have any! – to alter our destinies:
Step one—accept that they are destined.