Tuesday, September 4, 2012

What We Lend Ourselves

Whenever I attend company meetings, they usually begin with some sort of icebreaker, but, most often they are just led off with a simple introduction consisting of your name, position, and years with the company. Within the context of the workplace, that seems to be what people need to know of us. It’s how we identify ourselves, at least in that setting.

But, let me ask a question: how many times have we been asked in some social setting, or upon meeting someone for the first time and getting acquainted with them, “What do you do?” Now, think about how many times you have replied to that question by giving them your job title. Then, think about how many times you have followed that up with either a brief explanation of your position or vocation, and how often it is—real or perceived by yourself, or others—a rationalization or justification for, or aggrandizement of your work.

I know I have been guilty of this, more so at certain times in my life than others. I remember when I was younger and always wanting that next rung on the ladder, I often felt like I had to explain why I wasn’t already there, or at the very least display a pride in where I was and what I was doing. Men, I think, tend to see their reflected self-image in how much we are valued in the workplace, or as a breadwinner. It’s one of the saddest norms we inflict on ourselves.

It took me years of life experience and contemplation to piece this together. But, one day, it occurred to me: I am not my job.

I am not my job. Wow! I am someone no matter what my position in the socio-economic scale of things. I am so much more than the bland and flat space I occupy to make the world go around economically. There is so much more to me, and to my life. There is so much more to life itself. What a concept.

At too late an age, it finally occurred to me that I had spent a great deal of my adult life constructing self-assigned importance and significance, based mostly on the wrong things. It was a false identity. Or it was an incomplete identity. It was a distorted mirror image. It was ignoring so many other things about what I truly was, as a person. It was denying myself of so many pleasures, both guilty and innocent. It was like living a dual life, at times, where at work I would be one person, and off work I would be someone else. At other times, I let the work persona impact and define my personal identity, and personal time, and personal actions.

It was also a part of what many of us do in order to brace and secure ourselves as what we perceive as a threatening, or overwhelming world. We school ourselves for careers, then find jobs based on compensation, and search for mates, and build families, and buy things—some needless—in order to build layer upon layer of protection between ourselves and what our culture has taught us as failure, or despair.

A job puts food on my table, and beyond that, buys me things. A mate gives me a partner with which to fight against the rest of the world, or withstand its blows. Children give me a sense of immortality, a feeling that I will live on forever even after I’ve abandoned my own mortal coil. Material things give me comfort and status, or, at least they do if I allow them to do so, or believe them capable of it.

Sometimes, I’ve even argued Maslow’s Hierarchy as a truth by which I need to live my life, that if I just accomplish this one thing and fulfill this one need, then I can move on to the more important, substantive, and altruistic levels.

My perspective on all that, however, has changed with my age. I’ve taken the time to look back over my life and have an internal dialogue about what I have liked and disliked about it. I’ve taken stock of what I have and have not accomplished which really matters—as if any of it really matters at all, because, in the end, maybe none of it really does. Our time on this earth is but a nanosecond in the eons of continuum that have come before us, and (hopefully, so hopefully) after us. In that comparison, we seem insignificant.

But, we don’t want to feel insignificant, and so we fight against it in whatever way we can. We struggle to make ourselves important in this world on some scale. And, where and when we are unable to do so with our worldly efforts, we do so in our contemplations and creativity. How long have we tried to find the meaning of life, or just of our own lives?

These days I've come to the realization that there are some things inevitable, and irreversible, and that I am powerless to stop them. I find that humbling, in a healthy and understanding way. It helps me to understand how much I do, or do not, really matter in the grand scheme of things. It helps me to accept those things I cannot change, either about the way fate works, or myself, or about others. It points me toward the beliefs of existential nihilism. I’m really not certain there is any true meaning of life, beyond that which we assign it ourselves.

That is where the questions split for me. What is the meaning of life, and what is the meaning of my life. One of those questions I may never answer: the world never has. The second is far more important to each of us, I believe, and is something I wish we would all take more time to consider. If you are like me, you’ll find it an intriguing pursuit full of as many questions as there are answers.

But, when I think about it, and at just about the point I reach the pinnacle of nihilistic thought, I think of my daughters, and remember how I’ve told myself—with sincerity—that they are the meaning of my life. When I have stated that before, I think I have really misstated my belief. Nothing I do gives my life meaning. However, everything I do does, or does not, give my life significance, and there is a vast difference between those two ideas. One would imply that I have some grandiose position in the meaning of life itself, the other, which I find more realistic, means I am important within certain contexts only. That’s not to marginalize myself, or minimize that role my life has; it is the single most important role my life will ever play. However, it is important to my daughters, and makes my own life no more valuable to myself, or others outside of my daughters.

That’s the little catch in my nihilism. I still end up stopping short of believing life is just an absurd game we play from birth to death. It’s a simple idea, possibly too simplistic for others, to believe that my meaning in life is simply in being a father, preparing the girls for facing the world on their own, and possibly living on in their memory and DNA for all my efforts. Still, it’s an attractive thought to me.

Maybe, in the inability (or absence) of being able to grasp the larger concepts, I fall back to what matters to me most, what I most hope would give value to my life. The girls represent that one thing I hope will. It’s my meaning. And nothing else that happens during my borrowed time on this borrowed planet--either because of me, or in spite of me, or all around me—can diminish that significance I assign my life in my eyes. And nothing else motivates me more.

Something Wicked This Way Comes

I’m not certain if you’ve noticed, but there is an election happening soon. That means three things are unavoidable truths in our daily lives for a while: an endless stream of nauseating political ads, numerous arguments and discussions in our social media, and the certainty that friendships will be tested.

I myself have staked out a clear stance on the upcoming election, and it has raised the ire of more than one friend or acquaintance. I knew it would, long before the recent disagreements were spawned by the fervor whipped up by the narrowing of candidate choices, and the proximity of the election day. I decided my position several months ago.

I probably should explain both my reasoning and decision. I dislike the killing of any sentient being, believe that everyone has value that deserves respect, and don’t believe that anyone should hold sway over the life and inalienable human rights of anyone else. Using those three things as my standards, there is no candidate that meets even my most basic requirements. Of the two “electable” presidential candidates we have to choose from, one is currently violating all three of those standards, and the other hopes to. So, I have enthusiastically joined a movement to reject the presidential election process and boycott voting.

I knew that would probably make you mad. You are not alone.

I have no shortage of friends to tell me I have gone over the edge. Their arguments include anything from telling me I am throwing away my right and forfeiting my voice, to telling me I have no right to complain about anything if I don’t vote and what I should fear if I don’t support the candidate they want me to vote for. Some have even told me I should leave the country.

Truth be told, however, it doesn’t matter what position I take, I would still have plenty of people around to tell me I was wrong. That’s what we do in elections. We tell each other we are wrong. In fact, we do it with such passion and ferocity that I think some may completely turn over their Facebook fiends list with each election cycle, discarding people with whom they disagree and adding people with whom they find themselves aligned.

Just kidding. Sort of.

Politics has become embedded within our social media because the campaigns wish to take advantage of how social media have become such a part of our daily lives; it is the easiest way to reach all of us. For our part, many of us have bought into it wholeheartedly, and allowed it to become a ready forum for both discussion and debate. It’s simpler even than walking next door, having a cup of coffee over a conversation, and possibly even a healthy disagreement over whose candidate is the best, the worst, or possibly just the “lesser of two evils.” But, it makes for less than pleasant moments sometimes, because we find it easier to be either more strident or confrontational from behind a keyboard. These days, I feel like donning mental gladiator gear anytime I open my browser.

Much of the time we are not talking to each other as much as we are talking at each other, believing that we can convince our counterparts of our positions with either volume or emotional investment. Many times we are not even talking at each other, but instead are talking past each other, and some of us even resort to USING ALL CAPS, TO SIMULATE SHOUTING OVER EACH OTHER! That last one I find hilarious.

Occasionally there is that moment of jocularity, where we pull ourselves back from the tussle, recognize our mutual human experience and dilemma, and laugh together. Yet, those moments are uncommon.

Much of the time we spend each in our corners, replacing our defensiveness with aggression, reacting to what we perceive as a threat from the other. The unspoken: we are not so much hurt by what it is we think the other believes, as much as we are by what we perceive to be as their inability—or even worse, unwillingness—to understand or acknowledge our needs or feelings. We simply mask those hurt feelings in our ideological differences, and shout them at each other. I doubt any of my friends want to accept that the death of even one person needlessly is palatable, but I interpret their political alignments as allowing for it, determining it as collateral damage, and thus rejecting my feelings about it.

And they see me and interpret my positions in exactly the same way. And so it goes.

But, sometimes I learn something. A friend recently pointed out something to me I had not thought of in deciding to not cast my vote. A group with which she identifies, depending on the outcome of this election, could be pushed further down the scale of perceived human value, to the point at which even being able to function or survive in our society, in our culture, could be extremely challenging. I’d not weighed that in my decision, had not considered it a consequence. I was reminded of my privilege in her lesson.

She made me aware of this without a single shout, or through any angry post, comment, message, or email. In all the time I’ve known her, all the time I’ve spent with her, she never once raised her concerns, or any objections, or ever countered any argument I made on my own behalf. She merely listened. She listened even though she knew she didn’t really agree with me or believe that what I was saying was right for her. She disagreed, but remained silent.

One night, when the din of quarreling was at its peak pitch between several of us, she finally spoke up. In remembering it, I liken it to one of those moments in a noisy classroom full of rowdy teens, when the quiet kid in the back finally raises their hand and utters something profound. And, in her concerns I heard things I had never considered, because they were outside of my life experience, and outside the scope of priorities I had ever before considered.

The resolve of what I had decided to do suddenly came into question. But it wasn’t just what she said that struck me, it was also in how she said it. The manner in which she brought this to my attention had an impact, and my decision to not vote no longer had mere abstract implications. It gave me something more to contemplate. I may not have given her ideas or concerns as much thought, had the usual tenor of a political conversation been taking place.

I’ve found it a little unnerving when I believe I’ve considered something thoroughly and acted on it in the belief I am doing the right thing, being the best person I can be, only to find out my actions may have a very real and negative impact on someone close to me. It’s disappointing. Still, it’s difficult for me to think of changing my decision right now, because I believe deeply in the reasons why I’ve chosen to not vote. But, my decision is not so cut and dried any longer, or devoid of any emotional weight. It’s become much more difficult, and has consequences on both sides.

It’s a shame I can’t know with certainty the outcomes of any of my seemingly important decisions. I understand that none of us do. It’s also unfortunate that some, or many, decisions come with both a prize and a price. In the absence of one or the other, choices would be much clearer, and easier to make. But, I don’t have that luxury. Nor, probably, does anyone else.

Up to this point I had been warned by friends that my position was stark and uncompromising, and was an attempt to hold the world to standards I would always see it fail to meet. I knew them to be right, but not in the manner I believe they meant, and I still feel no less a conviction about what I see as a transcendental truth. Everyone deserves a life, and everyone—so long as they respect that premise—deserves to live freely.

I just didn’t know that choosing one course of action which I hoped would save someone’s life may cause yet someone else’s to be more difficult, or cause them to lose their life needlessly. I wish it didn’t have to be so. It’s not fair. But, I guess nothing is truly fair.

On November 7th, roughly half of the country will feel vindicated in their decisions, and roughly half will feel disappointed. Some will feel anticipation in the work ahead, and some will feel dread. Some will feel hope, where others will feel frustration. A vast majority will feel relieved the election is over, because it will mean the angst is over, and the outcome something necessary to deal with, or live with. There will be a call, which some will heed at least for a little while, to heal our divisions and come together.

As for me: I’ll keep pushing, and hoping, to find more answers to more questions which offer more beneficial than adverse consequences.

© 2012 Cody Kilgore. All Rights Reserved worldwide under the Berne Convention. May not be copied or distributed without prior written permission.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Learning the Abandon

Lately I’ve been spending some time browsing on the Harley Davidson website and daydreaming about a purchase I would like to make next spring. Telling you that makes me feel like I should possibly explain myself a little.

It’s purely economics. My car will soon be paid off. I’ve recently had to spend some money on maintenance and repairs, so I really don’t feel like going out and getting a new car payment. I’d rather drive it until the wheels fall of it, frankly. And a motorcycle, which I could drive a majority of the time for eight months or more out of the year, gets better gas mileage than nearly everything, outside of the hybrids. That makes sense for my budget, and it does some good for the environment.

Not that this has anything to do with any midlife crisis, or me envisioning how cool I would look riding around on one of those powerful, beautiful wonders of American engineering and craftsmanship. Nor have I ever pictured myself, and how I would look in a pair of black leather chaps, either. Really, I haven’t.

The problem is—as is the case with any purchase I make, no matter how small or how large—I suffer from buyer’s remorse before I even risk any capital. I analyze (and over-analyze my different options, and I look over my budget, and I compare different makes and models, and prices of anything I am considering to buy. I will spend hours on the internet doing research, to make sure that when I do buy something, it is the absolute smartest choice for my need.

Then I ask myself if what I am about to purchase is actually a “need to have,” or a “want to have,” and a whole other round of questions and concerns crop up. I developed this habit during the lean years, and it has served me well. It has prevented a great many impulse buys. If only I could teach my daughters this same decision process.

The thought that worries me most whenever I spend money I might consider to be frivolously let loose: what is it that is sure to happen just as soon as I have handed that cash over to someone else, and may instead be needed for some sort of priority or emergency? When you have felt the sting of financial challenges or difficult times, you tend to worry this way. I always want to expect the unexpected. I always feel like the other shoe is about to drop, so to speak. I worry like this even more so when I remember that I may be the only firewall between happiness and misery for those whose care I bear responsibility.

After I have let someone pry cash from my hands, the real buyer’s remorse usually sets in, and I wrestle with that for several more days. In fact, I have been known to buy something and leave it setting on my desk for a number of days afterward, still in the unopened box and with the receipt neatly taped to it, just in case I either change my mind or have something happen that would cause me to return it and use those funds for something that is more of a priority. I never have had to return something, but I’m just certain that if I ever did break that chain of habits, my financial sky would come falling down, and I would be destitute in a matter of hours.

If all that caution remained restricted to my spending habits, it would likely be no more than frugality erring a little bit on the eccentric side. But, it doesn’t, and sometimes that causes angst in other areas of my life.

Sometimes, I will tell myself that even the simplest of enjoyments are just too good to be true. I tell myself that there must always be a tradeoff or a price to pay if something is that desirable. I see things as guilty pleasures. It doesn’t always stop me from doing them anyway, but I worry about it the entire time, and that makes whatever experience I am trying to enjoy a little diminished. It takes a little edge off the pleasure. If it is something like a trip somewhere, or a grand event, it only becomes more magnified in relation to the expense. It also becomes a part of that typical post-vacation blues I typically feel when I arrive back home and have to settle back into my normal life.

It makes me cautious, and, at times, it gets in the way of living the moment, or even enjoying the temporary bliss. Where relationships have been concerned, it has even made me somewhat inaccessible. I end up undervaluing the here and now. I forecast the eventualities and different scenarios in my head, and if it looks like it is not going to play out perfectly, or like there may be a price to pay, or that there is emotional risk involved, I withdraw my investment of time and effort; I retreat to the safety of what I can control. I’ve sometimes bailed suddenly, and even hurt someone in the process, which only adds to the things I find myself considering the next time an opportunity arises.

I should know better. Life experiences, and relationships, are not boxes I can leave on the desk with the receipt taped to them, ready to cash back in because I anticipate later regrets. As they sit there languishing in their idleness, while I choose to not pursue them or invest in them, I miss ou on the time I could have been enjoying them.

When I think back over my record of having never returned a purchase, I should probably take a lesson from that, and instead dive in from the very beginning. I should remember that I have never really been destitute because of any major purchase, and that my worries about such things are pretty small matters in this world. For all my worrying, it’s nothing like the parent somewhere who wonders where the next meal for their family is going to come from. Or the species that will quietly go out of existence today, recognized as it happens in its own collective conscience, but noticed as no more than a whisper by the rest of the world.

My concerns are small. And, in my most challenged times, I’ve never been without the love and support of a few close friends and family around me. Things work out for me, eventually, no matter how trying they seem at the time. In my privileged circumstances, life finds a way through the cracks. Maybe I should remember that more, and worry less. Or, at least worry less for myself, and reserve my concern more for others.

Anyway, I have between now and spring to convince myself of all this, and decide between the Dyna Wide Glide or the Softail Blackline. Because, it’s all about the economics, and I can’t very well park a Harley on my desk for a few days after the purchase.

© 2012 Cody Kilgore. All Rights Reserved worldwide under the Berne Convention. May not be copied or distributed without prior written permission.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Running to Catch Her

My older daughter, Megan, recently turned sixteen. That can be a somewhat bittersweet birthday for a father, or any parent for that matter.

On the one hand you have a milestone birthday which you know she is excited to celebrate, because it ushers in the days of increased, independent mobility. In the eyes of a teen, the prospects offered by a driver’s license are no less than those considered by someone watching their cell door open at the end of a sixteen year prison sentence.

However, it isn’t only that independence itself which seems important to her. I think there is also an awakening which is happening at this age, a sense of maturing, or feeling that she is entering into the world of being a young woman.

It’s this last part that I find most frightening, actually. That she can move about in the world with more ease and without my help is something I’ve already had to learn to adjust to and accept. But, it is difficult for me to begin thinking of her as a young woman.

The realization and acceptance of what she is becoming runs contrary to the way I have always thought of both of my girls. I never considered it until recently, but I see now that I have always pictured them in a static state, either as the person I see them as now, or in the image I have of them from some point when they were younger. Often I find myself comparing the two, and wondering how we got from there to here. I’ve never really envisioned them in their futures, grown up, and away, probably out of self-protective reasons. It’s just never dawned on me to contemplate it. It’s beyond my horizons.

Parenting, for me, has been a satisfying, yet worrisome journey. When my first daughter was born, I have to confess that I’m not certain I was emotionally ready to be a father. I didn’t settle into a marriage until I was thirty-four, and she arrived in our lives just one year later. I had barely begun adjusting to being a husband—a life far different than the one I’d known—and then found myself thrust into yet another new, and even more challenging role.

I was afraid of the responsibility, or, at the very least, felt unprepared for it. I wasn’t sure I’d ever witnessed good parenting in practice, and, because I hadn’t really considered it a reality in my immediate future, I’d done nothing to compensate for that lack of role models, or prepare myself for it. I also knew it meant my life was changed forever, that it meant a commitment on a level I’d never before contemplated, and all that frightened me.

I think it took me nearly a year to adjust, for the full impact to really settle in. But, in time, I went from going through the motions of being a parent to deeply loving this little person who could, in turn, love me back, and return the affections I showed her. She gradually got under my emotional skin.

But that initial, unsettled feeling from those first days has never really left me completely. I think it comes from the understanding that, as a parent, you have to be the ultimate person responsible for someone else’s safety, well-being, and development toward a happy life. If anything goes wrong, there is no one else to call in for backup, and no one else but you to blame. You’re it. If you screw it up, you are responsible for the misery of someone you love.

After each of the girls were born, I had a recurring nightmare that would wake me. One of them would slip off the side of a boat we were in, out in the middle of a wide and deep lake. I would dive in after them, only to be unable to swim fast enough to catch them, and I would watch them slowly fade away from me and into the water column. Somewhere I read that kind of a dream is fairly common for new fathers. It’s our unconscious thoughts wrestling with, and working through, the fears and responsibilities we see as a father’s role.

Mix those concerns with the additional challenge of being a man who is a father of two daughters, and another set of complexities become involved. Try as I might to be sincere, or enlightened, or mature, or caring, or loving, or affectionate, or different, there are aspects of the girls' lives from which I will always be locked out. It feels unfair at times, but it is a simple truth with which I have had to deal and adjust.

With both of my daughters I have always felt like I am in uncharted waters. I’ve never been a girl, and I will never know what that life includes, no matter how much I try. And, because I always think of them in their current or prior state, and have a tendency to never think ahead in their lives, I always feel like I am playing catch up with them as they grow, mature, change, and evolve.

That same unsettled feeling.

A friend recently asked me something interesting: she wondered at which point a parent reaches that threshold of not acting on the cares and concerns they have for their grown, or growing children. “What is the difference,” she asked, “between worrying about what I do at 18 and while living at home, and being 28 and living out on my own?” The only answer I could muster was some sort of “out of sight, out of mind” rationale for behaviors and actions I would one day not witness. I had never really thought about that happening within the context of my relationship with the girls, and her question made me wonder where that point might be reached in our future.

Thinking of this brought me face to face with what must be a fear of every responsible and loving father: one day, in the not-so-distant future, they will both leave to live and experience the world on their own, and they will no longer need me.

And in considering that time and all that it implies, I realized how selfish I’ve been in fearing them growing up, and in never visualizing our separate futures. That fear is something self-serving. It is my worrying about my need being unfulfilled, instead of a selfless concern for their future and their happiness.

What I realized worried me most is that, in their maturing and needing me less, I am diminished in their eyes, and as a result of that, also diminished in my own eyes. I lose an importance I constructed myself, built possibly out of a need to add significance to my own life. I’ve let it fill gaps. I’ve let it define me. I suppose there are worse things a father could do, but I dislike discovering that I may not have been totally selfless in my motivation to care for them the way that I have.

I’ve often said that the single most gratifying, fulfilling thing I’ve ever done with my life was to rise to the challenge and privilege of being a father. Nothing else gives me more pride, or satisfaction, or sense of purpose.

But, that’s me, and not them. No matter how much it means to me, it is not theirs to share as either a feeling or a burden. My need to be their father is mine. It is also my duty to adjust appropriately in order to best serve them as their father. It has to be secondary to their need to grow, and feel independently strong, and empowered, so they may best face a world that is very challenging within which to find happiness, particularly so for women.

At some point, they must see me less as their father, and more as their equal, and I have to let go the fear and the pride I’ve deeply embedded in the role I so love. To a degree, I think, all that has already started to happen on Megan’s part. She is looking forward and into a future which holds so much promise for her, and will not includeas much, me. She’s already deciding that my job with her is nearly done.

I, on the other hand, have not been ready for that, and so I find myself—once again, and as so often before—running to catch up to her.
© 2012 Cody Kilgore. All Rights Reserved worldwide under the Berne Convention. May not be copied or distributed without prior written permission.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The Mirror of Personal Semantics

There are words I have started to avoid. They are words I have come to think of in an entirely different way than I did for much of my life. Maybe it’s simply my maturity, or maybe it is cultural influences. I’m not sure.

The other day I was reminded of one of these words when I was catching up on news and wasting time on Facebook. It was the day that Prop 8 was ruled against in court in California, and the posts hitting Facebook all that day were a mixture of elation and disgust, with a majority of them crossing my page in favor of the court’s ruling. In some of the celebratory postings and comments, I was beginning to see the word “tolerance” surface frequently, and I began to think of that word and the context in which it was being used. Although those using the word meant something positive, I began to wonder if it were really true to be doing so and what it meant about us when we did.

When I tolerate something, it usually means it is something I may not like or agree with, but that I am willing to live with, or ignore, or dismiss as something too trivial with which to bother myself. It means I see my position or status as preferable, and that I see the other position in a negative manner, or maybe slightly above the mark of acceptable.

I don’t think I like this word “tolerance.”

I’m not sure it applies here. In fact, I think it marginalizes someone in this case, only because they were born with a sexual preference different than mine. And different is not necessarily properly placed when we see it as a negative.

I guess that bears repeating: different is not necessarily properly placed when we see it in the negative. Not when we define someone by their sexual preference. Not when we define them by their religious views. Not when we define them by the color of their skin. Not even when we define them by their lifestyle, no matter what it may, or may not, include. Different is just that: different. Different should mean parallel in value and significance, particularly when it comes to another person. There should be no positioning beyond that.

But “tolerance,” and “acceptance” are two words—the latter only slightly less potentially offending than the former—that are among those I feel are somewhat judgmental and that I try to avoid using. I’ve come to dislike them. I see them as condescending, and I know I have a history of using them before I came to feel about them as I do now. I dislike that I used to include them in my vocabulary, and I feel better knowing that my feelings about them, something as simple as those words, helps keep me a little more humble.

The extreme of this, or at least what I see as the extreme, is when I hear someone define themselves or someone else as either “straight” or “gay.” If you think about it, we apply a great deal of positive inference in the word “straight.” We think of it as true, as correct, as morally upstanding, and the best path from point A to point B. The opposite of “straight” is “crooked. Just about everything we think of as not being straight we think of as being wrong, or possibly not the norm.

I don’t think I like this word either, this word “straight.”

I posted something on Facebook that day that stated my dislike of the word “tolerance,” and I was a little surprised by the discussion it prompted. It eventually led to a debate about the use of certain words that many use in the positive, but that might mean something much different than what we intend when we use them in reference to someone else, or our relationship with someone else. Eventually we hit on a word that I have come to dislike for a long time now, that being the word “sympathy.”

Most of us see sympathy as a positive trait in ourselves. We see it as an ability to feel for someone else who is either struggling, or disadvantaged, or suffering in some manner. When we believe we feel sympathy for someone else, we feel we are being compassionate and understanding, and that we care about that other person.

But are we, really? Could it be that when I feel sympathy for someone I am not really feeling compassion, but instead feeling something entirely different, something that might even be considered selfish. If I feel sorry for someone, am I really wishing they were in a better state, or am I only affirming my own as the one I see as preferable?

Oddly enough, this is a word I came to feel differently about when I was a younger man, before I thought myself capable of such contemplation. At the emboldened age of 19, when young men tend to think themselves both invulnerable and wiser than their years, I set aside college and went to work for a railroad contractor. It may not have been the best long term strategy, as far as career decisions go, but it proved to be a springboard into my management career, and an experience that would serve me a lifetime.

I spent the next eleven years—including all of my twenties—roaming the continent, and getting paid for it. Much of my travel was through rural areas, and the largest portion of it spent in the deep south, where I often thought of myself as far out of my element. I had a dim view of the people of the rural south, because I saw them as people trapped in a way of life that was uneducated and apathetic. I felt sorry for them. From my perspective as a suburban-raised, modern, and “enlightened” boy, I thought their lives both difficult and backwards. I wondered how they could enjoy their lives, and why they never chose to leave them or do better for themselves. I defined their lives by the four-wheelers I saw parked on their front lawns, and, by their manner of speech. At times, I mocked them.

And then, I met O.D., a man assigned by the railroad to work with me for an entire week. O.D. was a big man, the epitome of a rough and tumble railroader who had worked the rails all of his life. He was adept at every nuance of the communication and cooperation necessary to expedite my work, and he was respected widely by peers and supervisors. He had an affable air about him and an infectious laugh, which was easily stirred even though he seemed a serious man as he went about his tasks. I grew to like O.D the first day we worked together, because he was candid, not self-conscious, and a little rough around the edges. He made me comfortable. We began to click, and the work flew past us.

On the third day of working together O.D. had me pull off the rails in a small town just north of the next major rail yard, deep in the heart of Arkansas. It would be a stretch to try and make it all the way in before the dark and other rail traffic caught up to us. I raised my gear and pulled on to the road at the crossing, and looked at O.D. from across the cab to ask him which way I should head to find a motel.

“We’re not staying in a motel tonight,” he said. “That right there’s my house.”

The house that O.D. was pointing at was a somewhat-kept, brick ranch not more than 50 yards from the tracks, with a beat up and muddied Chevy 4-wheel drive parked in a driveway hard to pick out in the sparse lawn. It was one of only about a dozen homes that were clustered in between an expanse of rice fields and the railroad. On the front lawn was also parked—you guessed it—two equally muddied four-wheelers. I felt immediate dread, and desperately reached for excuses to not stay with him and his family, all of which failed. O.D. was having nothing of me driving to a motel, and if I could even manage to convince him I should, he was not about to let me do so on an empty stomach.

O.D.’s wife met us in the drive. She was a pretty, petite woman, who seemed dwarfed by O.D.’s heft as he enveloped her in a bear hug that lifted her off her feet. She laughed as he did. She seemed a little embarrassed by his affectionate exhibition in front of a stranger.

“This must be Co-o-ody,” she said, in a syrup-thick drawl, and she extended a hand to me to shake. Her smile was warm. “Supper’s ready, come on in.”

What followed dinner that evening, and for the next three days I was rained out of working, was an education about people who live differently than I do, and an education about myself. Because of the kindness of O.D. and his family, I came to understand that my sympathy for people in their lifestyles was misplaced, and I felt humbled to understand I had ever thought less of them. These people loved life, and loved their lifestyle, no less than I did. In fact, I felt ashamed of how they could be so kind to me, when I had previously thought so little of them without really knowing them. I came to care deeply for them, and I stopped in and stayed with them every time I was in the area over the years. Without fail, they always welcomed me, and they treated me as family.

Because of O.D. and his family, I came to dislike the word, this word “sympathy.”

And I came to distrust and examine other things and people I had long held thoughts and opinions about, including words I often used to define or describe them. Over the following years, and through my life’s experiences, I would hold these words and my beliefs up in the mirror and ask myself if they pass the test that earns them the meanings I assign them, and what might I learn about myself in my examination of them? Do I carry nuances of bigotry, or judgment, in what I say, even when I mean the best with what I say? And if I do, how do I go about eliminating those shadowy errors, and say what I really intend? How do I act and reflect the best of someone else, without posturing, or without minimizing or marginalizing someone else?

I haven’t entirely figured that out yet, because I know that not only my vocabulary is loaded with things like that, but that my actions and deeds are as well. Actions and deeds are habits more deeply entrenched and rooted in our psyches than any words. I, like many people my age, have lived through ages that have seen rapid cultural changes on many fronts, and in our struggle to accept and live with those changes, we’ve had to go through the process of unlearning what we’ve often been taught and had reinforced. Our families may have engrained things in us that we later decide are wrong, or learn are wrong through changes in our lives, and changes in ourselves. Sometimes we even have to do so reluctantly, because we have to reconcile what we’ve known with the cultural changes going on around us. Sometimes we have to adapt, or we suffer for it in some way, or unwittingly lessen our quality of life by remaining steadfast in our outdated and erroneous beliefs.

Either that…or we tolerate it.

© 2012 Cody Kilgore. All Rights Reserved worldwide under the Berne Convention. May not be copied or distributed without prior written permission.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Margins of Error

And there it was: that little signal. It came from one of the least suspected places, a handcrafted sign being held by a fellow Occupy activist. Later I would learn this person did not intend its effect, but I didn’t have the luxury of considering that at the moment I first spotted it in the photo.

“Occupying is in tents.”

Although those words would be benign to most who would see them, people within Occupy Des Moines—and myself in particular—would clearly understand the message. There had been tensions growing within the group for some time about what our next step should be, and whether or not resources should continue to be dedicated to the camp. A wide divide was growing between members that physically occupied the camp, and those that did not.

By then, most of the camps in major cities had been shut down, including Liberty Plaza in New York City. Ours was still going, despite the fact that less than a dozen people stayed there and the local fire marshal kept finding ways to prevent the camp occupants from maintaining heat. Iowa’s winter, and the patience of the city government, loomed large.

And, in the process of debating the decisions ahead of us, Occupy Des Moines slowly became a group eating away at its own flesh and paring itself down to its hardest bone. People began to turn away from the negativity, and as a result, away from the movement.

My personal reaction to this sign was one of anger. I thought it was terribly selfish and disrespectful that the one message someone would choose to express at an action designed to speak up and speak out was—instead of being directed at an injustice--aimed antagonistically at others within the group.

I took it personally.

But, I do that too easily: take things personally. So much so that I have had to develop mental tricks to make myself step back any time I feel a reaction to something building within me. It doesn’t always work, and most often doesn’t work in my interactions with those dearest to me, but when it does it usually yields useful introspection.

In stepping back and away, I’m able to disengage and see myself, and the situation, from a different perspective that makes it easier to deflect anything intentionally directed at me, or dismiss something that I shouldn’t have interpreted as being directed at me. From that space I can also often determine someone’s motivation. Motivation, to me, is the single, most important thing to recognize of something someone has done to cause my reaction, and whether or not I should give it any more credence than I already have.

And so I began to mull this over, this sign, and its intention, and my feelings about it, and I began to wonder why it mattered to me so. That was when I was struck by the thought that I was possibly too involved, too connected, and that stepping back and away—not just for introspection, but for emotional protection, as well—was the best thing to do. It would be the safest thing to do.

Step back. Stay on the sidelines.

Because on the sidelines, in the margins, I could remove myself from the judgment of those words, that I was not really a part of the movement as defined by this person. And in removing myself from that judgment, I also removed the emotional risk, or harm, caused by that narrow definition. I also removed myself from any future risk, which, for me was an even greater motivation to move myself to safe harbor.

It was as simple as that. Or maybe not so. Because, to be honest, it pained me to not feel a part of the group, because so many I had come to know in my involvement with Occupy had become very important to me. I had come to know their personal stories that brought them to the movement, and I had come to care about them. I had learned their struggles that were common with mine, their morals and sense of fairness I shared, their concerns for others and for a better world, and their deep desires to affect change. I was going to miss all that, and them.

So instead, I resolved to hover. I decided that if I placed that buffer between myself and what I saw as the new definition of the movement, I could still maintain those relationships from a comfortable and safe distance. I could even serve a role—a practiced one—as observer and recorder, that would allow me to still feel involved, and would allow for the personal relationships, but would position me out of harm’s way.

It seemed appropriate. I have often thought that some of us are wired to be on the edges looking inward, be the ones that observe, record, and recount from a perspective that allows for a detached commentary. I’ve been a writer and a photographer for much of my life, or thought myself as much, and both of those are skills that require, at least, a certain amount of detachment, because you lose the ability to artfully, and completely, express something if you are essentially involved in what it is you are trying to capture, portray, or project.

However, there is a danger in turning yourself into Life’s spectator; you can often miss out on the sweeter nuances that life itself can bring you. You can make your life absent of real passion, or utter joy, or even contentment. You can forget what it is like to ride the rollercoaster of emotions that are supposed to be an innate aspect of the human experience. You can also lose that sense of sharing that comes with genuine attachment to others, or to one, and, both easily and imperceptibly, you may turn yourself cynical, or bitter.

It is something I have toyed with for much of my life; I’ve carefully and curiously studied and observed others for as long as I can remember. I’ve always been intrigued by the actions of others and what motivates them to those actions. I imagine, when I am not allowed to know, or have not had shared with me, the personal narrative of others that has brought them to be the person I know at the moment, and what motivates them to do the things they do.

When I was younger and traveled a great deal for my work, I used to spend a lot of time in airport terminals, and I found the people there fascinating. I would pass the time and entertain myself by imagining the lives of people I would observe there, and what it was they were coming from and going to.

At social events I could almost always be found near the corner watching everything happen in the room from an advantageous perspective. Add a touch of alcohol and a little music, and human behavior becomes a fascinating spectacle to observe.

In thinking about all of this, I realized that I have often placed myself at the edge of things to be able to observe them. But in considering it within the context of what prompted this particular contemplation, I also realized I’ve done so for other reasons. I’ve done it most often to protect myself.

And, that has also been the case with relationships; it’s safer. The single most frightening thing I believe we may ever do with our lives is to entrust our feelings with someone other than ourselves. Those feelings may be the most precious thing we personally own, and giving over control or care of them, or placing them in a space of vulnerability, is to risk great emotional harm.

Nearly every time I have, I’ve been reminded somehow of the safety, comfort, and ease of those margins, and I’ve returned to them. But, I’ve done so, at times, with some regret, and with an understanding of what I may have denied myself.

And, I’ve even realized at times that doing this can sometimes be a mistake, as was the case with the misinterpreted protest sign that I took personally, and that made me consider my usual retreat. Because this time, I felt too much was at stake, and too many people had become too dear to me. I couldn’t simply resort to being a casual observer. This time, I stuck it out, and I’m glad I did.

I might just try doing that again sometime.
© 2012 Cody Kilgore. All Rights Reserved worldwide under the Berne Convention. May not be copied or distributed without prior written permission.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

When Words Fail Us Both

Grief is odd. It is disturbing to feel, to experience, and it is often difficult for many to just be near. It makes people uncomfortable speaking about it; we are sometimes not really sure what to say in situations of others’ grief, and when we do, we intuitively know that whatever we say cannot equate with the intensity of their emotional experience.

Take, for instance, the interaction I had with friends and acquaintances and peers the first week I returned to work following my father’s funeral. Most conversations began something like this:

“I’m sorry to hear about your father.”

It’s a perfectly normal thing to say, and I appreciated the sentiments of everyone who took the time to express them. But, as the week wore on and I would have first, or chance, encounters with people, it seemed as if they all had the same thing to say.

“I’m sorry to hear about your father.”

There were those who actually sought me out those first few days, and they were thoughtful enough to ask about how I was feeling, how things went, or about my father and his life. Their compassion was genuine. Yet invariably we would reach that awkward moment where we both felt the need to segue to topics of work, or news, or just simple, friendly chatter. Then we would part, I would move on, and, moments later, I would run into the next person.

“I’m sorry to hear about your father.”

After a couple of days I developed a succinct “Thank you” as a reply, and I would couple it with a sincere and appreciative smile in response to their equally sincere look of sorrow and empathy. I think we struggled with how to communicate the nonverbal, just as much as we wrestled with the words we chose.

There came a time when everyone’s comments became a disruption of my attempts to return to the rhythm of life, where each exchange served as a reminder of my father’s death, and of the start-stop emotions of the previous week. Their kind offerings also began to sound like a mantra.

“I’m sorry to hear about your father.”

I thought I recognized code in what everyone was saying and possibly not actually expressing. It was as if they were warding off the same for themselves, because they recognized that the loss of a parent can, and will, happen for every one of us. It was possible my father’s death made their parents more mortal, and by extension, themselves more mortal as well. In their words, I began to hear hushed prayers.

“I’m sorry to hear about your father.”

For some it may not have been what they feared in their future, but instead a remembrance of the same event previously happening in their lives. A few people spoke to me about the previous losses they’d experienced, but they often spoke of it with the detachment of something which took place long ago. I wondered if cataloging it in such a manner was their way of eventually coping with it, and if I would one day do the same with my father’s death.

After a few days a card came in the mail. I recognized it as one of the cards we keep around the office and leave at the central desk for everyone to sign. There may have been over a hundred different signatures squeezed on to this card from various people with whom I work, all written in the tiniest of handwriting to accommodate space for everyone that might want to sign the card. We’ve become practiced at such things.

I read through each of the comments. They were all well-intended and—I am sure—heartfelt, but even in that I saw a pattern of difficult communication. “Sorry for your loss,” and “Thoughts and prayers with you,” were among the most common expressions scribbled into all of the available space of the stark, white cardstock. The miniscule writing and the density of the comments made me hear a chorus of whispers as I read them.

We do, say, what we can, I thought to myself, when I finished reading them all and set the card aside for safekeeping. I’m still not sure what to do with it now.

Late in the week I ran into a friend and peer who is similar to me in age and who had recently come to work with me in the same building. She also had lost her father just a few short weeks before my father died.

“I’m sorry to hear about your father.”

“Thank you,” I replied. “How are you doing?” In my voice inflection I heard my involuntary reach toward someone I knew must truly understand something I was still attempting to wrap my head around.

She smiled, and I thought I could see her eyes moisten a little.

“I’m okay,” she said. “But, every once in a while I feel like there are things about it that are still hitting me, still settling in. It’s like it is still becoming real to me. I think there is still more to come.”

“I know,” I added.

We talked for a few minutes more. I think she was the first person all week with whom I could make prolonged and sincere eye contact. It felt as if our two separate experiences folded together in the small space between us. For a brief moment, we each knew the other’s feelings on an almost palpable, and deeply personal, level. It was comforting.

Eventually work called us each separate ways. We promised to talk more when we had the chance, and we went back to our beckoning tasks. Walking away, I turned to find someone approaching me, and I felt myself brace in anticipation:

“I’m sorry to hear about your father,” they said.
© 2011 Cody Kilgore. All Rights Reserved worldwide under the Berne Convention. May not be copied or distributed without prior written permission.