Kierkegaard mon amour

I’m not claiming to be uniquely troubled or worthy of special levels of pity. I realise these problems afflict all of us. That’s my excuse for whining on and on about myself: that you might see in me a kindred spirit, an exemplar of our common suffering. I’m someone you can compare yourselves to, perhaps identify with, and who might sympathise with you because I’ve felt the same.

Søren Kierkegaard is a fellow traveller, in this regard. (It’s kinship, not equality, of course: he’s the Father of Existentialism; I’m a schmuck.) He hunted through his own experience for philosophical truth, and, although he keeps resolutely to abstractions, in the two short works I’ve read, there’s a clear sense that he’s offering his own experience as an example, that the battle for the soul that he describes is taking place within his own breast.

Kierkegaard recognised that the vivid, living spirit inside you, the brilliant flame of consciousness, is indistinguishable from despair. To be cognitive, self-aware, is to writhe and shrivel in tongues of fire, of painful memory and inarticulate feeling, but “the possibility of this sickness is man’s advantage over the beast, and it is an advantage which characterises him quite otherwise than the upright posture, for it bespeaks the infinite erectness or loftiness of the spirit.”[1] “Despair is a characteristic of the spirit, is related to the eternal”.[2] It is a gift to be grateful for.

Kierkegaard also understood the problem of the secret self. In her biography, Philosopher of the Heart: the Restless Life of Søren Kierkegaard (2019)[3], Clare Carlisle discusses the difficulty the philosopher has expressing his interior truth:

“Religious people have to live conspicuously in the world like everyone else, though they harbour a ‘secret’ that is not willingly concealed, but impossible to express: ‘inwardness is incommensurable with outwardness, and no person, even the most open-hearted, manages to say everything’”[4]

And he used writing for an identical purpose to my own. Ms. Carlisle summarises:

“Writing is inseparable from this effort of self-understanding: it is through words as well as through silence that he brings coherence to the motions of the soul. Yet for Kierkegaard this is always a paradoxical exercise, revealing and concealing at the same time – like telling someone you have a secret that can’t be told. Writing gives his most solitary reflections a public aspect, exhibits the contradiction between his inward and outward life, brings his hiddenness into the open. He evasively offers to the world an image of himself to explain that he cannot be understood… ‘After my death,’ he wrote in his journal that year, ‘no one will find in my papers (this is my consolation) the least information about what has really filled my life’ … When Kierkegaard writes something truly private, he cuts it out of his journal with a knife and throws it on the fire.

            He is consoled by the thought of remaining hidden because he has been so afraid of being seen… Sheer anxiety compounded by high ideals”[5]

That’s pretty prestigious company to keep! All my own concerns are here: the sense of an enlivening despair that anguish and anxiety inspire; writing as a journey of self-discovery; the inability to communicate, to unlock and share the secret self; the solitariness in company, the fear of exposure…

There’s a sense, I think, that the integrity of the self would be compromised and weakened, if it was communicated. I understand that, too: once you have become used to solitary thinking, with a single point of view, you think your whole identity would start to crumble if brought to the attention of others. You’d start to become part of a negotiated, collective identity; You’d be changed; you’d lose yourself. That is a threatening idea, so to ‘keep it in’ becomes to ‘hold it together’[6].

It’s reassuring to realise that I’m not the only person who’s ever been concerned with these issues or thought them worth writing about; it’s humbling to realise how unoriginal and primitive my writing is, in comparison. It’s depressing to realise how dry a subject it can be!

Still, it’s nice to share something with Kierkegaard (not the high ideals, of course!)

Footnotes

[1] Søren Kierkegaard, 2008, The Sickness unto Death, London: Penguin, p11

[2] ibid, p24

[3] Clare Carlisle, 2019, Philosopher of the Heart: the Restless Life of Søren Kierkegaard, London: Penguin, pp50-51

[4] the quotation Ms Carlisle uses is from his notebooks

[5] ibid

[6] I know: I’m far too much into Kierkegaard. I’m co-opting his work for my own purposes and it’s terribly presumptuous, but then, not understanding something gives you a lot of scope for interpretation!

They also serve who only stand and wait

Writing this, so many months after the Eating Disorders Clinic, after the dreadful betrayals, the cataclysmic rifts and alienations, the return: being reluctantly allowed back into the house, allowed a second chance; on this long, gently undulating journey of small advances and retreats, rehabilitation and relapse, I realise that I’ve been gradually drawn back into their lives. Although I’m prohibited from doing anything, I’m still involved with them: I’m interested in Jo’s work troubles; I am worried when Meggie argues with her friends; I’m so distressed when Danny’s distressed that I’m virtually wringing my hands.[1] I bear witness. Is this enough?

In a search for narrative structure (and writing always is) will this do as a hopeful ending?

Footnotes

[1] Parenthood is terror and guilt, folks (as I’m always saying)!

House-Spouse of the Year 2020

The problem with my policy of doing fatherhood, rather than being a father. was that it forced me into direct competition with Jo’s terrifying, unflagging industry. To this day, she strides through the door at around 6.30, kicks off her shoes, drops her smart jacket on the floor, gathers up a child, and whisks them off to talk through their troubles, while she puts a wash on[1].

She’ll also be working on her phone, in snatches, between supervising piano practice, checking homework, arbitrating in sibling disputes. She’s checking and sending emails, talking to colleagues, researching government policy, writing memos… I’m always walking in on the tail end of conversations that go, “To be honest, John, if the government white paper proposes half the measures they’ve been threatening, we’ll have to rewrite the whole capital bid…” She uses the language with ease, now. She says, “If you could get Catherine to action this…” and “The steer from the Home Office is…” I once heard her say, of a presentation, “I think you should tee off…” “TEE OFF”!? Jo’s never played a game of golf in her life![2]

As she does this, she’ll be striding around the kitchen, her phone held uncomfortably between cocked head and raised shoulder, emptying the dish-washer or cleaning the surfaces.

It’s not all hot air, either. Jo and her people devise and implement multi-part strategies, managing and co-ordinating any number of people, to respond to complex and varied problems and thus measurably better the lives, and future prospects, of large sections of society. They are highly effective, and, for all its business speak, their language is also meaningful and effective. It gets things done.

I, on the other hand, am a lazy fucking arsehole. I’ll have been in all day and still not have got the bloody wash on, because I’d been “trying to write” (sitting on my fat arse). If I was following my instincts, I’d lounge around all day in my jim-jams. When people came home from work demanding their tea, I’d say “get it your damn self!” But then, I’m a worthless prick.

Nowadays I know not to try to compete with Jo. I just haunt the background “being” a father. A morose and selfish one, like some inanimate object with “father” properties. If people don’t like it, fuck ‘em. I tried to be useful and it went horribly, horribly wrong, didn’t it?

Footnotes

[1] In fact, as I am writing those very words in the early morning, Jo has got up, immediately put on a wash, and is now scrubbing the bathroom floor!

[2] Notice how gendered such language remains. Golf still seems a very male past-time, so executives are expected to be men, I think.

Stranger in a strange land

To be worth something to my family; to do my duty, to compensate for my inability as a father or a teacher or a writer, or an LSA; to be included, I needed to work. For them. I needed domestic achievements to set against Jo’s career and parenting triumphs. I needed to cook, clean, wash the clothes, hang them out, go shopping, feed the rabbit: make myself indispensable.

These were demonstrably, measurably useful targets. They could be ticked off. They could be used to structure and control a life that felt wayward, that seemed to be getting away from me.

We live in a post-religious age, yet Love remains our objective, and family has become its most exalted institution. Tending to our family has become our most elevated purpose, but it is a practice. It begins in practical, physical actions that keeps our children alive: labour, breast-feeding, protection, cuddles. These expand, early on, into doing necessary chores – sweeping floors; chopping onions.

It’s unclear how such earthy roots lead to transcendence. The implication is that somewhere inside the experience, there must be an evolutionary, ontological leap, perhaps the way the brain, a lump of flesh tormented by chemical spasms, projects a mind and identity as a side-effect of its ability to self-monitor: a shimmering, electrical halo.

It was one of life’s inexplicable mysteries, but I hoped that, by tending to these foundational activities, I too would be subsumed into the profound, soulful existence family seemed to offer, despite how foreign it all seemed to me: Per Ardua Ad Astra. While the messiah is preaching, somebody still has to take the bins out, but they, too, are a vital part of his numinous project: salvation by the kitchen door: grace by means of a toilet brush. I could be like Kierkegaard’s Abraham, serving the spiritual by embracing an ignominious, quotidian reality.

But I didn’t really want to do it. I was too selfish, uncaring, lazy. I had to force myself, fiercely, nose to the grindstone. All the time. Without stopping, because the flip side of the doable is that, well, anyone can do it. if I didn’t, Jo would, weeping with the stress of it, but capable, nonetheless. And then where would I be? What would I be? Why..?

And I also needed to hide my reluctance – another secret. Every demand for tea made me swear, inwardly, as I hauled myself up to make it. I had to resist that and be constantly vigilant because it wasn’t just the unceasing effort of parenting and husbandry that was exhausting, but also, ironically, the effort required to hide it. At any moment I was likely to collapse onto the sofa groaning “fuck this!” and never get up again, revealing myself to be exactly the useless scrounger I’d been denying, an illegal immigrant in the land of industry. (I could be sacked. I could be deported!)

It was a paranoid and negative version of the immigrant mentality: the same lack of entitlement, but without the hopeful self-belief.

Kids, eh?

Making eye-contact is awkward for me. Its intimacy makes my eyes water. Even my closest relationships are conducted with eyes cast down. No doubt this comes from a mixture of temperament and how I was brought up to manage that temperament. My father, especially, is not effusive.

So a family home didn’t feel like my natural environment at first. I’d found myself marooned in an alien landscape full of…people, and I knew I needed to proceed with great caution.

It didn’t occur to me, though, that relationships with my own children, bonding with them, would be so intellectually challenging.  This was because, cleverly, I refused to think about it. When the future frightens me, I just shut down any predictive faculty and let it come on. Why ruin the present by pre-living the ruinous future?

You can’t just do parenting by instinct, though: bear-hugging them when they’re sad so they feel loved; bellowing at them when they are naughty so they learn how to be good. What if they’re sad because they’ve been naughty and you bellowed at them and they think the bellow was an exercise in arbitrary and tyrannical power because they can’t see why it was naughty in the first place, or need to protect their fragile egos, and now they think you are saying they are a bad person and they wonder if maybe they are, or you are, and are you abusive and/or are they worthless and evil, but they’re not properly aware that they feel this way, just that they’re sad and angry with you, so, even though they were the ones who were thoughtless and hurtful, suddenly you’re the bad guy, but they need to be comforted by you but you’re the bad guy, somehow, so how do you go about that, especially as you are sad because they are, and feel terribly guilty, and yet also angry with them for causing such a fuss, and have had no time to process it because this all blew up out of nowhere…?

You have to pick your way carefully through these things. It’s like balancing fiendishly complicated emotional equations, especially as they hit their teenage years.

Even Jo doesn’t always find it easy, but bonding is what she most relishes. Provoked into laying down the law, she’ll then spend hours lying all cuddled up in bed with the tearful child, talking it through. I tiptoe out of the room and leave them to it.

I’m used to it now, but at first, it was both mortifying and a relief to I leave it up to her. I knew I wasn’t throwing myself into parenting, exactly, but I tried to be supportive, accommodating and amiable, and let my relationship with the children go where it would, secure in the knowledge that they’d have Jo to fill in any emotional absence.

That isn’t enough, especially if you’re not the bread-winner. I regretted it; I felt neglectful, a bad parent[1], but I felt so overwhelmed that I didn’t feel capable of any greater engagement. And this made me feel lazy and uncaring.

When the children were small, my reliance on Jo meant that if she was in the house, somewhere, I could parent with (relative) ease. I knew I could call on her if necessary, but the minute she stepped out the door, I became a much stricter, more shouty dad. I worried about losing control, and the dreadful consequences of that.

I hoped I could compensate by being the dogsbody that families require. I could demonstrate my love by doing the necessary chores, running the necessary errands.

  • Footnotes

[1] In my mind, I am still about 15. Admit it, you feel the same. Every pregnancy is a teen-pregnancy: how did we end up in this situation?! We’re not ready!

An Anorexic Looks at a Biscuit

An example of anorexic overthinking:

  1. To eat the gorgeously yummy ginger biscuit is to give in to appetite; to indulge. You must resist it to show strength.
  2. But not to eat it is not to embrace recovery, to stay in your holt curled up and quivering with fear. It is to give in to anorexia and you must resist that, which is good because it means you get to taste that sweet and lovely gingeryness.
  3. But you suspect you are just using the sanctimonious language of wanting to recover as an excuse to get the biscuit, to indulge your sybaritic, luxurious weakness for biscuits, so you should resist the urge to eat biscuits, as a demonstration of strength of character.
  4. But that sounds like the treacherous mendacity of the disease whispering insidious un-logic into your ear, so you should resist that and eat the biscuit.
  5. Surely you can keep your hands off one little biscuit for five minutes, you spineless shit?! Resist it!
  6. Are you mad? It’s one little biscuit. What harm can it do? Eat it, enjoy it, move on.
  7. Eat it. Eat it.
  8. Don’t eat the biscuit.
  9. Eatthebiscuit. Resistthebiscuit.
  10. eat resist eat resist.
  11. Eatdon’teatdon’t Eatdon’teatdon’t Eatdon’teatdon’t.
  12. biscuitbiscuit biscuitbiscuit biscuitbiscuit biscuitbiscuit
  13. Bisbisbisbisbis bisbisbisbisbis bisbisbisbisbis
  14. Bisbisbisbisbis bisbisbisbisbis bisbisbisbisbis bisbisbisbisbis bisbisbisbisbis
  15. Bis bis.

Coda:

I’ve got it! I’ll have half the biscuit! (Let’s avoid the word “eat”.)

Or a quarter.

 

Or an eighth.

Robot Carer 6

And this brings us right back to The Servant. (Remember him?)

Family life, parenting, was so new and unfamiliar that I had no opinion on it at all. It was so far beyond my experience that I didn’t even know I had no opinion. It was an honour that I thought not of[1]. Jo blazed a trail, reading the parenting books and websites, discussing the issues with other young mothers, and I just drifted along in her wake, agreeing to her decisions, although I often had to (cack-handedly) enact these decisions, because Jo was at work.

Somewhere in my befuddled brain, I recognised the importance and the responsibility of the job before us. I knew I’d have to throw myself into the parenting of these precious, vulnerable, impressionable little creatures, but I saw this entirely in terms of externalised activity. I thought if I demonstrated love and care, if I expressed love and care and undertook the activities of love and care, love and care would be what the children experienced. Or I didn’t think. I vaguely assumed. My inner self existed, crouched, hidden, in a locked room, thinking and feeling nothing. I assumed this was the same for everyone.

I didn’t realise that the self is permeable. It doesn’t exist as a hard, unchanging nugget; sloughing off the rest of the world the way your waterproof skin does rain: water off a duck’s back. The self is spongy; it absorbs its environment. You are partly formed of the opinions of those around you: their values, their view of who you are, how you fit in or don’t: call a dog a bad name…

Humans[2] are so sensitive to the subtlest cues and signals, subconsciously, so empathetic to others – their sense of self, their experience – that they are almost telepathic. And they do this automatically. Starvation makes you lose it. That’s when you realise what miracles you used to perform. Every day. Even the most selfish of us.

“Such are the strange acoustics of the life of the spirit, such it’s strange spatial arrangement.”[3]

So, I think, somewhere in the backs of their minds, the children knew. They can tell a charlatan when they see one, a quack, a false prophet, a replicant, a simulacrum, an automaton, a hollow man.

It’s stored up, somewhere in their messed-up heads, waiting for the litigious therapist to unlock it. Then I’ll get my comeuppance. I wait in dread.

Footnotes

[1] Come on, you know where this is from! You did it at school!

[2] I rarely count myself among them.

[3] Soren Kierkegaard, The sickness Unto Death, 2008, London: Penguin, p.142. I don’t understand most of Kierkegaard. He’s talking about people’s relationship to God, or something; I am not. I’ve repurposed his words.