Sunday, February 18, 2007

The Phenomenology of Broken Hearts

I have been reading quite a few essays on phenomenology today, which reminded me how much I loved reading this stuff as a fresh graduate student and how important I think this way of doing Philosophy is. In fact, over the years I have been perplexed by two different camps of philosopher-writers (viz, those who wrote both philosophy and literature). There are those who see their literature as wholly separate from and perhaps antithetical to the aims of Philosophy [Iris Murdoch] and those who see literature as an important mode for philosophizing [Simone De Beauvoir]. My heart goes out to the latter camp.

The phenomenologists believes that Descartes' radical doubt about the existence of things was wholly ass backward. We do not come into crisis over believing or not that the metaphysical essence of the external world exists, rather we come into crisis when we put into doubt our basic notions, ideas, and possessions that we have inherited or relationships we have found stability in. If I start to actually question that heterosexuality is 'normal' sexuality or that some people are not born with a whole lot of opportunity open to them, I might start to find my relationship to the world radically threatened. If I discover that a cherished friend no longer cares for me, I am cast out of any serenity. I rarely get this worked up if I start to wonder if the wax in front of me really exists (Descartes' example). The big questions of Philosophy: Does the external world exist? Do other minds exist? appeal to me as much as the Analytic philosopher, it's just that I don't find the reductionism of science to be the best method for tackling them.

I have preferred the thick descriptions of writers/phenomenologists who lay bare the fact that the world is a public world and that we cannot escape this fact if we take the time to notice, for example, the crumbles and empty coffee cup left on the table in this cafe that I just took over.

So, yes, I love this stuff. And while I was reading Husserl and Merleau-Ponty and De Beauvoir, I kept analyzing, in the back of my mind, the sort of awkward experiences that one suffers through in small towns, small social circles, and rather incestous work/life relationships. In the past few months, my relationship to some people has changed dramatically. Those who were once very close and important to me are strangers and those who were distant acquaintances are growing to be closer. I have analyzed, at length, what has shaped these transformations.

While there are lots of reasons, one significant one is the fact of being hurt. Yes, that all-too-human experience of having someone "break your heart." I don't mean romantically, but rather the deep sense of abandonment you feel when someone you trusted or who you thought was in your corner showed him or herself to be human. (I was going to write: less than a loyal friend, but I soon realized that what they really revealed themselves as is humans, like me, manifesting their insecurities). In any case, I have suffered from what felt to me as betrayals by friends: lies, or lack of care, or cowardice. I have tried to bear these things well, but find myself wanting to just avoid those who have hurt me. Moreover, I have wanted all my friends to avoid those who hurt me too. I want to be free from any situation where I make myself vulnerable to one who has hurt me.

I was talking to Za a few weeks ago about how painful it is to try and interact with a former friend who I am forced to see everyday. Do I have a superficial conversation? Do I smile and ask about his/her life? Now, duh. The answer should be "yes." So, why don't I do it? Why do I prefer to ignore or avoid people who have hurt me? Za nailed it. Because if I were to engage in superficial, saccharine conversation I won't know at what point to cut if off. What topics do I stick to? How long should I speak to X person before walking away? If I make eye contact that shows warmth or concern, do I open the door for that person to hurt me again? All of these fuzzy boundaries are scary, and so to avoid the messy work of avoiding them, I just try to expunge those who hurt me from my life. I cannot find a way to live in to coexist with them without opening myself to profound fear of being hurt again.

The other odd thing about negotiating failed friendships is the acknowledgement from the other, hardly ever expressed directly in words, but rather furtively in glances, that they know you are angry at them, that they are afraid of you because of it. This response is hard to negotiate when you represent to yourself that what you are feeling is hurt. You feel hurt, you feel betrayed, and yet you are called to overcome the fear this produces to be forgiving to the one who hurt you. The onus is on me to make overtures to create a more peaceful coexistence or to forgive the human foibles, or better yet, to just pretend it never happened.

I have never been able to figure out how to make myself vulnerable again to someone who hurt me.

Well, that's not true. I would melt, just melt if a sincere, non tu quoque apology manifested itself. I am not a spiteful person. I don't hold grudges. I take no pleasure in recounting the many wrongs heaped upon me. I do, however, fear being hurt again. I am sensitive. My heart breaks. I do feel abandoned. So, to avoid that feeling, I retreat and I harbor fantasies that my friends will create a protective cocoon around me. The real problem is that I am too vulnerable (geez, take this blog as evidence). And yet, I am interpreted not as vulnerable but hard.

These sort of difficult human negotiations are impossible to avoid in small town life. You cannot get lost in a sea of anonymity. You are reminded, daily, of loss. You are plagued by fragment and fracture. So, living this life, when you congenitally lack protective cover, is an interesting study in the phenomenology of human relationships. Usually what lies beneath most of the fraught human dynamics is the opposite of what is presented. Those who appear the most aloof, the most withholding are the loneliest, the creatures licking their wounds over painful encounters with those who mattered. Those who seem most in control are the least in control. Those who are easy going, who wag well with others, might lack any true intimacy.

What we show is not very often what we feel.