Monday, February 18, 2008

What if Forgiving Someone only Fuels Their Hatred?

When I don't post for this long, I seriously toy with the idea of "hanging it up." I no longer prioritize this blog and I certainly don't have the desire or time to update it as much as others. But, just when I am ready to say goodbye to blogging forever, it occurs to me that to give this up is to give up a powerful outlet for my more "philosophical" thoughts that I will never publish or work on in any serious way. I went into the philosophy because of my tendency to reflect quite a bit on the meaning of peoples' behavior or the struggle to make sense of difficult choices, but I learned quickly that these sort of musings aren't really appropriate for research and publishing. Nonetheless, I am still occupied by them and if I don't put them somewhere, I feel lonely--like I have something to share but no one to share it with.

So, I continue. Perhaps not at the pace I once did, but . . .

I spent a lot of time thinking about the theme of forgiveness again this past week. My colleague is flirting with the idea of teaching the Senior Seminar on the topic next year and this got me to thinking again about what I find so difficult and problematic about forgiveness.

To elaborate, let me think out loud about a conversation I had with *I* yesterday about our siblings. Both of us seem to be locked into serious sibling rivalries and yet neither of us perceives ourselves to be in competition with our sibling. Perhaps there are subtle ways in which we are or unconscious ways, but in our everyday mode, we don't think about how accomplishing X or getting recognition for Y will once again establish our superiority over our sibling. Nonetheless, both of our siblings respond to us as if we are trying to make them feel bad about themselves by rubbing our own accomplishments in their face.

In fact, we share this common experience of trying to sincerely compliment our siblings only to have them hear it as haughty and patronizing. And, once they hear it this way, then the attack mode goes in full effect and we find ourselves scrambling to defend ourselves against a portrait they have drawn that we in no way find ourselves captured by. We both do what we are trained to do--marshall good arguments, evidence and "facts" to demonstrate why we are not the people they think we are. But, those tools may work in a ideal world of philosophy argumentation (and let's face it they don't really fare that well there either), but they are no defense against perceptions.

The fact is that sometimes people have perceptions about you that no evidence seems to contradict. To put in the language of logical empiricism, there is no falsifiability principle at work in some peoples' perceptions of us and hence we are rather ineffectual in defending ourselves from them. And, being unable to defend yourself against what you take to be horribly unfair and insulting accusations of you is maddening---especially when the skills you have developed totally fail.

It is this kind of painful situation--magnified because it is in the context of familial ties--that calls for another analysis of forgiveness. What is really needed to ever repair a relationship beset by sibling rivalry is forgiveness on both sides. However, here is the quandary: if I choose to forgive my brother am I only fueling his anger? Damn my ego! I no longer care about defending myself or being right. What is to come of it? I just want peace and more particularly access to the parts of him that I love and miss. But, I can find no way in and nothing I have done ever seems to break his perception of me. He is locked into a narrative that he needs--at least from my standpoint--to fuel because it is doing work for him.

Moving away from my particular failed relationship to more general observations, it seems that when we confront people who need to maintain a certain perception of us, it is because to consider the alternative is way too difficult--it would require looking themselves and the need they have for certain narratives. And, I think we have to accept the probability that this will never occur. Given this state of events, what role does forgiveness play? Is forgiveness possible? Or, would forgiving them only fuel their animosity?

Saturday, February 09, 2008

On Treating My Mother With Respect [GUEST POST]

by Metapsychologist

On September 11, 2001, in the late morning, living on Long Island, I tried phoning my family back home in the UK to speak to them and let them know I was fine. For a while all international phone lines were busy, presumably because everyone else who was living in the USA and came from the UK had the same idea. Eventually I got through, and when my mother answered the phone, she was sobbing. I was surprised, and at first a little moved that she was so upset. Then she explained why she was sobbing: she had taken her cat to the vet that day and he was going to be put down to sleep. She said she couldn't speak any more and put down the phone. I shook my head, and took a deep breath.

My mother had loved that cat, in her own way. She would frequently buy it fresh meat or fish to eat and she would look forward to feeding it. But I never saw it sitting on her lap or spending time with her. I remember watching her playing with it: she had some knitting needles, and she would wave them around while it tried to grab them, which made her laugh a lot. I don't think she ever held the cat, although she may have touched it when it was feeding.

Watching her with the cat made me wonder how she nurtured my sister and me when we were young children. It's very hard to imagine her holding or hugging us, and there are no photographs of us in her arms. She says I used to love it when she read me stories, and that's plausible, although I don't remember it. Watching her with her one year old granddaughter was a little appalling; she would suggest putting the baby in another room if she was crying; and when outside in shopping areas, you couldn't leave her with the pram because she would just wander away from it.

When in my twenties I had the opportunity to leave the UK and pursue graduate work in the USA, it wasn't a difficult choice. Although my mother had been a single mother for a few years after her divorce from my father, she remarried as soon as she could. I wasn't close to her, and saw my visits to her more as a duty than a pleasure. I didn't feel there was much else in the UK to keep me there either. When I eventually spent a few years in psychotherapy, I saw more clearly how I had learned to deal with emotional problems by separating myself from other people, and how I had kept that as a coping mechanism.

My sister remained in the UK and sees my mother more frequently than I do, but for shorter periods. A single mother herself, she finds it difficult to cope with her young daughter and our mother at the same time for more than a few hours. She tends to have a stormier relationship with our mother, getting angry and disappointed by her actions, but she is also often warmer and more loving. When I'm with my mother, I try to close myself down emotionally, and focus on solutions to problems and practical issues.

When I was staying at my mother's most recently, I was talking to my sister on the phone. We were talking about why my mother gets so anxious and starts entertaining such ridiculous fears; that afternoon, because my sister hadn't answered the phone, my mother was worrying that she had got into a car accident, and she left message saying "please phone as soon as you get home, it's very important, I need to know you are safe." Often when my mother does this, my sister is just too busy to phone, or she just doesn't want to deal with it. "Why does she do it?" my sister asked me. I answered quickly, "she's mentally ill." "Can she hear you?" my sister asked, concerned. "I don't know," I replied, "maybe." I didn't really care whether my mother could hear me or not.

I've found myself talking about my mother in the third person more and more while in her presence. Because she has hearing problems, gets confused easily, and does not pay much attention, it's easy to slip into this. Sometimes she wants to be part of a conversation, but it is very difficult to include her. That's especially true for me since I intentionally tell her little about my life. For most of my life, she has had only mild interest. For a long time, she didn't really know what subject I was pursuing a PhD in. So I've long felt there wasn't much point telling my mother much about my life. Now I'm at the stage when I sit down for a meal with her and I find I have nothing to say to her; there's nothing I want to share with her.

In the last decade, my mother has become increasingly negative and anxious, and her attitude doesn't respond to reason. She has often said how awful the modern world is, far worse than ever before. I have tried pointing out that she grew up in Belgium when it was occupied by the Nazis, when they were carrying out persecution of the Jews and killing of millions of people in concentration camps, and she is complaining about how much litter there now is on the streets and how badly young women dress these days. It is like arguing with a person who is depressed: no amount of argument will convince them that things are not as bad as they seem. So after a while, I give up, and when she complains about the state of the world, I just say "oh really?" or "I don't think so."

My sister, because she sees our mother more often and maybe because of a different attitude, tends to share more about her life with her. My sister's a single mother, bring up a young child, and life is a struggle sometimes. This gives plenty of fuel for my mother's fire of worry. She drives herself into a frenzy of anxiety sometimes, but of course, she can be of virtually no practical help. Talking to her on the phone this week, I said, as I do most of the time these days, "It's none of your business, she is a grown woman, she can cope on her own, you are not helping her with your worry, focus on helping yourself." It doesn't do much good. Today she said to me, "I am so worried, and no one tells me why I should not worry. Nobody gives me that much courtesy." She's right in a sense; we all know that nothing we say will stop her worrying, so we stop trying to explain much, and just tell her not to worry, or try to change the subject.

In practical terms, I don't think there's much else we can do. It's not very clear why my mother is in the emotional state she is, and there's little to be done to change it, at this stage at least. My concern here is more about a point of principle. It's that it is impossible to respect my mother, at least in the way she wants. There's a lifetime of frustration behind this. Whatever the causes, for much our childhood, she wasn't nurturing, she didn't show much interest, she didn't create a secure attachment. When I read, for example, about Mary Ainsworth's "strange situation" experiments in the 1960s, I think of myself when I was a child as anxious-ambivalent or anxious-avoidant. Of course, I'm an adult now, and she turns to me for help and security. Several years of psychotherapy made me more able to put the past into perspective. Therapists have urged to see my issues with my mother as psychological and emotional, something for me to get past. Doubtless, psychological coping skills, such as taking a deep breath before reacting to her, are very useful.

Nevertheless, I also see an ethical problem. My mother certainly has emotional problems, and doctors have seen fit to put her on a mood stabilizer, indicating a diagnosis of chronic mental illness. But not everything she ever did was a symptom of a mental illness, and her emotional profile is very much part of her permanent personality. As she gets older and more confused, it feels as if the problems become worse, or less mitigated by her positive character traits, but there's a strong continuity between my mother now and how she has been her whole life. There's no simple separation between the healthy part of her and the mentally ill part. I'm not sure there's any separation to be made at all.

When I say "she has these worries because she is mentally ill," this is more a way of dealing with the situation, or putting it to one side, rather than a well-justified explanation. I treat my mother as emotionally disabled because that's what works for me and I don't have any better way of coping. It helps reduce my feelings of frustration and anger. But it also means giving up on the hope of better communication or a more authentic relationship.

I wonder sometimes whether there isn't some other way to conceptualize the past, to understand her life as a mother, and the role that mental illness has played in it. Reflecting on my relationship with my mother makes me acutely aware of the complexities and uncertainties of how we hold people with mental illnesses responsible for their actions, and the difficulties of establishing satisfactory relationships with them. Most people with mentally ill relatives grapple with these issues, yet there's not enough discussion of how they work them through.

Link to previous blog post: Let me tell you about my mother.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Super Tuesday Round-up

A lot of interesting bits coming over the transom today from the many listservs to which I belong. First of all there is this endorsement of Barack Obama by Joan Baez in the SFChron:

Leader on a new journey

Editor - I have attempted throughout my life to give a voice to the voiceless, hope to the hopeless, encouragement to the discouraged, and options to the cynical and complacent. From Northern Ireland to Sarajevo to Latin America, I have sung and marched, engaged in civil disobedience, visited war zones, and broken bread with those who had little bread to break.

Through all those years, I chose not to engage in party politics. Though I was asked many times to endorse candidates at every level, I was never comfortable doing so. At this time, however, changing that posture feels like the responsible thing to do. If anyone can navigate the contaminated waters of Washington, lift up the poor, and appeal to the rich to share their wealth, it is Sen. Barack Obama. If anyone can bring light to the darkened corners of this nation and restore our positive influence in world affairs, it is Barack Obama. If anyone can begin the process of healing and bring unity to a country that has been divided for too long, it is Barack Obama. It is time to begin a new journey.


Menlo Park

I wonder how California will go today. My mom's wing of the SEIU union is endorsing Obama now that Edwards is out. I hear that Berkeley is awash in Obama flyers and posters. But, Sacramento and Berkeley do not represent the whole state and the prediction is CA will go to Hillary. But, who knows?

Also, Nancy Fraser, a well-known feminist philosopher wrote this for Tikkun:

Hillary or Barack?
Two Views of Feminism by Nancy Fraser

I was distressed to read that the President of NY State N.O.W. excoriated Ted Kennedy for "betraying women" by endorsing Barack Obama instead of Hillary Clinton (NYT, 2/1/08). But I was not entirely surprised. That view reflects what has by now become the mainstream self-understanding of American feminism as a political interest group. To the extent that feminists understand themselves in this way, as defending women's policy interests within the existing framework of politics-as-usual, they have found an excellent standard-bearer in Hillary Clinton. But that is not the only way to understand feminism. Not so long ago, many of us saw ourselves as participants in a transformative social movement, which aspired to remake the political landscape. Intent more on changing the rules of the game than on playing it as it lays, we mobilized energies from below to stretch the bounds of what was politically thinkable. Expanding public space and invigorating public debate, our movement projected, not a laundry list of demands, but the inspiriting vision of a non-hierarchical society that nurtured both human connections and individual freedom. Some feminists continue to cleave to that self-understanding. For us, Barack Obama represents a better vehicle for feminist aspirations than Hillary Clinton. The democratizing energies now converging on him promise to create the terrain on which our sort of feminism can once again flourish. Drawing its momentum from activist forces, and inspiring the latter in turn, the Obama compaign offers feminists, and other progressive forces, that rarest of political opportunities: the chance to help build and shape a major realignment of American politics. That is a prospect worthy of the best and the highest in American feminism.

Nancy Fraser
Henry A. and Louise Loeb Professor of Philosophy and Politics
New School for Social Research

So, what do you think we will find out today about the Democratic nominee, if anything?

Secondly, what do you think of the many endorsements for Barack Obama that compare him to JFK?

Friday, February 01, 2008

Working Mom

A friend, who is pregnant and after giving birth will need to return to work quite quickly, asked me to read this piece at Salon today. She also encouraged me to write some about my return to work and how to achieve that mystical balance that countless parenting magazines (aimed primarily at women, I might add) speak about.

Upon finishing up this woman's "Dear Cary" letter, I found myself feeling a bit disconnected from her worldview. It's not that I don't understand or respect where she is coming from--not wanting the role of mother be the primary role by which one identifies oneself--but rather my own views about being a mother and a mother who works outside the home have morphed quite a bit. Not too long ago, right after Maddie was born, I was writing feverishly that I didn't want to lose my identity as a Philosophy professor--as someone engaged with not only the public, but with ideas. Almost everytime I wrote something like that, I would be met with comments that warned me how much I would miss my daughter when I was back and work and how hard it would be to miss out on so many of her daily changes. I think that these kinds of comments might be what fuels the "Dear Cary" letter that this woman writes.

While my ideas about being a working mom or even the "role" or "identity" of mother have changed, they most certainly have not come around to embrace the rather scolding tone of women who warn that going back to work is a travesty or that it results in a disconnection from your child.

To be frank, this has not been my experience in the least. I am gratified to be back at work now and Maddie is really thriving in daycare. We leave for work together and she gets excited when I put her in her car seat. She loves the women who care for her and is starting to play with other babies. I love peeking in on her and seeing her smiling widely and reaching out to touch another little one. Don't get me wrong. The first few days were really hard, especially since she had been with me 24/7. I am also lucky that my daycare is on site and so I can walk over and see her whenever I want. I tend to nurse her on my lunch hours.

The way in which I feel disconnected from this Salon piece lies in the anxiety and anger that the woman writing it exhibits. I was there once. I felt really defensive and in need of staking my ground against a wave of sentiment that having a child and trying to maintain my pre-child identity was impossible. Now that I am doing it--working and mothering--I don't have any time or energy to care one wit about moralistic parents who think I am a bad or soon to be disappointed mom.

[Side-note: in a conversation with Hanno I realized why some women might opt out. The first few days (or longer) of daycare transition can be so difficult that some women might not have the ability to stand it and therefore they leave their job. This was never an option for me.]

I take such delight in my time a work. When I am at work, I am more than a mom. In public, with Maddie, I am practically invisible. Strangers or acquaintances are drawn to her and if they speak to me it is only to learn about her and how I am doing with my little one. I am not, however, resentful of this invisibility. I would rather look at and talk about Maddie too, who can blame them. I am a proud mama and delight in showing her off. But, before returning to work, I tired of having that sort of connection be my only way of relating to others.

When I am at work, I am a more complicated person. But let me first say that I am a mom and I love talking about that in my classes or working it in somehow. I think that being a mom is very important to my identity and that it should be reclaimed and praised. Becoming a mother has made me more interested and attentive to the larger world around me than ever before. Pre-mom I was pretty solipsistic (maybe narcissistic). I care more about politics, the economy, education, the environment, the difficulties of my students . . . you name it . . .with greater passion than ever. The world I live in now is the world Maddie will grow up in. So, I care about that world and the people in it a great deal more than I did.

At work, I am also a silly, whimsical, hyper woman who loves to talk about fashion and catch up on friends' love lives. That part of me doesn't get eclipsed by Maddie's presence. I am also someone who knows a great deal about what she is teaching and therefore students see me as, hopefully, an intellectual engaged in the world and interested in their own intellectual development. I am grateful--so grateful--that I have the space of work to be this person.

Having said that, I am tired and rarely well prepared for my classes. I wing it most of the time. I find it hard to do anything beyond my classes--i.e. write on my blog. When I go home, I know that I have several more hours to be "on," unlike before when I would go home after a day at work and do mindless activities. Sleep is so important to me now that I get bummed out when Za wants to "talk." I use to love that, now I love sleeping.

One of the upsides of having little time and sleep is that I just don't care anymore about being the "perfect" professor and scholar. I know things, I can communicate them, and I don't have to make my lectures or writing impeccable. I look around at my new female colleagues who are equally sleep deprived, but not from being mothers, but from worrying that they have to over prepare to earn the respect of students. I see now that that labor is decidedly not what earns the respect of students (but that is another post).

I guess if there is one thing I want to emphasize in this post about how my worldview differs from the "Dear Cary" letter writers' it is that being a "mom" is never just about being hermetically sealed up with your children. Children open the world to you and get you out in the world more than ever. So, the fact that being a mom has become associated with a kind of shut inness is just plain wrong-headed.

So, let's reclaim "mom" to connote cosmopolitan, worldly, publicly engaged and throw away, once and for all, the outmoded view that moms are nothing more than the emotional and nutritional providers for their children.

To sound trite--every mother is a working mother.