I was having, as I so often do, a dialogue with X (a real person, whom I know), on my way home from work today.
n – so what do you do? on weekdays, after work? Do you manage to do anything with your family, your partner, your children?
x – most night, not really. Yes there is (this activity, that event, things that we do together occasionally and as “special” events) … but mostly: No. I get home, it’s late, I’m tired, and within a few hours I’ve gone to sleep.
n – hmm.. ok.
x – well, that’s the way things are (reflexively thinking – that’s the way things are for most of the working folks who have to work for the things that they have).
n – yes, I know. I know. That’s why I’m asking you these questions… because I want to know how you do it.
x – just like everyone else (and just like everyone else before me too).
n – and … so what is it that you see yourself doing? how do you portray your role, or understand your role, with regard to your family?
x – what do you mean?
n – like, do you see yourself as being primarily the person who’s made their existence possible? As in, you see your role as fundamentally there to provide for their basic existence and leisure, for their chance to pursue their interests and values, and you are there really as a provider? Yes, of course you do have times where you are the parent, the partner, the (etc. other family member role)… but that most of what you do has to do with the fact that you are there to make sure they get to do these other things?
x – well, yes. I guess that is the biggest part of my contribution to them, to the family. I make it possible for them…
And then here, at this point in the fictional conversation is where I see myself having an epiphany – as conventional, as staid, as commonplace as all this sounds to most people (who’ve grown up with parents and friends and relatives who have all joined the ranks of the numbingly overworked, of those who work every day to the full extent of their capacity and return home empty, pressed for the shelter of bed and who’s main concern is simply how to wade through the evening most expediently in order to try to go to sleep – already later than they’d wish to, but not so late that tomorrow is an unbearable train-wreck from the moment they wake up, an hour before dawn) – I realize this is pathological.
The example that leapt to mind was that of a parent, who in the midst of bounty, slays game for the family meal, and then because of convention rather than necessity, sets fire to themselves in order that the family cook the meat.
Yes, it is a form of heroic martyrdom (born out of ignorance or lack of expectation that it might be any other way) for the parent to sacrifice themselves – their time, their life, their energy, their attention, to some cause which in turn provides the family with its means. It is a trope we have all (in the west) been reared to admire, and inculcated to imitate. It is what makes our society function at all (and the way it does).
And yet, what strikes me, what grabs me so vividly with that hyperbolic vision of a parent charring their flesh that their younglings should eat, is that along with providing, the parent is also withholding. Along with being the source of the material means for sustenance, the parent is not providing something else just as important as food – their time, their attention, their loving presence and company – themselves.
Children, and families, and the love story which can grow between any two or more people, can only really flourish, mature and ripen, with time and exposure. I.e. with togetherness. There are no substitutes, there are no short cuts, there are no proxies for gentle loving care. In person. One on one, face to face, arms and hand joined, stories entwined.
The work regimen that deprives the members of a family the chance to sew and reap the benefits familial ties – strangles the vine of life, and robs it of the very pulp of Love, leaving only the dull surfaces and the hollow routines of every day. And this, this is the sadness and shame of it all, that after these so many years of toil as a people, as a culture, that we are left with a culture that actually enshrines these empty traces and gestures of life, and fills them with the warm glow of the all the promises they held, but never delivered on.
That is what is most twisted and perverse about this situation – his condition most westerners find so very common and justified.
To convince a person that it is normal and good for them to deprive themselves of what is most vital and precious in life, and then shower accolades onto the ghost for its warm fullness of being.
Roxanne, next to me in bed. Tucson, Arizona _ 2011
Turn your fat throbbing heart into a rattling dust filled scab. That is what it takes to be great among the many, strong among the weak, outstanding above the mediocre – that is what it takes to survive and excel among the middle class. This is how to be above average, and not live a moment of the life that should be naturally yours. All for them. All for the next generation, for the comfort of your partner, or parent, or loved one. All for someone else, when the most precious thing they could possibly have is earnest and rich time, face to face, with you. Not a minute, or a moment, or a glimpse, but however long it takes.
The West is afraid of intimacy. It is a culture reared on weaning. Grown on salt water rather than mother’s milk. Less of each of us, for each of us, is more. At least that is what the culture believes is good for itself as a whole.
Yes: people still have to make sacrifices.
Yes: there is still room for genuine selflessness – good for the other.
Yes: there is still and always will be a time and place to test the moral rectitude, the strength of character, the brilliance of mind, the depth of compassion and the full measure of the social ties that bind us.
Without those things life would not be whole either. But to distill all of those dimensions into a single focused methodology of behavior – work to your limits – in such a way that it deprives the worker of the real purpose and value their toil proposes to support and nurture. That is the heart of perversion. That is robbing one of life and giving them the sapped husk as a trophy.
Worse, because of how our young learn, and how we establish and maintain social equilibrium, the precedent yoked upon one generation serves to ballast the next when they would most likely reach for a change. Almost invariably and inevitably the balance of the masses fall and follow suit. The few times the social order has been shaken by the masses in revolt against this system are all moments we are all taught about in history. Each revolt is followed with a period of idealism, of striving, and with a longer period of gradually returning to a more and more imbalanced power structure among the many.
In the macroscopic view, social structures breed inequity. There seems to be little escape from that fact.
It is only in the myopia of an intimate sphere that we can have any hope of true harmony, of true nurturing untainted by gain for another. The name of this place is home, and the name of the ambrosia produced by life fully lived, is Love.
Remnants. Kitchen sink, home. Tucson, Arizona _ 2011
(D.A. … anyone… The Restaurant at the End of the Universe)