Tuesday, June 23, 2009

On Suffering & Naiveté

I met my second boyfriend in a specialty running shoe store—he watched me walk and analyzed my stride, and then invited me to go on a hike. After we’d been together for some time, we’d tell each other our creation myth, as couples do.

“When I first walked into the store, did you think I was a 12 year-old?” I’d ask him, because this happens to me a lot.

“No baby,” he’d reply, “I could see suffering in your eyes. I could tell that you’d been through heartache; I could tell that you were old enough.”

A sweet beginning, no? He was right—the breakup with my previous boyfriend, in high school, pretty much sucked majorly and made a lasting psychological impact that apparently shone through my eyes. To be human is to suffer, right? We all do it.

I first learned about suffering the way kids learn about most things—by watching their parents. We were in the car one day, dad driving, mom in the front seat, me in the back. He was teasing her playfully about something, and she, being the sensitive one of the duo, burst into tears. It was the first time I had seen my mom cry, and I thought I could read her mind, and that she was wishing she could go home to my grandparents in LA, and wondering why she ever married my dad and let him take her away.

My mom used to tell me about how marrying my dad dashed her girlhood notions of being swept off her feet by someone tall, dark, and handsome. "Dark and handsome, maybe, but you have him to thank for being so small." I was always sort of surprised to hear her talk about her marriage like this—I mean, really? Love isn't grand and romantic and earth shattering? How disappointing.

As far as I can tell, my parents have a good marriage. Sometimes my mom exasperates my dad, and my dad makes my mom cry—but mostly they get along and seem to genuinely enjoy each other and maintain a satisfying sex life, about which they sometimes drop lewd hints at the dinner table. (I wonder where the desire to create this unladylike blog came from. Well, to be fair, it probably comes from my grandma, who once told my 9-year old brother, as he stroked a velvety soft ball of yarn she was using to knit a sweater, "One day you'll want a nice soft pussy to be stroking.")

So my parents have this stable marriage, and meanwhile, everywhere around me I've been reading all this shit about not settling for the status quo. A friend emails me a review of “A Vindication of Love,” a new book that is pretty much a paean to stormy relationships. If we want to find passion, the thesis goes, we must break free from our conventional notions of love:
“We have been pragmatic and pedestrian about our erotic lives for too long,” she writes, and in an examination of real and invented figures from the Wife of Bath to Frida Kahlo, she revels in love affairs that do not rely on our more hackneyed narratives. The result of Nehring’s literary and historical inquiry is a celebration of the wilder, messier connections. Her heroes and heroines tend to die, like Young Werther, who shoots himself; or try to die, like Mary Wollstonecraft, who throws herself off a bridge; or suffer, like Abelard and Heloise, one of whom is castrated and one of whom ends up in a nunnery. And yet Nehring admires these flamboyant men and women for the creative force of their affairs, for their ability to live outside the lines, for the ferocity of their feelings. She sees our modern goals of marriage, security and comfort as limited and sad, and quotes approvingly Heloise’s statement to Abelard: “ ‘I looked for no marriage bond,’ she flashed. ‘I never sought anything in you but yourself.’ ”In her most provocative and interesting chapters, Nehring argues for the value of suffering, for the importance of failure. Our idea of a contented married ending is too cozy and tame for her.

And my college rhetoric professor, on his blog, rhetorically asks us to consider our parents, and their marriages:
I want you all to think for a moment: Are your parents happy? Do they consume life with unabashed joy, with voracious abandon? Now think of all your friends' parents: Are any of them happy? Are they lit up—by life? By ideas? By art? By their respective spouses? Are they happy? Do they really love each other? Do they enjoy life?

Wait—yes! I think mine do, but I sense that this is the wrong answer. Am I naïve? I'm used to being told as much.

Once, a man said to me: “I get the feeling that things have come pretty easily to you in your life. That you haven’t had to suffer much.” He said it while he was doling me out a minor hardship, and the context made it feel a bit condescending—an older man implying that he knew me and knew what I needed. It’s true that I grew up with loving parents and lived in a nice town and went to private school and am a well-adjusted and productive member of society. But I sensed an underlying accusation, one that I’ve heard before: you are naïve. A naïve little girl. So much to learn.

I do have a lot to learn, and this man was good intentioned and probably didn’t have an inkling about all these dark undertones I read into his words. And yet: I felt robbed of my suffering, which is another way of saying I felt robbed of my legitimacy—my “reason for being,” as we say in advertising—and perhaps even my humanity.

The implication was that I had to break free from the status quo to suffer and experience true emotion if I ever wanted to realize my true creative potential—to find greatness. But I’ve found that life already offers plenty of opportunities for genuine suffering, without having to seek it out in some unconventional way—I saw it in my mom’s tears that day in the car, and I felt it as a naïve little high-school girl breaking up with her boyfriend. We all suffer—suffering is incredibly mundane, common, and vital, all at once.

So call me conventional, or call me naïve (you wouldn’t be the first), but I’m underwhelmed by enlightened attempts to find passion by breaking out of the mold—polyamory and what have you. I’m reminded of a summer day I spent sitting naked with a boy by a river in Yosemite. He was trying to convince me that there were no boundaries between lovers and friends—that conventional monogamy was a farce, and hence I should forget about my shoesalesman boyfriend back home and make out with him beneath the waterfall.

His logic was tempting, but ultimately unconvincing. I couldn't put my finger on why at the time, and my uncertainty led me into a gray area of cheating/not cheating. Nothing really happened, but when I returned to my boyfriend, the damage had been done and things soon fell apart. I may have been naïve back then, but at least I learned one thing: when a guy tries to convince me he knows me better than I know myself, he's usually just trying to get into my pants.