Life can be a stinky piece of shit. And, more often than that, it’s just plain old boring (how many conversations about some idiotic movie or “the economy” can you have?) and humiliating (consider the number of PowerPoint presentations you’ve created — and then add yearly job reviews and hemorrhoids to the equation). Yes, daily life hurls insults big and small with seeming abandon.
If you’re smart and not masochistic, you change some of these things. You quit your job with its yearly reviews in which some self-important shitbird condescends to judge you for things you couldn’t care less about. You get a job working in a public garden teaching kids how to harvest aloe. You drop your friend who thinks Spielberg is worth more than .000005 seconds of your time. You discover El Tesoro Reposado and, for a moment, what once stunk like shit is now coming up roses. Hallelujah!
Ah, but then there’s your family. They are not so readily swapped out. What is one to do with them?
My own family, for instance, has a long and storied past, much of which smells a lot worse than rosy. What we’re left with is an infinitely complex morass of wills, wishes, and tics, of resentments and rages along with all the private dialects, references, jokes, and memories that make a family a family. We are a pack of strong willed, conspicuously articulate, Merck Manual memorizing, aggressively opinionated, emotionally charged know-it-all hebes and one step-goy father type, just to keep things interesting. I will spare you the details of how we all got here for as captivating as they may be, they’re a) none of your business and b) not relevant for this here screed.
Now, as a child, my household was a not a peaceful place. Both of my older siblings graduated high school in three years. I taught college kids for 17 years and have never heard of anyone doing high school in three years.
This fact is relevant for it introduces a very important tactic for life survival: avoidance. It’s the old joke of the guy who walks in the doctor’s office and says, “Doc, whenever I spin my arm like this, it really hurts.” To which the doctor replies, “Well, then don’t spin your arm like that.” In other words, if there’s a situation that sucks ass, simply avoid it. And family, up to a point, can be avoided — you don’t have to go home for holidays; you don’t have to make phone calls: you don’t have to spin your arm like that.
With both my brother and sister out of the house a year earlier than usual, I was left an only child from eighth grade on. I could have taken their tactical lead, graduated high school in three years, and avoided the whole mess as best I could. But I liked high school. I had a few great teachers; I took a lot of drugs; I had a lot of sex. I’d have stayed forever. So I learned a different tactic, a spin on avoidance: indifference.
Indifference is incredibly powerful. I could be in a flurry of mayhem but I discovered that if I just didn’t care, the whole thing passed me by. In fact, few gestures are as devastating as indifference. A girl says she loves you: Wow! She says she hates you: Oh no! She doesn’t care at all about you and, well, that inflicts a pain beyond words. I think of that beautiful Gotye song — Now you’re just somebody that I used to know. Indifference parries — deflates — emotional assault with devastating deftness.
Recently, my family was brought together for a horrible tragedy (once again, I withhold the details as it’s none of your business). It’s been 30 years, more or less, since we spent any time all together. That’s the effect of avoidance and indifference.
Now I want to be clear that it’s not that avoidance and indifference have been our sole means of negotiation and communication. Not at all. In many ways, we are quite close. We all talk to each other (some more than others); we laugh, at times wildly; we fight; we love; we support.
But, through it all, avoidance and indifference have been the dominant modes to maintain sanity amidst the madness. These tactics have allowed us to turn away from the ugliness, oddity, annoyance, and anxiety. I don’t imagine we’re special in this way; these things run through all families. What distinguishes families is how they negotiate these issues.
After 30 years of avoidance and indifference, my family has found itself hurled together. And, sure enough, the same nonsense, anxiety, annoyances are still there. Now, I suppose we could have amplified our indifference and avoidance and disavowed each other completely. But that was never us. For all our avoidance and indifference, there are very powerful and profound feelings of attachment, of loss, of love that flourish between us.
Now, I often imagine this thing called love as surging, as a burbling swell of sensation. It inhabits us, takes hold of us. There he is, a big beautiful stupid smile seared across his face. He lives for the sight of her, the waft of her scent, the melody of her laugh. I’ve known this love and it’s resonant, to say the least.
And this lover is so glad because before this love he felt dethatched, precariously tethered to the planet. He watched too much TV, slept longer than he should have, drifted. And now, thanks to his love for her, he is smack dab at the center of the world.
But being with and watching my family together after all these years, I began to rethink my understanding of love. There we are — prattling on and on, subtly and not-so-subtly jabbing each other, acting out all the horror of the all too human, supporting each other, sure, but also undermining each other. And so much of me wanted to run away, to parry it all with my well heeled indifference. I can be here, I said to myself, but be indifferent.
And, to be honest, this felt wise. I saw myself as trying to be some kind of wizened monk tending to the silliness from an emotional remove.
But the tragedy made that impossible. The tragedy is emotionally sublime. I am, we all are, being torn asunder by it. Indifference is not an option. And it doesn’t feel quite right, anyway. Not here. Not now. Not anymore.
And then it struck me. Rather than be indifferent, I could love. Not with a love that places me at the focal point of the world as it did when I loved my 16 year old Joy in high school. But with another kind of love: a love that doesn’t demand anything of the beloved but just lets it be. I imagined a love that lets each member of my totally crazy, angst riddled, hilariously verbose, epic know-it-all family — myself included, of course — be who he or she is, however annoying, dysfunctional, or demanding.
This is a love that stands back just as my indifference always did but it doesn’t do so to avoid. On the contrary, this love stands back in order to cast a wider embrace, to throw its arms around everyone equally and say, Ok. Sure. Yes.
Ok, ok, perhaps I’m drifting into the maudlin and the cliché. Perhaps I’m realizing things the goyim have known all along. So be it. But I feel like I’m just beginning to understand a different breed of love, a love that doesn’t occupy the center but, instead, just lets everything be what it it. A love that says, So what? Let him prattle on about tropes. Let her feign expertise. Let him kvetch about the food. What’s the problem? Who cares?
This doesn’t mean that I can’t or won’t avoid certain situations. Even Jesus must have gotten annoyed at the disciples now and again and walked a little faster. Or that I won’t sometimes snap like the angry, snotty teenager still lurking within me.
But unlike the romantic love of my youth, this love wants truly to be selfless. This love doesn’t need ratification, doesn’t need old issues handled, answered, placated. Not because it doesn’t care but because it doesn’t care. From the outside, love and indifference can look alike. But, in practice, they are worlds apart: one stands back to avoid, the other to embrace.