I have this beautiful fantasy. Everyone in my life, including me, will be confident, cool, articulate, both self and other aware. Our relationship will have no weird sub-texts, no veiled jealousies and resentments, no passive aggression. We will not have our feelings hurt; we will not get defensive. And we will speak to each other in that perfect register of comment without judgment, equals sharing confidences and critiques in language pure and direct.
To a large extent, this is indeed the relationship I have with my close, almost all male, friends. Mind you, there are not a lot of them and very few live in the city. But that is as it should be (in my fantasy, at least): like Nietzsche and both his friends and enemies, we live perched in the cool air of the mountains, each on his own peak, occasionally beckoning across the valley to share moments of insight, laughter, intense pain, joy.
For the most part, my friends and I do not share day to day struggles. We may go weeks, months, years, or even decades without speaking and then, just like that, pick up a conversation mid-stride. I don’t know what some of these people do for a living and I’m sure they don’t know what I do. And, frankly, I don’t particularly care. Friends, to me, are not those everyday people who help wile away the time. They are beacons of greatness, standing tall in the plains, fantastic beings who shine brightly amidst the often dreary drudgery of life.
But this fantasy of mine is just that: a fantasy, and often a destructive one at that. Because the fact is all relationships — between people, ideas, things — are complex, riddled with sub-texts. In fact, it’s all sub-text: there is no master text. We are a bundle of twitches and innuendos and double, if not triple, entendres. We leak and ooze ourselves.
As for language, well, the myth of direct, honest discourse is a lie. As we are not self-mastering subjects, our language will never have been under our control. Words, grammar, and meaning are for and from everyone, are the very stuff of the collective. Language speaks us, not the other way around.
We speak indirectly, always and necessarily, our words at some angle to our sentiment, action, desire, will — even to our needs! Perhaps especially to our needs! Sometimes, when all I want is a hug, I say some aggressive douchebag nonsense, ensuring that the one thing I don’t get is a hug. Such is life as a human being in language: there is no perfect harmony other than the dissonance of living.
This is never more apparent than in my romantic relationships. I entertain this idea that my girlfriend and I could and should be transparent to each other. That we could and should speak directly and honestly, without aggression or defensiveness. That we could and should be able to express our annoyances, preferences, desires, and needs in a straightforward way without the other freaking out. That as both speaker and listener, we could and should each be utterly cool, articulate, deploying words like that mythological smart bomb, launched from hundreds of miles away and — what is that absurd word, surgically? — hitting its target. The problem is that despite what we imagine to be our best efforts to calibrate the locale and intensity of the strike, we blow up a pediatric hospital. To wit, I want a hug so I say some nasty thing.
I am coming to believe that the trick to negotiating relationships, romantic and not, is not to make myself beholden to the ideal of “could and should” but to heed the messy, all-too-human reality of the situation. We all have insecurities and doubts, fears and anxieties. Sure, we try to become more self-aware, less anxious, less insecure; some of us strive to be open, relaxed, flexible human beings. But shit has a tendency to persist despite our best efforts. I may strive not to be jealous — what is jealousy other than self-hatred? — but then my lady friend goes to dinner with a quasi love-interest and I say some stupid nonsense like, Cool. Whatever. Maybe you should see him more.
Keen communication is not a matter of being honest. That is a false idol to be smashed with a hammer. The best way to communicate, I think, is to negotiate the ever-shifting play of anxieties, fears, and strengths (true and not). This may mean not being truthful per se. It might mean saying something else all together. I think of the Oracle in The Matrix telling Neo is he not The One when, in fact, he is. It’s not that she tells a lie; it’s that she says what he needs to hear to maximize himself.
Communication entails more than words. Expression is more than literal meaning. When we speak, we utter so many things at once, things we may not even know we want, need, or believe. The trick is to hear it all, not just the words. So that when my son says he’s not afraid but the look in his eye says otherwise, I know to hold him a little tighter. The mistake I often make is to counter with words: Are you sure you’re not afraid? You look scared. Which only serves to make him more defensive: I’m not scared! he barks back. The thing to do is to shut up and just hold him.
This is true of all communication. We often are aware of it in the workplace where we more or less know to navigate the egos of bosses and clients. But when it comes to lovers and children, the intensity of our emotions blinds and deafens us. And so we turn to literal meaning. You said it was fine for me to go out with that girl so I did! When, of course, I knew all along “fine” didn’t mean fine.
My dream of transparent discourse between two strong eagle-like self-aware confident beasts is silly. We have weaknesses just as we have strengths. And if you love people, you communicate with them to make them stronger, not to amplify their weakness. So when someone says they’re not scared or are fine or are being nasty, rather than respond in kind, try a different approach all together.
Please understand that I’m not saying we should lie to each other because honesty is impossible. Or that we should tolerate relentless blind emotional mayhem. I, for one, lead a reclusive life as I find communicating with other people downright exhausting.
What I am saying that our relationships should not be beholden to an indifferent truth but rather to a caring attentiveness to one another. I am saying that language is not solely a conveyor of information but a performance that inflects people’s moods. I am saying that how we talk should take into consideration the emotional reality of the situation, not the abstract facts.