In our relationships, both friendly and romantic, those personal or professional, we all trust the most important things we have to say to these stand-in sounds, created word pictures, similies, metaphors and analogies. What, other than communication and nutrition, matters as much to us on the day-to-day?
You are what you eat. You must live with what you say, or don’t say.
Of the two, digestion seems to give us less trouble than our struggles to communicate with others. We often get lost inside the labyrinths of meaning that reside inside each of us. This occurs even though we have all sorts of languages to express ourselves: words, sounds, body language, art and music, even the blunt force of sudden silence; and yet, century after century, our troubles remain.
When you suffer from indigestion you can reach for stomach meds. We’re very good with stomach trouble. But when you suffer from misinterpretation what do you reach for? Who do you consult?
Unless you’re just a total asshole, you probably want people to understand you, and equally you want to understand others. However, as Oscar Wilde once paraphrased George Bernard Shaw, he famously said of Americans and the British, “England and America are two countries separated by the same language.” This could be said of all of us. We’re all separated by this same urgent desire to communicate and understand. The problems arise because we all communicate so differently.
Perhaps, you love to talk and I love to listen, then we’re golden. But what if you love to ask questions, and I find that feels like interrogation? That’s when troubles brew unspoken. Even though we use all the same words, sadly, as if to confuse things on purpose, far too many of the words we use hold terribly different meanings for each one of us. Like, your notion of cuddling may be nothing like mine. Sometimes, these gradients of implied meaning can stretch so widely they almost snap apart, but instead it’s more they’re two different words that just sound the same. This is why understanding others is often as difficult as following the ivy-obstructed plot of a gothic Southern mystery.
What is a boundary? What does it mean when someone tells you that you’ve crossed a line? And what about boundaries that are unmarked?
There are wordless parts of you that must remain undiscovered country, even for you. This is as it should be. You should keep some mystery sacred and safe, even from yourself. I was not always a big believer in this line of thinking. I felt one should know as much as one possibly could: what is there to hide? But this approach only works in theory. In life, mystery is what holds the whole thing together.
Sometimes, during those early days and nights when lovers and romantic partners are eager to learn about each other, you will want to peer inside to spy the soul of the one you adore because you’re so excited to know all that you can about this new person. There are those wonderful moments in life when you meet a person who so fully captures your interest and imagination you wish to know everything about them and you have no sense of why you should wait and unfold because your excitement makes things like clocks and calendars lose all meaning. You just want to know what delights them and makes them laugh, what they wonder about and what fills their dreams. You want to know what makes them say “Ewww” and “Whoa,” as well as what makes them say “Ahaha” and “Ohhh-ooo.”
The German Chancellor, Otto von Bismarck, the poet, John Godfrey Saxe, and the old school humorist, Will Rogers, have all been attributed with a saying about what you learn when you inspect too closely the things that matter to you. The idea is, when it comes to sausage or the law, it’s best not to watch them get made. Whoever first said it, he’s one-hundred percent correct. There are certainly some cases, and I would expand to say this is true of all things, it’s best to leave a little mystery. I’m not advocating ignorance, but rather expressing honest humility. (And this includes you. You should be a mystery, too.)
What got me thinking about all this was Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf. It’s odd that this would be the case as I’ve never read the book. No matter, it was Woolf’s work of literature that was so singular in its vision of life and love that it moved a second writer to analyze it and write about the novel in a way that moved me to write this. Sometimes life can resemble a giant game of leap frog.
In a recent post for The New Yorker, Joshua Rothman analyzed Mrs. Dalloway, specifically for how it cast a light on the role of privacy as a motivation for the character, Clarissa. Her affections split between two men, she must choose a husband. Years later, to make sense of her choice, she reflects on what might have been with the other suitor: a romantic, passionate, intellectual who burned to know her at the deepest levels of her soul.
As a stark contrast to him, she chose to marry the one who, after years of marriage, can’t manage to say the words, “I love you.” He can’t utter the words even when he’s experiencing the revelation of his love for his wife, and he feels it as truly, if not as deeply, as anyone has ever loved their wife. The reason why her romantically inarticulate husband is not a major bummer for her is that he allows her an inner space to inhabit. He does not invade her. He does not wish to prize understanding and share intimacy at the level of her soul, as the romantic and passionate intellectual desired from her. He allows her to contain many mysteries.
You could say this is all a matter of introversion versus extroversion, and if you wish to make such a claim, I would not argue with you. It certainly is a difference of personality and could easily be described in such terms. But I think to label it that way dismisses it somewhat, and denies us the chance to view it as a human dynamic, and not as a matter of a collision of personalities. We all have and need our mysteries to be respected.
I read mystery novels without any hint of literary guilt. You probably have some no-guilt trash reads you enjoy. You know how it is. But my relationship to any mystery I meet is pretty much the same: challenge accepted. As I reflected on Joshua Rothman’s insights into Virginia Woolf’s emphasis on the value of privacy, my desire to penetrate veils of secrecy, to expose truths, well, they suddenly seemed rather naïve. I mean, there will always be mysteries. In fact, each and every answer is shadowed by a new mystery.
Thanks to Joshua Rothman and Virginia Woolf, suddenly my wish to invade spaces in pursuit of understanding seemed selfish and blundering. My vain desire to satisfy my curiosity, to know more, seemed not only unsympathetic, but frankly kinda gross, like pushing into unwanted places in search of selfish satisfaction. I know, I know, that’s a very dramatic rendering, but basically, it had an ick factor I’d never seen or noticed before. I thought at first, my selfish blundering made me into some sort of poor imitation of Inspector Clousseau from The Pink Panther. I was a bumbling detective. But no, it was worse. I was the cat burglar, prying open windows to play my dangerous game.
It wasn’t mere idle curiosity that urged me to consider the value of intimate mysteries. It was a woman. Of course, it was a woman. This should surprise no one familiar with me or the human condition. But there you have it.
To make sense of what happened and how I’d fucked up romancing a woman that greatly mattered to me, I sat and meditated on these strange new lessons of Mrs. Dalloway. The way Virginia Woolf placed a value on hidden places, she made my quest to expose those same places seem like the arrogance of tomb-raiders. That’s not to say we should stop asking questions and seeking answers, but sometimes, we should recognize there is a limit, there is a boundary, there is a sacred space, and when we find those borders it’s best to recognize and value them for they safeguard our mysteries, which in turn gives life its greatest meaning.
What we don’t know often makes what we do know so important and meaningful.
In many ways, I owe a supreme debt of gratitude to the woman who I missed out on, Virginia Woolf, and Joshua Rothman. Together, they gave me an immeasurable gift. I have a renewed love for mystery. The only difference is what I learned:
You can shift your focus from your love of answers to a love of the questions and the seeking.
If you’re an extrovert dealing with an introvert it’s especially important that you recognize their notions of boundaries and space, even the idea of questions is different than yours, most likely. This means you have to move slowly, ask questions about their boundaries and fewer questions that are aimed to satisfy your concerns and needs.
If you’re an introvert dealing with an extrovert, it’s critical that you recognize they have fewer boundaries and thus don’t anticipate yours, until most likely, they are crossing them. If you are aware of them, you may want to offer helpful information that indicates what and where your boundaries are. Since you tend to move more slowly, you may feel that you are asked more questions than you’d like. Not every question needs to be answered, but acknowledging them usually suffices.
I have a lot to think about right now, about how communication breaks down, mostly, because I’d never fallen for an introvert before. True to my style, I learned all sorts of new lessons by crashing. I’m still thankful it happened. After she asked me to leave her life, I saw that mixed in among those jagged little shards of heartbreak, she’d also handed me a new appreciation of hidden places, quiet removes, and the undiscovered country of someone else, someone who might not speak up more than once. This is especially important if they’re the sort of person, that when they say this is a garden, they assume you know what that means. For them, the “be careful” and “tread lightly” part is implied. This can cause problems if you think of the whole world as a garden and you rarely think twice before you stomp around in the mud in order to smell the flowers. Interpretation can be difficult. And are you ready for the most paradoxical advice you may ever hear about what to do when you don’t know what to do?
Okay, here it is, when you’re confused: Do nothing.
Wait! What? What kind of shitty advice is that? Well, think of it like a Zen koan. The genius part is hidden by the obvious.
You should do nothing … because you’re confused.
Clearly, you don’t know what to do. And thus, rather than do something just to make your self feel some sort of way — do nothing. Trust me. It’s better. You’ll thank me later.
If you don’t want to get lost in the labyrinth of another person, then don’t step inside and start blundering around hoping to make sense of the dark. If you do, that’s your choice. If you feel confused — do nothing.
For now, here’s a silly little poem about a Cat and a Puppy:
Introvert ] [ Extrovert
Puppy looks out at world,
wants to play,
runs over to Cat,
but Cat wants to be alone,
this, Puppy does not get.
Cat walks away,
sits in a shaft of sunlight,
thinking this a good idea,
and joins in the sun-warmed spot.
Puppy lies down next to Cat;
annoyed by this, Cat swats Puppy,
but Puppy finds this playful,
which further annoys Cat.
Since Puppy doesn’t listen,
eventually, Cat claws Puppy;
hurt, Puppy thinks…
“All you had to do was bark”