Monday, June 21, 2010
EMOTION vs. THOUGHT
Earlier in my life, I made many mistakes because of the fear of rejection or the expectation of emotional pain. Unfortunately, this was what I learned as I was growing up.
My mother was emotional and spontaneous, sometimes extravagantly loving, and sometimes harshly critical. The alternation between love and criticism kept me forever off balance. I never knew what was coming next, and had no confidence that I was O.K., or ever could be. In fact, being O.K. actually meant, in the end, pleasing my mother, or at least managing to escape her wrath.
My father was not spontaneously affectionate. I can’t remember ever hearing him say he loved me, but I knew he did, and was always comfortable being around him. He made me feel loved by spending time with me, teaching me things, encouraging me in art, taking me to the Art Institute in nearby Chicago, getting me into classes there as a teenager.
His lack of spontaneity in the realm of affection was made up for by a wonderful sense of humor. He was always funny and often had me and my brothers in stitches at the dining room table, while my mother, who needed to be the center of attention, would say, “Oh, Norman!”
My father was brilliant and intellectual, a walking encyclopedia. I remember once when I was traveling with him on a long train trip—probably going out to the Black Hills in South Dakota--he got into a long discussion about deep sea fishing with a man sitting nearby. I had never heard him mention the subject ever, and yet he seemed to know all about it.
He had a photographic mind and remembered everything, so I was often surprised at how much he knew about almost anything anyone ever brought up. Although he had a Ph.D. in history, he had found that he hated teaching unresponsive undergraduate students, and in desperation decided to become a patent attorney, like his father and brothers, and join the family firm. He taught himself the law by studying for a year or so, and passed the bar exam the first time.
It is fun to have a funny parent, and one that enjoys teaching you things. He made learning a pleasant adventure, and thinking and figuring things out a lifelong pastime.
My mother was musical and played the violin very well. She was spontaneous and witty, and charmed everyone with whom she came in contact. People either loved her extravagantly or hated her guts.
Looking back on my formative years, I can see how I was shaped by the pain and the inconsistency of my spontaneous parent as opposed to the steadiness and comfort that came from the more diffident one. To me, spontaneity was not to be trusted; intellect and humor were. Emotions were apt to bring pain; thinking was safe.
Emotional pain cut deeper than ideas. Emotions could leave lasting wounds. No matter how much my father tried to help me to believe in myself, it could all be destroyed in an instant by my mother.
As an adult, I had no idea who I was. I felt like an anchorless, rudderless boat adrift in a huge sea. Where did I belong? Who did I want to be? What direction would I take if I could find my rudder? I never knew.
I got married, had children, and got divorced. I did the best I could, but not having any clear concept of how to find emotional stability, I had no idea how to teach my children to be stable and self confident people. You can’t teach something you don’t know.
Now, with the perspective of 91 years of life, I can look back on my first few years and realize that I was the victim of a parent who was herself a victim. My children were in turn the victims of my lack of belief in myself. I feel sorry that I was unable to give them any sense of direction or feeling of security, sorry that I got to know myself and believe in myself long after they were grown. I don’t feel guilty because I was doing the best I could with what I knew and had to work with at the time, but I am regretful because I think they missed a lot.