Thursday, April 01, 2004

As a parent, I find myself turning off "normal" responses to things in order to support my kid's needs at any particular time. I guess this is part of what my last post was about, turning a switch off inside myself such that I don't experience the feeling and can cope better with my job as a parent. I imagine this "switch" is extremely familiar to a fireman or EMT responding to an accident scene, or a soldier under fire, or a multitude of other professions where feelings might get in the way of precision or logic or speed to do a necessary job. But I also question my own willingness to turn off the feelings to avoid them in and of themselves.

I worked in the fire department for a couple of years as a college student, administrative work. I got very close to several of the firemen I worked with, and even now I marvel at their calm, at their ability to depersonalize/deemotionalize very stressful situations, to compartmentalize their feelings. My friend Dave describes it as having a box that you open up, quickly slam the awful stuff inside, and then lock tightly shut. I guess all my life I've learned, from my family, from people I admire, that feelings are something that get in the way of being useful, and are best bottled up securely. No one yelled, and only the most serious situations warranted tears in my house. Never during moments of crisis though. We had a car accident when I was about 13, and as they took my grandmother and mother away in the ambulance I calmly explained the circumstances of the accident to the police and told them how to reach my Dad who was out of town. My parents praised me highly for this response, and I don't doubt that it was the exact best way to be helpful in that situation. Did I ever cry? I don't remember. I don't think so.

In fact, hell if I know how or what I felt/feel about many things anymore. Or more significantly, what to do with feelings that I don't cleanly can like so many jars of peaches, sealed and sterilized and stacked on the shelf. People admire this ability I have to avoid the negative stuff, look at the bright side, stay calm and collected. I'm rewarded at work for it, obviously it comes in handy as a parent, and as a habit I've even lost track of the choice to turn off the switch. I just do it.

But the jars leak a tiny bit, and crowd out each other such that I can't read their labels anymore. Of course they leak, I guess that no one has infinite shelf space to store the jars of pain, fear, hate, anger, but I think it's especially fascinating how the emotions have all lost their specific identities once buried deep in the cupboard. I think I've been lucky too, there hasn't been so many things to fill the jars over my lifetime, so it hasn't been so hard to find room for my stuff, and there's been lots of room for other's stuff to boot. But ask me to name how it felt at that moment, talking to the policeman, I can't for the life of me reclaim the feeling. Even if intellectually I can guess I felt alone and scared, the memory of the feeling is simply gone. But I do remember the feeling of responsibility, that it was my job to be brave, calm, and helpful, and how good it felt to be told I did the right thing.

I am confused now. I don't know if this is the trait of a strong person, or the trait of a coward. I felt strong on that kayak, in that moment, and yet I was completely powerless against the might of an ocean. Anyone else looking at it would say the normal response would be fear in the face of losing everything that matters, and anger that someone more expert than I let us get into the situation at all. But its neatly packaged up and stored away now, so I say "I did the right thing in the moment, and the emotions do nothing for me now if I reopen the box." It sounds so rational. But maybe secretly, I know that I couldn't handle it if I did. No one is going to praise me for falling apart, that much seems pretty clear. Still, a little voice somewhere whispers that I'm that much more numb, that much more likely to pull the switch on the next fifteen things that anger or scare me no matter if I have the luxury to feel at that moment or not.

A palm reader told me that the millions of tiny lines in my hands represented the feelings of others I had carried for them in safe keeping and empathy. She saw this as a gift, that I could look into their pain and hold it without allowing it to crush me, that it supported my life purpose. I wonder if I could do my work if I didn't have this gift? I don't think so. I wonder if I could parent. I wonder if I could be a friend or lover.

And I wonder why the word control hasn't shown up in all these words I've written up to here. Many synonyms, but I've neatly avoided the word itself. Isn't that telling.

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?