A short exchange on how strange Danes can be – or at least their language – and I recall a Danish man who thought that to “to live out” and “to outlive” meant the same thing.
And yet, I live out my life in outmoded ways – or with outmoded views – that have outlived their time. If they ever had a time.
My life has made me be the person who favors the scrappy stray mother cat scrounging through garbage in order to feed herself and her kittens rather than be the person who fawns over her adorable little litter. Always the one who looks past the surface, I value her experience and tenacity over the fleeting cuteness of her kittens.
My life has also made me be the person who sees someone who is lonely, something of a misfit, hurting, ostracized, struggling or troubled, and I feel a need to reach out to them, help them – sometimes in misguided ways (particularly when I was young and very shy myself – hard to step outside of my own confines to intervene in someone else’s being). This never necessarily works out well, but I always thought my heart was in the right place. I somehow imagine(d) that what you put into the world is what you get back from it. But this is naive: even if you put out compassion, you are likely to be met with disappointment. You have to learn either to dismiss the urge toward compassion or dismiss the disappointment that often follows.
I see and feel the rarity of my way. I am not a surface-level person (other than the initial cold read people may get from me). The surface always has the power to sway and seduce. Most people don’t look beyond it.
But then, it depends on what they’re looking for. Mismatched intentions can be crushing. Initially of course I think of my own crushed feelings throughout life’s less triumphant moments, but I recognize that it can work both ways. In my supposed compassion, I might, as I did as an adolescent, reach out to someone who had no friends, spent his time hanging out with the school’s science teacher, and try to be friendly, boost his confidence – and in doing so, give him completely the wrong idea. My actual intentions were entirely different from how he received my intentions, and the situation did not end well.
Even when your intentions match up with someone else’s – those intentions can shift, creating unstable ground. It could be that I, like most, hope to be blindsided in amazement at the unconditional and expansive love and understanding that another person can give/show. Because that is how I am (or strive to be). (But this never happens – it is not part of the surface world we live in and, in all honesty, opens up the person who shows this kind of expansive love and/or understanding to some vulnerability.)
But it could just as well be that I, in my insensitive, less than impeccable or admirable moments, wonder if a person is, disposably, just a sorbet, a palate cleanser, making way for some other main course – or perhaps that person is the main course, and I pass on it, claiming not to be hungry?
…I know what is good, and conversely, not good for me, and I know what I need to do. Live out my days and outlive my usefulness. But do I act accordingly?
What form of akrasia is this?
It is only partly true that I act against (or for) my own best interests. I often compare the ‘doing versus thinking’ concept because I am both a thinker and a doer. And most other people seem to be much better, more active thinkers but not great doers. One day, I said to someone who insisted he would take action but frustrated me for years with his all-talk, no-action behavior: “You will have many hurdles to jump to become a doer like me, and I am not even half-motivated. But for you, it’s probably a priorities issue. Some things, some people, are important, and some are not. If you really wanted something, or someone, or wanted to do something, you would do it. The end. Someday maybe you will be a doer, and that will change my mind about you. But today, and for as long as I have known you, you have not been a doer unless it required absolutely zero effort or thought on your part.” In truth, as I could see plainly in that moment: if there is no feeling behind the doing, why should it ever go beyond thinking?
I rarely add ‘feeling’ to the equation. ‘Doing-thinking-feeling’. But would most people feel motivated to think and then do without that spark of feeling to push them to take action? I take plenty of risks and live freely in the thinking and doing realms. Ultimately, I may not make the riskiest choices from the heart’s standpoint. It makes me think a bit about school days, when teachers would tell certain kids that they really have a lot of potential but no follow-through. I was always the thinking-doing overachiever but had “a lot of potential but no follow-through” when it came to feeling, which is not to say I did not feel: Only that feeling did not, and could not, come first, lest it crush me. Perhaps I have always felt much too deeply.
Even this, I sometimes think, is not entirely true. My life has made me a person who prefers to be alone, who is mostly not interested in personal intimacy while at the same time being overly curious about other people’s personal intimacy. That is, I am less a partner or lover and more a would-be, unqualified, armchair therapist, wanting to know people deeply and intimately, but only from an observant and almost clinical distance (but not entirely dispassionately).
I am still trying to figure out whether – or how – feelings just leave, like a flock of birds migrating away for winter, or whether feelings morph into this “observant-supportive-caretaker” mold that I seem to adopt. I am not afraid of feeling now; I do not suppress it now. But no longer trying to control feeling, I find that feeling is much more unpredictable than I would have imagined. Yes, I knew feelings like love, as an example, were uncontrollable, messy, sticky, and up, down and all over the place, but I did not fully appreciate that they could be as fickle as they are. That, for example, one could be completely in it one day and wake up the next morning feeling absolutely nothing. Is it some unseen barrier that the inner, protective self builds? And if so, how can the lack of all feeling – this indifference – feel as real and as deep as the love once was? Did feelings, however briefly they lived, outlive their expiration?
Photo (c) 2008 Angela Schmeidel Randall