Tag Archives: being human

Extraordinary House Guests _ When Two Worlds Meet: Part 6

It was after five when I came home. Like usual, I fed the dog, put on a pot to boil water for dinner, and checked my email all without turning on a single light switch. (Its a great way to conserve energy for anyone interested– at least I think so.) I put on the Clannad Pandora station and sat down for a quiet dinner alone. Allegro had just come from snoring on his fleecy mat to wander pensively into the living room. I turned my head. And that was when I realized I was not alone after all.

I blinked. Two otherworld people were sitting on my couch, slightly in awe of the plush furniture, pretending they were not staring. I noticed anyway. I can never feign indifference on them, but fortunately it works in the other direction as well. To this day I do not know their names. My dinner was on the table, so I returned to a decisively manifest world activity which I had already realized I would have to enjoy while I could. Otherworld people can’t eat, and sometimes they glance longingly at whatever I’m happily consuming, unable to relive the experience themselves.

After dinner I ran around the living room with Allegro, throwing his hedgehog for him to fetch. His nails clacked and skidded along the hard flooring as he repeatedly failed to get traction. Fur flying, tail wagging, he ran around and around in a seemingly tireless frenzy and I mused that perhaps he was in the mood to see who would tire first, and that he bet it would be me. Fifteen minutes into it, however, he suddenly stopped moving so quickly. By this point, I was letting the loud music drown out the increasing amount of noise being made by all.

Besides the hedgehog squeaker “with its original grunter sound” per the apt description from the manufacturers, nails clicking, and the occasional bark, I was taking full advantage of my opportunity to run like a maimed leap frog and holler and yell for purely legitimate and nondestructive reasons. I mean, if I wanted to change careers and do something excellent for the blind, I’d devise an accessible adapted version of caber tossing or Hurley. The psychology of the human need to be inexplicably and spontaneously loud is poorly underdeveloped. (The interplay of Hurley and the human urge to holler and throw things in a perfectly acceptable manner would be a great thesis topic. It would even lend itself to a horribly punny title such as “The Interplay of Personality and Play: The Role of Hollering Loudly in Both Hurley and the Expression of Human Nature,” but I digress.)

So, Allegro slowed down, and then stopped chasing the hedgehog altogether. I, however, only partially paid attention to him and so continued to run… right into an otherworld person. The only plus side to this kind of collision is that it doesn’t hurt anyone involved. It still requires a great deal of awkward extrication and apologies especially as it’s possible to partially run through, rather than hit and bounce off of, a being made of energy: and I still felt the need to not let on about just how startled I was while offering muttered sheepish explanations as to why on earth I was leaping around like an idiot and loudly stating incoherent noises like “eishtay!” which means nothing at all (Allegro doesn’t care if it makes sense, right?) This otherworld person was already vanishing when I finally got to look at him, and I can’t blame him for that. I only got to see his shadow, and nothing more.

When I made it into the kitchen to retrieve the hedgehog, I saw yet another otherworld person. His presence so close to the hedgehog explained why Allegro hadn’t gone to fetch it. I added this to my list of reasons why my guide dog is wiser than I am.

I managed to avoid a collision and was ready with a bit more politeness this time. “Hello,” I said, “Nice to meet you.” Then I thought for a moment about what, exactly, might be needed regarding otherworld hospitality. Was this person going to stay here, or not? Showing him around, giving him a cup of water, asking him to sit, getting some blankets and fixing a meal if he had traveled a long way and was hungry… these are things that otherworld people simply do not need. Finally I asked the only polite question I could think of, “Do you like this style of music? Is it too loud? I can turn it down if you want.” At least he could hear and enjoy the music, I thought.

The person, whose name I still don’t know, would have laughed with me if he could. He sent me a picture which indicated, “I spent my whole life listening to Celtic music. Of course I like it. You should play it as loud as you want to, it doesn’t bother me either way.”

Satisfied that I had made this person as comfortable as possible, I tried asking his name, but like most people I would meet he had either forgotten his name or tried sending it to me spelled out in Irish which failed miserably. So I shrugged apologetically and indicated that I needed to clean up the kitchen and start winding down for the night. He stuck around, but visibly vanished so that I no longer saw him. Otherworld people have that ability, I’d come to understand. It takes quite a bit of energy for me, and them, to project and see images and so often they are in their more natural invisible state, though still present.

When I turned off the music and was preparing for bed, I had yet another quandary to consider. There were at least four people hanging around my place. I couldn’t tell if they were the same as before, or another group of four passing through. Although I was sure I’d see a few women, it was statistically more likely I’d see men instead, and so far that was the case. I had realized, slowly, somewhere in the midst of the evening, that I was seeing fianna members who were passing through on their way to wherever they were headed, which I told Caoilte would be fine with me. However, there was a person hanging out in my room, and I needed to change into some pajamas. Ah, details and the minutia of everyday living.

“Um, hey,” I asked wondering when I’d stop feeling awkward, “This is my room and I need it to myself. Could you go hang out in the living room over there instead?” I pointed right, out the door, mulling over whether I had insulted his intelligence by pointing or whether I ought to assume that a person who lived in Ireland 1800 years ago wouldn’t know English, or whether it mattered in the slightest. I’d forgotten he wasn’t embodied and voiced the request aloud.

He was saying in sign, “That’s fine, I understand,” and disappeared. I sighed with relief.

But now, I wondered, should I close the door? If I’d had five or so physically embodied people over, I would have certainly closed the door as well as kindly kicked them out of my room. But this was my space, and I lived here alone… did I really? I thought so, two days ago. I thought about how I had to keep the bathroom door open for years, even when I was occupying it, because whenever I closed the door my cat would meow with ear-piercing angst and scratch off paint on the wood with her perfectly positioned predator’s claws. Darn it all if I was going to start closing the door and acting like I had roommates when I’d chosen to live by myself for a reason, and anyway these weren’t the sort of roommates anyone else would notice. It was around this time that I flashed on the memory that, while they were alive, the fianna were quite used to living with and around large numbers of people. Privacy, especially in the individually-boxed-and-packaged way we’re used to experiencing it now, was a luxury they may have never known. They’d already know how to meticulously respect people’s boundaries and occupy themselves elsewhere if anyone needed time alone.

First and foremost, I decided that as a flesh and blood person of this century, I had a right to have priority over what boundaries we’d set. Unlike the others, I was decidedly not used to living with cohorts of five people, especially if their members were constantly changing, and even if they were consciously showing up in groups that were much smaller than the nine to twelve who usually stayed together. I was, admittedly, very grateful for their thoughtfulness on that point. Second, I’d take the opportunity to see how my house companions handled the situation. As a rule I don’t tend to trust people simply on the basis of affiliation, though with Oisín and Caoilte as their friends I already trusted them more than most. Even so, it was imperative to me to be sure they would respect the boundaries I had. As it happened, I very peacefully spent the night without any visitors venturing into my room, though there were a few more groups who came through the other room unseen during the night. They didn’t bother me.

The next day was quite similar to the first as far as sharing it with my otherworld companions was concerned. To be honest, after a week or so, I lost count of how many people I saw and I stopped feeling like I had to somehow entertain them all. But, on day 2, I was still constantly looking around to see if anyone else had arrived. Whenever I came home from an appointment or from an outing with my seed group, I opened my front door more slowly than usual to make sure it wouldn’t hit anyone and peered around to see whether or not the place was empty.

That night, after bringing home my take out order of fish and chips, an otherworld person sat across from me at the table. He was one of the ones who couldn’t help staring wistfully at my meal. I felt bad that he wouldn’t be able to eat it, and that I couldn’t offer to share it. I attempted to let him in on how it tasted by sending a picture of what it tasted like. Just in case you want to try it, it’s nearly impossible to turn taste into a visual image, but especially when you can’t see.

I’d changed up the music on Pandora and was now listening to country (don’t hate me.) I hadn’t listened to country music in a long time, and it was making me want to get up and dance. I hadn’t moved much that day, and I often feel like a day without much movement is a day in which I’m slowly dying.

My dinner guest had vanished, and I looked around self-consciously at the room for signs of life. Other than Allegro’s ever-present, easy-going, joyful spirit that always fills my surroundings, I was surprised to see no one. I ran over to the sliding glass door and closed the blinds. Now, if I look like a fool trying to run, I look like an even greater fool trying to dance. I either bob around aimlessly (but in rhythm!) or move so fast against the beat that I’d fall over if I stopped unexpectedly. I wasn’t sure whether I could control whether an otherworld person saw me dance, but I wasn’t about to take the risk of some actual world person having a glimpse at me through the window. I wondered briefly what people who lived in the second century would think about country music. Should I only play music they like while they are here? How long would they be here? How many are they anyway? Would I ever meet a woman among them? These were the questions that flitted through my mind as I stood in front of the stereo, unsure how to proceed, once again a bit overwhelmed and baffled by all I was experiencing.

Then, I deliberately forgot about otherworld goings-on altogether, and threw myself into enjoying the moment, in this time, in this world. I reveled in still being able to take up space in the most uncoordinated of fashions, able to mercilessly sing along (loudly) with the songs whose words I knew, able to stomp and clap my hands and turn my head and grab a very excited Allegro’s two front paws and whirl around with my surprised canine dance partner. Grateful that I was still able to laugh at myself and listen to the simplistic lyrical babble about love and staying out too late and blue jeans and motorbikes and teenagers sneaking out together, and homes that families owned for generations, and hot sticky summer afternoons, and katydids, and honeysuckles, and learning what it takes to grow up, and the sorrow of having to say goodbye, and the exquisite unconditional outpouring of joy on holding your newborn child for the first time. In a nut shell, what it is to be and live human.

We all have our place and time in the world, but this is the time and the world that is mine. I danced, my hands forming the meanings of the words, unconsciously weaving the words of energy and motion into the descriptions of the here and now. If others danced with me, I never knew, but by the end of it I would have welcomed them to join in in whatever their way might be.

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In Defense of Imperfection _ Part 2

How many people struggle with doubts, with longing to feel alive, with finding purpose and meaning, with finding what and who they are, and then when they finally get a sense of such things, actually like what they find? (Oh hopefully!) One of our greatest consolations in life should be that we are stumbling around but while we’re doing that, everyone else is too.

Is it as simple as doing the best you can in a world that is capable of embracing you one minute, then swallowing you whole the next? I don’t think so, because defining what is meant by “do your best” is a complicated matter. Doing your best does not mean striving to be perfect. If we were meant to be living exemplars of ideal, we would have been born as something other than human. Surely our standards should exist in proportion to the kind of being we are? We’re fallible, we fall short, we let others down, we are vulnerable, we break easily (I mean this in a literal sense.) Held up to the immaculate, sterile, and pristine light of perfection, we are nothing worth keeping. The short argument against this primacy of perfection is that it cannot be substantiated, and it rests on false premises and assumptions (see the examples.) I also believe that perfectionism partly drives the illusion of separateness, and that if we lived in a way that honored our interdependence on one another, we would be less apt to constantly compare ourselves with each other and we would lead healthier, happier lives for it. But that’s an argument for another time.

Examples of my point follow:

The problem with trying to separate authentic expression from speaking honestly:
Once you say something you cannot take it back. So you should watch what you say. But if you stall out, self-consciously weigh your words each time you want to speak, you will quickly befriend silence. Do you want to be remembered as nothing or as something, consequences included? So while it is important to say what you mean and not be deceptive, dishonest, perfection is not the ideal. Get out there and say what you need to say, and decide later if you could do a better job of it. Too many people, my former self included, shelve their voices believing they are inadequate, not good enough to have something to say. You personally are never inadequate, but the response that does seem to be inadequate is saying nothing at all.

Also, many people believe that an excellent person is always composed. Aristotle’s great souled person comes to mind. Yet although such a person is just and generous, she cannot admit to her own vulnerability and reacts to her own needs with quiet contempt (which obviously she’d never admit to anyone else.) Such conceptions of “right conduct” destroy rather than create honest communication between people. In modern virtue ethics, it is important that a person have both practical rationality and emotional balance. Someone who suppresses her feelings, or who is able to give but incapable of receiving, who believes that to admit to her vulnerability or her anger or her sadness is akin to failure, is someone who has let herself down in the name of some unnatural ideal. Such incidious conceptions of perfection create conditions where a person is incapable of honesty because she cannot even be honest with herself,. If she is ashamed of her own needs, she cannot respect others who have needs of their own. I think it is imperative to be able to express ourselves authentically, realistically, honestly. All three can’t exist without the other. The alternative impoverishes people and renders it impossible to live in the wise and balanced way that is crucial to human flourishing.

The problem with conflating the perfect life with the life well lived:
Aristotle says in relation to living an excellent life, that there are many ways to get it wrong, but only one way to get it right. That leaves a lot of people vulnerable to constant failure or falling short. Should life be measured exclusively by whether you got to the top, “being productive in every waking moment,” (a lovely philosophy professor’s words) and ultimate success? How about the compassion you and others show toward your friends and family?

I would argue it’s the latter. The hand-wavy brief argument goes like this: think of a person who was highly successful but lacked compassion, empathy, patience, balance. Does a tyrant or insufferable CEO come to mind? Or perhaps, instead, have you thought of someone who is generally a good and decent person but is such a perfectionist that she never realizes her dreams, is so obsessive about doing every last thing right that she can’t cook her own meals, get anywhere on time, meet any deadlines, pay her bills, or drive herself home from work? Are you living with a person like this, because if you are your life is probably miserable. Most likely, their life is just as miserable. Any life that makes you miserable is not an ideal one, and just perhaps perfection is the bad ideal in the bunch here.

If there is merit in this, then a good life is one that dissuades the cultivation of only one or two character traits in favor of a balance of dispositions and values that can help shape a well-rounded and integrated, multifaceted person.

Our culture encourages CEOs and other business entrepreneurs, as well as academics and doctors, to choose what people, beliefs, character traits, or values to give up in order to achieve it all, and gain the highest position in our respective fields. We encourage people to learn arrogance, develop splintered highly specialized skills, value work above family and friends, put our own research above our responsibility to teach our students, forfeit our spirits as the process of due course in med school, tear each other down, refuse to cooperate, believe it is normal to never have time to care for our children, and so on.

But, brash and burly people are more often bullies than courageous, a person who gets to the top through ruthless competition and prides herself on cutting down everyone in her way is not strong, but one who has replaced her authentic self with a self image, inert, static, and unable to grow. The med student who has closed herself off to empathy and compassion, even for herself, because it was expected of her lives in a hollow empty shell of the rich and powerful being she once was, the one she was born to be. The person who is so off balance that she allows herself to become single-mindedly obsessed with writing the perfect novel, getting the perfect hair cut, or being the perfect teacher, actor, and so on is not living her life, but chasing after shadows of what her life might have been. These people might be at the top of their field, but why should that matter if, in gaining the world, they’ve lost themselves?

Standards have an important place in living, it’s just that their place is not above human flourishing. Our culture often sells us the myth that we are what we do. Are we who we are, or only who others want us to be?

The problem with equating excellence with achievement, honor with being honored, doing your best with doing it right, and success with status:
Is it always getting it right that makes your life worth living, or is it more getting it wrong honorably? Again, I think the latter is the ideal, not the former, not perfection at the expense of your acting authentically. Because often people get so caught up in being the best, getting it right, that they forget who they are. I think people should stop being afraid of getting it wrong and be really afraid of getting it right, badly.

Not everyone can be, or even wants to be, the best at something either. What happens when you fulfill everyone’s highest expectations of you and die regretting that all along you lived someone else’s life? Who are you? You don’t know, because you never took the time or opportunities to find out. That’s not an ideal, it’s a tragedy.

In part 3 I’ll discuss one person’s partial and incomplete, imperfect solution for breaking out of the cycle of perfectionism and the dual fears of success and failure that accompany it. It is my own point of view, as I can only speak for myself. It’s also subject to a myriad of changes, as most things in life are.