Me: Hi Doctor, can we talk? It’s late on a Sunday afternoon and I found myself deep in thought. I need to bouce of someone.
Doctor: Of course. Let’s start with what you were doing when you started to feel this way.
Well, I was reading a book. I’ve been watching so much TV (half watching it, half working or surfing the net) and I wanted to do something more constructive. I have a book called Too Soon Old, Too Late Smart, which I brought back from Australia and I picked up where I left off. I read a few chapters: “the major advantage of illness is that it provides relief from responsibility”, “we are afraid of the wrong things”, “Parents have a limited ability to shape children’s behaviour, expect for the worst”, “the only real paradises are those we have lost”, “of all the forms of courage, the ability to laugh is the most profoundly therapeutic” and then I stopped.
Are the chapters important?
I think they may have influenced my thoughts, at least a little bit. My first thoughts actually went to Peter. I don’t know why but I think about him from time to time, as a major influence in my life. Someone I don’t know and can’t know but who continues to shape me as a person by having changed me in the past. It’s a bit crazy to think of someone as a brick in your own construction, but an absence in your life. Even if I could write to Peter, and even if he did answer, there’s nothing really between us, except memories and incompatible projections. We probably both have very different versions of our past: in his version, I moved on and didn’t commit to a future together. In my version, he was unreliable, unreadable and ultimately unavailable despite his empty words.
As I was thinking this, I came to the “we are afraid of the wrong things” chapter. My thoughts jumped to family and my grandmother. I feel so far away from the people who built me. It’s not a physical separation, it’s deeper than that. If we saw each other, there is a kind of “non-recognition”. These feelings became stronger as I read the chapter about lost paragraphs. Does my grandmother recognise me when she sees me? When I saw her in Australia, did she feel the same sadness as me when we parted ways… potentially forever? I know she didn’t. She has other worries, and other people in her life, and a failing memory. We don’t experience time and moments the same way. But this is true for others too. You don’t need to be old and experiencing dementia-like symptoms. Zoe’s behaviour, views and memories seem to follow an incredible distortion compared to what I’d expect. No amount of conversing can ever bring our two different outlooks into focus.
So you were thinking about Peter, your grandmother and Zoe?
No, I only mention Zoe now, because she remains my only real link to family. I can email my uncle Quentin, but he is monosyllabic at the best of times and my mother writes, but we have a complicated past, so I don’t want to answer just out of complacency.
I did think about Mrs Abraham; the thought of her and people like her (Mr Levy, Susanne the art teacher, etc.) being dead and buried for years now. These are also people who, in some way or other, shaped me. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t profess to have felt deep feelings for any of them. I didn’t cry when I heard about their passing (why would I? I didn’t suffer a huge loss, like their loved one) but I knew them — for years — and at least one or two memories of our time together remain vivid in my mind.
The dead part isn’t what matters most. It’s the gone part. And I don’t actually think I was thinking about them in relation to me. I was thinking about the people they left behind. Mothers, fathers, daughters, sons, friends, lovers, ex-lovers… We all wear a number of these hats, and we helped build other people. As we remember people from the past, who cannot disprove the glorified memory that we have of them, we tend to idealise them.
So, Peter and your grandmother, are these people from the past you have idealised?
Undoubtably. So I tried to think of the bad times. I remembered fights with my grandmother. I tried to see her flaws (but she is mostly a very calm and good person). As for Peter, I remembered what I thought living in Austria, with such a “simple-minded” husband, would be like. Without really remembering anything, I remembered a projection, which scared me (at 19).
It’s hard to explain all the thoughts, which came to mind though because I thought them as I read the book. The author mentions growing up in a critical household and how that makes it near impossible to stop, unless you consciously try to change that personality trait. As an “above average” critical person, I felt guilty.
Isn’t the book saying it isn’t your fault, but rather, an observed and assimilated behaviour?
As a normal way to talk about others during my upbringing, sure, it isn’t something I invented, but it is something I didn’t change. The guilt came more from realising that others probably found me critical and, unlike me, didn’t see as many examples, so they’d surely put my criticism down to nastiness. Let’s be honest: it probably is! It has probably changed my character, my face, my aura. Can people look at my aura and see the ugliness? Am I wearing it on my face the way the portrait of Dorian Gray wore his?
Do you feel there is a link between this innate criticism and your building block people from your past?
I guess I do. I guess I worry that, over time, I have been built thanks to their blocks, but also with other blocks and cement, and that when they look at me, they can see the rotten parts. Ones that don’t necessarily come from other people, but ones that come from poor life choices. I worry even now that those who are in my life will one day see the rotten blocks and walk away. The kind of walkout where people don’t explain why or give you a chance to apologize; they just walk away and never come back and you cease to exist.
Have you ever walked away from someone, severed all contact with them?
The first 2 people who came to mind were my mother and an ex: Louis.
Have you ever spoken to them since the “walkout”?
Having seen my mother this summer, I would have to say yes, I spent time with her and even wrote/called her for several months after returning to France. As for Louis, I gave him many second chances and he proved to be the same person, every time. That said, even today, I think of him sometimes and, even though I know we can’t be friends or talk, I have contemplated contacting him. I say that, but if he contacted me, I wouldn’t answer. I guess I’m not really thinking of the real him, but rather the him I knew, who also added to the me I am.
So, if you can continue to think of these people, who you refuse to talk to, but who shared your life once upon a time, what makes you think that others are more resolute in their thoughts? You think of those you lost and those you shunned, but you belong to those two categories for other people.
This is true. Maybe the not knowing keeps us wondering, fuelling the flame of memory, so to speak, in order to keep the moments and relationship alive — somewhere, in a parallel world of imagination. If I were sure we took turns thinking of a shared time, maybe I wouldn’t feel we are missing out on sharing something now.
Do we need others to think of us to exist? And furthermore, do we need the past to exist at all?
Maybe we don’t need others to exist, and maybe we don’t need a past, but the two greatly influence who we are. They give us more depth I guess… I don’t know…