Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Affect

Affect. Verb to noun to adjective, affected, affection, affectation: a protean, tricky, problematical word for a difficult matter. From the wholesome neutrality of cause and effect to the sense of potential damage, from the springy turf of affection to the sliding, hypocritical sands of affectation, are small, mistaken steps.

I let other people affect me, still, too much, their moods and humours, atmospheres and auras. when I was younger and lived in the city, I used to speak of 'personality erosion'; too much time spent with others, most of all those who had a prevalent idea which governed their lives, left me feeling reduced, the bedrock of my personality too weak and friable to withstand their tread. I vacillated between persuasion and revulsion, but did not feel enough myself either way. Now the strata laid down by time and age and experience have compacted and firmed my sense of self; I have accepted my introversion, my uselessness at late hours (which happily has matured into a liking for early ones), my need to be mostly involved with the one over the many, without any longer feeling obliged to apologise for these things. Time spent in company, which now I turn out to be quite good at when called upon, leaves me tired but not so much lessened. Nevertheless, I cannot blithely go on my way when those around me are unhappy or angry; I feel beholden to confront or make it better, even when it's nothing to do with me, I take it personally. This exasperates me; I would prefer to detach compassionately.

"Most of all, do not feign affection."

I had a friend who is a friend no more. My error, my unkindness, but she was, I decided, a maddeningly affected person. Not having known her for long, and lacking an understanding of and true affection for her, I sought to aggrandise myself by affecting a concern and compassion for her situation I could not really own. She held to her resentment, her hysteria, her tears, her need to be wounded, her exaggerated drama and the primary and sovereign importance of her emotions over all and everyone else - including and especially her own daughter, and eventually I let all this affect me; disgust and anger overwhelmed me and I turned on her, thereby compounding and confirming her in her own self-image. I am not proud of this detachment by rejection, but feel the mistake was made at the outset, when I feigned affection.

I am puzzled and rather embarrassed at how I, like so many others, was so bizarrely affected by the death of Princess Diana. Not hysterically, you understand, I wouldn't have waded through flowers to keep a vigil, and wept in the street; we were newly living here, anyway, with no TV and little contact with the outside world, except our neighbours who petted and commiserated with us. But I did follow the news obsessively, and shed a few tears at the funeral ( I'd like to say only at the Tavener and not at Elton John, but it would be a lie). I am wary now of the vein of craving for overt, shared emotion that was unearthed then, and which is tapped into so gleefully, and I have to say I find the media's exploitaton and manipulation of the horror of child-abduction obscene and grotesque.

The risk of emotional dishonesty in allowing myself to be affected dogs me. I am afraid of induced, fetid, over-heated mawkishness, or simply of pretending to an emotion I do not really feel. I don't know if I fear this more or less than actual loss of control. That is not to say I haven't faked feeling, wanted to be in on a drama, adopted histrionic attitudes, and otherwise lost the balance of humility, but having done so, too often I have come to with ashes in my mouth, and a sense of self-contempt which makes me feel a discontinuity with myself, a dis-integration.

My siblings mostly know about this blog, read it sometimes and make appreciative noises, all but one, as far as I know. This one, nearest to me in age, for whom I have great respect and real affection, though we are not affectionate together, I hesitate to tell. I do not wish to impose, and if told, duty of affection would compel them to read it conscientiously, and I think perhaps that would be an embarrassment to both of us. As I said to one of the others, that one is uncomfortable with affect. Together as children and adolescents, we affected an attitude of cynicism and mockery, of smart-alec sophistication. The unthought-through final offspring of elderly parents, bookish and spoiled, talked to rather than played with, ill-fitting and uncertain, sometimes picked on, our words were too long, our parents too old, our manner too intense and pompous, so we wrapped ourselves up, not to be affected. I'm certain I suffered less than my sibling, and little overall. The enlarging false claim of childhood unhappiness is not one I care to make any more; I have seen enough of those who can legitimately make such a claim to know it's not something one should envy, and count my blessings that it was not so.

I let my relatonship with my father be affected by my mother, a truism of course. In my teens I was often rude and unkind to him, yet I never saw him angry. But when we were alone together we were amicable. The tension at the root of my behaviour, I understood quite quickly, was my mother's resentment, irritation, disappointment, (understanding didn't stop me doing it). Her self-control prevented her from expressing these things openly for herself, but they were never far beneath the surface, and, as I have said, I was and am a reactive person, easily affected by the currents around me, so I expressed them for her. This situation had the advantage that I could then be upbraided for my unacceptable insolence to my father. I'm not letting myself off the hook, I was still obnoxious. Compassion for one's former self should never descend into self-pity and denial, and the inner child can be as tiresome as any other infant. I was on some level aware of a pity for my father for so many things, which I was not mature enough to be able to transform into affectionate compassion, and which I had a horror of allowing myself to feel, to be affected by.

Our father was born 100 years ago this year ( he died in 1988, my mother 7 years later). A move is afoot for all his offspring and sundry grandchildren to contribute to an online but private memoire of him. A nice idea, though one I having trouble getting started on. (The aforementioned sibling happily supports the idea, but is disinclined as yet to contribute, saying, Bartleby-like, 'I am not sure there is anything I could or would want to say'. The ambiguity of the modals seems to express more eloquent possibilities than any amount of eulogising!) I suppose I am afraid that when I try to think about my father, and to do so with genuine affect, I will fall into the trap of affected emotion, sentiment, dishonesty, artifice. That the temptation to make a good piece of writing, or to be seen to have deep and creditable feelings will cause me to be fundamentally dishonest, for the fact was he was a quiet, background presence, lacking in forcefulness, very much a supporting role in the drama. Much of the time I didn't really take a lot of notice of him. Which is not, obviously, the whole story. Alternatively, I also fear that, in seeking to be truthful, not sentimental, I will say something inappropriate to the spirit of the project, that might upset ( weasel word!) or discomfort someone else.

But I think it will be OK. It isn't a therapeutic exercise, that isn't necessary. Affectionate things will be said, and perhaps some affecting ones. My father was by nature an affectionate man, I believe, but life got in the way of his being able to always express it, or of my being able to receive it.

But as we were, he and I, in this picture, we seem to have been affectionate, and unaffected.



Many thanks to Tall Girl and to Jean, whose very strong, beautiful, courageous writing, unaffected and affecting, started me thinking about this. This post has, along the way, morphed into something other and longer than I intended. For better or worse.

16 comments:

marja-leena said...

Oh, this is a great post! All three of you have written deeply and well about such a personal subject! Like you, I count my blessings that my childhood was fairly happy. Sometimes I feel that tricky twinge of guilt when meeting others who have been affected by their unhappy early years.

herhimnbryn said...

(0) Lucy (0)

meggie said...

What a moving post.

Tall Girl said...

Oh I love this photograph, L!! Never seen baby ones of you before or your Dad so young!

apprentice said...

This is a very honest, and I hope it has cleared your own thoughts.
If you approach writing something about your Dad with the same spirit it will be fine. If you don't want to post it straight to cyberspace then just e-mail it to your siblings - with this photograph.

Siblings are always difficult, sadly we seem to slip back to long establish pecking orders, and for some this means still acting like they are ten and you are six.

Your post show you have insight into how you respond to people, and you also have empathy, which is healthier than sympathy. Personal growth and honesty is all any of us can hope for.

Jean said...

Wow, I identify with just about all of this so much, Lucy! Not the sibling stuff; I don't have any. But the much older father I did have, like you... and so much that you describe about your temperament and reactions.

Are you familiar with the American psychologist Elaine Aron's work on 'Highly Sensitive People'? Somewhat toe-curling terminology, especially for an uptight British reader, but the work is not toe-curling at all. When I first read her books a huge light went on in my head - oh god, this is absolutely me! It was incredibly helpful: http://www.hsperson.com/

I can't tell you how happy it makes me that my musings on being 'affected' have sparked related but different trains of thought in others, all of it so personal, and fascinating, meaningful and moving for me. This is absolutely why blogging means so much and has been so important for me.

marlyat2 said...

How brave you are, Lucy, to unpack and sort all this!

And I like the photograph; it's touching.

The Diana thing: you know, that is powerful as a story that plugs into mythic patterns and overturns them. It's a flat-out Cinderella story that 'should' have ended with the wedding. But it becomes something else entirely, something difficult and destructive of the established pattern. Cinderella's prince doesn't really love her, though all Cinderella wanted was to love and be loved and bear her little princes, and that is inevitably death to her: her heart literally manhandled and "broken" in attempt to revive it, leading to death in the black ground on an island, isolated from all.

Mythic!

Lucy said...

Wonderful, solid gold responses there from likewise people. Thank you.

ML-That twinge of guilt is to be resisted; I suppose in some way we feel shut out from some experience, the sense of being separated that those who have suffered unhappy or abusive childhoods feel from everyone else cutting both ways, cutting us off from each other. I figure that even the happiest, most fortunate life will inevitably bring its share of pain and loss, growing up, being human, simply isn't easy, however blessed you are.
My parents rose above a great deal in their own painful pasts and unkind upbringings to give us a more wholesome, better childhood than they had, and I won't dishonour that.

H - lovely to see you, thanks.
Meggy, ditto!

TG - I know! I don't remember a time when he wasn't grey myself, it must have happened after I came along! And do you know, I really love that ribby jumper, I imagine I can feel baby fingers digging into it.

Apprentice - yes, I remember that bit in 'The Cancer Chronicles', and the thing about relapsing into old patterns. I admired so much the way you spoke of that. I couldn't honestly reproach any of my siblings or say they imposed that on me, (and I'd say that even if they didn't read this!), but I do it anyway, the relapsing thing, quite of my own accord, in my own head. I think writing this blog, among many other things, is helping me to get beyond it.

Jean- thanks again, and for getting me started, I'm glad you responded so positively. I suppose I resist seeing myself as a highly sensitive person, many of the things you described about your childhood made me feel I was probably an insensitive little clod! But thanks for the recommendation, and you are an inspiration.
Marly - Wow! That's some interpretation of the Diana thing, I don't feel half so stupid now! And thanks!

Jean said...

But Lucy, I think the criticisms you make of yourself as insensitive on occasion are on a level that no one but the very sensitive would ever think about! (By the way, I don't think it's better or worse to be more or less sensitive, and neither does Elaine Aron - we need a mixture: different kinds of people with different strengths and vulnerabilities). But of course, I've never even met you, and don't mean to make assumptions about you just because I identify so strongly with much of what you write here. And each of us is unique and, when it comes down to it, not reducible to any generalisation.

Lucy said...

Jean - you must have been here while I was over at yours, oh those beautiful light and shadow pictures!
Please, I didn't consider any asumption to be made, I am truly honoured, and warmed, and encouraged, by your words and responses. We probably are being terribly British! As you say, sensitivity isn't necessarily a virtue per se, it's what you do with it; we can't choose what we come in with, I think it might be something to do with the progress that we make with what we have to carry that matters... or something like that. Thank you so much for coming, and I really welcome your comments.

Brother Dave said...

Dearest Loot, any comment on this post from one of your siblings into public cyberspace, is going to sound affected, even mawkish. But the comments from your friends related to this post are greatly supportive, not only to you but to me also. I would not want to turn the comments on this post into something related to personal family things; I would like to say that I was in tears both when reading the post and the comments.

It would seem to me that whatever one ever writes about has to be totally honest. Maybe sometimes it is better to leave some things unsaid. However, if we are to grow we have sometimes to face our demons.

leslee said...

Family relationships can be so complex, and how we with each our own personality quirks respond and are shaped by them is ever fascinating to me. It does seem to take to somewhere in middle age to get any perspective on it, I suppose once we settle into and accept who we are and can detach a bit from how we got here.

There's an interesting article in the NY Times that I passed along to a couple of friends yesterday. The link is ungodly long, but you can find it by the title, "This is Your Life (and How You Tell It)" by Benedict Carey. Seems appropriate to many of us telling our stories on our blogs to ourselves and others.

Lucy said...

Dave, you know you are always welcome here, and in writing about family realationships in an open space where my family come too, I am inviting comments from all! I can see there is a time and a place for being more or less revelatory, in some ways I feel freer here in a 'place of my own', among relative strangers, than I might elsewhere, but I meant what I said that it would be OK, I am only airing things in another context. But my demons these days have barely the status of gremlins, nothing to worry about!
Leslee - thanks for the link, and for your so well-put comment, so true about settling into what we are.. I certainly find it more interesting than agonising now.

zephyr said...

Dear Lucy,
Thank you for this post...it seems to me that the perspective the unfolds for us (manyof us anyway) in our 40-50's is a blessing, a gift from the gods...as long as it comes with the ability to be gentle and forgiving with one's self.

i have wrestled with so much of the same feelings you express here, so reading your brave words is illuminating and supportive of my efforts to be more honest, more caring.

a psychologist once told me that i have spent my life being permeable...too often too permeable...and that word rang like a gong that continues to reverberate in my thinking, decades later...and rings sympathetically as i read your words today....

Thank you for this inspiring entry...i don't remember how i stumbled across your blog, but am so pleased that i have.

i think perhaps you may have seen my postings in Marly's Palace...? i'm a zephyr there too (not my real name, but thi internet thingy lets me be lighter than i really am!) My blog link should show up, i think...and i will be updating it today, hopefully.

rr said...

You wrote a beautiful post about seeing your father's face in your own in the mirror and what pleasure it gave you.

Your reaction and your writing told me a great deal about your relationship with him and your affection for him.

And it was lovely.

Lucy said...

Zephyr and Rachel
Lovely to see you here; thanks for taking the time to make such gentle and thoughtful comments.
Rachel, I'd forgotten about that post!