Friday, December 5, 2008

My Father Within Me

I had known for many years that my Dad was a very rare kind of creature. Through my direct experience of him and through the perception of others that had come to know him and would share their experience with me, it was clear that he was one of the most intelligent men I would ever meet. He had a swift and dramatic way of cutting through intellectual spider webs to get to the fundamental core that was hidden within. He could easily disentangle mathematical and logical problems that would leave others breathless and do it without any apparent great effort. Even my mother, who after once loving him, came to despise him, could never deny the magnificence of his rational mind. His memory was so clear and deep that he could describe specific places in Europe that he had never visited, better than people that had lived there for many years. He had read widely and deeply, from the memoirs of Julius Caesar to Norman Mailer, from Hemingway to Flaubert. He had a great admiration for legendary master strategists, Hannibal, Escipion, Napoleon, Rommel, and he had a great affinity for rationalist philosophers like Betrand Russell and Whitehead. He was also a very kind man. He would go out of his way to try to be helpful, sometimes to the point of being intrusive, but always with the intent to help. He approached the world as a series of problems that were waiting to be solved, some of these problems were his, some of them belonged to others. Once he had selected a problem to work on, he would stop at nothing to find a solution. He was quick to rise to anger but he was also quick to set his anger aside in order to fix whatever wasn’t right. As my Grandmother once said, he was noble, in the oldest, most complete sense of the word.
After several days of living in El Salvador with him, I came to understand that there was also something in my Dad that bothered me. Something in his presence touched a nerve within me and that nerve itched with the impulse to fire violently in all directions, without a clear sense of purpose, without a clear sense of aim. Not all the time, not every moment of the day, not in every conversation, but he definitely did bother me and I had to continuously restrain my mechanical impulse to react. He bothered me in obvious ways that would be easy to explain to others (his tendency to interrupt, his tendency to be loud) but he also bothered me in subtle, almost invisible ways that I couldn’t find a way to begin to describe. He would often talk in a very angry tone without any clear provocation, and that would bother me to some degree. But what would bother me more was his implied presumption that this way of talking was "normal", it was to be expected, and that there shouldn’t be any response or retaliation, from anyone around him, to his verbal attacks.
Today, I suddenly saw that he had been the same way all along. Nothing had changed. This was the same father I had known throughout my life. He was the same back when I was a tiny creature with only a head full of questions and a heart full of eager curiosity at my disposal. Back then, he talked in the same loud voice, with the same angry frown and the same eyes filled with poison, and, back then, I saw the entire world in him, and the world that I saw was angry and brutal and stern and paranoid and sad. He was the same, but I was not the same. I could now see him clearly.
Now I could see his habits and, for the first time, with a crystalline transparency that bordered on the obscene, I could see them purely as habits, as mechanical programs burnt into a particular biological machine through hardship and fear, through punishment and reward, and not as the natural processes of a world made of tears and anger. I saw how he formed his sentences as cutting mad headlong rushes towards absolute and irrevocable conclusions without any allowance for doubt, for questions, for a moment to breathe and take in all other possibilities. The conclusion had to be reached as soon as possible and, once reached, it couldn’t be touched or examined. ("The left wing party has a deal with the right wing! It is clear!" "September 11 was an inside job!" "Your friend is an asshole and that’s what he has been all along!") I saw him repeating his conclusions endlessly, as if dressing them in truth through the raw mass of verbal recurrence. I saw him rise in anger against invisible enemies that would dare to question his final conclusions, anger at the mere possibility that someone, somewhere might disagree. I saw his tendency to be suspicious of everyone around him, for subtle events that were not questioned, for messages that were not clearly communicated and were left to become secret unquestionable facts. I saw him move carelessly through the physical world, like a lumbering giant unaware of his own enormous presence. I saw him react blindly to any shift in the space around him, either completely unaware that we could shift from chamber to chamber while remaining in the same physical room or purposefully avoiding any such occurrence. I saw him always ready to break any electrified moment without giving it a second thought, as if nothing had really happened, as if nothing so subtle could ever really matter. I saw it all as if it was a strange old movie, a movie I had seen before when I was half asleep and which I couldn’t remember distinctly, and I felt somewhat embarrassed for him, as if he was naked in front of me and he didn’t realize it. I wanted to turn away, to stop seeing what I wasn’t meant to see, but I remained faithful to my purpose as a ghost and I observed, as carefully and methodically as I could manage. And in the midst of watching him, in the midst of capturing the truth that had been hidden all along in front of my wide open eyes, I realized that this is what he taught me, this is what I learned as the one way to live and move in the world, back when I had nothing else to guide me. He had taught me the wrong way to voyage and, of all things, that bothered me most of all.
I could feel an impulse within me that wanted to reach out to him, that wanted to explain, that wanted to establish true contact, that wanted to communicate the things I could now see as evidently as a painted moment frozen in time and washed in colors, or a violin melody flowing over a rich bed of woodwind harmony, soaring in its alternation between consonance and dissonance. But I could see that any such attempt would be limited and ultimately doomed to failure. I could only have as much contact with him as he was able to handle. He had never learned how to open, he had never learned how to shift, he had never learned how to focus his attention or invoke his presence and I couldn’t change any of that on my own.
Why was it so important to me that he should understand? Why did this wish burn within me like a constant ache at the pit of my stomach? Why did it remain even though I had clearly determined that it was impossible?
Ultimately, he was just another denizen of the labyrinth, another creature that I could observe carefully, swallowing the impressions that emanated from his presence and transforming them within me like air, like sugar, like bread, like silence. But, being that he was bread, he was a particularly hard kind of bread, a bread that was specially hard to swallow. I had to be constantly aware that he was a machine, a very old machine with deeply ingrained habits that would never leave. I certainly could not take them away. I didn’t have the skill, I didn’t have the power, I didn’t have the permission, I didn’t have the right. His habits would remain and I would continue to be his son and he would continue to be my father.
I realized, by looking at him now, how scared I had been when I was a little boy and why he would have been so scary. I could picture myself looking up at him and finding that I was unable to stand up to the overwhelming presence before me. Back then, he was not just intelligent, he was the essence of intelligence. Back then, he was not just wise, he was the essence of wisdom. Back then, he was not just strong, he was the essence of strength. Being as little as I was, as ignorant as I was, as blind as I was, as weak as I was, how could I stand up to him? How could I not simply step back from his wrathful habits and ultimately try to emulate them?
I was not scared of him anymore. I had the freedom to do and say exactly what I wanted. If I wanted to, I could point out all his inconsistencies. I could point out his many contradictions, his lack of awareness, his blindness, his recurring mistakes. I could attack him from so many directions that he would never know how to begin to defend himself. But it would all be for nothing. It would change nothing, it would accomplish nothing. It would be a circus show of strength playing to an empty auditorium.
Now that I could say anything, there was nothing left to say.
When I rose up to the eternal moment, he would then become like the weather, sunny or cloudy, clear or rainy, hot or cold, and I could simply observe it, without complaint, without reaction, without regret. But when I fell from that rarefied space, I would notice something, a gesture, a word, a statement, a subtle movement that had no purpose or goal and it would bother me. And it would keep on bothering me until I found my way up there again.
I realized that this effort was more difficult to accomplish with him because of who he was to me, because of what he was to me. When I saw him, I saw my old habits, the ones that dominated my machine for so long, the ones that still lingered under the surface, the ones that still tried to control me, the ones that waited for a moment of distraction to take over and establish a new reign. These were the core habits of my personality, the ones I learned when I was very small, the ones that ruled me for most of my life. And they were being acted out in front of me in my own private cinema of haunting horror and whispering ghosts. My father was ultimately me. He was what I would have become if I had taken a slightly different route. He was my own mechanical destiny. I could simply sit back and watch myself in a parallel Universe.
There I was, older, less healthy, in a greater state of decay, with more exaggerated gestures and a more pronounced tendency to absolute self destruction. There I was, claiming knowledge that I hadn’t earned, making judgements that I hadn’t carefully investigated, breaking subtle invocations that I couldn’t understand. There I was. The Other that was me. Too close for comfort. Too far to touch.
It bothered me that I was unable to stop it. That after all these many years, there I was, in front of my eyes, unable to stop my ingrained tendencies, still caged in the same mechanical destiny, still running around the same endless wheel.
Anger would burst forth from within me. I would become impatient. I would try to fix things. I would try to make suggestions. And then I would stop myself and breath and remind myself that I had become distracted. Nothing more. Nothing less. At those moments, it was crucial to remember:
I have no control over the Other.
I have no control over him.
I have no control over her.
I have no control over them.
I can never have it.
I should never want it.
I can learn to control my own machine.
I can learn to work.
Anything that distracts me from that purpose is an obstacle.
I can help others to help themselves but only if they truly want it.
Whoever hasn’t asked for my help, clearly and explicitly, should forever remain outside my sphere of influence.
Upon returning to a clear space where the moment regained its colors and sounds and the air was once again crisp with electrical currents, I felt a clear pain in my heart. I felt remorse for the energy I had wasted. I felt remorse for wasting the precious delicate product of the work I had done on myself and the work I was doing with others. I felt the pain in the middle of my chest. I realized that I should not run from it. I should not try to hide away. I should not try to stop it. Let it burn. My heart was doing what it was supposed to and I had to simply stay out of the way. Let it burn hard. I would withstand the pain and observe carefully. Nothing else.
There was pain at birth and this was a birth that had taken years to gestate and would still take many more years to complete. I had to open and let the new being come forth. Through the heart. Through the pain. Through the sacrifice. With patience, attention and presence. Nothing else.
On this voyage, I had many moments when I was able to control my habits, when I was able to snap out of the mechanical movie and shift my character, sometimes slightly, sometimes radically. I was not able to stop them all. I would have to learn from my many mistakes. But in order to learn, I had to face them, squarely and clearly, without flinching or turning away. I was trying to jump over a very tall obstacle and I was bound to fall many times before I would master the jump. As I fell, it would hurt. There was no use in staying on the ground crying about my failure. The longer I stayed, the harder it would be to regain my momentum. I would simply stand up and try again. Over and over. As many times as needed. For as long as needed.
I had seen today that my father was me.
I had seen today that I was my father.
And my father, who was me, was the greatest obstacle of all.
I would step away from him, from the him that lived within me, and examine him with the cleansing radiations of my attention, letting the threads of the power that he had held over me dissolve into the vast oceans of nothingness.
Meanwhile, back in the world of the humans, he, the him that was outside, would continue to be my father and I would continue to be his son and I would still love him. I would love him more, now that I truly knew him.

My Dad with a mask of concern and worry,
that reaches back into a past that I never lived,
a past that still lingers in the unconscious habits
that are my most enduring inheritance.

My Dad in a moment of unguarded playfulness,
commenting freely on the events of the day,
ready to render his final opinion.
My Dad examining a playground structure,
always open to delving deeper
into the mysteries of engineering and structure.

My Dad and me in the eternal chamber
of the airport in El Salvador,
where, after a few laughs,
we always say goodbye.

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