Sunday, December 30, 2007

Psychic Minefields

One feature of the Afghan landscape that is never going to leave me has to do with red and white painted rocks. I described it in one of my missives from there, half a decade ago:

I had been told before coming here that this was the most heavily mined corner of the earth. But if the engineers slides are to be trusted, that's not so. At a mere 40 mines per square mile, this land ranks behind Iraq, Egypt, Croatia, Cambodia (reported by some sources to have more amputees per capita than any other country in the world), and finally Bosnia. For Bosnia, the tally is nearly 150 mines deployed per square mile. We once feared nuclear winter as a horrible possibility. But a worse decimation of the land has already set in, in some places. Imagine standing on the edge of our national forests and looking in, but knowing that to venture there was to take your life in your hands. Imagine the Appalachian Trail not marked with discreet cairns, but with red and white painted stones every ten feet or so. Irregular stone bobbers to mark out the territory belonging to another sort of fishers of men. 150 mines per square mile. One quarter as dense as the placement of poles in De Maria's Lightning Field, if they were evenly distributed. They're not. Stroll across such a field to buy your lottery ticket and your odds of losing on the way far exceed your odds of winning if you get there at all.
In haunting images though, we frequently find the metaphors that make other, even harder to understand phenomena finally clear to us. In minefields and those who mark them and those who work to clear them, I've finally come to understand the action of personal insecurities and some of the methodologies by which we deal with them.

For a long time, I've been very close to someone with a rather baffling trait that I've been painfully aware of, but unable to understand. The things that have been most important to me, I've always tried to share--windows to my soul for the person I would most want to understand it. Sometimes there as been interest there; sometimes not. Take this blog for instance. If I were in a relationship with someone, a serious relationship, I would want to understand the things that matter most to them. I can't imagine being in a relationship with an artist, but never having been to a showing or seen her studio. A dancer, and having never seen her dance. An actress, but seldom attending her plays or viewing her movies. I seriously cannot imagine that. I think of myself as a writer. Yes, I have many other interests, but few where so much from so deep is on such open display. I don't think that person I'm speaking of could find her way to this blog without help. I doubt she's read half a dozen posts here in the last year. And those, early ones that I printed and asked her to. Eventually, I quit even that. A good friend and published author has said that he wouldn't want his significant other to read his fiction. I understand that. But this seems different. So, this lack of interest, or even studied avoidance, has been confusing to me.

Equally confusing has been a dynamic by which that person has subtly discouraged my interest in the things most important to her. It has felt as if by sharing something with me it is somehow tarnished. Only recently, through a series of epiphanies, have I finally come to believe I understand this phenomenon. What it boils down to, I think, is that my understanding and appreciating these things would allow the person I really am to impinge upon her mental construct of me. Wouldn't want that--reality endangering misconception.

The central epiphany was the realization that this person believed things about me that rather boggled my mind. Things that acquaintances found laughable and my best friends found ludicrous. Yet, a curiosity about myself that I'll touch more on below prompted me to go so far as to seek the opinion of a professional on at least one issue. Even at the cost of losing a client they concluded the issues I'd been accused of having simply weren't part of my constitution. And key here is that if they were, I wanted to know. I wanted those mines marked, removed, dismantled, disposed of.

That awareness of what someone else is seeing when they look at you can be both devastating and empowering. Devastating if your self-esteem is built predominantly on the esteem of others. In a functioning psyche, these two sources of our self-image are like a binary star system, always in play. Too much reliance on solely our own opinion of our actions can lead to maladjustment that's even criminal. But too much reliance on the opinions of others can leave us defenseless against the worst kinds of insecurities. And that truth is the other half of the reluctance to share those most important things. If my appreciating them would endanger misconceptions held dear, then equally dangerous is the chance I might not appreciate them, in which case my tastes would become not a judgment about whatever thing it was, or more accurately still, just my tastes, but about her for placing any value in the thing being considered.

Thus, insecurity, I'm concluding, is the most pernicious demon of all. A fire and forget weapon. A psychic landmine with a shelf life of forever. And a good therapist, I've come to realize, is really just a mental minesweeper. His or her job: find and mark, and eventually remove and disarm those bad-ass bouncing Betties someone sowed in a person's childhood. I think that's why I've always rather enjoyed the brief bouts of therapy that have followed one misadventure or another in my life. You learn the layouts of your own minefields. Initially, just knowing what fields or trails to avoid is enough. Then you learn how to navigate through even dangerous topics and situations. Eventually, if you're brave enough and persistent enough, you learn how to remove some of those mines entirely, to render them inert. The more you do this, the safer life becomes for you and for everyone around you. You become, if you're lucky, the kind of person who can even help others navigate, mark, and de-mine their own fields.

There is much here that I am going to miss. That's sad. Yet, there is much that I am not going to miss. That's sadder still. Perhaps first on that list is the telltale click that too frequently followed my best intended acts and signaled that lifting my foot would mean losing an emotional leg. The forests of Bosnia and fields of Cambodia are comparative playgrounds to the fields in which such a relationship is played out. It becomes a life constricted by those red and white rocks. Eventually, it becomes paralyzing.