Engaging the World IV
Bill Long 10/26/07
Confusion Coming and Going
This essay deals with the issue too "hot to handle" from the previous essay. What else could that subject be but women? The point of this essay is that the strategy I used to listen to the "alluring voices" of the "music" from another world, a strategy that has brought me great joy, has also undermined deep relationships with women. Since it isn't obvious why this should be the case, I would like to spell it out here and then use Thomas Jefferson to explain male helplessness in this regard.
Here is the issue in a nutshell. I was divorced from my wife, whom I had met in theological seminary in 1975, on October 1, 2001. When I began to enter into my private world early in 2003 and when I finally began to establish a good direction early in 2004, I think one of the effects was to make me an even more confident and attractive person when I did enter "the world," even though I often reluctantly entered it. I could speak on issues with clarity and patience; I would be understanding with people; I would have little need to exert power or try to "compete" with people because I wasn't interested in doing so. I wasn't going necessarily for anything they could "give me." Because I was exploring some deep things in life I developed a method of interacting with people which was able to break through to issues of substantial importance very quickly. Because I had resources, health, a good education and straight teeth, I became of interest to more than one woman.
Then, too, I was drawn by my internal desires to be with women. As is often the case in divorce, the couple suffers from feelings of loneliness during months or years before the divorce, and so I wanted to have female companionship. I found women's company more enchanting and comforting than men's, and so I sought it out.
But then the problem developed. As I extended myself to women, I became confused and I confused them because I also wanted to be alone with my thoughts. My thoughts, which I hadn't had much time to develop through the hectic days of marriage, were now my first priority. But because I managed to make friends quickly, I gave the impression that I wanted nothing more than to enjoy the company of a woman--any time and all times. I did and I didn't, and I had no way of explaining it to myself or to her without leading to clumsiness and frustration.
I could almost write a script (maybe I will some day!) of the way it would work: (1) friendly meeting between Bill and "female"; (2) intense establishment of commonalities and connection; (3) loads of fun times, of sharing, perhaps travel, laughter and quick and easy connection; (4) My growing feeling that I was becoming increasingly drawn away from the things I loved to do. (5) Her confusion; and (6) Difficult breakup. At the heart of the problem was the tension between spending a night "thinking" and being with "her." The tension would become overwhelming [i.e., most women understand it in American culture if the man says he wants a night to himself because he has to "finish a project" for work, but very few women understand or are sympathetic with a man who wants a night off "to think"]. During stage (5) above, the woman would always say the same words (did they consult with each other?), "You are giving me mixed signals." Indeed, I was. I was, and am, giving myself and her mixed signals. My head said one thing and my heart (or was it my lust?) said something else. And I still haven't been able to sort it out completely to this day.
Help from Thomas Jefferson
Submerged in this subterannean prison, I found an unlikely source of understanding and comfort in Thomas Jefferson, who, if possible, even did something dumber than I in relation to a woman. Here was his situation. He was happily married to the love of his life, Martha Wayles Skelton, for ten years (1772-82). She bore him five (or six, depending on the source) children, but was unable to recover from the birth of the last, and she died on Sept. 6, 1782. Jefferson was 39 at the time and became quite inconsolable. Two months later he penned this eloquent line to a French colleague:
"[I am] emerging from the stupor of mind which had rendered me as dead to the world as [she] was whose ...loss occasioned it."
A few years later he was off to France, where he served in a number of capacities for the next seven years. But he also seemingly fell in love, with a cultured (and married--I keep my distance from that!) French woman Maria Cosway. In October 1786, after they parted, Jefferson wrote a remarkable letter to her, traditionally referred to as his "head and heart" letter. The text is here.
In this letter Jefferson's "head" and his "heart" argue with each other over how he feels and thinks about the loneliness he feels at Maria's departure. The heart is miserably sick in love, while the head upbraids the heart for being so dumb as to fall for someone whom he knew he would never be able to have for himself. Here is a taste of the dialogue:
"Head. Well, friend, you seem to be in a pretty trim.
Heart. I am indeed the most wretched of all earthly beings. Overwhelmed with grief, every fibre of my frame distended beyond its natural powers to bear, I would willingly meet whatever catastrophe should leave me no more to feel or to fear.
Head. These are the eternal consequences of your warmth & precipitation. This is one of the scrapes into which you are ever leading us. You confess your follies indeed; but still you hug & cherish them; & no reformation can be hoped, where there is no repentance.
Heart. Oh, my friend! This is no moment to upbraid my foibles. I am rent into fragments by the force of my grief! If you have any balm, pour it into my wounds; if none, do not harrow them by new torments. Spare me in this awful moment! At any other I will attend with patience to your admonitions."
The relentless dialogue continues for about 4,000 words. The head patiently tells the heart that nothing is going to happen with Maria and Thomas, but the "heart" finds refuge and hope in "God only knows what is to happen..." "Head" then returns to the point with clarity and precision:
"I wished to make you sensible how imprudent it is to place your affections, without reserve, on objects you must so soon lose, & whose loss when it comes must cost you such severe pangs.."
That is, don't waste your time on this kind of love, especially since it can't be repaid or you will inevitably lose it. Head continues:
"The art of life is the art of avoiding pain: & he is the best pilot who steers clearest of the rocks & shoals with which he is beset....the most effectual means of being secure against pain is to retire within ourselves, & to suffice for our own happiness."
Heart can only respond in his pain:
"yours is a wonderful proposition, to insulate ourselves, to retire from all aid, & to wrap ourselves in the mantle of self-sufficiency! For assuredly nobody will care for him who care for nobody. But friendship is precious, not only in the shade but in the sunshine of life; & thanks to a benevolent arrangement of things, the greater part of life is sunshine."
Ultimately there was no "resolution" to the dialogue between heart and head but we know that for the remainder of his long life (40 years) Jefferson never married. One of the results of this, as recent scholarship has increasingly shown, is that he may have fathered a child through his slave Sally Hemings. Thus, did head or heart really win out? I don't know, but it seemed that Jefferson went to his grave as confused as I with respect to his ability, and interest, in developing an intimate relationship with a woman. It is nice to be a bedfellow, so to speak, with him on this.
Oh, and one footnote on Jefferson. Apparently Maria Cosway let him know she was "confused" by his head and heart dialogue. Join the party.
So, I write in October 2007, quite content in my life of thought, reading, study and writing. But the contentment in one area belies the existence of a rather roiling sea in other areas. And I do not know if that will change.