Narcissistic Supply

My other thought as I have been learning has been about the role of empathy. When I am watching someone speak and trying to understand what they are saying, my mirror neurons are hard at work imagining how they are making that sound, what the sound actually is, what it means. It’s hard to learn if you can’t mentally imitate the person showing you how something is done.

And I think it’s this system of perspective-taking and imagining that’s somehow broken or distorted in me which creates so much unhappiness and so many relational problems. I don’t think I’m a narcissist, but I think my parents are and it has done something to me that’s short of narcissism and still not fun. I should also say that I believe the source of empathy deficiencies in personality disorders comes first from fear of what you might have to imagine. I don’t think it begins with evil.

I should also say that I think narcissism lies on a spectrum and that it isn’t my parents’ whole problem. My dad may simply be conscience-less. My mother is borderline.

All of that said, let me begin to meander a bit more closely around the point.

I’ve spent the last six weeks or so observing (and often struggling with) how I relate to myself and what happens within that relationship to myself throughout the day. Often, it’s like a ghost. I can’t figure out what just went on in my head, but I am reacting to it. There are times when I’m mentally so ratcheted up it feels like there’s screaming in my head, but I don’t know what started the screaming or what they’re screaming about.

I’ve also been reflecting on my relationships with various people, the kids I care for and others, and what goes on when these relationships upset me.

I’ve been thinking about the drag of depression that seems to have fallen over me since some time in summer and the gradual collapse of my belief in myself this year.

I think narcissism is how I unconsciously assume relationships work. It’s not my conscious belief. There is a gap between behaviour I have learned through experience and what I do as a result of intention. But it impacts how I feel throughout the day, including how I feel in the way I relate to myself. There’s no one here but me, but I suspect I imagine a narcissist at the other end of my mind’s eye.

There are so many implications to this.

A double bind

There’s hardly any time to write these days. There is not even much time to think. Someone talks to us for 3-6 hours a day depending on the day. Then there are social activities. The suspicion is that they are deliberately keeping us busy and that that is the main purpose behind what we’re doing, although why they think we need to be busy, I can’t work out. Do North Americans need to be busy all the time?

Perhaps. But it’s driving me crazy.

I am bored out of my mind and it worries me also. How will I be prepared if there is no time to think?

It’s driving me crazy that there is no time to write.

In between, I have had two thoughts. One of them is a discomfort at being different. Now, I don’t know that I mean much by different. I assume we are all different and that I am as different from the others as they from one another. This is not the dominant view. The dominant view is that it takes a certain kind of person to want to live in a place like Country X and we are all that kind of person. But I look around and still see diversity.

So that is one thought. The other thought that comes out of this is that I am not afraid of difference for the reasons I have been told I would be afraid of it. I am not worried about rejection or social disapproval. The group is my link to my home culture and it will be an important source of support, so I will need them. But most people don’t like you or dislike you based on who you are. Their opinion of you comes from how you treat them. Mostly.

The worry is about rejection by God or something else nebulous and abstract. I must “fit in” the way I was raised to. And yet I can’t fit in with these people. They are “outsiders.” From them, I have to be separate. It’s a double bind. I must fit in. I can’t fit in.

And what I feel most commonly is an uncomfortable sense of contempt for the group, although I like the others in the group, or at least I like most of them. I think they’re good people. But I was raised to view all other groups of people aside from the Two by Twos with contempt.

You stop believing in all these things, and yet the familiar responses don’t disappear. We believe that thoughts and feelings are linked and yet they aren’t with feelings and thoughts triggering one another. We are more like Pavlov’s dogs, salivating before our meals. The thought and the feeling and the action are all part of a response. You can take out one piece of the response–the thought–but the feeling remains.

There are some theories of psychology that see us as immensely complex and our problems as very “deep.” As time goes on, I see myself as less and less complex. I am merely an extremely intelligent primate. What I can do better than a chimpanzee is think about the future. I can also remember the past better. And I can better control my impulsiveness. But in other regards I am much the same.

Change is difficult not because we are so complex, but because we are so simple. Very often, we are not behaving or thinking purposefully–and by purposefully, I mean in a way that is directed towards a goal. So we are not attempting to defend ourselves against pain or because we want to maintain a positive self-view. In many cases, we are behaving more like biological machines.

So there isn’t any deep meaning behind my sense of contempt. It’s conditioned and no more meaningful than saliva.

Staying home from the movies: culture shock and the 2x2s

Today, everyone went off to a movie. I wanted to go. I even bought a ticket, but then I sort of hit a wall and I couldn’t. I was just really too tired. I know that watching a movie only involves sitting in a chair for a while–in this case, for four hours–but even that was too much.

I’ve had a cold, so I blamed it on that, but it’s really not that. Because after an unsuccessful attempt at a tub bath (there is a beautiful, deep tub in my hotel room, but only lukewarm water at the moment) and a cup of tea, I burst into tears.

There is really very little down town in the schedule here. When there is unscheduled time, I feel like I need to be doing something. I still have a cell phone with no SIM card and a laptop with no dongle. I have a bedframe in my house, but I don’t know what size it is, so I don’t know what size mattress to order. I don’t know what kind of heater to buy and I haven’t bought anything for the kitchen, although we’ve seen plenty of dishes and cookware.

The money scares me too. Everyone else is busily converting to dollars–whatever kind of dollars they have in their country, Canadian or Australian. But we’ll be making less than 300 dollars a month. You can’t really do it that way. We’re earning in local currency, not dollars, and so we’ll need to be spending in local currency also.

So I’m anxious about all this, but more than that I’m anxious that I don’t feel clear in my own mind. And gradually it begins to dawn on me: I’m not like everyone else. Among other things, I’m dissociated. I need more time to process new information. It doesn’t just go tumbling nicely into my head. On top of that, I feel anxious when my mind is disorganized. First, because if it’s not organized, I don’t really know if I can function very well. Second, because I feel that old pressure to always make the right decisions as if choosing wisely is still life or death.

That’s why, instead of watching a movie this afternoon, I’m sitting in bed drinking tea and crying over nothing in particular.

This is, in fact, what culture shock is like for me. Culture shock is that point when I’m overwhelmed by too much newness that I don’t have time to work out and I crash in some way, like I did today–just hitting a wall of exhaustion. It’s not shock at Bhutanese culture: we are hardly a part of that. It’s the shock of experiencing our Western culture bubble in the midst of Bhutan.

For lunch, we went out for pizza. Who goes to Bhutan to eat pizza? But it was the first place I’d seen other white people. We aren’t alone in our choice. But I don’t understand it. For various kinds of supplies, we visit a Western-style supermarket–there are several of these–and a few items other people buy you can’t get other places, but mostly they are common items available at any store and in some cases sold elsewhere for lower prices. So why here? Because it’s designed in a way that’s familiar for most people. It’s large, clean, organized, well-lit and has nearly everything you could want.

While TJ says to me at lunch time that he feels calmer and calmer here, I am more and more stressed and anxious. And it’s partly this. They look like me, more or less, but I don’t understand them. I am not like them. I’d rather have a cramped Indian supermarket where the shopkeeper would gather up my items for me. Bhutanese shops here are somewhat in-between: small and cramped, but laid out so that you can pick out your own items. For me, they don’t really take any getting used to for that reason.

At night, I watch English-language television before bed. I need to acclimate to Bhutan soon: At the moment, I need to understand the Western bubble I’m in. I watch them in hopes that I’ll come to understand.

At the same time, it seems I’ve always lived in my own bubble. Two by twos are a collectivist group: they don’t value or appreciate autonomy and independence in the same way that the mainstream culture does. Some of this is in support of a grinding uniformity that prevents independent thought and reasoning. But some of it is to fill the gaping need that wounded people have for connection. In other words, collectivism isn’t all bad.

What makes my head explode is the parts: I don’t believe that collectivism is more comfortable for me although it is. I was told too many times that I stand out to believe that I can carry it off. So I see myself as highly independent, a free-thinker, almost a loner. Consequently, I also behave that way. But I’m not sure how authentic that is.

At the same time, I do feel like an outsider in the group to some extent: I don’t know that that’s accurate or not, but I don’t think that really matters. What’s stressful is feeling, on the one hand, that being an outsider is not allowed. One must always fit in. One must preserve the unity at all costs. And on the other hand, I am not allowed to be a member of this group. They are, themselves, Outsiders. They aren’t the faithful. I should not engage.

Those are the pieces. Maybe I can start putting them together now.

Disturbing the unity: leaving the Borg

sevenLast night at dinner, at the long table they’ve set especially for us–the “Canadian teachers” although most of us are not Canadian–I felt different in a pricking, intermittent kind of way.

I pieced something together just then, eating my noodles and vegetable kofta. I know I am different. I am, perhaps, even more different than average. We’re all different. That’s nothing new, but what I understand is that they see themselves as different too.

The uncomfortable feeling I had was that of being an individual.

In the 2×2 church, and probably other controlling religious groups as well as many dysfunctional families, you are not an individual. Behaviour that speaks to your individuality “disturbs the unity of the church.” Your job is to “fit in.”

What I hadn’t put together is that those around me also see themselves as individuals. In the West, we are proud of our uniqueness. We want to be special. Whenever you are anxious about something, someone will tell you, “Just be yourself.” But I didn’t grow up in the same culture as those around me did. I grew up in the Borg. I was assimilated. Resistance was useless.

A new god, a new morality

You can't make an omelette without breaking a few eggs.
You can’t make an omelette without breaking a few eggs.

“Jesus is our perfect pattern.”

“Jesus was the perfect lamb of God.”

“This is God’s perfect Way.”

If you weren’t raised as a Two by Two, you might not have heard quite so much about perfection sitting in a Sunday worship service. You might not have internalized perfection as virtue. Lucky you.

I wasn’t so fortunate.

Having coming to a new understanding of the nature of God, I realized this morning that I have maintained two sets of values for most of life: an old one and a new one. I haven’t really told myself about them both. They continue to exist side-by-side, like school kids who’ve had an argument and are no longer speaking but still eat their lunch at the same table everyday. It’s time they were introduced.

So I made a list: the old morality and the new one. The old one is largely made up of “don’ts.” The emphasis is on avoiding sin. The new one is focused more on “dos.” The emphasis is on attaining virtue. It would be more convenient if they were tidily organized in the same way and could be written easily with a parallel structure. But they aren’t. We will have to make do.

The Old Morality

  • Don’t feel frustration, annoyance, or anger. Don’t become flustered or discombobulated. Maintain a perfect peace and a perfect calm.
  • Don’t make mistakes in performance. No errors!
  • Don’t waver in your pursuit of chosen goals. Progress must be steady and continuous, without interruptions, breakdowns, or periods of aimless floundering.
  • Don’t make mistakes in judgment. Things must turn out the way you expected them to.

The New Morality

  • Avoid exploiting or harming others. Find ways to get your own needs met that don’t take advantage of other people or trample on their right to meet their needs.
  • Don’t exploit or harm yourself or allow yourself to be exploited or harmed. The rules apply to everyone.
  • Try to understand and appreciate the perspectives of others. This has many benefits, but it’s also just a nice thing to do.
  • Be generous.
  • Be warm.
  • Care.
  • Be open.
  • Be sincere. Don’t say things you don’t mean. Don’t sacrifice yourself. Sacrificing yourself is a kind of lying. Try not to lie.
  • Be a problem-solver. Fix the issues that bother you when you can.
  • Always try to leave things better than you found them.
  • Clean up your own messes.
  • Keep the big picture in mind. You’re not the only one on this boat.

I feel heavily biased towards the New Morality. The Old Morality feels arbitrary, irrelevant, unimportant—as well as impossible. If every wobble and waver is sin, then how do you maintain the perfect calm of item #1?

The Old Morality is so entrenched, I’m not sure how to dislodge it. Nonetheless, I have an idea to try.

Is Santa Claus a legalist?
Is Santa Claus a legalist?

It’s based on what I’ve learned recently about dogs. Apparently, you can un-housebreak dogs if you’re lazy enough. (My landlords are.) All you have to do is not let them outside when they need to go. Force them to urinate or defecate inside the house enough times, and the old rule becomes unimportant. They will create a new rule: go in whatever spot in the house you prefer.

I started with the easiest of the rules to break: item #1, the things I can’t feel. I say it’s the easiest because, if your whole morality is organized around not making mistakes, you are bound to feel frustrated a lot of the time. You might even feel angry. You will certainly feel annoyed.

The mistakes will come on their own, and each of them is an opportunity to feel those prohibited emotions.

Already, I made one mistake after mid-afternoon tea. I told someone I had taught—rather than learned–Hindi in Delhi. (Which is pretty hysterical, if you’ve ever heard me speak in Hindi.) My mistake was a fairly understandable one. I’m used to telling people I teach—not learn—and the words are very similar. But minimizing the mistake only helps me avoid the sense of having broken my rules. So I haven’t done that. I’ve just let it be.

Consequently, what I feel about the mistake even now—two hours later—is anger. I want to scream. I want to use bad words and pound my fists on a hard surface. It’s a little like having a toddler tantrum inside.

This is progress.

A few more mistakes and I might be able to take a stab at item #2.

(Oh, I already did.)

Go to church: advice for exes

All Saint's Church, MumbaiI went to church last Sunday morning. I was in Bombay, visiting a friend there who happens to be a Christian and a regular church-goer. So I went along, more or less for the ride.

It rearranged my head for me. Not in a neat, organized way—that so rarely happens, although it would have been nice if it had. Instead, it shook things up and left them strewn all over the place. I’m still sorting through the mess.

You should go to church too. Regularly. Not necessarily the same one. And not because you are looking for a church where you will feel comfortable and able to worship. In fact, if you do feel comfortable, you might want to take off running the other way, because what you may have found is yet another “truth cult.” Don’t join it.

On the contrary, go to a church that scares you. Go to church in the same way and for the same reason that people with spider phobias first look at pictures of spiders, then sit in the same room with spiders who are crawling around safely within glassed terraria, and then eventually take spiders into their hands and let them crawl over their bodies.

Because they want to lose their fear.

tarantulaIf you leave the Two by Twos, you will also leave with a church phobia—especially if you were born and raised in it. You will have a lot of inaccurate and somewhat frightening ideas about people who attend other churches. These are ideas you may know are inaccurate, but seeing it for yourself is far more powerful than simply knowing.

I haven’t been to a church service of any kind for many years. Possibly decades. I went once to an Anglican service on Easter Sunday to hear a friend sing in the choir. I’ve sat through the better part of a Catholic mass. (I was late.) And I’ve wandered through services and baptisms at Nuestra Senora Reina de los Angeles, but that’s different. That cathedral is also a major tourist site and designed architecturally to accommodate voyeuristic wandering. I’ve also visited churches between services and sat in shrines trying to meditate.

None of those came close to the experience I had on Sunday morning. Sunday morning, during my friend’s church service, I was fully aware of my fear. That’s what you want to be.

To whatever extent that you can, you want to participate in the worship service in the same way that everyone else is. Think of this as a cultural experience. You grew up in religious Siberia. You are visiting civilization for the first time and trying to learn more about it. And the only way to really learn about anything is to do it. So do it. Just don’t do so much you have a heart attack.

You want to feel the degree of fear that is tolerable for you, that you can manage without shutting down or dissociating or otherwise mentally running away. If you start running away in your mind, then it’s time to leave physically. You’ve had enough.

There’s always next week.

You want to sit there while they pass the collection plate and be aware of your heart racing at the very fact that you are sitting in a church where they do this. You want to look around and notice that you are worshipping God in a church made of hands. You want to see communion being taken without anyone passing a plate of white bread with the crusts cut off (or whatever they used in your Sunday morning meeting that seemed to be the only way things could be done). You want to leave that church and know that there is no excess bread and grape juice (or wine, depending on where you lived) being swept off quickly into the kitchen as if bread disposal is a mysterious and mystical act that only the elder can see.

You want to look around while the service is unfolding and realize these people have come to worship God out of a faith as deep as any you have ever seen. Despite everything the workers told you about “outsiders” only attending church for the sake of appearances or because they think all you need to do is go through the motions, these people believe. Some of them more. Some of them less.

Of course, some of them really are going through the motions—just as you were told they would be. However, some of the “saints” in gospel meeting were going through the motions too. I went through the motions sometimes. You might have yourself. Faith is not evenly distributed in a congregation. It is not always so easy to maintain, and the same people will have more at some times than others. That’s something you need to see.

Watch the pastor or the priest until you understand that this is not a “false prophet” intentionally leading his flock astray, but someone doing the best he or she can to help others get closer to God.

Go to church and feel scared that you’re even daring to sit there. Feel even more scared to observe that the workers were mistaken—or perhaps deliberately even lied to you. Keep going until you’re not scared anymore.

Only when the fear is gone will you be free to decide for yourself what you think of Christianity, what you think of going to church, and whether and what kind of church you want to attend.

And the point of leaving is freedom, isn’t it?

Three hours into nowhere

This kind of thing tends to be wasted on me.
This kind of thing tends to be wasted on me.

I know where I’m going.

I don’t mean where I’m going in a general, this is what life is all about sense. Instead, I mean something specific.

The Country X people sent me an email. In a continued effort to keep my work and personal life separate, I cannot reveal the location to you. However, suffice it to say that, on a good day, it is a few hours into absolutely nowhere. Also, it is ass-bitingly cold for much of the year. And they usually have electricity except for the odd week here and there when everything goes kaplooey. So this all seems acceptable.

Incidentally, the Village Where I Am Headed is also very pretty in an alpine kind of way. However, to someone who has spent most of life in arid climates, that kind of pretty isn’t terribly appealing. Pine trees are just, well, okay. As are mountains generally. But you would probably find it stunningly beautiful. Most people do.

Don’t get too excited. You can’t come. Only relatives are allowed to visit.

But I am wandering away from the point. (And there is a point. In fact, I expect there will be several points.)

joshua treeThe first of these points is that, now that I know where I’m headed, the fact of my going has taken on a sharper sense of realness. My application has been formally approved by the Ministry of Education. All of the requested documents have been submitted, including my application for a work visa. I had my cheek swabbed and my blood taken. (Ok, not really, but it started to seem like it.)

Reality requires you make sense of it. So, we enter a new stage—the making-sense stage.

And this moves us closer towards this first point. The take-away message of all of this is that God failed to strike me dead for doing something almost purely for my own personal satisfaction. (Yes, Nandhini played a distant part in this decision, although I won’t see her there either. Yes, a desire to contribute to my world played another part. But mostly I just thought it would be interesting. Oh, and fun. Fun and interesting.)

I am taking this to mean something more general: God does not strike you dead for “taking your own way.” After all. This is big. Seismic, in fact. Pardon me while I duck, cover, and hold.

Phew. Okay, back to the post, now that the world has stopped shaking.

Nonetheless, I am not sure if he is generally for or against doing fun and interesting things just because you feel like it. But he doesn’t kill you over it. Which is great news really. And probably will require all kinds of reshuffling of other misconceptions.

Remind me to get a good night’s sleep tonight. I’ll need it.