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You're Breaking Up


We use the phrase “you’re breaking up” too often these days to simply mean (or occasionally just pretend) that an electronic signal between us is no longer sufficient to sustain communication. It is often used to refer to the ending of a relationship, as if the only way a relationship ends is if it is broken. Margaret Mead, the famous anthropologist, once said “all three of my marriages were successful” With a Daughter's Eye. Sometimes the ending of a relationship can be the healthiest thing in the world. But it can also leave people pretty “broken up,” which means something a bit deeper than simply that their relationship ended. Sometimes it means that you yourself may feel broken or fragmented, and I want to talk about some of the ways in which that might be true. I remember being deeply in love when it became clear to me that, for quite good reasons, the relationship was ending. To say that I was not happy, was upset, or in shock, hardly captures the depth of feeling. I remember being so agitated that I needed to go for a long walk. I felt so fragmented, so vaporized, that even sitting down was not sufficient to anchor me well enough to dispel the feeling that I would simply cease to exist, or merely float away. The only relief I finally found was to pick up a hand-axe sized stone, and hold it close to my torso, as I walked. I still have that stone, now a fine paperweight, also weighty with memory.

There is another play within a play that is the synchronic slice of our momentary experience within the diachronic course of our biographies. Individual experiences come fraught with a lifetime of experiences that have shaped them and, given memory, continue to deeply inform them. Donald Nathanson points out in his 1992 Shame and Pride the nidus of love is in the affect between a needy infant and a solacing parent, so love implies not just a positive affect, but a sequence of negative and positive affects linked together into a scene. Our experience of the drama of love (again, not a state), is the lifelong accumulation of these sequences of need and solace. Love is a script in which the accumulated sequences of need and nurturance have been assembled and magnified. For each of us, love will uniquely depend on the specific scenes which we have accumulated and generalized, magnified by the excitement and joy we anticipate will reward our anguishing loneliness and need.

“The infant’s experience of the mother who responds with alacrity, who most easily enables the baby to achieve self-regulation when needy--this feeling forms the core of what it means to be loved. The infant’s experience of the mother who does not come, the mother who is unresponsive to the infant’s urgency, the mother who responds angrily to its need, forms the nidus of what it means not to be loved. When, with evident relief, lovers say ‘At last I’ve found you,’ they describe the astonishing degrees to which can be magnified these paired experiences of loneliness and redemption” (Nathanson 1992 p247). This echoes back to Adam’s ecstatic cry: “This at last is bone of my bones,and flesh of my flesh” in Genesis (2:23).

If there is a secular counterpart to “original sin,” o felix culpa, it is in the differentiation of our autonomy from the primary intersubjectivity whose existence research on empathy and the neurophysiology of social connection suggests. Despite the continued existence of complex biological synchronies between people, layers of ego-defenses protect us from the awareness of a mimetic engulfment which we otherwise continue to inhabit (read Bruce Wilshire’s 1990 The Moral Collapse of the University for some of the consequences). If you don’t believe me just spend some time watching gaggles of kids waiting for rides home after school. One kid makes some gesture and you can then watch a few more do the same thing. Even rapport in adult groups is reflected in motion synchronies, and if you watch video recordings of facial expressions, you’ll find mimicry of the first few fractions of a second of facial expressions before our well-learned adult masks get drawn over them. Indeed,you can even show people fear expressions to which their own galvanic skin responses (a measure of arousal) will go up, even if they cannot identify the face after you cover it with another. Of course these are exactly the expressions of empathy and shared expression that are completely abstracted out of our discourse in text-based communication, and capacities for empathy have dropped precipitously across a generation, while anxiety has soared The Narcissism Epidemic, iGEn. Such findings, census data across the same period showing a doubling of single person households, and other data showing increases above the 40% households of one person shown for urba