Twitter, Distraction, and Geeky Buddhists

By the autumn of 2010 I was on the last leg of my career, although I didn’t know it yet. I had been diagnosed with fibromyalgia almost six years earlier, and had been managing to maintain a full-time schedule during that time. My symptoms were frequent upper back and neck pain, headache, unreliable sleep, and “brain fog”—a sense of operating without full command of my intellectual faculties. Sitting at a computer for long hours was especially miserable. In the meantime, any time I tried to settle down to reading something I would start to nod off. The one positive outcome of the diagnosis is that it made me more likely to keep up with regular exercise, which helped enormously.

I had always had a tendency to distraction and difficulty focusing; in fact, at one point I was even diagnosed with adult ADD. The one place where I found myself completely on task was the classroom. Teaching may have been stressful in some respects, but the pleasure of interacting with students kept me feeling fulfilled in my job. What was difficult was prioritizing tasks, “juggling” (a word I have come to hate) the responsibilities of class preparation, research and writing, and committee work. The advent of technology only made things worse. I was distracted all day by email, and the entertainment potential of the Internet was a constant source of temptation. So, knowing that I was making a huge mistake, I signed up for a Twitter account. I had already been spending way too much time on Facebook and did not need another drain on my attention, but I had just taken a summer workshop on learning to navigate an iPad and got sucked in.

Twitter proved to be a greater instant-gratification device than I had ever experienced before. I pursued a number of interests, watching intently as tweets accumulated in real time. I also browsed a bit and found corners of the Internet that I would not have accessed otherwise. It was on one of these random excursions that I hit upon Buddhist Geeks. The name itself was intriguing, so I read further. There was an interview with a guy named Kenneth Folk, who claimed to be enlightened. I had never before known anyone who would say something like that so openly. He even claimed that others who followed a similar path to his could become enlightened as well, and he mentioned a book by a certain Daniel Ingram, Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha. It was apparently available in PDF format for free.

My prior exposure to Buddhism had left me impressed, yet unwilling to commit for a variety of reasons. Two years earlier I had briefly attended a meditation center in my town and brought home some books from their library. After reading about traditional Buddhist beliefs and cosmology, I thought, I have enough trouble with the doctrinal system of Christianity; I don’t need to get myself enmeshed in another one. But a year later I did some intensive reading for a potential new course that included units on eastern spiritual traditions, and wondered again whether I might want to pursue it further. Then when I saw the interview with Kenneth Folk and the claim that ordinary people could get enlightened, I thought, “That sounds like a cool thing to do,” but didn’t really see it applying to me. Nevertheless, I found the link to Daniel Ingram’s book and downloaded the file onto my Kindle.

It was awkward scrolling through it on that platform, but something about it intrigued me, beginning with the author’s description of himself on the title page as “The Arahant Daniel M. Ingram” (arahant being the Sankrit term for an enlightened individual). Who on earth would say such a thing? The subtitle was “An Unusually Hardcore Dharma Book.” From the outset the book was direct, quirky, and borderline confrontational. The mysterious author identified himself as a gen-X emergency room doctor, clearly a highly accomplished person. I immediately began to view his life in comparison with my own, and proceeded with a mixture of fascination and jealousy.

The message of the book was simple: it is possible to experience genuine transformations by training the mind in meditation, all the way to what we call enlightenment. There is a series of stages outlined in a fifth-century Buddhist commentary, and an assortment of powerful meditation techniques (or to use the author’s term, “technologies”), which lead to awakening when taken seriously and pursued diligently, just as Kenneth Folk had said in his interview. As I continued to read, however, I reached a point where I could no longer follow the author’s meaning, and so I set it aside, once more thinking to myself that it would be intriguing to try something like that, but not for me.

Eventually, that book would change my life. To this day, whenever someone asks what is the most significant book I’ve ever read, I say it’s that one, hands down. Nothing else even comes close.

 

The Four Divine Abidings

The Brahmaviharas, or Four Divine Abidings, circumscribe the four attitudes of mind that are the highest level response to one’s experience and to other beings, human or animal. They are metta, translated as loving kindness; karuna, compassion; mudita, sympathetic joy (sometimes translated as appreciative joy); and upekkha, equanimity. These qualities of mind can be cultivated through practice in meditation, until they become the framework for one’s interior life.

The most familiar to western Buddhists is metta, an attitude of unconditional love toward every living thing. There are phrases we can repeat to ourselves in meditation for individuals or all beings: may you be happy, may you be peaceful, may you be healthy, may you be safe and protected, may you live with ease and with joy. The exercise is most effective when concentration is deep, but we need not be perfectionists about it; repeating the phrases throughout the day, whenever we happen to think of them, is also well worthwhile.

The far enemy of metta is hatred, while the near enemy is attachment. When we first attempt to do metta, we unfortunately realize that we can’t say with sincerity that we wish good things for every living being. An immediate example is certain kinds of harmful creatures, like wasps, mosquitoes, or poisonous snakes. There are even harmless insects and reptiles that bear enough of a resemblance to harmful ones that we feel an immediate response of disgust when thinking of them. How are we supposed to wish good things to a bug?

More troubling are people towards whom we have complicated feelings, or even uncomplicated hatred. That is why it is recommended that we undertake metta practice in stages. There are four specific types of recipients: ourselves, benefactors or friends, neutral persons, and adversaries. Many Westerners have even more trouble expressing love for themselves than for adversaries, feeling they don’t deserve it, or that in loving themselves they are in danger of becoming narcissistic. A good beginning might be a benefactor, or even a neutral person, someone one sees from time to time but with whom one doesn’t have a close relationship.

As we begin working with metta, we encounter attachment as well as ill-will, which is why saying metta for intimate partners or family members is as complicated as for adversaries. We want our partners or children to be happy, successful, healthy, and strong because when the people we love are thriving, we are thriving, whereas when we have a depressed spouse or a sick child, we ourselves are naturally wounded as well. While such responses are understandable, they ultimately do not lead to peace of mind, and can even get in the way of our ability to care for the very persons whose lives are most important us. Ask any adolescent what they most want from a parent and the answer is likely to be, “space.”

Karuna, or compassion, is the response to the suffering of others that opens us to intimacy without the burnout we are likely to feel when we become identified with it. The far enemy of karuna is cruelty, while its near enemy is pity. Pity, feeling sorry for or commiserating with someone, turns the other’s story into our own, making it all about how awful we feel for them, or conversely it can set us apart from the other, causing us to see ourselves as immune to the other’s affliction. Cruelty is rejoicing in another’s suffering: “Good! I’m glad he got what’s coming to him!” While we like to feel that there is justice in the world and that “bad” people get punished, indulging in the desire to judge and punish other people can only be a source of unhappiness.

Compassion is characterized by spaciousness, which can occur only by our emptying ourselves of ulterior motives. Just as metta is wishing good things to everyone unconditionally, karuna is openness to the suffering of all regardless of what anyone deserves. There can be feeling for others, a movement of emotion through ourselves that brings us into intimacy with them, including tenderness and sadness, but without resistance, rumination, or the urgent need to fix whatever is hurting.

The third brahmavihara, mudita, is a joyful response to something beautiful and good. Sympathetic joy is the rejoicing in something good that happens to another, which may possibly be the hardest of all the divine abidings. When we think of someone we dislike for any reason, the last thing we want is to see that person thrive and prosper, especially if that person benefits through actions of injustice. We certainly don’t want someone who is arrogant, unprincipled, phony, or undeserving to get a promotion, admiration, or love from someone we admire.

The near enemy of mudita is identification, while the far enemy is envy. In the case of identification, we want those whom we favor to thrive because their success enhances our sense of self. Professionally, we want people we’ve mentored to do well as a testimonial to our influence and good advice. Still, we may not want them to do too well, which would put us in danger of being surpassed by the beneficiaries of our patronage, and tip our good feelings over into the territory of envy and resentment. We feel envy when we see people who are richer, better looking, healthier, or more influential than ourselves. Why should they have that big house, that beautiful family, that loving spouse while we are stuck in a small apartment, divorced, childless, and sick with worry over our bills?

Practicing any of these brahmaviharas is fiendishly difficult because they bring us up against our own sense of lack. Envy, ill-will, or identification all speak to a depletion within ourselves, a feeling of not being enough. When we think of another person having what we lack, we want to latch onto that person’s success in the hopes of owning some of it, or else see that person’s happiness diminished. We don’t even have to experience misfortune in our own lives to feel this way; we can want to see someone fail even when we are ostensibly doing well. The driving force is the deficiency we feel within.

The last brahmavihara is equanimity, upekkha. This is the ability to be with whatever comes up, to disattach oneself from outcomes. At first glance it may seem to negate the other three, which call for all-embracing good wishes, compassion in the face of suffering, and joy in the face of good fortune. Underlying all of these attitudes of mind, however, is the recognition that we do not control outcomes, and that good and bad things come to everyone.

The near enemy of upekkha is indifference, while the far enemy is panic and despair on the one hand and manic joy on the other. It is easy to confuse equanimity with a lack of caring. How can anyone be reconciled to the death of a child, or the tragedies that affect entire populations displaced by war or famine? How can a good person say “let it be” to monstrous cruelty? No matter how deep our practice, there will be circumstances that plunge us into overwhelming grief and pain. The point is not to no longer feel these things, but to be willing to feel them on behalf of ourselves and others. Having felt them, though, we go on; we do what is necessary, comfort ourselves and others, and above all not add any more than necessary to the weight of suffering in the world.

The Divine Abidings are a recognition that all beings desire happiness, regardless of their relation to us in life, and that our goal is to promote the sum of happiness in the world, and to diminish suffering. When we repeat phrases to ourselves—in the case of karuna, “may your suffering diminish, may it end,” and in the case of mudita, “May your good fortune continue, may it increase”—we are training the mind to turn to these thoughts automatically. We can think of them throughout the day as we encounter others, while express compassion for ourselves when we find we are feeling a sense of lack or depletion. The overriding recognition that things are as they are is what returns us again and again to inner peace.

 

 

My Brilliant Career

Most of my adult life was dedicated to the business of building a career. I had always known that I would have one, and was driven by the belief, or even the commandment, that it should be brilliant. As I’ve remarked earlier, quitting was shameful. With the arrival of the women’s movement, I got the message that settling was just as much a deadly sin. I had failed in my initial plan to become a violinist, and so I found an alternative: an academic career pursuing my interests, which were entirely within the framework of the humanities. I majored in history in college, but almost completed a philosophy major as well; in fact, my senior honors thesis was so philosophical that at the very end of my four years I changed my major to Intellectual History.

“As opposed to what,” people would ask, “dumb history?” I laughed, but it was hard to explain, especially as the definition shifted during the time I was a student. History of ideas? Or the history of texts in context? The history of how people express meaning? And then, there was the question of what was included. Literature? Philosophy? The fine arts? Any and all of the above, I would say, elaborating that I had had so much trouble choosing that I finally landed in a field that allowed me to have everything.

The only trouble was, at the time of my graduation from college in 1976, there were no academic jobs to be had. The demographics of my generation were to blame: when the baby boom generation first began reaching college age in the 60s, graduate schools responded by accepting more students to increase the number of newly-minted professors. Unfortunately, there was the lag between bringing these people into the pipeline and sending them out, because of the length of time it takes to train a college professor (anywhere from 4 to 12 years, roughly). Thus for awhile there was a limit in supply, until the inevitable crunch occurred as the baby boomers cycled out of college and into their adult lives.

Graduate departments did not notice this fact immediately, and so as applications for admission to colleges and universities began to slacken, the supply of PhDs continued undiminished. Not only did the number of people still in training remain high, but new ones were being admitted year after year. Academic departments are like any other unit within a hierarchical organization, in that they operate to increase their share of the whole through expanding in size wherever possible, and thus during the heyday of the 60s these organizations had enjoyed their expansion. They did not easily arrive at a decision to contract, even if they found themselves almost overnight unable to place their graduates with the same success as earlier.

This bit of history is of little interest to most people, but to the academic world it had devastating consequences. I had been celebrated in college as an excellent student with wonderful prospects, but suddenly I found myself in a position where the sky was no longer the limit in terms of what I could accomplish. Still, my narcissism was such that I was convinced I could not fail. I took some time out between undergraduate and graduate school, ended my first marriage, and then went ahead with my plans.

Throughout the years that followed I was obsessed with landing a job. I got a series of temporary positions after five years in school, completing my dissertation at the end of my first year out. I sent out applications each fall to every school offering a job even remotely in line with my experience, attended the annual meeting of the American Historical Association each winter to interview with those that had indicated an interest in my application, and returned home in an agony of expectation waiting to hear further. I eventually landed a job at a fine liberal arts college in the Midwest, far from family and friends, and remained there until retirement two years ago.

I recognize that I am one of the fortunate ones, and have no complaints about the lot I drew in my vocational life. I also recognize that I made sacrifices to get and keep that job, and that throughout my career I often wished I had chosen differently (I even find myself revisiting the question in retirement). When I was applying for jobs 30+ years ago, I was under the powerful illusion that I would be blissfully happy if I attained my goal. I also regarded the difficulties of my job search and early career as a miserable burden, resenting those who seemed to have an easier life—mostly older, established professors, which I myself would eventually become—and wallowed in self-pity at the unfairness of it all. It’s not that I didn’t know about the multitudes of people in the world struggling to survive in war zones or in extreme poverty, but I simply did not relate their lives to my own. And so I spent my young adulthood mired in self-centeredness and delusion.

The job search and subsequent career also threw me into relentless competition with countless others, equally or better qualified, who I feared would rob me of my prize. The real prize, I found, wasn’t just a job doing meaningful work or an income, but self-esteem. I invested my entire self in winning this competition, regarding my competitors with a sense of grievance. Most frightening of all was seeing how easily I could be surpassed or replaced. The fear was like a choking sensation in my throat, as if I couldn’t breathe, as if these doubles of myself would suffocate me. For if someone else could do everything I could do, only potentially do it better, or be more attractive or more praised in doing it, then what was I? The answer was that I was nothing, nothing at all.

I Become a Christian

I grew up in the Congregational church, although as a child and young adult I had little interest in being a Christian. As I grew older I realized that I was angry at God for what he had done to my brothers, and that I could neither understand nor forgive that outrage. To love God and believe in his promises was for me tantamount to saying that it was just fine for my brothers to be as they were, and as a witness to their suffering I would never do that. Through college and for years afterward I lived in that state of stalemate.

So what changed? I remember one incident in particular, the one that precipitated my leaving my first husband. We were arguing about something trivial on the morning we were to drive a significant distance to visit his family, and like so many trivial arguments this one became heated. We needed to drive two cars, because we had just purchased one and were driving the other, a loaner from his parents, back to them. I was already nervous about the drive and feeling that I couldn’t go through with it, but when I told him this his anger quickly escalated. He got physically abusive, shouting threats, pulling out a gun and pointing it at me, and then throwing me to the floor, where I lay crumpled in sobs, thinking I was going to die. Then out of nowhere I began to pray. I told God, “if this is my time to die then I accept it, but if not, help me through this!” Suddenly my fear and distress left me, I stood up, walked into the next room where my husband sat sulking, and said, “Let’s go.”

As soon as he got what he wanted he dropped his rage, but I didn’t forget what had happened. My prayer itself amazed me at least as much as the immediacy of its answer. I recognized that there was something within me that I had tapped so rarely as to be almost entirely unaware of it. Where did this sudden calm come from? How was I easily able to do what a moment earlier had seemed impossible? I didn’t know, but later I would return to this experience as I felt drawn more and more back to church.

In graduate school, studying medieval, Renaissance, and Reformation history, my attraction grew. I was puzzled because I had so many reservations about Christian doctrine, but a course on monastic culture opened in me a desire for solitude and prayer. I loved St. Bernard’s sermons on the Song of Songs, the mystics’ allegories of love, and Dante’s Divine Comedy.

I began attending an Episcopal chapel during a year-long post doc in Alabama, and continued for over three decades. During this time my faith waxed and waned, because I could never fully sign on to the Nicene Creed, even as I recited it week in and week out. Yet even in the absence of perfect faith, I felt loved. I understood intuitively that to love God and be loved by God were one and the same. I also understood that out of human clay, God in all His glory became manifest, transforming the base metal of our human nature into pure, radiant gold. I began seeing a spiritual advisor, then stopped, then returned much later to another, and stopped again.

Throughout this period I cried a lot, out of gratitude and an over-abundance of feeling. I cried in church, through hymns, through sermons, and with certain Bible passages, the Book of Ruth in particular. I was excited to learn that the spiritual writers considered tears to be a holy gift. I wrote in a journal and prayed the daily office. My favorite theologian was Meister Eckhart, whose sermons were the perfect expression of what I felt and believed. I became interested in my dreams, recording them in my journal. One day as I was writing I began to meditate on the mirror image of the desert and the garden, the transformation of the one into the other, when suddenly I felt myself enveloped by the most powerful, exquisite sensation of pure love. I stopped writing, in tears, gasping for breath, and thought, no, no, I can’t, I can’t, please, not yet. And then with the most perfect tact it withdrew, leaving me wondering what possibly could have just happened.

Experiences like that are open to so much interpretation, yet who can know absolutely what it was and what it meant? Like my earlier experiences, it became part of my story, even during long years when my attention was elsewhere. Life intervened, and although I continued to go to church and sing in the choir, I became enmeshed in my career and my family, absorbed by triumphs, disappointments, challenges, griefs, routines, and drudgery. In the parable of the sower, Christ describes the seed that falls everywhere, some on fertile soil, some on barren land. Of the seed that takes root some will grow and flourish, but other seed will find itself choked by weeds. That was perhaps my situation. My little plant never fully died, but it did not flower in quite the same way again.

The Three Characteristics: No-Self

Anatta or no-self (sometimes translated as not-self) is the hardest of the Three Characteristics to understand. We can all agree that the things of this world are impermanent, or that there is suffering, but to grasp that you are not you, that “you” as a separate, continuous self do not exist, hits the roadblock of a lifetime of experience. How can I not exist? If I don’t exist, then who or what is writing and reading these words? Whose life is it that I remember, whose future do I imagine? Close on the heels of disbelief is fear of what it would mean for anatta to be true. I might be able to give up a lot of things, but not my precious self!

The Buddha teaches that what we call atta or self (atman in Sanskrit) is really just the coming together of five aggregates, or bundles: form, sensation, perception, mental formation (or fabrication), and consciousness. When I first encountered this teaching, I initially felt a sense of relief that the Buddha left us with at least something to hold onto. The trouble is, holding onto any of these bundles (khandas or skandhas) leads to ignorance, delusion, and suffering. For example, identifying with the body (form)  leaves us with the unfortunate delusion that we can control it, which we do by trying to be as beautiful, healthy, or strong as possible, preferably more so than other people. People suffer from eating disorders when they desire a slender body and have a powerful aversion to fat. In the meantime, the aging process goes on its merry way in spite of our most strenuous efforts at stopping it. Illness strikes, and while medical help is available, some diseases can’t be cured.

Sensations are even less to be identified with the self. We may enjoy pleasurable sensations, but we can’t make them last, nor can we eliminate unpleasant ones. Our thoughts may seem at first to be a more likely candidate, but a few moments quietly observing them should be enough to convince us otherwise. Thoughts arise unbidden and with little coherence, if any. Still, out of the chaos of free association there will be a few thought sequences that can take hold and proliferate, turning into definitions, beliefs, and even entire ideologies. It is easy to grab onto them and find security, even if they are negative thoughts (“I’m ugly,” “I’ll never understand math”). Many of these thoughts are formed in defense against further pain, because if I can be the first to claim I’m ugly or stupid, I’m not going to be vulnerable to another person making those judgments.

What is the field of consciousness that seems to hold all these things together? Nothing more than memories, associations, and projections, which are anything but stable. Our past is gone, and the person we thought we were is gone with it. Yet the belief that each person is a self persists, and in certain respects it serves a purpose. The suffering of my first marriage resulted in part from my underdeveloped sense of self, which made it possible for me to latch on to someone who appeared to have a strong sense of self. Telling a person in that situation that the self is an illusion is utterly useless. It might be more helpful to say that the rage and insults of the partner are not personal, but that kind of statement is an invitation to spiritual bypassing.

Bypassing is a hazard in the spiritual life, regardless of one’s path. St. Augustine originally thought that his faith in God should have made him immune to grief upon the death of his mother, but it wasn’t until he broke down in tears that he began to heal. In the Buddhist path, thinking that “you” don’t really exist or that your own actions and those of others are simply forces of nature, the product of causes and conditions, can function as a form of denial. We have to confront the truth of our own experience, pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral.

Believing or even rationally understanding this teaching is not the point; one must experience it directly. There are practices that work to bring about such an experience. One is to ask oneself where the self can be found. Is it in the eyes? Is it in anything the eyes can see? Is there a little man behind the eyeballs looking out on the world? Is it perhaps the brain? Ah, we may be getting somewhere here. Let’s look at the brain and see what’s there. Is the brain afraid of embarrassment? If so, on behalf of what, itself or something else? What is afraid? We know there are parts of the brain that govern various functions. This being the case, then, are there parts of the brain that are the self, the prefrontal cortex, perhaps? If so, why doesn’t it succeed in dislodging unnecessary, paralyzing fear?

Such questions can be pursued with a teacher over a period of hours or even days, until direct insight hits. Other people have arrived at insight by detailed, extensive journaling, writing to discern what they know to be true, or what they know to be true of themselves. For some people, this practice is supported by years of meditation, while for others it is not. Finally, insight meditation practices—noting, body scanning, and the like, supported by concentration practice—can lead to a dismantling of the illusion of self.

The experience of a world unidentified with self is deeply liberating, but it can also be uncanny. We are dug in so deeply with the illusion that we have no idea how anything might appear without it. Life goes on, just as before, nothing changed, yet nothing the same. And absolutely nothing is personal.

Starter Marriage

NOTE: I have not posted in awhile, because I have had some reluctance about putting this out there. Here it is, finally.

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I was not prepared for the sexual revolution. According to my upbringing, sex before marriage was forbidden, and anyone indulging in it was ruined, particularly women. My parents were clear that they had refrained from sexual activity until they were married, and then remained faithful to each other thereafter. I was also brainwashed by the mythology of romantic love, believing that falling in love rendered a person immune to interest in anyone other than the beloved. I had little to no concept of my own sexuality, much less anyone else’s.

My first year at an all-women’s college was traumatic. Early in the fall we met potential dates at mass dances called mixers, where people judged one another solely on appearance, or at parties fueled by alcohol. The women all wanted to enhance their status by landing dates with attractive, high-status men, while a large majority of the men were looking mostly for sex. My fragile ego could not have handled casual sex, yet most of the men I dated pursued it aggressively. Coming from a family that was bonded to the point of suffocation, I looked for a place of safety.

I first discovered that my social anxiety could be curbed by alcohol, and so I drank when at parties or on dates. This wasn’t exactly safe, but it was at least temporarily pleasant. I wanted a more permanent solution, a boyfriend, but finding a compatible mate wasn’t easy in an environment where I met the opposite sex under such artificial conditions. I joined the orchestra and the debate club at a nearby university, but over and over found myself back at square one when potential relationships fizzled. Finally, one evening in the spring of my sophomore year, I was with someone I’d been seeing for awhile at a chamber music performance at his dorm. We were circulating afterward, and I found myself looking up into the eyes of a very tall, very broad-shouldered young man who looked at me as if he had suddenly seen the promised land.

I was at that time feeling desperately depressed. My relationship with my date was completely superficial, although we made a beautiful couple when we went out together. He also happened to be the person who was in the right place at the right time when I finally gave in to the relentless sexual pressure of the preceding two years. The experience was disappointing, of course, and by the time of the concert we were both sick of each other, although I would be the one who ended up getting dumped. I felt like a used tissue tossed into the trash. And then all of a sudden I was at the center of attention to a powerful, handsome man who wanted nothing more than to scoop me up into his arms and hold me there forever.

Did I love him? Eventually, I suppose. After feeling so devalued I certainly loved the fact that he adored me. I also was attracted to what I perceived as his strength. I had an underdeveloped sense of myself, who I was or what I wanted. He, on the other hand, had strong ideas about everything. This appealed to me because I wanted to know his secret. Most of all, he wanted me. “I want to take you away from your previous owners,” he said at one point, referring to my parents, whom he antagonized almost immediately.

The violence started early, but it didn’t register as dangerous. He would throw something against the wall, or grab something with enough force to break it. The things that set him off were confusing to me, but because I was so unsure of what was real and what was not I accepted his touchiness as legitimate. He had a strong sense of what he was entitled to and flew into a rage when thwarted. I tried to see things from his point of view, although occasionally I would venture to argue, which only made things worse. It didn’t help that some of his opinions seemed legitimate (for example, my parents were overprotective and controlling), but the lengths to which he would go to assert himself threw him into continuous conflict with other people, including me.

We were married while we were still in college. My parents tried to prevent me from going through with it, but they were helpless in the face of such a forceful opponent, especially as I had come to regard their interference with hostility. Our marriage lasted for a little over three years. In that time we moved out of our respective dorm rooms into an apartment, and then into two others, the last one halfway across the country. Every time we moved he would have to make extensive repairs to avoid paying damages, mostly to holes he’d punched in the wall. Every time we moved I would scope out the new building for places of escape and safety in case things got out of control.

Did I think this was normal? I knew I didn’t like it, but I also thought I bore at least part of the blame when things went wrong. I certainly wasn’t mature, even for my age: I was anxious, insecure, jealous, and plagued with irrational expectations. What I failed to realize was that none of these faults warranted being grabbed by the hair and dragged around the room, threatened with severe bodily harm (“Get out of here before I break your jaw!” he roared at me once), screamed at (in the car, when turning left: “Get your fucking head out of the window!”), or threatened with a gun. And yet all through everything I thought I was free, that I was making decisions and standing up for myself, not seeing that the only things I was free to decide were things he didn’t care about.

Over time the range of things he didn’t care about grew narrower and narrower; he smashed his immense fist into the coffee table when I put on a shade of nail polish he didn’t like, and bellowed at me when I bought a dress he hated (“It looks like a goddam bag!”). Finally I left, flew home to the parents I had rejected when I married, and felt grateful beyond words for their protection.

For awhile the ensuing divorce was the most important thing in my life, until other concerns began to take over. For a bit longer I was haunted by fear and anger, which took extra time to work themselves out of my system; however the hardest thing to overcome was a sense of disorientation: how could I have been so completely wrong about what was happening? It was as if my entire perspective had flipped over in a moment. I could not trust my own ability to make sense of the world. This fundamental distrust would remain with me for many, many years.

Tears

For years, I kept my daily life separate from my relationship with Mark and Tommy, even to the point of denying they were a problem for me. In my first experiences with therapy, I mentioned them as a matter of course while giving the family history, but insisted that my real problems lay elsewhere. In the meantime, however, there was a subterranean river of grief that would break through to the surface occasionally, surprising me for a spell before disappearing again. The water metaphor is an apt one, because when I finally accessed the grief, I did so through tears that seemed to have no end.

I remember clearly a scene at Tanglewood during my first summer there. I was just 18 and was between my first and second years of college. I had had a difficult time managing and masking my stage fright, but on one night in particular it broke through during a concert of the Fellowship Orchestra, when I felt so panicked that I abruptly rose from my seat among the violins and walked off the stage in the middle of the performance. Backstage I almost literally ran into a trombonist who had unsuccessfully tried to romance me earlier in the summer. We walked around the grounds while I poured out my anguish in a flood of shame and frustration, until my parents found me and my father took over. He told me that he and my mother had watched me struggling with this torment for years, and he urged me to give up.

Now in the American vocabulary, quitting is commensurate with failure, made all the more blameworthy when it is chosen. What’s more, being advised to quit meant that I would never know whether I might have succeeded in conquering my fear if I had persevered. So I struggled with the notion as we walked, the fork in the road between the easy way out and the valiant fight to the end. And then my parents drove me home, and I somehow was moved to dig out the family photo album, pictures of me and my brothers as we were growing up, and I cried over them for what seemed like hours, grieving for all that I had lost.

That night marked the beginning of my tears. For years thereafter I would cry over my brothers almost any time I was left alone. If I was on a bus, I would turn my face to the window and cry. If I was alone in my room, I would pace the floor and cry. I cried in therapy, I cried in bed at night, I cried wherever and whenever I was alone. There were thoughts that were guaranteed to trigger the tears, like the thought of how sad it was and how much I missed them. Sometimes I would dwell on a fantasy of my brother Tommy’s death, imagining a phone call, usually while I was in a large group of people. In my fantasy I would break down completely, finally relieved of the heavy burden of maintaining an appearance of functionality.

At some point I began to suspect that the grief was for myself and had little to do with the people my brothers actually were, but I could not make sense of that distinction until my mother told me that when she first learned of the diagnosis, particularly of the younger of the two, she grieved for herself, then grieved for them, and then finally grieved for me. As the sister my grief may have come third in line, but it still had a place, and so I continued to grieve for myself.

Along with the grief there were painful fantasies of what might have been. I would look at young men who seemed to be my brothers’ age and wonder what my life might have been like if these “normal” people had been my brothers instead of the ones I had. I imagined Another Laurel, the one who grew up in a normal middle-class American family, the family that was taken away from me. What would she be like? I understood enough to know that it was impossible to tell, but the question needled me nonetheless. The family I actually had appeared to live out its life under a cloud of sadness and isolation. What would it be like to live differently? Would I be like these carefree young people I saw around me? (although of course I had no real concept of what their lives were really like either).

There came a day when I was listening to an interview on the radio, about the complex emotions of parents of autistic children. I suddenly thought, “I’m done with that.” I wasn’t done with grief, but I was done with thinking things either could or should have been other than what they were. I may have been painfully slow about it, but I had finally passed through the earlier stages of grief into a grudging acceptance.