Craving an oasis

I need to glimpse a world where I can be happy and healthy in a relationship with a romantic partner -- or the world in general.

By Cary Tennis
Published July 24, 2003 7:44PM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

I've been reading advice columns for 20 years because I've never seen a good relationship up close and personal. Life growing up with my family consisted of long periods of hostility broken up by periods of isolation and silence. School, bullies and my home life conspired to give me the worldview that life is harsh, the only way to get what you want is to fight for it, and even then you lose more often than not and when you win you've still not won because you've got to keep fighting to keep what you've won.

Advice columns, by their nature, perpetuate this worldview, because the only letters that get published are the ones where someone is complaining about how they can't get what they want because someone else wants something that is different and mutually exclusive. Movies and TV and novels also perpetuate this, because there's no tension, nothing inherently interesting about two people harmoniously satisfying each other's needs with ease and delight.

I'm starting to glimpse this other possibility, but it seems almost a mirage in the distant desert and I could use a scouting report from someone at the oasis. So for me, and for the countless others out there who think that life has to be primarily strife and conflict, would you please share your view of a happy, healthy relationship (with a romantic partner and/or with the world in general), of how it can be that relationships are primarily a smooth and pleasant ride with a little bump here and there rather than a race down a washed-out street where the only smooth sailing is where you bounce off such a big bump that you briefly catch some air?

On the Brink of Something Amazing

Dear On the Brink,

Actually, I agree that life is primarily strife and conflict. Accepting that is the first step to finding some peace. Not accepting it is the road to madness. For instance, as a very basic example, consider economic necessity as a kind of strife and conflict. If it were up to me, I would not have to work for a living. I'd spend today surfing, perhaps, or playing tennis, and then I would play some music and work in the garden, fool around with my wife, eat some great food, read, lie on the couch and watch baseball, play with the dogs, see a movie, go hear some music, go to bed. There would be no friction between my desires and their fulfillment.

In reality, however, I am captive to a world that cares nothing about me and what I want. So I could, if I were so inclined, attribute my captivity and unhappiness to the malevolent design of some cabal of capitalists and government officials, and dedicate my life to destroying them. Or I could blame "liberals" for the fact that so much of the money I have to earn goes to taxes to support a government that simply perpetuates my enslavement.

If I chose to, I could live in strife and conflict with everything around me that is not under my control. I could fight with the dogs because I attribute to their anarchistic doggy subterfuge some sinister motivation. There is very little around me that is to my liking -- the ocean was a good idea, and I like my wife pretty well, and the dogs are nice, and I have some friends and co-workers I like. Other than that, and, OK, some paintings, some books, some music, you could pretty much take a flame thrower to the rest. So if I based my interaction with the world solely on what I happen to like, I would indeed be constantly battling.

So what I have to do in order not to become some madman or malcontent or recluse is simply accept everything as it is. It is not easy to do that. But it is immensely rewarding. When you begin to struggle to accept everything exactly as it is, you notice things you didn't notice when you were busy complaining.

For instance, I am looking, right now, at a light-blue napkin sitting on my desk. It could perhaps be a better napkin, but it is the one I am looking at right now, and in the act of studying it I begin to see that it has its merits. It is a pale blue and it is cotton and it is soft, and as I lift it off the desk I find it has a pleasant texture, and a pretty, curly fringe of threads on its edges. I smell it. It smells like cotton. I rub it against my cheek. I drop it on the desk so it lies under the lamp, against the copy stand against which, last night, my novel manuscript was propped so I could enter the final changes into the computer. It lies against the brown cardboard backing of a pad of yellow paper on which I had made some notes toward a book of advice columns. It sits under the lamp my wife gave to me when it did not give her the light she needed in her painting studio. It sits there like some folded cloth in a Flemish painting, full of sensuous shadow and rounded crevices; I notice its delicate fringe, its weave, its roughness, its little random threads, its peach-fuzz covering of down, the surprising sharpness of one fold at the top, the gentle curve of another fold near the bottom, its inscrutable and random topology, a mathematical mystery lying there on my desk. It's a miracle, this napkin, and if I lift it and drop it again, it will never fall in quite the same shape again, and whatever topological computations its shape might have engendered will be lost forever to science.

I will miss it if I lift it up and drop it, but I'm going to do that anyway, because I am restless and impatient, and I've looked at it enough. It's just a napkin. It could be better. It probably should be better. Someone probably should bring me a better one, and would if the world were as it should be. In fact, what is it doing here on my desk anyway? Someone must have forgotten to clean it up. It belongs, actually, upstairs in a drawer. Why didn't someone put it away? Besides, it was probably made by exploited labor. It was probably bought as an obligatory gift on sale in some tasteless fluorescent-lit discount emporium by someone in a hurry, thinking about money, only out of obligation. It may represent the mindless repetition of stupid traditions. It may represent the shoddy mechanization of the weaving industries. It may represent exploitation, the deaths of peasants, the destruction of the environment, the enslavement of whole populations. But it's just a napkin. It wasn't doing anything. It was just sitting there on my desk. I'm the one who decided to focus on it.

I am still looking at it, wondering if I should lift it up and drop it again, or leave it like that. Might it have fallen, this one time, in a shape that is the best shape it will ever have, a shape I will never see again? What if I change it and am not as happy with it? What if I burned the napkin, or poured water on it? What if I stuffed it down my pants? What if I tried to shred it, or poke my pen through it? Oh, there's a pen on my desk too. And there's a smoke alarm with a dead battery that I'm supposed to replace, and a phonograph cartridge I bought a long time ago for a lot of money for a turntable I bought at a Goodwill store that never worked.

There's all this stuff just right here on my desk and what I do about it is up to me. If I pay close attention to it I can find interest and value in it. I can also find its deficiencies; I can find in that phonograph cartridge my own idiocy and impulsiveness, my lifelong habit of scavenging, trying to circumvent, trying to get something for nothing, trying to outwit the capitalists, because I do not believe that I have enough, I am not confident about my safety, I do not think I deserve the regular stuff that others can buy. I am an outsider and it just might be your fault, by the way, you, the letter writer, that I am an outsider, who knows. No one is safe from my vengeance when I work myself up. If you don't appear to be an outsider, you might be one of the ones who is responsible for my unhappiness. You might be the one who cut me off in traffic, who didn't even look before you darted into my lane, endangering the lives of all of us. In fact, the more I think about it, the more I think you might be the one who's been oppressing me all these years! In fact, it might be your goddamn dog that was barking at 2:37 a.m. and woke me up; or it might be your cat that my dog was barking at, and that might be your fault, and I might be mad at you for a week, if I keep thinking about it.

I am free to compose the elements of reality in any manner I choose. My feelings will follow right along. It might be you who took my parking place. I don't know for sure. It might be you I'm in strife and conflict with.

What I'm saying is that in every encounter you have with a person or a bank or a dog, there are infinite facets and ways of seeing it, things to concentrate on or not concentrate on, things to wonder about or not wonder about, and out of the choices you make about what things to think about and what things to believe will come your strife or your contentment as you choose. There are very few instances when the enemy is clear and it is absolutely necessary to fight.

The thoughts that are in your head will not be the same as the thoughts in someone else's head. That is no reason to fight. That's just nature. What if you tried to go through just one day without fighting? Say, you set a threshold for battle: If someone points a gun at you or attacks you physically, then you fight. Otherwise, for the sake of the experiment, you aim for harmony with others; you postulate that for everything that happens on that particular day, there is some good reason, unknown to you, and you don't fight any of it. You say to yourself, that right-wing bastard's ideas are his, not mine, and for some reason he has to share them with television viewers. And that's ... OK! You say to yourself, that driver is perhaps nearly blind, sent here by God to ram that giant car into evildoers; it is not my concern. You say to yourself, I cannot possibly know what is in my girlfriend's heart, so I'm going to pretend it's something kind and wonderful.

Do you like the strife and the conflict? Does it feed something in you? Is it proof that the world is indeed as you say it is? We are all to one degree or another conspiracy theorists; we all believe things about the world that are crazy. Belief is arbitrary, malleable: Why should your girlfriend like Mahler, after all?

That napkin is still sitting on my desk, impossibly pale blue against the brown of the cardboard like a great wrinkled desert seen from a passing jet. I could look at it all afternoon, and it wouldn't change anything. I pick it up and drop it, and it takes a new shape. I'm not sure I like the new shape as much as the old shape. I wish it was like it was before. But what's done is done.

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Cary Tennis

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