Lost in translation

We were two lonely souls who gave each other brief happiness. Now he's freaked and is ignoring me.

Published November 11, 2003 8:16PM (EST)

Dear Reader,

Before answering today's letter, I just have to say I think I've been a little nutty lately. I actually suggested to a woman who was in great pain and confusion that she consider having her dog euthanized. I got a few letters about that, you can be sure, and I had to just stop and say, you know, What is up with me? That doesn't make any sense: She tells me she's in great difficulty, that the only thing keeping her going is nursing that sick dog, and I say, hmmm, why not have the dog euthanized?

What? I'm usually on the side of the dog!

For the record, my thinking was that this unfortunate woman is in a fight for her very survival and she may have to cut some things loose. And maybe -- this is quite disturbing! -- way, way down in my unconscious I found it painful to think of that poor dog and I just wanted to banish it from my own consciousness. Now I see in that image of the suffering dog a paradox, and perhaps the key to victory: You don't stop caring for others as a way of caring for yourself. Quite the contrary: Caring for others is a way of caring for yourself. There is strength in clinging to principle in the darkest hour. When threatened, you do not give up your reverence for life; instead, you draw strength from it. You redouble it. You have to have some faith that things will turn out OK, in order to keep doing what's right in spite of your fear. As I considered it, I began to imagine that no matter what her days have become like -- fighting her husband, fighting the mortgage company, fighting the auto finance company, fighting with her lawyer -- she could come home after a long day and nurse that dog and derive great comfort from it. It was crazy to suggest she put the dog down!

I got one very wise letter from a man whose wife is a veterinarian, who noted that even my assumption that the dog was in great pain may or may not be correct. And if it is, he said, "There are pain meds she can get for the dog, and many times a three-month diagnosis turns into two years or more of life. Or it is a misdiagnosis. Or the dog dies in a week. A compassionate veterinarian can help her make that decision, but lay people should not be encouraging something as final as euthanasia without all the facts of the individual case."

I would have to agree.

"That dog may actually be her lifeline," he says, "not a sacrifice to her, or something that should be sacrificed in the hopes that it would make other issues better in her life. ... I feel that it would be empowering for her to work as hard as she can to try to save her dog -- she will then at least know that she did all she could, even if the dog dies in three months."

So if you're out there, if you can hear me: I take it back! Long live that dog!

Dear Cary,

Several weeks ago, I picked up my life and moved 5,000 miles away to begin graduate school in the U.K. I jumped in with an open heart. After five years I'd finally managed to lay to rest some painful parts of my past, and to put aside a confusing and all-consuming "friendship." I was proud of me. But just two weeks into my graduate adventure, I've hit an impasse.

My university hosts a number of graduate social events and during the endless "meet 'n' greets" of the week, I met a young man who happened to live in the same housing complex. He was sweet, smart and quite cute and I immediately developed a crush. I never intended to act on my feelings. Many of these gatherings, however, featured wine and cocktails and I went home with my sweet young gentleman.

It was wonderful. He really was sweet, and kind and gentle. And occasionally, what we did, I had never done before. And truly, it was the first time that I enjoyed sex. I felt safe and happy, and I had fun. We talked and discovered that we both had had "friendships" leave us brokenhearted and dejected and that neither of us had had a relationship for the duration of our undergraduate careers. I couldn't believe my good fortune.

When I left in the morning, I didn't think we were "going out" or even heading in that direction, but I didn't think we had ruled it out either. But he won't talk to me. Or look at me. Or be in the same room with me. For two days, he locked himself away in his room, or in a friend's room, completely eschewing the common areas. We'd made plans to go to ballroom dancing lessons. But yesterday when I asked if he was still coming, he blushed, refused and continued walking.

I understand he's embarrassed. We're the subject of 50 housemates' dinner gossip. But it has been nearly a week and he still is pretending I don't exist. I just came back from dinner and he said hello to everyone in the room but me. I know he's confused; I know he is inexperienced, but then, so am I. The times I've tried to engage him in simple conversation ("How was your run?" "Did you have a lecture this afternoon?") I've been shunned, with the same embarrassed shrug. Should I try more aggressively to talk to him? A friend of his suggested I ask again if he'll go dancing with me later in the week. My friend thinks I should write him a letter. I don't want him to feel ambushed, but I don't want to spend the rest of the year pretending I don't know him. Has lust ruined any possibility of any relationship between us?

Lost in Translation

Dear Lost in Translation,

This young man has treated you with insensitivity probably borne out of immaturity. I would write him off as a lovely one-night stand and move on.

Nonetheless, while he acted thoughtlessly, you have to realize that a lot of men holed up in graduate school may be book smart but perhaps a bit stunted socially, so beware.

I'm guessing you are a scholar, perhaps in the sciences or in mathematics, and have spent much of your youth in pursuit of knowledge. Some women your age are already remarkably sophisticated about men, because they have applied themselves to the subject with the zeal of a scholar. They can read a man's character in how he sips a cup of tea. They can see, intuitively, the marks of immaturity and cruelty in a man; they can see it in his coldness, in his emotional vacancy. While they were feverishly studying the many varieties and behaviors of men, however, you may have been doing advanced work of another sort, and now have some remedial reading. It may be that in academic circles, where so much of social behavior is strictly verbal, it's easier for a man who is not emotionally mature to dissemble. And in a place where mental skills are prized, one may tend to overlook the emotional component. But why not treat your social and emotional life as one more field of study, and attack it like a forgotten credit you need for a Ph.D.? Do what you would do when attacking any new subject: Start with the basic facts: what a social group is, how it functions, what the prevailing sexual mores of your society are, what the likelihood is of your being raped or mistreated by men in various settings, maybe a little bit on sex and contraception, just the basics. Then use those facts to understand the likelihood of various outcomes.

If you know economic theory, perhaps you can use it as a tool to understand the social milieu you're living in. Be hardheaded about it. Learn to read human behavior by applying to it the same methods you would use in reading the natural world. Be rigorous. Do not engage in social life as though it were a blissful vacation from the rigors of academia. It is not. It is an equally demanding struggle.

Perhaps to survive the social and intellectual rigors of academia, you need to bolster your healthy skepticism about men and their motives, and their importance in your life. Steel yourself against the assumption that you need a boyfriend. Romance and love are nice, and they will come to you as you find out more about yourself. What is essential is your mission. What are you trying to give to the world? Why are you studying? Then use this time as if it were precious, because it is; it won't come back again. Go as deeply as humanly possible into your subject. If you concentrate on your own development, you will acquire knowledge and wisdom; that way, men may come and go, but you will be happy in your old age, because you will understand who you are, and where you live.

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