Tuesday, February 16, 2010



We remember moments in life. It is hard to remember particular days, or even particular eras in our lives. But certain moments inscribe themselves in us with uncanny detail. I think that's interesting, because moments are much shorter than days or eras.

On the other hand, it makes sense that we remember moments because they are sensory. Memory is little more than "stored sense" that fades over time. In a particular moment, we see, hear, feel or taste particular things. Sometimes our senses leave an impression. Most times, they do not. After all, we need to sense to survive; we can't possibly remember every little thing we sense. No, we only remember moments that are, well, worth remembering.

I have a lot of really good memories. My good memories generally fall into two categories: Moments when I felt inwardly good about a situation without external recognition; and moments when I overcame some external obstacle or achieved some popular reward.

I can give examples. First, I remember a night in November 1994 when my best friend and I frolicked shirtless through a school field in rural Connecticut. No one was there but us. The moon was shining. We laughed and screamed all night. We fell in the grass and just looked up at the stars. I talked about whatever came in my head and everything I said just seemed to be right. It was unusually warm for that time of year. Then we got into my car and just went home.

That was a "good memory" that did not involve any external recognition. I remember the things I saw, heard and felt. No one else witnessed what my friend and I did that night; yet it remains a cherished memory. I did not win any accolades for it. I just remember feeling so, so good. And I can relate that feeling to the things I saw, heard and felt that night in 1994.

Second, I remember several days in January 2004, during my first year in law school. I had just taken my first law exams and I was extremely nervous. I felt as if my entire future depended on how I did on those tests. For the previous four months, I had worked harder than at any other time in my life to that point.

New York Law School published exam results through a computer system. Every day, I nervously logged in to my account to see whether they had posted my results. I had to type in an ID code to access my information. There was always a brief delay between the time I entered my code and the time the webpage came up. I always held my breath during that moment. I remember that my heart even raced. I remember that I perspired a lot then, too. I remember feeling droplets of sweat fall from the top of my armpit onto my side.

After about a week of nervous checking, I finally saw results. I had gotten mostly A's on my exams and wound up with a Grade Point Average of 3.79, which placed me in the Top 10 of my class of 400. I felt a bizarre mix of relief, exultation and new confidence. Professors and friends congratulated me after the yearly rankings went public. I relished my success. It felt really good. I had overcome a huge barrier and received external praise for it.

Unlike the nocturnal moment in the field with my boyhood friend, this was a "good memory" that depended exclusively on official judgments. It was still "good," but for entirely different reasons. And I remember it differently, too.

But I am not ashamed to admit that I remember bad experiences as much as I remember good ones. In fact, I think I have learned more about myself by reliving my less-than-heroic moments and understanding why they were so bad. Our failures defines us as much--if not more--than our successes. After all, just as we can succeed in many ways, so too can we fail in many ways. We can fail externally, as through school grades or critical condemnation for "poor work." Others can tell us we have failed to reach an "acceptable" standard, and that feels bad. Or we can fail internally, as when we lose our composure or sacrifice our beliefs. We don't need other people to tell us we've failed when we fail internally.

I have suffered both kinds of failure. But I find external failure much easier to bear than internal failure. After all, you can always blame your judge or your critic if you fail externally. Maybe they just didn't like you. Maybe the test was unfair. It's easier to justify external failure.

But you can't run from yourself: When you fail internally, you've failed to meet your own standards. And you can't point your finger at some test-grader or theater critic for that.

I'm far, far, far from perfect. I have failed so much in life. In most cases, I can move beyond my failures. But I never forget them. I try to learn from them. Still, they sting me when I recall them, especially when I failed myself.

Here's a moment I'm not proud of. Last October, my partner, Steve, went to the hospital after suffering an acute manic episode. For several weeks before that, his condition had steadily worsened. He did not sleep for 60 hours straight at one point. He constantly busied himself with "tasks;" he woke me from bed every 15 minutes every night to help him re-clean the apartment or find some random webpage. He drew up long, detailed lists every day and tried to accomplish every little thing on the list, like buying a gurtel at some far-away store he found on the internet. He became angry when he did not complete everything on the list each day. Then he became hostile and profligate. He picked fights with random people on the street. He spent thousands on useless things, like Christmas ornaments and big rolls of fancy platinum ribbons for Thank You cards.

By the time Steve went to the hospital, I was ready to strangle him. Yet this was the man I had loved for ten years. I could not believe I was feeling the way I was. But I was so exhausted and so emotionally battered that I just wanted relief; and it seemed the only way to find relief was to cast him off. I felt better when I recognized that he had a serious disease. I tried not to take his abuse personally. The words still hurt, though. I was happy that he got the medical attention he needed. I was even happier to get a three-week break alone to rebuild my mental constitution.

I remember feeling somewhat disappointed when the doctor called to tell me that Steve was ready to come home. I felt a swirling mix of fear, resentment, childish selfishness and fatigue. I did not want to endure the same problems that arose when Steve fell ill. I didn't want to be woken up again every 15 minutes. Plus, I felt as if I had just caught my breath after a grueling bout, and now I would have to grit my teeth and start fighting all over again. Still, I tried to put on my most positive face when I went to pick Steve up at the hospital. I could not deny that I still loved him. I thought: "Maybe he'll be better now." I allowed myself to hope, even though my overall mood was dark and frustrated.

Steve was in surprisingly good shape when I brought him home. His doctors had found the medication he needed to achieve emotional stability, and he was on the path to a "new normalcy." I was glad to see that. We even went out to lunch late that afternoon. Steve moved very slowly. His eyes looked exhausted and glazed over. He was heavily medicated. One medication made him drool and he had to wear a bib. I had to help him walk from place to place. He used a cane because he was unsteady on his feet. Naturally, all these things aroused my pity. Steve cut a pathetic picture now. It hurt me deeply.

And I still felt past resentments. My temper was short. I was in no mood for any additional challenges. But sure enough, while we walked home from the restaurant, a challenge arose. As we crossed 4th Avenue at 12th Street, we tried to hail a cab. When the cabbie saw Steve's cane, he made a dismissive gesture and said: "No, no, no," then drove off. That made me angry. It also cost us time; the light was about to change. Steve was too slow to make it across 4th Avenue before the oncoming traffic got a green signal. It was around 5 o'clock. As we passed in front of a guy on a motorcycle, the horns started blowing. The guy on the motorcycle rolled his eyes at me and Steve as if to say: "Get going, will you?"

It touched a nerve. I completely lost my temper. I stopped right in the middle of the street and said: "What the fuck are you looking at? Can't you see I'm trying to help this man?" In the meantime, Steve made his way to the other side of the street. But I stayed. My voice rose and my heart pounded hard. I continued yelling. I remember saying: "So you think you're special because you're wearing that fucking hat, huh?" As I stood there cursing, the traffic started moving at full speed all around me. I was so enraged that I did not even recognize how much danger I faced. The guy on the motorcycle didn't say a word. He just smiled at me and shook his head as if to say: "What a fucking nut." He drove right past me. Another guy in a car almost rolled over my right foot. I remember feeling the tire graze the front of my sneaker. I was too livid to comprehend what was going on.

Ultimately we got a cab and headed home. Steve told me that my voice changed and that my eyes had bulged while I was out yelling in the street. After a few minutes, the adrenaline passed from my body and I started to feel extremely bad about what had just happened. I felt that I had made a fool of myself. Steve just shook his head. I tried to explain that I lost my temper because I was upset that people were so insensitive about his condition. That was partially true; I was also just really angry about having him back in the house again. Thankfully, the subsequent weeks proved that anger moot; Steve never went manic again.

I recount that story because it's a moment I'm not proud of. I take pride in my reason. I like to feel that I can coolly handle any situation with dignity. But on that day in October 2009, I completely abandoned my reason and fell headlong into dangerous emotion. Make no mistake: I do not flee from emotion; in most situations, I even relish it. But extreme emotion is dangerous. It undermines everything. I felt uncontrollable rage that day. It was as if I stepped from my own skin and became a wild beast. In addition, I reproached myself for the petty selfishness I felt that whole day. I knew that selfishness fanned my underlying anger, and that anger exploded into fury. That was out of character for me. I failed myself.

Still, I learned a lot from that moment. I learned that human reason hangs by a thread. Despite all our claims to rational intelligence and equanimity, pressures can drive the human mind straight back to animal depths in an instant. It is just a question of circumstance, mood and stimulus. After all, we are but sensory creatures. Sense might lead to science and discovery. But it can also lead to wrath and destruction.

Having said all this, I can still find some justification for my outburst. I truly feel anger toward people who are callous about Steve. I won't deny that. I love Steve. He is handicapped; it is obvious. When people look at him funny or rush him on the street, it really bothers me. For the most part, he stays indoors now because he knows that he can't handle the barbarians outside.

Most people just don't understand. I can't expect them to, either. But that doesn't stop me from feeling anger about it. I wish I didn't. I'm not proud of it. Yet I can learn a lot about others--and myself--when I reflect on it.


Sarah said...

sorry about steve's condition. you were exhausted, and you are human. some people need to be a lot more sensitive in my opinion.

MaxThrust said...

I often relive bad situations in my head, where I feel I ought to have acted differently. I think this is the mind's feedback mechanism gone wrong. Ideally, our minds give us some feedback and that conditions the brain to act differently next time.

Stimulus -> Response -> Feedback

Feedback can be external or internal (mental).

Usually, though, the mental feedback mechanism is horribly ineffective and just results in beating ourselves up about what we did.

I've found it useful, when the brain relives situations over and over where I made a mistake, to distill a lesson out of it. Then when the mind starts to relive it again, state the lesson. This does a good job of quieting the brain and getting the feedback mechanism back in shape. After about 5 iterations of this, the mental story ebbs.

So instead of reliving the whole situation in the head, which makes me feel bad, I state my short lesson, and eventually that short-circuits the ineffective feedback system.

Just my 2 cents. YMMV.

angelshair said...

This post is really touching. Even when there is love, it takes great courage to take care of someone as you do, and I hope there is someone in your life who takes care of you too because you need it. I think this is why you had that "moment". There was a time in my life when I had plenty of these moments. But when I look back, I am proud of them, because I know now that they were my way to "not give up", to refuse the injustice I was feeling. These moments became recurrent until the day I was taken care of. Steve needs your attention, but you too need someone attention.

nothingprofound said...

Your anger in this situation seems more justifiable than any self-reproach. Every now and then it's good to sound one's barbaric yawp at the crudity and insensitivity of this world.