The Larger Conversation

Perhaps this conversation exists only in the realm of imagination, a place where I do like to hang out, but I believe there is a larger and more important conversation, an enriching conversation about principles, context and perspective, that is rare in our daily lives.  I see this dispassionate dialogue about principles, integrity and fairness as an island of peace in a world of war.  It is the imagining of a world where one does not have a gun thrust into one’s hands along with extreme pressure to shoot at the enemy.  

I write much of the time intending to contribute to this larger conversation, though, aside from reading the words of others engaged in this project, it is a mostly one-sided conversation.   A silent one on my end, for the most part, unless I manage to find publishers for my contributions to the conversation.

George Orwell put a finger on his motivation to add to this larger conversation:

I write it because there is some lie that I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention, and my initial concern is to get a hearing.

He expressed it as one of the four major motivations for writing:

(iii) Historical impulse. Desire to see things as they are, to find out true facts and store them up for the use of posterity. [1]

A specific case is needed to illuminate the nature of this larger conversation I am imagining.  In the case of my endlessly long draft memoir of my father’s life, certain motifs and themes emerge.   Not everyone, I grant you, is disposed to ponder painful personal matters.  I’ve always been drawn to ruminating and seeking some kind of understanding, a predisposition reinforced by my upbringing, I suppose.  

For me, an ongoing vexation cries out to be examined, turned carefully in the hands, set aside to cool, examined again, combed over for clues, set into a larger context, reconsidered, clarified. Writing is an essential part of this process for me, putting my thoughts and feelings in order, expressing them as plainly as I can, as clearly.  In time, sometimes, a certain peace can be obtained about something that was formerly only a torment.  It is the peace of finally understanding something essential in what only recently made absolutely no sense.

Specific: my father was verbally abusive to my sister and me.  His language, when he was in a rage, was extreme.   He regularly assaulted his children in ways that made me wonder if a simple beating wouldn’t be more merciful.  My many attempts to have a conversation with him about this abusiveness were in vain.   In hindsight, it was predictable that my father, being also a man of conscience, humor, ideals, great intelligence, himself the victim of unthinkably brutal abuse that started when he was an infant, would be incapable of productively discussing his abusiveness.  The subject, naturally, made him very uncomfortable, defensive, angry.

If I succeed in setting out my father’s brutality in a nuanced way, showing the harm it inflicted and the terrible harms it flowed from, as well as the torment it must have caused my father, the reader has something to work with.   People who have experienced something similar in their own families are likely to be engaged by  a detailed dissection of this familiar syndrome.

Questions of forgiveness come into play, how do we forgive an abusive father, why would we?   The reader will understand from my account that the son had largely forgiven the father by the time the father was expressing his terrible regrets the last night of his life.  The exposition of this process, the true understanding that the father’s brutality was, hard to understand, also a tragedy inflicted on the father, could be helpful to others struggling with the same difficult feelings.

Those who knew my father, who know me, having all required preconceptions will only be able to take in part of the story, only be ready for a piece of the larger conversation.  The partisans will pipe up.

“Well,” those who simply loved and admired my father might say,  “you paint a mighty unflattering portrait of a very fine man”.  True, perhaps, but also a true portrait, I believe.   My goal as a portraitist is not flattery, but verisimilitude.  Can you picture how the subject of this painting draws a breath, moves, persuades?  

We can, instead of delving into more important aspects of the person’s life, the lessons we might draw from it,  be distracted prosecuting a devilishly detailed argument over how fair or unfair a portrait I have painted of the fine man, since feelings are bruised on both sides.  That argument will get us no closer to larger, more important truths, only connect us more firmly to our deeply held opinions about this person or that one.

“Well,” those familiar with my long refusal to monetize any of my skills, my long battle with my father, might say “isn’t this in large part just the ravings of a frustrated man who believes himself more insightful than most, the kind of self-righteous egotist a father might well endeavor to teach important life lessons to?”   Etc.

The reader who has never met my father or me has the great advantage of reading the account without prejudice.   That reader alone will be in position to decide if the narrator is credible, if the history seems fairly presented, if the voice of the dead man is three-dimensional, the voice of a real person.  Paradoxically, by not knowing the people involved, this reader can best judge the credibility of the account.  That reader, having read the book, will be in good position, if she desires, to take part in the larger conversation about the themes and potential lessons the story raises.

There is a lot of nuance in our world that we are often too distracted to appreciate.  A person can often be a wonderful friend, warm, funny, sincere, playful, and also have a mean streak.   A mean streak seemingly beyond their control, a mean streak driven by inchoate anger.  Inchoate in the sense of incoherent, generalized, not understood or developed.   Many of us are subject to this kind of faceless anger in some form from time to time.

Anger plays a part in every life, as often as not on an unconscious level.  An angry person is the worst version of himself: rigid, self-righteous, hurt, flailing, justified in violence, incapable of empathy, reason or love.  

Anger comes most directly from personal hurt.   You, personally, are treated like a powerless asshole, told you’re mistaken about essential things, treated as someone with no right to your hurt feelings.

Anger at powerlessness is a common human experience.  Even living in a great democracy like ours we are confronted daily by policies, carried out in our names, that make us want to scream, things we have absolutely no ability to influence.   These accumulated common public “fuck yous” give rise to the serenity prayer, asking for the simple ability to not be enraged by maddening things we have absolutely no control over.  

Torture, extrajudicial execution, two tracks of criminal justice — a merciful one for the wealthy and a merciless one for every other low-life motherfucker, the world’s most expensive and often inadequate medical care (while tens of thousands of Americans still die annually for lack of any medical “coverage”), corporations as persons, disputing the legal right of a fifteen year-old rape victim to terminate the unwanted pregnancy, denial of the plainly observable curse of man-made climate disruption, forcibly taking children of asylum seekers from their parents, insisting from on high that there is only one way to be a patriot in America [2] and doing everything in your power to make sure those who don’t conform to that single way are punished [3], on down the endless fucking list.

Remove the personalities.  Forget what Trump says and does, what Obama said and did, forget Mitch McConnell and Bernie.  It’s hard to separate the principles involved from the individuals who throw these things in your face, I know, particularly the way issues are packaged and presented by partisans.  Removing the distracting personalities from the conversation is the only way to weigh the issue fully and fairly.  It is very hard to do.

The larger conversation I am seeking involves putting as many available facts as possible on the table between us, both of us able to examine them at our leisure, and coming to as many common understandings as we can.  

I’m not talking strictly about politics, though a larger conversation would be a wonderful thing to have in the political realm.  Actual problems could be solved.   I am talking mostly about the way we treat each other in our personal lives, how we proceed in the world, what we expect to give and receive.  The personal is, of course, also political, how we feel, what we hold most dear, expresses itself in our political leanings.  On another level, the personal is personal– and that personal realm is something we share with everybody else on this miraculous, troubled planet.  

One trouble people encounter in connecting with others is that the personal, what is most deeply precious to us, is often closely guarded and seldom shared.  There is a great deal of fear involved in being vulnerable.  Once somebody comes forward and opens the door, as in the case of millions of sexually abused women coming forward, which started with one brave soul stepping into the light, the larger conversation can begin.  The conversation is not easy, but it’s essential if the need for change is great.

The larger conversation is the one we have with others who’ve experienced vexations similar to our own.   None of us escape troubles.  That is the conversation I mentioned looking forward to in connection to this book about my father, should it ever be published and promoted and reach an audience where some could be moved to enter the discussion.  It could be, as I said at the start, only in my imagination, though I can picture it very clearly.

It begins with seeing the larger principles, untainted by the personalities involved. It moves on, if all goes well, until a feeling of not being alone or crazy in your beliefs emerges.  There are many basic human things we can all agree about, if you remove the fucking personalities.   That’s the larger conversation  I am so often thinking about.


[1] source

[2]  This donkey-like insistence on the only proper way to love America coming from a man, a president no less, who later mouths the words to God Bless America, mangling the ones he does manage to sing.  Of course, “patriotism” is really beside the point– it’s a white supremacy thing for this man, who has the unwavering support of every red-blooded asshole who resents black professional athletes and their undeserved wealth trying to exercise their right to political expression.

[3] And a hearty fuck you to the sheeplike, “patriotically correct”  billionaires who own the NFL teams and wrote new rules to  punish “insufficient, unquestioning gratitude to America” during football games.  Shout out to the NY Jets owners for announcing they’ll pay player fines for anyone resisting this fascistic decree from the NFL owners.


This entry was posted in musing.

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