Sunday, June 20, 2010

Tell all the people

Backyard in Waxahachie

“What is your aim in philosophy? To show the fly the way out of the bottle.” --Ludwig Wittgenstein (philosopher o’ the day), last line from his second book, Philosophical Investigations

Maybe all it means is that Wittgenstein didn’t keep a very clean kitchen. Who knows? I’ve been thinking a lot about being honest lately. The older I become, the more important it has seemed to tell the truth, rather than keeping secrets. Maybe this concept is obvious to the world at large, but not always to me. In Thailand, we had a concept of naa tak, literally “face break.” The larger good was to keep one’s face from breaking. So the phrase “save face” had a literal interpretation.

I internalized this concept, to the point where I didn’t see little white lies as wrong at all, and in fact saw them as something that served the larger good. I’m changing my mind about that. In trying to protect other people’s feelings, I often end up manipulating them. Instead of being clear and up front, from the beginning, about what I want and what I need.

The counterpoint to honesty, the argument made against it, is that telling the truth causes pain. Apostle Paul says: “tell the truth in love,” and that seems the wisest course, but there are times when even telling the truth in love can hurt. For instance, here in this forum. I don’t know how many times I have shielded the truth, fearing to cause my friends and family pain. Even if I was doing my very best to do the opposite, to speak and write in love.

So I’ve decided to tell the truth about why I’m here, in Dallas. True, part of my motivation was that the Pacific Crest Trail was snowed under (despite being told that the snow was not clear in my last photograph. That grainy black stuff, across the river, behind me, fifteen-feet deep—all snow). But a friend found an alternate, lower-elevation trail for me—the Lake Tahoe Trail, a 200-mile trail circling the lake in the mountains. It was perfect. Just enough snow for an adventure, not so much that I feared dying.

Instead, I chose to come to Texas at the behest of my cousin, who has been struggling with a complicated pregnancy and the onset of undiagnosable and unspecified inflammatory bowel disease. She was in the hospital for three weeks, unable to eat, her digestive system revolting against her fetus, and without any doctors able to figure out what’s wrong. She’s much better now, thank God, on better drugs, but is without family here and needed someone to come take care of her. Her suffering is real, true suffering, and in its face I don’t know much what to do except shake my fist.

If I said it has been easy, I would be lying. It’s almost unbearable watching someone you love ill, in pain, nauseated, depressed, crying, unable to find comfort. She has good days and bad days, and I think I’ve done some good during my stay. She has gained ten pounds since I arrived, not quite up to my stated goal of fifteen, although I do have three days left. It’s amazing what adding butter and cream to everything will do. Her color is better, and she has more and more good days, fewer bad days.

The hardest part has been dealing with the emotional pain. I’m good at managing prescriptions, driving to doctor’s appointments and asking difficult questions, cooking fat-filled meals, reasonably good at keeping a clean kitchen and toilet. But for all my big talk about love, I don’t feel very good at sympathy. How hard it must be for her, healthy only last year, and now feeling so powerless, unable to work in or out of the home.

I feel selfish even talking about any difficulty I’ve had. It hasn’t been easy giving up three weeks of hiking, knowing I may be giving up my chance for a solo adventure this summer, knowing I may not be able to get more vacation time. But I couldn’t put myself first. My family needed me, and I was able to meet that need.

I’ve learned a lot about myself, too. My last post was heartfelt. Doing dishes, you may remember from the boat, has never been my favorite task. But if that’s how I can help someone in pain, then that’s what God asks of me.

It brings me back to questions about love. How do I balance the need to love others with my need for self-preservation, my need to do what I’ve been called to do? While I do dirty dishes, my writing is on the back burner. I am so much better at giving other people what they need than I am at asking for what I myself need, another part of honesty.

How can I balance the love for others, Christ’s central commandment, with carving out time for myself and my dreams and hopes and goals? A question I’m not going to be able to answer today. A question as difficult as getting that darned fly out of its bottle.

Tuesday I head back to California for my brother’s wedding. I was able to extend my return to Chattanooga by a couple of days, so I may get some hiking done on the California coast next week. I hope I’ll be able to get a couple of hiking posts in after all.


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Anonymous said...

Love your posts! So meaningful for me. So regarding this one, I want to say that loving yourself is as important as loving others. I think we focus a lot on the other, but forget what it would be like to treat ourselves as well as we try to treat others (like your cousin). So to what you are doing for her in supporting her, you can also do for yourself in time, hiking, writing, etc. I also think that though you might be content to just write for yourself and never show another person, there is a selflessness to the path you have chosen. Being relatively poor, disciplining yourself to write and sharing stories, seems pretty selfless to me. (Sonia)