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Sunday, October 09, 2005

Lucifer into the Darkness

We traditionally think of light as warm, comforting and illuminating, and dark as menacing, sinister and dangerous. And, true, as we age, we approach the eternal Night. The end of reason.

Sure, maybe there's something beyond that, but I'm not going to take it for granted. It like conservative financial planing... what if? So let's just assume billions of people have it wrong, and there is no light at the end of the tunnel, and the end of life is, well, the end of life. The eternal Night holds no menace to me today, but I believe my feelings may change over, say, the next 50 years.

How can the impending Night be made more comfortable? It's awfully abstract, but I can't help feeling that I'd like to be truly comfortable with somebody at that time. Comfortable like a baby is with its mother. I don't mean some kind of idealized love. That's just Disney again. Even babies hate their mothers from time to time, temporarily yes! but for that short time, with all their will.

From where did these thoughts arise?

Let's wind the time machine back a bit. Take me out of the humid heat of northern Asia. Rewind me back to when I was considering the Experiment, in the early spring. Picture me by my computer, sitting crosslegged right there at the largest suite at the Amankila in Bali, in a little shade shack by the pool (they kindly supply the shade shack with spritzers of water and a variety of natural tanning products). Jenny is napping in the bure. Here, I'll even give you a photograph of where I was (taken from our helicopter ride).

The evening is approaching when we'll have dinner by a huge bonfire on the beach. And I am thinking. Madly churning ideas in my head. Weighing costs and benefits measured in the intangible economics of emotions (which lead to reading Sendhil Mullainathan's research in the area, which is quite interesting; unfortunately the link I have doesn't include his paper on smoking taxes which he wrote with Guber in 2002.)

As I've said before, my relationship with Jenny was an experiment in three party commitment and explicit contradictions, aka "brutal honesty". If you don't understand those experiments please read about them again or else the rest of this entry won't make much sense.

So far the experiment was a success. But maybe in a way I had not expected. It made the relationship very difficult. Many things that society taught us to expect or take for granted did not work. So this system constantly challenged us to think about the relationship. The system encouraged us to vent both our love and our frustrations very freely, by battering our not insignificant egos into shriveling husks to be kicked to the side. (And it helped that the sex was so mind-blowingly powerful -- at a level neither of us had experienced before -- that it, too, helped push ego issues aside. But more on that later.)

It really is harder than you might think. There are so many social lies we are used to telling. And perhaps the most difficult part of this whole system is the amount of self-awareness it demands. Or the way it tends to expose to harsh light what you did not know about your thin skin, or where you fooled yourself before. We are trained to be so passive-aggressive. This greases society. For example, in Western relationships I cannot help but create relationship rules by observing patterns of behavior, i.e. "she likes to be held when she is stressed at her job," or "she doesn't like me to look away when we argue." Or these rules come up only after misunderstandings and bad feelings, during reconcilations: "okay, next time you'll know not to do that in front of my friends." The system we were using was unbelievably explicit, which required acknowledging to yourself what you really wanted. And that's tough. Party because most people don't know, don't want to know, and don't want to think about it. They really are scared of what they might find in themselves.

Keep that in mind. Pride and ego were the enemies to this system. You might reserve your silly declaration of undying love because you worry about later rejection, retraction, or foolishness. And you might react badly when your partner vents so many minor-seeming frustrations because it makes you feel inadequate, unappreciated, or wounded. But both are reactions of promoting pride and ego over the Third Party or the principle of explicity.

And we both loved hard work and projects. Maybe we even craved it pathologically. We could sublimate, or at least attach! our egos to such things. So making it a challenge with goals was part of making it work for us.

As we lived this relationship, invested in mutual experiences, and built a library of positive and negative memories, I built a mental model of what we were forging:

Around us we had woven a brilliant web of truths. I saw that it was at least as disturbing and frightening as a cage of lies. I had learned that truth was not more comforting. It was not all good (a late Christian perversion of the Jewish commandment of obeisance). My truth was not a warm light. No, it was a harsh light that threw every ugly detail into sharp relief. It was a house of never-ending light, which illuminated all regions and let bare everything, intentionally and willfully destroying privacy. It was intense and uncomfortable.

But it was the way I wanted my life to be, based on a foundation of solid expectation; an infrastructure upon which perhaps later we could build comforting deceptions. I could never trust the ever-growing complexity of the reverse and yet more typical approach of building truths on top of lies.

Would a house of light be more confining than a cage of lies? With a relationship built on lies and false expectation you always had deniability, the Gödel's theorem argument of why you could leave the world of that relationship. The excuse to yourself, and to the relationship itself of why everything could be later denied. Deniability reduced regret when it turned out you were wrong. It was a hedge, an insurance for the ego. But again, this valued the first parties over the Third Party. Yes, the house of light was much harsher on Self. How could you deny it later without repudiating yourself?

I was pondering this, wheels turning in my mind. As the oppressively bright afternoon sun of Bali transformed itself into a serene sunset, Jenny walked out to me bare and hair askew, bathed in a warm light against a deepening blue background of the sky. And there it was, framed for a moment in time: the picture of our relationship. The harsh light and hardship of our experiment turning into something beautiful and worthwhile -- as we would build a torch that would go together with us into the inevitable and inescapable night.


Blogger Karate Kid IV said...

SF: You've hit on something very special.

I envy you the intellectual and emotional clarity with which you've framed the the relationship between the both of you.

It makes me wonder whether, just maybe, that heaven, like zen, is in the moment and the now. And that to truly live, the self and the ego have to die.

10/11/2005 5:36 PM  
Blogger Sigmund said...

KK, thanks for posting.

Of course I have no idea on the Truth of these things. But let me postulate a different version of what you say: just maybe, heaven is in the moment and the now. And to live there, it must become a place that perfectly reflects (and accepts) the self and the ego.

With that definition, you would have to work to remodel heaven, and/or heaven has to be an active entity which will conform to you. Perhaps a narcissist's view of heaven, a reflecting pool!, but in return, you will accept and reflect heaven as well. So it isn't ALL self.

But I could be wrong...

10/12/2005 3:27 AM  
Blogger Karate Kid IV said...

Heaven, self and the ego - interesting how our conceptualisations of them run around. I have a feeling that we're both talking about the same thing but in very terminology.

If heaven is the moment and the now, the to be able to understand the texture of now, one has to appreciate the now without fetters like preconceived notions and the gnawing hurts and pains that our ego and the self provide. You can't appreciate the beauty of a sunny day and a full belly if the ego is gnawing over one's insecurities - it'll be "Oh, nice day, suns out, I've had a good lunch. But God, I'm sooo fat." (I'm obviously using he female ego as an example) Then the self and ego gnaw on the "I'm so fat" for the rest of the day and beauty of the day goes to pot.

Maybe heaven is being in the moment enough to let the self and ego pass through the moment without stopping, all the time knowing that you are above those bits of yourself that are so noisy? That definitely makes heaven bigger than the self.

10/12/2005 5:47 PM  
Blogger Thaϊs said...

Sigmund, many of your writings have been not simply thought provoking, but an inspiration to take a risk and try something different as well.

To see that it is possible albeit very challenging to truly maintain that "web of truths" is a great encouragement. I found myself discovering and falling in love with this concept some time ago (not from your blog), but I wasn't sure if it were implementable. I've seen many great ideals crash with vigor that I was a bit scared of following through. I no longer am.

Have you communicated explicitly about commiting to the complete honesty between each other when this experiment started? We haven't defined it exactly in these terms, but him and I talked about how honesty and absolute openness with each other together with mutual exploration are the only way to make the relationship work, given the circumstances.

Anyway, thank you for writing and showing me what's possible.

10/13/2005 1:47 AM  
Blogger Karate Kid IV said...

If it's not presumptious of me, gift of prose to celebrate such a momentous realisation?

And from Gabriel Garcia Marquezs' Love in the Time of Cholera, no less:

Contrary to what Capatain and Zenaida supposed, they no longer felt like newlyweds, and even less like belated lovers. It was as if they had leapt over the ardous calvary of conjugal life and gone straight to the heart of love. They were together in silence like an old married couple wary of life, beyond the pitfalls of passion, beyond the brutal mockery of hope and the phantom of disillusion: beyond love. For they had lived together long enough to know that love was not always love, anytime and anyplace, but it was more solid the closer it came to death.

10/14/2005 4:14 PM  
Blogger Sigmund said...

Yes we were extremely explicit about the goals and expectations. "Honesty" is too abstract. I was explicit about the third party and white lies. And it takes some leadership by example as well as not letting anything slide early on, as difficult (and anal) as that is. Make no mistake, it caused MANY arguments and bad feelings.

But as I would always say, arguments that can make us stronger and where we learn, those are good arguments. Ones where we are merely hurtful or vengeful, we learn nothing from that. In the long run they make the relationship stronger. We can use what we learn to hurt the other partner or relationship more, or we can use that information to be better for the other partner and the relationship.

The same applies to compliments (or whatever is the opposite of argument.) An empty compliment is meaningless. I'd prefer a meaningful criticism or an argument. When a relationship is full of empty compliments it is an empty relationship.

Being explicit is very difficult. A real sublimation of the ego.

KK, thanks for the quote. It's beautiful. I hope to get there, but I am but a novice so far.

10/15/2005 6:03 PM  
Blogger Karate Kid IV said...

Novice? But when you think about it, we're all amateurs at life, really.

But you seem to be doing good :)

10/18/2005 11:09 AM  

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