Adam Blatner

Words and Images from the Mind of Adam Blatner

Increasing Sensitivity

Originally posted on May 28, 2011

I’m happy to realize that even at the age of going-on-74, I am still learning. Times change and so does sensitivity to things that I had taken for granted.

Around 1976 my daughter, then not-yet-eight, called to my attention in a rather stark fashion, in all innocence and love, smelling my tobacco-infused beard, “You stink, Daddy.” Whoa! I had taken up pipe-smoking about fifteen years earlier. It was a mark of distinction: something professionals did. It was fun, a conversation topic among men, a sensuous exploration of tobaccos in magic shops, the personal quality of a pipe. (I still dream on occasion of finding some of my old pipes, beautifully shaped, or smoking pipes. Indeed, I have more flashes of memory of dream-fragments of such episodes than perhaps actual memories of such occasions—but that’s another phenomenon to contemplate.)

But times were changing, and smoking as a respectable part of manhood was part of that change. I smelled “bad”? I thought pipe tobacco smoke smelled good. I stopped smoking completely. Years later, now sensitive to the smells of tobacco and somewhat repelled, it’s hard to believe that I smoked!

I am still a little chagrined to realize how blind I was. (I also find it amusing and am generous in my self-forgiveness, as I hope to be also in forgiving everyone who was caught up in the hypnosis, the ignorance, the social and cultural norms of any era—which includes even any decade!) I thought that, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, my asking “Do you mind if I smoke?” would be answered honestly. Later it became apparent to me that  “No, I don’t mind” was the answer given by a goodly number of people who in fact did mind!

Another source of rationalization that all this was okay is that I smoked a pipe, not cigarettes—which I also didn’t like. This rationalization supported my denial—everyone knew that pipes were somehow “milder,” and that some folks say, “I rather prefer a pipe to cigarettes.” I was proud that I even was so considerate as to ask. Decades of smoke-free life and culture later, the whole business seems in retrospect to be a good example of how lower consciousness could transform into higher consciousness: The transformation can seem subtle and many-faceted and gradual at the time.

This was a minor turning point, sensitizing me to what I later fit in with thinking about oppression. Norms that I took for granted, thinking myself benign—really, I was, within the limits of my ignorance.

A few days ago I had another ka-chunk of realization. Again there was a mixture of chagrin, a generous dollop of self-forgiveness, and even a pinch of bemusement: In spite of my background as a psychiatrist who was supposed to know this stuff, once again I awakened slightly to an awareness about the degrees of alone-ness that people can actually tolerate—i.e., less than we thought. The occasion for this insight was my becoming aware that my dear wife, Allee, is really a rather social creature. When she has to do household tasks alone, she bravely does them, but also suffers a bit from the loneliness of it all. (A related essay on loneliness was also posted today.)

My sensitivity to her pain heightened, my consciousness was raised. As we chatted about it, she, too, became more aware of what she had only dimly sensed—talking about things, making them explicit, helps!

I flashed also on the many types of subtle interpersonal, social, and individual pathology or oppression that comes with this general cultural ethos that assumed that mature adults could and should operate alone. We confused independence, the capacity for individual initiative, with the idea that doing things alone was a sort of virtue as well as a convenient norm, a side-effect of the cultural institution known as the nuclear family. (This contrasts with communal living in which most tasks are done by people working in groups or teams, whether it be the laundry or hunting.)

I realized that I had participated inadvertently in the modern ethos, the cultural norm, in which independence is considered a virtue, and this is not adequately differentiated from hyper-independence. Mature people are expected to be independent, but I’ve had second thoughts: Maybe we’re more tribal, more like herd animals, than our pride would allow us to be.

This essay then segues into another essay on this blog recently posted: On loneliness. But it also brings forth the awareness that part of what life is about includes the changing status of what we thought was okay, pretty good, required, normal, virtuous, masculine and feminine, the way things are and the way they ought to be. All these attitudes and beliefs are being contested, called into question. And even though I am one of the first to note the virtue of flexible thinking, to notice the multi-perspectival way people operate in the postmodern era, the paradigm shifts that are happening (crashing?) all around us, that doesn’t mean that I don’t get caught up in the snags, too. I fall behind, I am a product of the 20th century, and though I seek to engage in the new paradigms, I, too, am deeply conditioned by unconscious assumptions that are not easy to perceive. But, ah well, that’s one of the games I play in life.

In some ways I am settling down, enjoying routine. In other ways, I continue to be adventurous and rebellious—a more intellectual, psychological process, perhaps, expressed in writing, but still energizing of my thinking, waking me up in the morning with a sense of purpose.

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