I recently experienced a death in our family. I’m not ready to write about it because it feels disrespectful to my departed and to my loved ones to talk directly about my ambivalent feelings.
Instead, I’ll write around my feelings.
I started to think about ambivalence, about loving someone “but” having mixed emotions. Today I ran across an article about Joe Paterno, his death and how of course his family grieved. Along with mention of his passing was a link to his role in the sex scandal case.
Joe Paterno was revered, he was respected by an entire community — “and/but” the world was horrified.
Talk show show host Dr. Phil tells his guests when you follow a sentence with the word “but” you’ve nullified everything you just said. I think love can be conditional, or rather, how you want to feel when that person is around has conditions.
How you feel about a person’s death depending on their age or circumstances, depending on the life they led, depending on the impact they had in your life or in your mind’s eye, can make “but” the only word that pulls incongruent thoughts together and softens your cognitive dissonance.
Without disclaimers we lie to ourselves and change history to our blurry convenience.
And while blurry memories may bring us closer to closure, to forgiving and emotional freedom, maybe we should SEE clearly before we fuzzy our thoughts so long that time muddies the truth — and then the truth no longer exists.
Anyone who followed Paterno’s role in the child sex scandal case knows the outrage over his failures, they knew about the fortress of worship and blind loyalty behind Paterno’s protected kingdom of collegiate football, an institution where it was blasphemous to question the ruling class of winning coaches.
This was a hierarchy not unlike the Vatican where power and prestige is sometimes cloaked in cheers, chants, prayers and scorekeeping, (Sinner Zero, Repenter 1) where the very highest servants of the Almighty God and Almighty Win keep the People looking UP with distanced worship, bowing from afar until evil is out of focus, recognition or even possibility — until all that’s left to see is what we want to see.
To speak ill of the departed is to slap the living and pummel the deceased. Yet, uncomfortable residue after someone dies while it doesn’t, (and shouldn’t) ever steer how we live our own lives, unresolved ambivalence about someone or something needs to be laid to rest for peace, for comfort to come.
Ambivalence is a topic that fascinates me endlessly. The paradox of emotions we carry with us, more, how we react to our ambivalence and what this creates in its wake.
Over the past ten years I’ve written about The Ambivalence of Motherhood, an institution so idealized, romanticized and revered that (at one time) to speak of anything but glory and gratitude and sheer bliss at bottles, bibs, breastfeeding and hours of laundry and Barney was akin to saying you hated your child and rebuked womanhood.
I never felt motherhood was black and white. I only felt my love for my daughter was crystal clear.
Betty Friedan in her landmark, groundbreaking book The Feminine Mystique, coined the vagabond emotion women used to chase with therapy sessions and valium as “the problem that has no name.”
Ambivalence is in fact, that wispy unharnessed inner nudge we can’t quite put into words or hold with utter confidence.
In the early revolution of inner discontent about something or someone, ambivalence doesn’t get a comforting nod of knowing from others who privately feel the same. Ambivalence is at first a maverick, uncomfortable and unsettled and lonely. It never invites others to join the revolution until enough people say it’s okay — and then the shouting rolls out from every doorway and blog.
Ambivalence is left for people with “issues” or for pioneers to shape into slow and eventual acceptance.
To love and yet……
I now write so openly about ambivalence — because I’ve written so openly about ambivalence. The endless gnawing has to feed itself or it can never become peaceful resolve — at least for me.
Ambivalence feels as innate for me as saying I love you to people I trust, and even so, I feel compelled to frame my thoughts about motherhood into something people can easily reconcile, to put my disclaimer for those who can’t feel two sides of the same story at the same time, so they won’t think me a monster.
So, this is what ambivalence feels like:
That you can love your child so deeply, so intensely so passionately so fully so gratefully and yet not love what as a new mother, motherhood takes away.
That you can love your child and hate the boredom of at home. That you can want to be home and yet want to be at a career you worked big hours to achieve — that you want enough hours for you, but not too much away from her. That men can grapple this with zero societal reproach but when women grapple out loud they are selfish.
Resolved ambivalence is having a secure foot in both doors, it is to acknowledge and finally shrug at ying and yang, dark and light, cold and warm. It is to admit to wanting it all and why you want it all. It is to know that one feeling can exist with another and yet you are still full and complete and good and enough.
I know this unharnessed emotion doesn’t sit well for most people because it asks for confessions that haven’t been reconciled and approved by others.
I know it’s why after my loved one died and I carefully with pause, emailed my family my feelings of ambivalence — that no one responded. Urgent and pressing matters trumped my ruminating about my mixed emotions. I genuinely understand that the unfinished business and feelings simmering behind “the one who died” will need to sit in escrow until/if, people are ready, that it is not for me to make someone else’s ambivalence come to light.
Ambivalence is “the problem with no name” until it is time to give it one.
Where does your ambivalence sit?
Photo credit: David Castillo Dominici