Some time ago I was meditating on relationship and boundary-setting — specifically with a friend who threw a bit of a fit at me. She asked me to do her a big favor, trying to downplay the size of the favor in the asking. I refused (reasonably, I thought); and so she got snippy.
Alison advised me not to answer or argue again: I was in the right, and I should simply let it go. I agreed with Alison — at least, my mind did. But my heart found it hard to accept disappointing my friend.
In 2009 I almost had to choose between my fiancée and my children.
I was recently divorced, and had just met an extraordinary woman; but she lived five hundred miles away. Ali was in Pittsburgh, and I lived in Massachusetts, near my children, my ex-wife, and her fiancé. At first I resigned myself to a long-distance relationship, and had little hope that it could become serious and long-term. But then I found that, completely by coincidence, my ex-wife’s fiancé’s parents lived in Pittsburgh as well; and this confluence, plus Pittsburgh’s lower cost of living, better employment prospects, beautiful mountains and rivers, and moderate climate decided all of us that we should simply move everybody wholesale. So I went ahead and moved to Pittsburgh.
But then, when my ex-wife was partway through planning her own move, suddenly things were up in the air again: her fiancé had a serious job prospect open up in Chicago, an opportunity worth a lot more money. Everything went on hold while he went to interview after interview, and agonized over the choice for weeks. Depending on his decision, my children might end up a day’s drive away from me.
By this time my relationship with Ali had become very serious indeed. If my children moved to Chicago, there was no question that I would need to be near them. But, unless Alison came to Chicago as well, I’d be a broken man.
In the winter woods the world is all black and white, branches and trunks and twigs crosshatching against the sky and snow. Here there are edges and limits: the white polyhedra of sky with hard black wooden frames, the unambiguous snowline between earth and heaven, the icy and unyielding tree bark, the frozen water, even the mucus building up in my esophagus to reinforce the boundary between me and the chilled air. The woods are drawn with pure black ink on pure white paper.
We walk out, listening to the silence enclosing the small sounds of our boots in the snow and the little whispers of wind. At the top of the hill, we can see the lights of the homes and streets through the trees, a sea of city surrounding an island of park. We are going down into the woods to meditate and connect with the new moon, the new sun, and the new year.
This is the shape of a world at its birth: simplicity, edges, purity. At the beginning of the universe, mass and energy were one, and the four forces were united into a single field, in a cosmic egg of such primal simplicity that it had no size, shape, or duration. And now, with the rebirth of the small, weak sun, the world is reduced to frozen waste punctuated by isolated chunks of hibernating life, each huddled alone against the cold.
Loneliness may not be pleasant, but it is simple.
Like a silent thunderclap
The sun strikes a blade of grass,
— A sharp thrusting blade it is, a defiant green punch
Out of the soil at the sky —
Now struck and smelted with gold leaf,
Humming with new life and power,
Slow and ruminous the photosynthesis.
The Long Hand of Lugh
Has painted it alive.
— Jan 2009
The path to divorce began before I even met my wife; I’d placed my feet on it inevitably, irrevocably, following the stars of my deepest desires and fears. I wanted to be loved; was this wrong? I wanted acceptance, approval, completion; was this wrong? I wanted to care for, and to give affection to, and to love; was this wrong? I sought these, and found these, in her. I loved her, and desired her, and cared for her, and was completed by her, utterly, as I understood love and desire and care and completion. And we loved furiously and ecstatically and laid the beautiful plans that lovers do.
This article is a sequel to On Physical Violence, and carries forward a lot of its themes. However, I think a lot of the issues around emotional violence are less clear cut, and so the intent of this article is much more speculative and investigative.
What is Emotional Violence?
Some examples of emotional violence are:
- making threats
- trying to incite feelings of guilt or inadequacy
- constant non-constructive criticism
- intentional public embarrassment
What do these actions have in common? They are intentional, and they are an attempt to elicit an emotion; and furthermore, the emotion is an unpleasant one.
However, I don’t think the unpleasantness of the emotion is the defining characteristic here. If you’re in a bad mood, and some horribly cheerful person comes up to you and tries to cheer you up, I think this falls under emotional violence as well — not as severe, certainly, but nevertheless unwelcome. I suggest that emotional violence be defined as intentional elicitation of undesired emotion.
In other words, emotional violence is what is commonly called emotional manipulation, but with the addendum that the manipulation be toward emotions that are not wanted by the victim.
Does this correspond in any way to physical violence?
It is a dark day here. I sit with my head in my hands, the cold rough stone under me, the loose leaves clattering and swirling in the wind as it tosses through the bare temple. This temple is Apollo’s, but the sky is gray, the rain is cold, and…
Wraiths walk where there was sunshine.
Tao Te Ching: 59
In caring for others and serving heaven,
There is nothing like using restraint.
Restraint beings with giving up one’s own ideas.
This depends on virtue being gathered in the past.
If there is a good store of virtue, then nothing is impossible.
If nothing is impossible, then there are no limits.
If a man knows no limits, then he is fit to be a ruler.
The mother principle of ruling holds good for a long time.
This is called having deep roots and a firm foundation.
The Tao of long life and eternal vision.
–trans. Jane English
A wood in autumn. The day is gray, but warm and close; golden leaves are falling onto the rich earth. It has just finished raining, and the scent of damp soil is intoxicating.
This vision came to me as I was meditating on these lines from the Tao Te Ching. Lao Tzu’s verse may seem to apply only to kings, rulers, and generals, and one might think that they would be of limited applicability today; but in fact every verse of the Tao Te Ching offers food for thought in many modern situations. Leadership is something that can be thrust upon you whether you want it or not. You may find yourself in charge of the team at work, or sharing responsibility as the leader of a family. But even if you live by yourself on a desert island, you are, unavoidably, the only captain of your soul.