I listened to to Alan Cumming's Not My Father's Son this past weekend. I find it hard to stop thinking about it. It's not an enjoyable book, though I could listen to Cumming narrate a book about just about anything, because a book about the abuse one endures at the hands of their father cannot be an enjoyable book. It's compelling. Cumming lays out the story in a way that makes you want to keep reading or listening, not because you want to know what happens—you need to know what happens.
Cumming's book makes me think about how our fathers shape who are and who we want (or don't want) to become. For women in particular we so often look at our mothers but fathers... they shape us. His book makes me think about that.
But mostly it makes me think about pain.
When I get hurt, my flight or fight response goes into hyperdrive. Unfortunately it skips completely over the flight part and goes directly to the fight. Somewhere inside resides someone a bit Hulk-like. You don't want to see her when she's angry, though I've been told it's quite the site to behold. I don't say that with any measure of pride.
It took me a long time to understand her. I tried for a long time to control her without understanding her and that didn't go so well. I eventually figured out that she is a small, scared girl who acts only on instinct and that instinct is to protect and defend herself. Things got easier after that, though not exactly easy.
Last week while we were cooking dinner, Lee accidentally whacked my elbow with the refrigerator door. It hurt. It was an accident. The anger inside me swelled up and I took a deep breath. Well, that's a lie. I swore loudly. Then I took a deep breath. Lee apologized, and I accepted his sincere apology, but he looked a bit hurt that it didn't immediately make it all better.
It's hard to know that you have accidentally hurt someone and that you are solemnly sorry for having done so and that it doesn't make it go away. I did my best to explain I accepted his apology, really, but unfortunately the apology doesn't take away the physical pain. And I can't completely tamp down my instinctive reactions to pain. I have to work through it.
Pain demands to be felt.
Something that impresses me in Cumming's book is the calmness of his reactions. He may go into shock or breakdown after the fact, but his ability to keep calm and not lash back in the moment is foreign to me. It's something I don't understand because it's so opposite to my own reaction.
I envy his calmness.
We are who we are and our instincts are what they are. I can't choose my reflex. For a long time I didn't understand that and I tried to push it down and make it go away. I thought if I pretended it wasn't there, it wasn't. Except that was lie.
Pain and anger are a messy volatile package and they make me feel shame. I get upset at myself for my (wrong) feelings and that is one heck of a horrible circle to get stuck in. In the past, I often felt like there was something deeply wrong with me, even more so because I couldn't magically make the pain and anger go away the very second someone apologized.
I cannot choose my instinct but I can choose my actions. I can choose to close my eyes and take a deep breath (or five). I can choose to walk away from the situation. I can choose to let the pain wash over me and the anger roll through me without allowing it to take over.
I can choose to feel. To breathe. To let it go.
John Green wrote in The Fault in Our Star that pain demands to be felt. All you have to do is go to Tumblr to see how much that resonated with readers.
We don't really have a choice about feeling pain. We can try to run from it. We can try to hide from it. We can try to out-stubborn it. It doesn't work.
Pain demands to be felt and so I feel it. I'm not always calm about it but more and more I'm learning that while I cannot choose whether or not to feel pain, I am in control of my actions.
Thank you, Alan Cumming, for your honesty. You shared your pain, and in turn helped me learn more about my own. That was a gift I didn't know I needed.