Friday, September 30, 2005

Impulse to Guardian - Part 2

Most of the people I've talked with, especially those who’ve known me well and long, seem almost amused that I was surprised by my impulse to guardian. While I had not recognized this in myself, almost everyone around me took it for granted as a major part of my personality.

As I examined my life with this new lens, I was struck by numerous memories that either supported the hypothesis, or took on new meaning or clarity in its light. The memories did not come in any discernibly orderly manner, and, similarly, I record some of them here:

  • When I received the diagnosis of my cancer, my first reaction was that I was dead and disappearing. My second reaction was gratitude that, if cancer had to hit my family, it had hit me, so I could absorb the full impact and protect my wife and children.
  • Later on, in an episode of seemingly uncharacteristic selfishness and cruelty, I told Judy that my death from cancer would be worse for me than for her because she would be losing only me, but I would be losing everybody.
  • My greatest regret about what I perceived as my impending death, was that I would be absent from and unable to protect and nurture my children to adulthood.
  • I had (and still have) trouble praying to God because of my anger at Him, but I prayed to many saints, both canonized and personal, to ask for their intercession. Prominent among these was always St. Joseph, to whom I have long felt a particular devotion. Joseph is the patron saint of fathers and the guardian of the family.
  • I remember as a very young child (5? 6?), being told by my parents that I was responsible for the other younger children in the room, including my siblings and the children of my parents’ visitors. I evidently took that to heart.
  • I remember as a seven year old, “firing” our Japanese au pair, Hisako, for sending my 6 year old brother outside in his pajamas for misbehaving at the dinner table. It was several weeks and for a different reason before my parents fired her, but I felt my action was ratified by their subsequent action.
  • I remember becoming fearful of terrorists as a third grader, after a school trip to a Brussels chocolate factory was cancelled because of terrorist activity in the city.
  • I remember as an 11 year old being terrified, after my brother and I accidentally broke the glass on the front door of our home, that terrorists or other bad people would be able to get in.
  • I remember, in grade school, being interviewed by a Belgian television crew for a documentary about American kids in Brussels. The interviewer was persistent in trying to get me to say what my father’s job was at the embassy. I was polite, but non-responsive, saying only that he had an office with a secretary and a typewriter and that he often talked on the phone. I also remember being praised for and proud of my deliberately obtuse performance.
  • I remember befriending, in third grade, the most outrageous kid in our class because I thought he needed a friend. Often, he needed actual physical protection from the other kids in the class.
  • I remember my mother having to physically push a gypsy out of the front door of our house in Paris as the gypsy was trying to push her way in.
  • I remember my brother being accosted by a crazy man on the streets of London when we were visiting as a family when we were kids, and my father having to shout him away from us.
  • When I was in grade school and high school, I sometimes got into violent fights, even though I was a very well behaved child in every other respect. This had always puzzled and frightened me. In retrospect, I realize that most or every incident was immediately preceded by my perception that someone else was being picked on unfairly and by my deliberate interference.
  • Judy reminded me that I used to say that a dog is a guardian for the home. I did not mean as a guard dog against prosaic intruders, but as a guardian against evil. When I began going through chemo and being hospitalized, I started talking about getting a puppy. This would have been a stupidly impractical thing to do in the midst of my illness, but now makes perfect sense as a response to my fear that I couldn’t and God wouldn’t do the job.
  • I remember, when we were first married, Judy and I agreed to chaperone a group of teenagers from several Richmond parishes to World Youth Day in Denver, where the Pope would make an appearance. I was great with the kids, quickly recruiting the more rambunctious boys to help keep the group together (or guard it). I also remember losing my temper only once, and extremely, when one of the girls in the group – a college student not much younger than we were – slipped away from the group without telling me, when I was trying to collect everyone to get on a bus back to our hotel.
  • I remember several years ago, describing to a more junior lawyer in my firm my perception of a lawyer’s relationship to his clients. I said that we were like guardian angels, that we were supposed to protect them from risks and dangers that they could not anticipate, and help them to achieve their objectives.
  • I remember the great comfort I took in the angels depicted in the architecture of the day care center where we placed our first child when Judy went back to work. The center was at St. Joseph’s Villa.
  • I remember scores of conferences where I eschewed seating to stand in the back of the room so I could see everything that went on, and be ready to provide whatever help might be needed.
  • I remember numerous instances of stopping halfway across a street to stare down an approaching car so the rest of my group could cross in safety.
  • I remember, after being discharged from the hospital after my surgery, getting up to check the doors and windows each night, even after Judy or my father had assured me they were locked, even when I was physically hard-pressed to walk down the stairs to do so.
  • My most frustrating dreams have always been that I had missed something – usually a semester of classes in law school. My most terrifying dreams are of intruders in the house, on the roof, outside my bedroom window.
  • A couple of years ago, I went through a mentoring process with Gary LeClair, a founder and the chairman of our law firm. One of the first things he asked me to do was list my strengths and weaknesses. At our next meeting, I tendered the lists. He refused even to look at them, saying instead that I should write them over in two columns on one page, matching each strength with a weakness and each weakness with a strength. He noted that anywhere I had a blank – a strength without a corresponding weakness or the other way around – meant I had a gap in my understanding of myself. At the time I thought it was a cute trick. I completed the assignment and never really thought much about it after that. But once I began trying to work through my impulse to guardian, it came back to me as extremely important. The impulse is part of my character. Much of my strength and power comes from it. But it also makes me vulnerable, especially where it imposes a duty that is impossible for me to fulfill. Like preventing cancer or evil. I don’t need to eliminate the impulse to guardian – I need to manage it. I need to recognize when it is creating an untenable situation and rethink my duty and my capacity.
  • Dr. John said that this impulse to guardian must be a terrible burden, even more so when I was just a boy. My immediate reaction was that it was not just a burden, that it was also a privilege. I stand by that.

I realize that I am now at the beginning of a process of self-discovery and healing, not the end. But these revelations have already given me enormous relief. I can sometimes recognize my impulse to guardian as the immediate cause of physical stress symptoms in very particular instances. Recognition doesn’t make the stress go away - yet – but it somehow makes it easier to bear.

Being able to see the obstacle in my path, instead of banging my head repeatedly against an invisible wall, is a miracle for me. No matter how big the obstacle is, if I can see it, fathom it, size it up, then I can get hold of it, tear into it, break it down.

I realized months ago that the most important thing I had to do was recover my old optimism. I tried smiling more and looking on the bright side and counting my blessings, but I was missing one critical thing. Something I have again now for the first time in an age: hope.

It would be easy, and wrong, to react to the fruitfulness of this new hypothesis by concluding that it is a complete answer to the question of my life. It is big and important, but it is not all of me. It’s not enough for me. It’s not enough for anybody.

As Judy and I were discussing this revelation, even before we left for France, she managed to draw out of me what I thought a man should be, what I think I as a man should be. I thought about it and said that it wasn’t very complicated. I think I should be like the king in Beowulf. (“Hrothgar,” Judy reminded me). A king, a man, should protect his people, have an hospitable house, and be a generous giver of gifts.

That would be enough for me.


Blogger Barry said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

1:01 PM  
Blogger vkenny said...

Hi Jimmy, As I sit quietly and read
your latest entries I am blown away
by the depth. I have enough faith in God for both of us and I will keep praying(he has already answered our numerous prayers regarding your cancer)until your is restored in full. Keep fighting the good fight!

4:00 PM  
Blogger UisceBaGirl said...

I'm reminded of some really good authors who catch you thinking that you are pages away from a happy ending and 'hook' you all over again with a new twist to the story. This 'impulse to guardian' is for me additional layers of complexity in an already fascinating story, like a nuance of nutmeg or cumin in a savory dish.

On another level, how amazing to do such intense spiritual work! It makes me wonder what I would find in the depths of my own soul if I did the work to plumb it.

Finally, I feel gratitude that Jim continues to share in such detail his journey.

2:28 PM  

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