April 05, 2007

Driving, Joking, Growing

Yesterday I was sitting in the car waiting to make a left turn onto my street, watching the stream of traffic approach in the other direction. The traffic moved at a uniform pace except for one car that wove in and out in order to get to the front and pull away. What a fool, I thought, where is he rushing to? He had to be a skillful driver in order to use that style, and he probably enjoyed getting the better of the other drivers, whom he must have considered pathetically conformist, but didn’t he see that his style of driving was dangerous to himself and others?

Then I realized: that’s exactly how I drive.

I learned to drive in the Bronx and it shows. Many more people drive like that there than here. It’s a video game: you try to get to the finish line first, not by speeding but by superior handling in close quarters. Some people have joked about my driving, or even expressed concern. It’s puzzled me how they could mistake good driving for bad. Yesterday I understood when I saw my own actions from the viewpoint of an observer.

I have other patterns that have been more harmful to me than aggressive driving (no traffic accidents, thank God), and I learned them in the Bronx too. One is a practice I’ve been painfully unlearning over many years, the practice of yelling and cursing. I think I’ve finally got that one unlearned after it caused more damage than I want to tell you about.

But clear away a rock and you’ll stumble over a root. Over the past months several incidents have brought home to me an awareness of how I use words not only as a defense but as a weapon. I use wit to wound others, sometimes people I’m close to, sometimes strangers. I’m a witty, incisive, verbally adept guy, it’s my great strength, and I’ve resisted any effort to restrict my use of it. Undoubtedly it compensates for strengths I’ve felt I don’t have. (Whether I actually don’t have them is another issue.) Sometimes I’m with someone and I’m so taken with my own insight that I blurt out something hurtful. Or I write something and I’m so intoxicated with my clever inspiration that I don’t see the nastiness behind it. (Oh, I’m not completely blind to the nastiness, even as I’m indulging it, but I permit myself to be carried away in the rejoicing over power.) I throw a spear of criticism and try to shield myself with the fact that it’s comic. There was an incident twenty-odd years ago when I alienated a friend by amusingly telling him how ridiculous his profession was. A small case, but telling.

I’ve been agonizing because I haven’t known how to excise that malignant part of me without destroying who I am. Am I supposed to go the rest of my life without wit, without comic perceptiveness? It would feel like being lobotomized. Not to mention that I’m a writer. Witty insight is the scalpel I use on the world; should I turn it against myself?

This is something I’m in the middle of thinking about so I don’t have a final answer. All I understand at the moment is that I need to be more aware of the harmful effects on others of some of the things I say, and I have to be aware before I say them, not just after. The saving grace is that I don’t do it frequently. (But when I do, it undoes many good things.) If I can isolate my laser on those few occurrences and cut them away, I can be as witty and insightful as I want when it doesn’t hurt others.

They say you should become friends with your shadow. That’s a metaphor I’ve never understood how to put in practice in literal living. It sounds nice to say and hard to do. My idea now is that I need to use words and insight on a higher level to unlearn the misuse of them on a lower. At least I can feel secure that words and wit really are my friends in a way that yelling never was.

My solution has always been more thought, more thought. I have a feeling that’s only part right.

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