Sunday, March 06, 2005

Exuberance!

On this beautiful Vermont Sunday morning, I am finishing up Kay Redmond Jamison’s Exuberance: The Passion for Life, a wonderful book chock-a-block with insight and love. Moody creature that I am, I have long held Jamison’s An Unquiet Mind as one of the very few books I must own. Ironically, I have given away many copies, but I don’t think I currently have one in the house.

Where that book was a declaration of the problem, sometimes raw confessional and sometimes hesitating hypothesis, this new Exuberance is the mature work of a gifted mind and a generous spirit. It makes me happy to count myself among the exuberant and it inspires me to apply that gift honorably and compassionately in the daily challenges of my own life.

I haven’t yet reached the end of Jamison’s book but already I have one big payoff. Those of us who are exuberant, who love life…we are different from others. The benefits of being made this way are many, and if we had a choice to make, we might choose to be exactly as we are. But there are undeniable shadows: the tendency to depression, the threat that we may merely skitter from one dilettantism to the next, and—perhaps most painful, the social judgments and penalties we suffer, even from those who claim to cherish us.

Early in the book, Jamison caught my attention by harking back to the efforts of Pooh, Piglet and Rabbit to take Tigger down a notch.

"[T]he other animals, who are more usually overshadowed by the ebullient Tigger…gather power from the need to reestablish order and to exert moral authority. The ballasting animals act out of concern, outrage and often a trace of envy as well. When necessary, they band together to take the erring animal in hand.”

“Rabbit, for one, in the wake of suspicions that Tigger has bounced Eeyore into the river, determines that Tigger is ‘too bouncy.’ He goes further: ‘It’s time we taught him a lesson.’ The problem with Tigger is that ‘there’s too much of him, that’s what it comes to.’ Eeyore, the aggrieved, is indeed offended: ‘Taking people by surprise. Very unpleasant habit. I don’t mind Tigger being in the Forest,’ he says, ‘because it’s a large Forest, and there’s plenty of room to bounce in it. But I don’t see why he should come into my little corner of it, and bounce there…”

“Rabbit concocts a plan for Piglet, Pooh, and Rabbit to take Tigger to a place he has never been before, to lose him, and then find him again the next morning. He will be, Rabbit assures Piglet and Pooh, ‘a different Tigger altogether…he’ll be a Humble Tigger…a Sad Tigger, a Melancholy Tigger, a Small and Sorry Tigger, an Oh-Rabbit-I-am-glad-to-see-you Tigger.’ Tigger will be deflated, unbounced, newly appreciative, and cut down to size: ‘If we can make Tigger feel Small and Sad for five minutes,’ explains Rabbit, ‘we shall have done a good deed.”

“Far from losing Tigger in the Forest, of course, Pooh, Piglet and Rabbit themselves become hopelessly lost in the mist. Tigger effortlessly finds his way out. Pooh and Piglet, after much aimless and anxious wandering about, eventually make their way to the clearing, but Rabbit remains stranded, unable to navigate back to safety. The maligned and still very much bounced Tigger bounces to Rabbit’s rescue, and into a different perspective: ‘Tigger was tearing around the Forest making loud yapping noises for Rabbit. And at last a very Small and Sorry Rabbit heard him. And the Small and Sorry Rabbit rushed through the mist at the noise, and it suddenly turned into Tigger; a friendly Tigger, a Grand Tigger, a Large and Helpful Tigger, a Tigger who bounced, if he bounced at all, in just the beautiful way a Tigger ought to bounce. “Oh, Tigger, I am glad to see you,” cried Rabbit.’” (Exuberance, pp. 74-75)

Known in the intimacy of my family circle by the nickname Pooh-bear, I was never properly recognized as more of a Tigger, but I have suffered Tigger’s fate repeatedly over the years until at last I learned the central lesson that all Tiggers must learn—to cherish my own bounce. Suppose the other animals had succeeded in de-bouncing Tigger. What is a Tigger without a bounce? Certainly no longer a Tigger. How unkind!

Now when someone tries to “take me down a notch,” I try to respond with patience and politeness. Where originates the impulse to rein in my behavior? Have I stepped on toes? Have I been insensitive? Is it time to take a breath and recognize that my own enthusiasms are not the only good ideas in the world? Compassion is a daily practice, not a character trait.

Accepting this shadow side of my character is productive, but allowing even the best-intentioned friends, lovers and colleagues to “take me down a notch” is not. In this central power struggle, I have racked up heavy losses, not willfully as so many perceive, but because I know one fundamental truth: that I cannot be different from how I was made.

Already crowding into my brain, I hear the attacks. Remember? I have heard them all my fifty years. “You can be different if you want to. If you loved me you would be different.”

Yes, I can try to be more organized, although given my phalanx of to-do lists and computer-aided productivity tools, I am already pushing the limits of carving time into tiny, purposeful bites. These tools serve one important purpose: to help me remember to do what I have said I would do.

Yes, I can devise tricks and schemes to keep my ebullience in check, to keep from bouncing all over other peoples’ parts of the Forest. This is the reason that I bring knitting to meetings—how it works, I cannot explain, but it does keep me quiet. Thank heaven for Vermont, where knitting in meetings is tolerated, if not exactly welcomed.

Yes, I can try to be sensitive to others’ needs. I can carve out time and intention to ask what others need or want. Still, I don’t think it is really fair to require that I read minds or take on managing the happiness of other people. My ex-husband used to play a particularly nasty game called Guess-what-will-make-me-happy-no-that’s-not-it. Attempts to elicit some inkling of what would make him happy were met by stony silence and another game called If-you-persist-in-being-yourself-I-will-declare-you-BAD. Maybe it’s true that he couldn’t do any better, but neither could I. In the end there was nothing I could do but leave, and it still breaks my heart.

The same story has played again and again with family, friends and lovers. I’m very bad at leaving, but the major lesson of my first fifty years of life has been learning to say goodbye, learning to say, “I do love you, but if you can’t accept me for who I am, then I will have to accept…finally…that I can’t be around you.” I can only hope and pray that I may get a different cosmic assignment sometime soon.

For all the changes I can make, all the changes I have made with respect to how I operate in the world, I cannot change my central character as a person of exuberance. The times I have allowed someone dear to me to convince me to try…have taken me down a road to disaster. Now I see any such attempt to change me as arrogant, flinging back into the face of God the gift of who I am. Now I see that I have limitations on what I can do with these very particular, very specific gifts. Bound by the laws of time and space, also by the looser bonds of probability and of human frailty, I need to choose carefully where I invest my talents. I pick my battles more consciously now, and I recognize that the decision rules have less to do with optimization and more to do with heuristics. Having moved past the stage of defining what my values ought to be, and even past the stage where I feel obliged to impose my value on others, I am now in a stage where what counts is the daily practice of applying my values to my own life.

So what’s today’s big challenge? On this Sunday morning, like most mornings, it is taking the time to center myself, to thank my Creator for making me just the way I am, and to think through what adjustments I may need to make in my own outlook and behavior in order to find the most loving solutions in the world. Let’s start with gratitude to Kay Redmond Jamison for sharing her life (how personal a gift!) and her work. She encourages me to treasure the gifts that I have and to invest some few precious hours in thinking, writing and play.

I have a friend who is fond of saying that there are two ways of dealing with people in the world—you can build them up or tear them down—and he chooses to build people up, speaking to their best selves and drawing out their highest impulses. I think he is absolutely right, but it is the way of the world to want to tamp down exuberance. We exuberant ones are the cheerleaders, but who will cheer us on? Bouncy creatures that we are, even Tiggers need to be built up from time to time.

Thank you, Dr. Jamison, for daring to publish a book as edgy and unfinished as An Unquiet Mind. Thank you for coming back to us with your later, mature thoughts on how to live with Exuberance. You cannot imagine how you have touched my life, how you have inspired me. Thank you, thank you, thank you!

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

I am cheering you on *bounce bounce* from one Tigger to another.

I loved this post and will seek out this book. ~bluepoppy

Robert said...

Maybe it's a balance thing. For, say, every ten doom-and-gloomers we need one exuberant person to keep the species on an even keel.

Sadly, I wonder if the ten-to-one ratio has become somewhat bigger. I don't know for sure, with my new shiny outlook I haven't gotten out to test it much.

In any event, I appreciate your contribution to the national (global?) frame of mind; offsetting the tilt caused by misanthropes, of which I was one not so long ago.

Karen said...

I don't remember the proportion that Jamison claimed for the population. Not only is it difficult to tag us, but we are slippery critters, frequently masquerading as misanthropes during down phases which may be natural swings of the pendulum or may be brought on by being mishandled.

But you are right...it is a balance thing...or maybe a team play thing. We have to be what we are; other more melancholy or phlegmatic types must be what they are. Why should we even want all to be the same?