Monday, June 01, 2009

The Other

I've been thinking about the nature of humans a lot lately. Trying to whittle our basic, universal drives down to very tight biological and objective terms. Today, I'd like to talk about a concept I'm going to call "The Other." What makes us seek out a companion? A soulmate? What makes us form a personal, transcendent relationship with a God? Those are questions I'm going to tackle.

When you look at human development and what makes us thrive as a species, you find a strong communal nature. We're bound to our human surroundings. Our parents, our family, our neighborhood, our community. From these sources, we form our identity, we learn, we form a defined "culture." Insert a bit of geography, and you see these processes at work with stark contrasts. Alter that close association with different histories, different language, different dress, and different appearance, and we see the "us" come full circle by distinguishing itself from "them."

But is there something deeper than culture? Is there some more basic urge that lays the very foundations that culture is built upon? I think there is. It is an inborn itch so deep that nothing can ultimately smooth it away. Think about yourself alone. Think about yourself very alone. In your darkest moments of isolation, is there someone there with you?

It's an urge, isn't it? A hunger to have another hear you, support you, validate you, and share your life experiences. We understand "me" or "I" all too well. That other emptiness yearning to be filled is "The Other."

Think about relationships. Biologically, we need to reproduce. Most of us like the act required for procreation. In fact, we practice it often. But what does reproduction have to do with a life companion? Why do we want those deeper, almost mystical connections? Why reach out to a person? Why care? Why fight? Why keep coming back when the waters become foul? Because we have that mouth to feed within us. We want to reach out and grab someone to fill the shoes of the The Other. Unfortunately, the stakes are devastatingly high. People fail us. They violate us. They let us down. The Other spits out the usurper we've dropped into that emptiness, and the hunger begins again.

But here's a question. What might you do if there is no person willing (or desirable enough) to be The Other? What if you've been burned and the hunger wants something more predictable and safe? No problem. You can fill the space with a concept. A kind of imaginary Other who will care and share and lend a willing ear. This "Substitute Other" can be a fantasy. A wonderful imagined romance. (We writers are known to create such things.) The Substitute Other can be an ideal. It can be a spirit or a god. Substitute Others can give great comfort. Sometimes I envy the religious minded for that reason. How comforting must that be to always feel someone watching over you, offering you love and support? But in reality, that kind of safety tastes kind of bland, and most people still end up wanting more.

So, what is The Other within us? Maybe nothing more than an instinct. Just like babies are born to snuggle towards warmth, or move their mouths to a nipple. We are born with that simple, but potent yearning. I can see its strength. It binds us together and allows us to achieve more than we would alone. But I also see its dreadful side. The wanting, the not having, the conflicts, the betrayals, and the pain.

If you're in the grip of the dark side of The Other, maybe seeing its deep instinctual roots can help. If we're hungry and can't find food, it doesn't mean that we have been cheated out of all that is good and noble in life. We tighten our belts and get a snack later. If our Other has been stomped or starved and we are in pain, maybe it's not quite the big deal we think it is. It's programming and biology. Understanding urges doesn't make them go away, but it puts them in perspective. It puts more power and strength into our hands. Maybe once in a while we should look The Other in the face and say, "screw you." Maybe then we'd have the perspective to feel a little less insane.

(One final note. By "The Other," I'm referring to the drive, not what fills it. The Other doesn't have to be a single person or thing. In fact, I presume it never is. We pluck pieces of people and concepts to feed the hunger. I do believe, however, that in most cases we want a single person to fill the largest share of it, even if we trick ourselves into thinking that person will be everything to us. There are many ways, small and large, we want to be heard. I don't see many examples of a truly solitary life.)


the walking man said...

while I am certain the answer would be highly personal and therefor not required I am curious what brought this on?

For me...There is God without the bounds of any religious construct. My old lady of near three decades and then there is the one other I am comfortable with. My self. I have no great need for validation or any urge to do other than what I do, which is write. It was the same when I fixed machinery.

I was forced to learn very early on that I can rely on myself to fill any void within, where I can not count on any outside stimulus to give me that "other."

I have people in my life that I don't mind being around occasionally but to be honest, brutally so, I prefer my solitude.

Which begs the question...What is the matter with insanity? Seems when compared to the way of the society, insanity seems the best route to travel.

Catvibe said...

Dear Jason, I want to talk to you about that 'other' sense from the viewpoint of an INFP. There is a difference I think, as to how different personality types perceive and process this need I think. As you know from my drama queen post of late, this is something that I've been thinking about too, and grateful for what age and wisdom has brought me. I'm going to think about this a little bit while I go drink my coffee and then I'll be back to post a longie.

Whirlochre said...

I inhabit the space between dead wood and blossoms is all I know.

And thanks to the plethora of life's multivarious instant, the dead speak to the living and the living to the dead.

I've tried all ways of making it mystical, but it won't hoist itself further than obviousness of smack.

And, thusly smitten about the chops, should I bite my own lips off to lurk as silent schtum, or venture to offer the bubbles of my enthusiasm in the hope that others may crave pop?

Likewise, mortal fascinations flickering across the panorama — lucky, me, to bear witness to their passing.

Catvibe said...

Ok. Remember the song by Cole Porter, Night and Day? (Night and Day, you are the one, only you beneath the stars and under the sun...) I believe this is the difference in how these things are processed? You mentioned when you are really alone and feeling isolated who is the other, for the INFP, they are there in every waking moment, they are there when you are talking to and playing with your kids, they are there when you are giving a recital, making breakfast, turning over in your sleep at night, brushing your teeth, they never every leave your consciousness, it is a curse in the worst worst way to the point where you want to stick an ice pick in your brain, there is never, ever a moments respite. That is how bad it gets in the mind of an INFP, that other. Sure, you can say 'screw you' to that other, but it won't help you feel less insane. In fact, if you are INFP, you are more likely to try to make the other feel better and bend to their needs, despite the damage you do to yourself in the process.

The funny thing is that I am absolutely convinced that NONE of it is real. This is the part that comes with age. I have had the misfortune of getting with a number of those night and day obsessive others, and watched the illusions shatter like thin glass with each one of them as soon as my 'itch' was satisfied. Absolutely every one of them was a false fantasy. I am now thoroughly convinced that the obsessions were based on addiction to romantic ideals of the fairy tale kind, combined with the hormonal desire to procreate. (Not the mental desire by the way, this is a cellular thing). This combined with a certain 'P' attribute (which is best described as 'low boundary'IMHO) was a bringer of great drama and havoc for whomever that 'other' happened to be.

In my wisdom I can say that I believe there is only one solution, as much distance from that person as is possible. Only then do the fantasies subside. A continual saying NO to the dreamer within, and even then it is often not much help until a very long time passed. Often, even if the other person said 'no' or had life circumstances that made things impossible, that didn't stop me from the obsessive desires. If the 'other' felt the need to keep me in their life but at a distance comfortable for them or for their circumstance, that really just made it worse for me, not better at all, it did not make me grow, it just made my life and the obsessions far worse. As a result I have lost friendships, I have caused great discomfort, I have rattled marriages, and I have neglected my children or put them in dangerous situations because the fog of fantasy was so thick that I became ridiculously stupid (upon reflection). So we INFPs don't compartmentalize. It is all or nothing for us. We have only one option, we have to get far away and heal.

I still get obsessive over people, but I don't believe it anymore. It started to happen again a couple of weeks ago, so I made the person in question a fictional character in my Yesterday series and I shot us both dead. It really helped. I laughed for 2 days straight and no more obsession. I'm still in contact with that person but the romantic fantasy is gone completely. What a win for me! Ok, I'm almost 50 and its taken me this long to figure it out. Maybe a little less in the grip of my hormones? Who knows...but it's worth considering and adding to the pot.

Anonymous said...

Walking Man, thank you for those thoughts. I've added a bit more at the end of the post to make clear that by The Other, I'm referring to the drive, not what fills it. You've identified ways that you want to be seen, cared for, and heard. You're doing it now, with blogging and writing, which is anything but a solitary pursuit. Thank you for pointing out the many ways the hunger lives and feeds. (As for what sparked the post, I'm just odd like that. It's common with my Myers-Briggs personality type, which Cat mentions. Mine is INTP.)

Catvibe, yes, please share your thoughts!

Whirlochre, so you hover between the drive to share, and the drive to keep it to yourself.

Anonymous said...

Cat, our comments crossed. I'm very humbled by your sharing of thoughts and am very grateful to have those insights into your experiences. (You know we INTP's thirst for insights and knowledge always. ;) ) Don't take too much out of my "screw you" advice. It's just that sometimes this drive pisses me off because of the angst and unhappiness it causes. I know that it's not so easy. The drive won't just go away. Ever. But your experience shows loud and clear that no matter how strong the drive, knowing its metes and bounds goes a long way in not letting it rule your life. Thank you!!

the walking man said...

In a word then the drive is simply TIME. It needs be filled whether we want to or not it needs be filled.

Anonymous said...

We have a cabin up in the woods. If I lived there alone, my time would be filled. There's always firewood to cut, cooking fires to build, roads to clear. But the hunger would remain.

Catvibe said...

I think you do need to keep saying 'screw you' to the inner drive. That is good wisdom. It will pass... There is an even deeper need beyond that hunger, and in the silence and quiet you will find it.

Catvibe said...

But, being a promoter of inner compassion, you might want to say it nicely. (There there now you silly inner drive, calm down you cute little fantasy, you. If you behave I'll let you have ice cream ;-)

pisku said...

Its probably a human need so intense that only experiencing it can make the hunger go away. There are different dimension of experiences and solitude can only further some of them.

Shadow said...

gonna get back to you... i want to think about this.

The Electric Orchid Hunter said...

What an awful lot of responsibility we want to place on other people. We want one person to be everything to us: a desire I fear will lead to certain disappointment.

Aniket said...

This brings so many things to the mind.

First being the quote from the movie Fight Club,

"When people think you're dying, they really, really listen to you, instead of just...instead of just waiting for their turn to speak? "

It was a blatant truth. There are so few people who actually care to listen to what you have to say. Rest just wait for their turn to talk. And when one finds The Other, who actually listens to them, one tries to narrate each passing moment to him/her. And that in turn gets transformed to the drive. Of course there are are many other forms. But the need to be acknowledged, to be heard and to be unconditionally loved remains common.

These feelings were beautifully portrayed in the movie 'Lars and the real girl' too.

Karen said...

I think we humans have that hunger to connect, probably from birth. Babies not nurtured will not thrive; nor will old people. Nor, I believe will any of us. Even those of us who love and crave solitude want it exactly because we are so connected to others that we need a little time to reconnect with ourselves and process all of our other connections.

I'll bet if we'd admit it, all of us bloggers regularly check to see if we've connected with someone via our sites. We could write these things and put them in a drawer and leave them. Few of us do.

I think the need to connect even crosses species. I am reminded of this when my cat noses my hand or looks up at me, wishing for an invitation to my lap. I know this may be a conditioned behavior, encouraged by me from his earliest days, yet it is real and is a real need on his part. Listen to a cat purr from the pleasure of being stroked by a human. Crossing species, there's a need to connect.

I don't view this "hunger" as anything negative, probably because I have been blessed with so many positive connections in my life - through a long-time marriage, long-lived parents, siblings, children, and now grandchildren, not to mention many dear friends and scores of former students with whom I have wonderful relationships. I also have my God, whom I view as a benevolent friend and comforter. Blessed with these, I am glad for the connections.

Lest you get the wrong picture of me, in spite of all of the things I listed above, I crave solitude and am perfectly content with my own company, probably because I am secure in knowing I am never truly alone.

Catvibe said...

Good post Jason, I keep coming back to see what 'the other's' will say ;-).

Karen, I so much agree with what you have said. There is a difference, of course, between connection and obsession. And I feel that what electric orchid hunter said was right on, trying to find that connection through a single 'other' is too much responsibility for anyone, and that is a romantic notion that I don't believe in anymore, thank god. Looking for that hearing and connection through many different people, (and animals, since I just got here after a thorough eyebrow licking from Marlow), seems to me to be a more fruitful tack and one that will sustain healthier connections. IMHO of course.

Karen said...

I think Electric Orchid Hunter is right! That's why people feel smothered by relationships, I think. They can't bear all of the responsibility for someone else's happiness.

Very thought-provoking, Jason.

Aine said...

Like Catvibe (and other idealists presumably), I had a strong concept of and desire for an "other" to share my life. It is the soulmate connection that Keirsey so aptly defined (different from the other temperaments' definitions of their ideal mate.) So I am well aware of this desire for an "other" to share not only my life experiences, but my thoughts, my existence, my soul.

I think your theory that this urge may be instinctual makes perfect sense. And is a very useful way to understand it. It was necessary for human survival that we formed groups, since we were not top predators initially.

And now that banding together is not necessary for survival (in a raw sense), we have begun living in greater isolation (especially in America where we often don't even keep extended family together.) So there is less satisfaction of our instinctual urges for connection. This may be why we tend to expect too much of one person (as Electric Orchid Hunter pointed out) and may also be why the urges become unhealthily strong (much like aggression can become a problem when there isn't a natural outlet such as the need to hunt for survival.)

Sadly, such desire for an ideal other (which is never a realistic possibility) can cause some people to never feel satisfied with the real connections in their life. They are continually looking for the "true" love, the better match, someone who will love them exactly how they want to be loved.

Thanks for a great, thought-provoking idea, Jason!

Mairi said...

I've been reading bits of Georgia O'Keeffe's letters etc for my latest post and am struck with just how much your thoughts on the other, and the problems - and the pain - necessarily attached to our relationships with the other resonate with her relationship with Stieglitz and the necessity of escaping from him and also the necessity of returning. It's a fascinating subject and your thoughts on it are obviously to the point, timely for others besides myself, as the above comments amply demonstrate.

Anonymous said...

Catvibe, I like your gentler approach to our Other when it turns sour. :) Emotions are wild and elemental with us rationals. We usually keep them in a cage, but once we are deeply violated, the "screw you" is more likely going to be an airstrike with extra napalm.

Pisku, feeding it definitely calms the beast. Unfortunately, it also makes it used to being fed.

Shadow, looking forward to your thoughts!

EOH, trying to fit a single person into the emptiness and expecting everything to be satsified is a tough, tough proposition. Some of it is shaping our expectations to a heathy level. The rest is making sure we have a few avenues of support.

Aniket, that's a great parallel to fight club. It is indeed very rare to find people who really want to listen. If you come across one it would be foolish not to hold on tight.

Karen, you're very right about blogging, I think. Obviously, it even offers something to you, who are very blessed with so many providers of caring and support.

Catvibe, I do think that the intensity of this hunger exists on a spectrum. It's stronger in some people than it is in others. For those who feel it most intensely, I think some of your techniques are wonderful. Reminding yourself that it is not true. That the hunger can lie to you. In essence, you reshape your expectations.

Karen, too many demands on us destroys the ability of our own Other to get the support it needs.

Aine, all very essential points. When a person fails to feed the hunger, bad things always result. Romanticism and longing can certainly be sparked. What's hard is when The Other is truly being starved. In those instances, the hunger is naturally going to grow.

Anonymous said...

Mairi, I'm grateful for your thoughts on those parallels! Thank you for adding even more depth to the concepts we're all grappling with today.

Leaving and coming of the most potent examples of these forces.

Shadow said...

as i was saying... i don't think 'the other' is a single one thing. it's a combination of companionship, love, satisfying the basic needs, all that and more. if you look at maslow's hierarchy of human needs, the base is having food, water, warmth, health, etc, the level then goes to a need for security, stability, structure; then social support and understanding and recognition; then comes self-respect, independence; then cognitive needs like the need for knowledge, meaning; then the need for art, natures beauty, creativity, and lastly one reaches self-realisation, achieves one's potention, enjoys the meaning of life and seeking new challenges.

so, depending where you are in this hierarchy, will depend on your need of 'the other'... i.e. if you don't have love, you can't appreciate art, if you aren't safe, you won't seek new challenges, if you haven't developed friendships and support, you won't realise your full potential.

the basic needs will always be there, need to be fed, in order for us to grow and become what we should. living in isolation will not allow this to happen. interaction, interdependence is a necessity. make sense?

Gughan said...

Such a thought provoking topic!

I am understanding that this leads to this - In various degrees of magnitude, each of us (needs to?!) contribute towards 'The Other' of the people around us. And one could even drive oneself by pushing ourselves to do as good a job at it as we can. I have come to realize more these days that nothing is more satisfying than feeling "sense of connectedness". Thanks for the post!

This is a nice blog community with such good people! In time, I hope to find a place for my comments in all of your blogs :)

Chris Eldin said...

This may be my all-time favorite post of yours. I'll keep coming back to read through the comments, but I also wonder to what extent our personality defines "The Other." I agree the need and hunger is within all of us. It's our perceptions of this which differ.
I've been struggling of late with this, trying to understand what this is within me, and how to come to a healthy understanding. It took until the age of 33 to realize that as a child, I and my two sisters were neglected. By that I don't mean a trivial interpretation of the word. We made our own food when we were tall enough to reach the stove. We cleaned the house, when our mother thought to buy the supplies which wasn't often. I remember being excited at the age of 14 to have a job so I could afford pencils and paper for school. And I didn't know that wasn't normal until 20 years later.
So the hunger from those years has not been satiated, and I wonder how much pressure I put on our marriage because of this. But my husband, who travels frequently and reminds me of my emotionally distant mother (and father), pushes me away and I go off and wonder why.
I think it will take me a couple of years to figure out how to accept The Other without letting it dominate.
There is much to think about in this post.

Anonymous said...

Shadow, I would posit that this need stands outside the hierarchy. You can lack shelter and shiver in the cold. Yet, even then, isn't there some pressure for a companion? Think of the movie Castaway with Tom Hanks. Although it's fiction, I think it rings with truth. As the character struggles with the most basic needs, the drive for a companion transcends. The most poignant part of the movie is how he creates his companion in the deflated soccer ball.

Gughan, you raise a really essential point when you consider how to have a healthy and productive Other experience. As self-centered as the drive is, if you want to have a living person be a major component of the Other role, you must learn to diminish some of your own needs and demands and be willing to compromise and protect another. You are so right. The better Other you can be, the more likely you will have a companion in a balanced relationship. (And I very much look forward to seeing more of you!)

Chris, those traumas run deep. Not only do you have the "normal" drive of the Other, but you have past hurts and an unhealthy childhood relationship on top of it. You may want to look into Imago theory. It could very well explain why you gravitate toward men who mirror your mother. It will also dig at the patterns you are repeating. (I went through a similar process of self discovery.)

Anonymous said...

I am thinking maybe I am a Alien! Ha! No no no I do not need or want anyone.I hate people! Too much trouble!
*whispers* I am not a very good liar either *sigh*

Woman in a Window said...

I don't see many examples of solitary and I have no desire to be one. I think I would be so unlike myself to be one. However, to learn to tame my desire for the other, now that might be handy.

I wonder why it is that we instinctually need that thing with which to fill ourselves, to validate, to see, to soothe?

I think once my kids are grown it will be time for someone to whip me into shape as a monk.