Last year my BFF Natalie started this super cool reading series called “Learnt Wisdoms” and asked me if I’d speak at an event with the theme of “Things Your Parents Never Told You.” For some reason this led to me thinking about how my father never taught me how to save money or how to feel my feelings. But the idea of framing my talk around a lack left me feeling unsettled. So then I started to rethink my approach to the subject and decided that lack – in this case, something I was never taught – doesn’t always need to be negative. This is perhaps one of the most crucial, and hard to swallow lessons. So I came up with the following: my father never taught me how to give up. The first part of my talk addressed my father’s strength and perseverance and how that has positively impacted my life. But I was also interested in how never giving up can translate into never giving “it” up – it being a toxic relationship, too many responsibilities, or a job that we hate. We tell ourselves that we are weak if we throw in the towel, that we should just tough it out a little longer. When the two terms are conflated, when never giving up becomes never giving it up, moving on is challenging, grieving becomes difficult if not impossible, and we are prevented from living lives that are manageable – both physically and psychically. So I decided to offer my thoughts on never giving up as well as never giving it up – and the wisdoms that came as a result of learning the difference. I’ve revised and updated what I read and have posted it here because I felt like it was worth sharing:
Telling my story involves telling my father’s story as well. Shortly after my mother passed away in 1996, when I was eleven years old, my father’s arms started to weaken; he found it difficult to pick up or hold objects. Doctors ran a variety of tests and told him that he had a motor-neuron disease. The only explanation they could give was that it was probably caused by the stress of losing his wife and becoming a single parent – while some suffer from depression or have a stroke, my father’s grief manifested itself in the weakening of his arms, in his brain deciding to no longer send signals to his arms to move. Years later my father was diagnosed with ALS. Luckily, my father’s case is quite unique, which is why it wasn’t the automatic diagnosis. ALS usually takes someone’s life in five years or less. My father’s form moves incredibly slowly. So it took seven years for the muscles in his arms to atrophy and another four years after that before standing became difficult. Eighteen years later, my father can still move his head and neck and both of his feet, but that’s it.
Instead of being angry about his lack of mobility, his inability to do the routine things that we take for granted such as eating, washing ourselves, putting on a sweater, my father went on a mission to figure out how to make the best of his condition. He learnt how to use voice recognition software and then he started his own company where he taught other people with disabilities how to use it. He joined various boards for accessibility in Durham Region. He was asked to give motivational speeches and received awards for his contributions to the community. He played an integral role in developing a one-stop-shop website for people with disabilities, disabilitydoorway.com, so that those dealing with disabilities did not have to spend a frustrating amount of time finding resources they needed in order to have a good quality of life.
My dad, brother and I at my undergrad convocation in 2010
Almost 2 years ago my father went to the hospital because he was having difficulty breathing. The next stage with ALS is that the lungs start to weaken, and if the lungs don’t fully expand then bacteria begins to breed – my father had pneumonia. Within a week he was hooked up to a respirator – he couldn’t eat and he couldn’t talk. We communicated with a sheet of paper that had the letters of the alphabet and we would go through each letter until we spelt out the sentence he was trying to communicate. One day my father told me that he had been thinking about the top three things that he wanted to eat when the tube was pulled out: a corned beef sandwich from Katz’s deli, fish and chips, and a chicken shwarma. I couldn’t help but laugh. At this point in time we had no idea if my father was ever going to be able to eat again, whether or not he would have to get a tracheotomy and be hooked up to a respirator for the rest of his life. But instead of thinking the worst, he sat in the hospital and came up with that list.
After nearly 4 weeks of being hooked up to a respirator, the doctors pulled the tube out. We had no idea what was going to happen. Prior to removing the tube we were told that my father would need a tracheotomy. Some people with traches can eat and talk, but many can’t. My father was hoping that he’d been on the lucky ones. But then a new doctor started his rotation and decided that a trache wouldn’t work because my dad has “slop neck,” a common symptom of living in a wheelchair. The trache would rub up against my dad’s skin, causing him great discomfort and possibly infections. The doctor decided that my dad’s chances of survival and quality of life would be better if he utilized a cough assist machine and a by-pap.
My father had made it clear that he did not want to live hooked up to a machine that made it impossible for him to talk or to eat. If the solution that the doctors and respirologists came up with didn’t work, we would make him comfortable and let him pass. But that wasn’t the case. The solutions they came up did work. And my father has eaten many a Katz’s corned beef sandwich, fish and chips, and a chicken shwarma. He has since moved into a long-term care facility in Toronto, where he will live the rest of his days, of which he believes there will be many if he wants to see some grandchildren – and that might take a little while.
The first time my dad and I went outside together, after almost 6 months of him being in a hospital bed
I’m immensely grateful for never being taught how to give up. When things get tough, I just think of my father and I know that I can persevere. He’s an inspiration. But he’s certainly not perfect. There were many things that he did not teach me that took years and years of therapy and conversations with friends to learn how to do/undo. Because I had such a strong man for a father, a man who has never given up, I never learnt what it meant to give something up, to say, “this is tough and it sucks and I don’t want to do it anymore.” In my mind giving it up meant giving up. Because my father never told us how tough things were for him, as a single father who had lost the love of his life and was now disabled, I never felt like I could admit that I was struggling.
I remember a couple of years ago my therapist at the time asked me how I was doing. As per usual, I said, “I’m great!” She looked at me and said, “You know, you don’t always have to be great. I don’t need you to be great.” That was a pretty earth-shattering moment for me. What would it mean to just say “I’m okay” or even “I’m feeling pretty shitty.” I didn’t know. I remember trying it out though. Each time someone would ask me how I was doing I would answer honestly. I came to call this act “being honest about my affect.” And I found that people were okay with me not always feeling great with an exclamation point.
One of the definitions of “give” is “to abandon oneself to anger, grief, etc.” In a similar vein, give means to “allow one’s self-control or fortitude to be broken down.” And yet, while giving is viewed as a positive act, to give in the ways defined above tends to be viewed as a negative. Two examples listed by the OED exemplify this: “’The fact is, she gives way too much’, exclaimed active little Mrs. Scobel, who had never given way in her life.” And the second example: “Her old courage kept her from quite giving way.” It’s funny because when I read these definitions I thought that to allow oneself to be broken down, to let go of control, to abandon yourself to anger or grief was a good thing – this is probably due to many re-readings of When Things Fall Apart and from having read affect theory scholars such as Sianne Ngai who tries to recuperate what she calls “ugly feelings.” And yet the examples given above show that the OED and I are not on the same page. To give way is excessive: “she gives way too much.” To give way means that one is lacking in courage. And yet, courage once meant to tell all one’s heart. So if courage means to tell all one’s heart and that heart is filled with grief or sadness, then to give way to those feelings can be seen as positive.
When my mother passed away, my father didn’t give himself up to those feelings. He took us to Florida for two weeks and when we came home, life resumed as normal. I believe that, in my father’s mind, to give himself over to grief would mean that he was giving up. He had to carry on. Perhaps he grieved in silence, behind closed doors. But he didn’t teach my brother or I how to do so. And so in order to not grieve my mother’s death, I turned to self-destructive coping mechanisms: drugs and harmful sexual encounters. Now I’d like to make it clear that I don’t believe my father is to blame for the choices that I made. He was dealing with a lot, and I feel like it’s safe to say that his parents never taught him how to feel his feelings, so how was he to teach me how to do that?
Our first Christmas at West Park, where my father now lives
To return to my title, I want to ask another question: how is giving into similar or different from giving “it” up? I think that the easiest and perhaps most obvious connection is that they both carry negative connotations. To return to some of the examples I offered above, I had a really hard time giving up on relationships. Pop culture doesn’t make it easy with all of the songs that plea with the beloved “do not give up on us.” And so I didn’t give up on many, many “us”s. It didn’t matter if the relationships were co-dependent at best or abusive at worst. It took me many, many years to learn that to get out of a relationship at the first sign that it wasn’t going to work was a strength, not a weakness. If I didn’t see it through to the very, very end, that was okay – in fact that was healthy.
I also have a very difficult time giving up responsibilities that I have signed up for. I tend to take on too many things. And then sometimes life happens and I can’t meet all of my obligations. And then I begin to hate life. Last year, for example, I was President of the Graduate English Association, a teaching assistant leading two tutorials, a research assistant, a co-organizer for a reading group, and I was writing my qualifying exams. Add to that a conference paper that I had to write from scratch and two cats to take care of. If you are sitting there asking yourself “man, why did she take on so many things?” I am with you.
When I got sick at the start of September, my natural impulse was to just get all my shit done and rest when I had fulfilled all of my obligations. I went to see my therapist and she looked at me and was just like “You look sick.” When she asked if I could go home and get any rest, I started listing off all of the things I needed to do. She got a pen and paper and asked me to write everything down and then talked me through how to defer one or two of those things. When I got home and sent the necessary emails – “Sorry, but I’m sick, please don’t hate me forever for not being able to do this thing…” – I found that everyone was okay with waiting a couple of days. In fact, they even expressed concern about my well-being. Crazy, I know.
The more complicated answer to how giving into is related to giving it up comes in thinking about grief. In Freud’s famous essay, “Mourning and Melancholia,” he defines mourning as being able to give up or let go of the lost object and replace it with another. Melancholia occurs when we cannot give it – the lost object – up. Freud evokes the language of cannibalism to talk about how we “swallow” the lost object. Thus there is no giving it up – instead we attempt to incorporate the loss.
If we go even further back in the subject’s life, we can locate loss in the mother. The child must renounce the mother, must give her up for a healthier object – if we don’t, well, Freud had two words for you: Oedipus Complex! Thus, giving it up actually structures the subject and enables him or her to live a healthy life. Now, Jacques Lacan, acting as the Debbie Downer at the psychoanalysis party, will tell us that we will spend our whole lives trying to find the lost object, replacing it ad naseum, but never actually finding it. Some people view Lacan’s central thesis as nihilistic.
In an interview with The Believer, my dissertation supervisor, Mari Ruti, talks about the positive power of lack as follows: “The lack is the foundation of everything that is creative and innovative about human life. If the universal lack did not exist, we would have no motivation to invent or to create anything because we would be so self-contained and blissfully happy. We wouldn’t desire anything in our lives. So the very fact that we have this lack makes us reach outward into the world and look for the meaning of life.” I’d like to think that the things that I was never taught by my father, all of these lacks in my life, led me to reach out into the world, to forge intimate and vulnerable relationships with others. This lack at the heart of the subject is integral. If our parents taught us everything, if there was nothing lacking there, then there really wouldn’t be much of a need to grow and learn. Learnt wisdoms can sometimes come from others – our families, friends, loved ones – but they can also come from us.
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This post was written by Margeaux