Day 42. Both … and

A couple of weeks ago, I was telling one of my lavishly-compensated mental health professionals about this thing the younger flopsy-duckit (just turned four) does that drives me mad.

D-R: What she does is ask for two things that she knows full well are fundamentally incompatible with each other, but she just keeps on asking for them in order to mess with me.

Dr. F: [Skeptically] Uh-huh. And how do you know that she knows the two things she wants are incompatible?

D-R: [Darkly] Oh, she knows all right. [I do not say because she is an evil genius, but that is what I am thinking.]

Dr. F: Give me an example.

D-R: OK, this is a perfect example. This morning she’s lying on the kitchen floor and she’s cocooned herself in this yellow blanket. I’m making pancakes for her, and she says she wants to help. So I say, great, come and stand on the stool and you can help break the egg.

So then she announces, “I’m a snake!”

And I say, “All right, come here, snakey!”

And she says “snakes don’t have legs so I can’t come to the stool.”

So I say, “well just take a break from being a snake while you make the pancakes.”

“I can’t!” she says. “I’m a SNAKE!”

“OK, well, I’m sorry, you can’t help while you’re lying down.” She starts to cry.

“But I want to help.” She pauses and thinks.

“You have to carry me to the stool, and then I can help.”

[This is the point—and I only see this now as I write this, this is not what I said to Dr. F—where in retrospect I can see that I am just playing right into her hands, the very hands that, you’ve guessed it, she will shortly deny possessing] I protest at first but then I just cave in and agree and drag her blanket-cocooned body up and I’m about to put her on the stool when she says

“But I don’t have any legs! I can’t stand on the stool!”

“Yes you can just put your legs down.” [By this point in the story, Dr. F is cracking up.]

“No, I can’t!” she yells, “I’m a snake. SNAKES. DON’T. HAVE. LEGS.”

Somehow it is agreed that she can kneel on the stool without compromising her snakeness. But you know what comes next.

“I want to break the egg.”

“OK. Here it is.”

“But I don’t have any arms! I’m a snake!”

OK, WELL DON’T HELP THEN.

BUT I WANT. TO. HELP.

And this is where I start to get really worked up and give a ridiculous speech to my four-year old.

“Look: you just can’t be a snake and make pancakes at the same time. You can’t both have legs and not have legs. You can’t both have arms and not have arms. You can’t both lie on the floor and stand on the stool. All of those things are simply not compatible with each other. OK?”

Obviously, it’s not OK with her. And, equally obviously, it is insane that I respond to my four-year-old’s tantrum by confronting her with the illogical nature of her wants. [I trail off. Dr. F is now looking at me with a searching expression.] What is it?

Dr. F: Did you hear how you just described it?

D-R: Described what?

Dr. F: You said that she wants two things that are not compatible with each other. Does that remind you of anyone? [She pauses and raises her eyebrows meaningfully.]

D-R: [Wearily] Yeah, yeah, I get it, you’re saying that that also describes myself and maybe that’s why it gets to me so much when she does it.

Dr. F: [Gives me a look as if to say, you said it, sister, not me]

So, sure, I’ll admit it: this is true about me, I think. I mean, duh. I have embraced the persona, in this blog, of the duck-rabbit, a creature who both has a bill and doesn’t have a bill. As I mentioned in a recent post, I’ll always plump for both … and; for not only but also; either / or is what I find very hard.

I might summarize one common way that this tendency manifests itself (at least in me) as follows: the desire to be idle but also to accomplish things. So many struggles can be filed under that heading: I want to have written a book; I don’t want to write it. I want to be fit; I don’t want to exercise. I want to see my friends; I don’t want to get off the sofa. I want to have a clean house; I don’t want to clean it. I want to be a good parent; I don’t want to read that book again[1] Surely, we all feel like that to some degree, don’t we? Or is that just me?

Now we’re also getting back to my old frenemy, cognitive impenetrability; you remember, the idea I discussed way back on Day 4 that some feelings are impervious to belief states; so I am both scared of ghosts and disbelieve in ghosts. Now obviously, you could argue with me, you could say, Aha! No, actually the fact that you are scared of ghosts means that you do believe in them at some level. And I would retort, don’t be so bloody condescending. (Note, here, my mastery of the finer points of philosophical argumentation.) And here I’ll return to my favorite analogy for this phenomenon, the Müller-Lyer illusion. Here it is again, in case you’ve forgotten it:

mullerlyer-illusia

Say you look at it and say, “those lines are different lengths.” I think that most people could be persuaded to believe that those lines are in fact the same length; but I can’t persuade you to perceive them as being the same length. [2] And that’s not because you’re stupid or delusional or bloody-minded. The way you experience it is just the way you experience it. And that’s why if we’re out and about and you tell me there’s this great tour of a “haunted” house that we just have to go on, I’ll probably say no thanks. Not because I believe in ghosts but because I know that my autonomic nervous system will go crazy in such a situation. My heart will pound in my chest, my mouth will be dry, I’ll start to feel dizzy. And, no, you can’t argue me out of it.

After my Dad died, I would dare him to appear to me, in ghost form. Go on, do it, I would say: I’m not scared. Just do it. Appear. See if I flinch. But then as soon as I’d said this I’d immediately lose my nerve and whisper to myself please don’t please don’t appear please don’t appear, for God’s sake, please don’t appear.

These days, mostly, my fear of ghosts is manageable. It sometimes flares up in hotel rooms, where, for some reason, I often find myself inclined to think: I wonder if anyone died in this room?

I seem to have veered into the darker territory of both … and thinking, but it doesn’t have to be dark. My fondness for both … and thinking also explains the delight I take in Denis Diderot’s meta-fictional novel, Jacques the Fatalist (written some time between 1755 and 1784), a novel that I was just discussing with a graduate student yesterday afternoon. She reminded me of this scene in which Jacques and his master quarrel. I’m quoting from my Penguin Classics edition, which is translated by Michael Henry:

“And there they were started off on an interminable quarrel about women. One claimed they were good, the other wicked, and they were both right; one said they were stupid, the other clever, and they were both right; one that they were unfaithful, the other faithful, and they were both right; one that they were mean, the other generous, and they were both right; one that they were beautiful, the other ugly, and they were both right; one talkative, the other discreet; one open, the other deceitful; one ignorant, the other enlightened; one moral, the other immoral; one foolish, the other wise; one big, the other small. And they were both right.”

Notes

[1] But, that reminds me; this is a book (given to us by Claire, I think?) that I somehow don’t mind reading over and over: and it’s about telling and re-telling stories. Think If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller for children. It’s completely delightful and I wish I had written it. I also adore hearing the younger say, as she did last night, “Can we read the story with the brigands?” http://www.amazon.com/Dark-Stormy-Night-Picture-Puffin/dp/0140545867

[2] Although a recent This American Life episode suggests that some people will dogmatically adhere to their belief that an optical illusion is not in fact an illusion even when it is unequivocally revealed as such. See the opening discussion here: http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/545/transcript

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