March 31, 2007

Of Thicker Skins, and Sucking It Up

[UPDATE: As I thought about these issues further, I realized there is much more relating to this general subject that is worth exploring in greater detail. This brief summary, and even the earlier essays that I reference, don't address a number of critical points. So there will be more to come about all this in the coming week or two.]

Yesterday, a friend pointed me to a comment thread about a recent post of mine. Some comments were very complimentary about my writing -- but there were much longer comments that were highly critical of what I had said, often in ways that were very personal and occasionally exceptionally cruel. I consider the person who directed me to this discussion a very good friend; he has treated me with immense kindness and generosity, for which I shall always be deeply grateful. He genuinely thought I would find the debate about the merits of my post interesting.

For reasons that would require too much time to explain, that debate was not of much interest to me. It was entirely clear that those who disagreed with what I had said would remain unconvinced by my arguments, no matter how lengthy I made them and regardless of how detailed my proofs were. But the criticisms were deeply painful to me. I sent my friend an email, asking him please never to direct me to such comments again. I told him they had a devastating effect on me, which is entirely true. I received an email in return, which began: "I think you need to develop a thicker skin..."

I stopped reading the message at that point. (I will read it in its entirely, but only after several more days have gone by.) After considering the matter for a while, I sent the following email in reply. Because these issues connect in many ways to themes I have written about at length, and because they have much broader meaning and many further implications, I reproduce it here. The subject line of my email was the same as the headline here, "Of thicker skins, and sucking it up":
"Suck It Up": The Denial Continues, and Kills Once More

And here, with links to further related essays:

When the Pain Can Be Borne No Longer

Ask yourself this: if I developed a "thicker skin," would I be able to write an essay like "We Are Not Freaks," or my many essays about the suffering of innocent Iraqis, or my Alice Miller articles...or indeed most of my essays? I would not. Perhaps some people could, but not me. But I strongly doubt that even some people could: when your skin becomes thick enough, such subjects no longer concern you -- they are too threatening, and they bring up precisely those memories and emotions that we seek to avoid by such means.

In "We Are Not Freaks" (and in many other pieces), I spoke of the emotional repression that is a hallmark of our culture. Telling people to "develop a thicker skin," to "suck it up," and all the rest, is one of the primary ways that such emotional repression is created and maintained. It is one of the major messages most parents deliver to their children: you have to be "tough" to survive in this world. You might also consider the numerous ways in which those attitudes are related to traditional, conventional views of "masculinity."

Among the final results of such messages are war, and endless death and suffering. I understand those are not the results that *you* intend...but there it is, nonetheless. (And no: such attitudes cannot be "compartmentalized," and one cannot simply use a "thicker skin" to get through the day. Like any psychological mechanism, once in use, it either grows or diminishes: it does not stay the same, and it does not remain localized.)

I read only the first line of your message, about my needing "a thicker skin." I stop reading such messages after a phrase of that kind. It comes from a world that is not mine, and that I fight against every day, as I have all my life. In the end, my battle is not about politics at all: it is about culture, and psychology, and the endless barrage of destructive messages that inundate us all every single day. Implemented to any significant degree at all, such messages ultimately cripple people's souls, just as they destroy many people's lives.

Fighting this battle will probably kill me in the end; I've expected that for some time now. But whenever I die, my soul will still be completely alive and vital -- capable of profound joy, and also able to experience almost unbearable pain. In the end, that is the only victory that matters to me, and I wouldn't have it any other way.
From a very different perspective, my essay about Maria Callas touches on many of these same concerns. Because that article focuses on those subjects that are of deepest concern to me, it remains probably my personal favorite among all the pieces I have written over the last several years. In a very different world, I would write about culture, literature and music, and opera most of the time.

If they are of interest to you, I've listed below the various referenced essays:

For Maria Callas, Now and Always: All Things Are Connected

We Are Not Freaks

"Suck It Up": The Denial Continues, and Kills Once More

When the Pain Can Be Borne No Longer

The Indifference and Denial That Kill

When the Demons Come

When the Deaths of the Innocent Do Not Matter

The Suicide Taboo

The Dynamics of Suicide, Revisited

The Ignored Casualties of War

The Alice Miller Essays