Power Born From Vulnerability: Reflections on Powerful Relationships

By Adam J. Pearson

Relationships take a wide variety of forms. Some relationships seem so fragile that the slightest fight, disagreement, or mistake could crush them into oblivion. Others seem so resilient that they can weather the most ferocious storm and emerge scarred, but empowered. What distinguishes these fragile relationships from the more powerful ones that inspire and nurture us?

Fragile relationships tend to be tentative. We don’t go into them fully. We don’t commit to them. We approach them cautiously, like a hungry squirrel cautiously approaching an offering of food in the outstretched palm of a human. The squirrel doesn’t know if the same hand that now feeds him might also go on to hurt him.  He doesn’t know if he can trust the person before him. So he is tentative, careful, ready to run at any time. We are the same way in fragile relationships. We’re afraid to get hurt, so we don’t fully invest ourselves. We don’t fully trust in order to protect ourselves. We don’t let ourselves care all that much in an attempt to protect ourselves from disappointment. And we often see the relationship in a totally conditional way: if it ceases to satisfy my wants or starts to hit rough terrain, we are ready to leave in a heartbeat. Fragile relationships cannot handle adversity; as soon as it hits, they crumble, like a ship shattering against dark rocks its captain did not spot in time.

In my experience, powerful relationships are completely different from their more delicate counterparts. Powerful relationships–whether romantic, friendship, or family relationships–are resilient. They’re elastic. They don’t crumble under the weight of being rocked, or of people messing up, making mistakes, and getting hurt. They bounce back. That’s why we feel we can be vulnerable in these relationships without letting fear or shame numb us into silence. Because we know that we’re safe. We know that even if feelings get stirred up, the relationship is strong enough to handle them without breaking. This elasticity comes from trust, comfort, caring, respect, and connection. When these things are in place, the elasticity is in place. The resilience is in place. And the relationship handles hurt and bounces back.

This ability to bounce back, to adapt to adversity and accommodate challenge, is the source of the power of powerful relationships. They are richly infused with the trust and security that fragile relationships so desperately lack. And one of the most paradoxical features of powerful relationships is that they are born out of vulnerability. To trust is to be vulnerable. To care is to be vulnerable. To seek comfort in another person is to be vulnerable. To reach out in connection is a vulnerable act. Therefore, in order to create a relationship in which we feel like it is safe to be ourselves, a relationship that can handle the truth of our shame, fear, anxiety, along with all of our joy, strength, and creativity, we have to take a leap of faith into vulnerability. We have to dare to care, dare to trust, dare to connect. And when we do, we find, much to our surprise, that this unsafe act can unlock the keys to our safety. Perhaps ironically, it  is only by taking this vulnerable leap with someone who deserves our trust that we find the strength and the relationship resilience for which we have always yearned.

The Wordless Mystery Without and Within: On the Reach of Stories and the Silent Core of the Self and the World

By Adam J. Pearson

When we pause to think about it, the extent to which we perceive the world through stories is absolutely staggering. Nothing has so great a hold of us and so fundamentally structures our experience like stories do.

Examples of this truth are ubiquitous in daily life. We make snap judgments about each other and weave them into stories. We see the world through fictional characters and worlds we’ve read about or watched on TV. Our media images bombard us with advertisement stories to tell us what to feel and what to buy. We interpret each other’s behaviour as well as our own through stories. Our thought process unfolds as a series of stories told to ourselves by ourselves. Stories tell us what is valuable and what is not, what is right and what is wrong, how we should live, and what we should be. We make meaning out of nature itself via scientific and religious stories. Out of the ineffable oneness and unending vastness of the universe, we create stories with finite beginnings, middles, and ends. The limits of our minds require the limits that stories offer by packaging meaning into neat little units that make sense to us. We draw lines where none exist so that our minds can handle small facets of an inconceivably vast reality. And perhaps most profoundly of all, we create our own imaginary personal identities, our own ‘selves,’ out of a network of stories written by us and by others.

In the constant game of narration called our life, fiction and truth blur together and it’s often hard to tell whether we are creating our own story or acting a part in someone else’s. Sometimes we find ourselves doing both at the same time. And yet, we find ourselves confronted by countless questions. How much do our stories clarify, how much do they obscure? Which truths to they reveal and which do they conceal? How much of the stories we live by lies out there in the physical world, and how much is just here in our heads? What is the deep stillness of outer space like in the absence of all of the stories we tell on Earth? What is the nakedness of existence like if we don’t evoke any concepts or stories to interpret it? For all interpretations are stories, and all stories involve interpretation.

As they are, as they nakedly exist, all things have their being prior to the speaking of a single word about them. Their basic nature is wordless, ineffable, unspeakable, silent. Language reaches out to try to grasp this bare reality desperately, but always fails to do so. Indeed, the wordless silence of all things has deeper roots than we could ever imagine. We reach out through words, language, concepts and stories in a futile attempt to grasp the fundamental nature of this wordless nature. But we are donkeys chasing a carrot at the end of a string; it always seems so close, but is always out of reach. Somehow, we intuit that bare existence lives beyond all words. And do our feelings not themselves get numbed and limited by the names we pin onto them? What is it like to feel outside of any words about what we are feeling? If we could connect our minds directly to the bare nature of the story-less world without evoking the words and concepts to which we cling for safety, could we experience its reality directly? Could we dive into the wordless vastness of being? Could we handle the totally unfamiliar and unrecognizable texture of this silence? Would it transform us, liberate us, or destroy us?

The truth is that we can ask all of these questions, but all of the answers we can come up with are like beautiful, deceiving traps, for questions invite answers and answers are stories. The minute we open our mouths to speak, it is too late. We’ve already made answering the question of what the reality of the world is like beyond all words and concepts impossible.

Only silence can answer silence. And the bare nature of reality will always lie beyond the reach of the language of stories. Only bare awareness can reach out to it and  only in silence. What it finds there in the land beyond words, it cannot say, and whatever it says is not it. This wordless mystery, this truth beyond story is not only out there, but within us too. The core of what we are cannot be spoken; every word betrays it, every story leads us away from it.  Only silence leads us deeper into it, into our core and into a more direct engagement with the reality of the world around us.  Only silence  is at home in mystery and only mystery is our true home. And so even these words must be dropped, cut off, and left behind.

***

Summary:
Stories mediate our daily lives, but the core of our world and of who and what we are lies beyond the reach of words, concepts, and stories. We can only meet it in silence and mystery.

Meeting in the Middle: Expressing Feelings in Words vs. Silence

By Adam J. Pearson

Tonight, I had a total bombardment of mind-blowing epiphanies. I was talking with my girlfriend, Lori, for 2 hours and she said some things that blew my mind. All my life, I have expressed emotions and love through words. Every girl I ever dated was the verbal, expressive type. And so, I came to associate a romantic connection with constant verbal expressing, praising, and adoring. It never occurred to me either that (1) one could be secure in the knowledge that the connection was there without constantly verbalizing it or that (2) other people did not relate to their feelings the same way, through words.

I felt like Lori wasn’t being very romantic with me and that I couldn’t know how she felt because she didn’t tell me. I felt like my need for verbal validation wasn’t being met. What I found out, though, is that unlike me, she was not raised to show love through words. She was raised to show love through actions and humour. I was raised to constantly say how I felt as a way of proving it. She was raised to silently know that the caring was there without having to say it.

Lori was never into love poetry; she saw it as corny and insincere, if not sometimes manipulative. So, when I would express my sincere feelings to her in poetic language, I would feel like I was showing her I cared. She, in total distinction to what I thought, would feel like I was being insincere, just spouting words. She would feel awkward and pressured to say something similar back, a practice which to her, felt totally unnatural. It caused her anxiety. When I would tell send her messages thanking her for a good time I had with her and pointing out things I liked that she did, I would see it as building the relationship and communicating openly. She would see it as me giving her a report card and setting a standard for her to live up to. Basically, she would see it once again, as pressure, when I intended the opposite, not to place burdens on her, but to lift them off. I tried to use words to reassure her; she tried to tell me that she didn’t need words to be reassured.

I have always related to my emotions through verbal interpretation. She has always related to them through a nonverbal mode. It blew my mind to hear how she was receiving my messages in a totally opposite way to what I intended and how we actually related to her feelings through totally different modes of experience and perception. It had never even occurred to me that her way of relating to feelings was even possible. Not express my feelings in words? Just silently feel them? Whaaat?

She asked if I thought this difference in our modes of showing we care would be a problem for us, maybe even mean that we couldn’t be together. I wondered that myself at first, very briefly. Then I realized that it wasn’t a lack we were seeing in each other, but a possibility for growth. She was showing me how to feel more without needing to rely so much on expressing what I’m feeling in words. And I was showing her that she can explore feelings in words in ways that can be profound. So, I have resolved to tell her LESS of what I am feeling for her, basically, to shut up more. And she has resolved to try to be more open about what she feels for me in words. I told her that if I continue to tell her she is beautiful and such, or feel inspired to be poetic with her, she doesn’t have to respond with anything more than than an “aww,” a “thank you,” or just a heart or a smile.

When I was a kid, my parents would always say “I love you” to me and it was so natural. If I wasn’t told, I would feel like they didn’t feel it. I needed verbal validation. Lori’s experience growing up was the total opposite. She narrated a story to me to reinforce the difference in her experience. She said that “when I was maybe 17 I asked my dad “do you love me?” in a non-serious way, and he said “love is a strong word, I tolerate you.” I thought that was the most hilarious thing ever and we just laughed and told my mom and she laughed, and this brought us so close together and it made me feel warm. I guess it’s just so obvious and such a known thing that he does love me, we get along great, an that what he said was a joke and got us to laugh, rather than an awkward “yes, I love you”. Not that saying that is always wrong; obviously genuine moments are needed too… but my family connects through humour and I guess just a sense of knowing…”

This was so revealing to me. It opened up a whole new field of experience to explore, the way of feeling without saying. Lori never practiced Zen formally, but she gets it intuitively. She says she learned this way from all the animals she cared for at the SPCA, where she often volunteered. She likes how animals are silently authentic and feel without words. I feel I have a lot to learn from her and her way of feeling.

After this conversation, we both felt like a burden had been lifted up off of us, like things murky between us had suddenly become transparent. I feel like we can both relax into the relationship a little more and that we have deepened our communication with one another. After this revelation, we went on to discuss other key things. I found out about her jealousy when I’m with her and other girls are around. I tried to reassure her that my heart is set on her, but that if it made her feel better, if she was feeling jealous, she could just grab me and kiss me or hold my hand. She could ‘mark her territory’ in this way. And she said that her natural instinct was the opposite in such moments, not to hold on, but to pull away. And that was a fundamental difference between us. When someone I care about seems to be pulling away from me, I tend to hold on harder. She does the opposite; she pulls away harder. What we realized is that both of these tendencies are unhealthy. They actually make us both feel less safe in the relationship and less secure. She feels less safe because she feels I’m clinging to her. I feel less safe because I’m afraid she’ll run and drop my heart. So, this is something else we both need to work on.

The final thing we realized is that we had opposite conceptions of the meaning of poetry and this difference resulted in us misunderstanding each other. Lori told me that she always suspected poetry to be insincere and inadequate for expressing the depth of human feeling. She distrusted poets, many of whom she thought were just trying to smooth-talk people to manipulate them, or told the same words to many girls rather than have them mean something authentic to one beloved. She said that “I just always considered the poetic Casanova types less down to earth and therefore, less trustworthy, but not in a malicious way, more like in a “they’re up in the clouds more entrenched in their own imagination, and in love more with an idea of love,” rather than just really seeing the person and the moment. Talking to.you I realize that my interpretation was wrong, that some people do genuinely express themselves in that way.”

In my worldview, Lori’s description applies to fake poets and bad poetry. Real poetry for me, is not a description of an experience; it is an experience itself. It is life sprouting into words. In my reality tunnel, good poetry is grounded in real life. It’s in the earth of the forest and the tears of single mothers and the usually silent struggles that everyone faces every day. That’s what gives it power to me, the fact that it is real. And when I write poetic things to Lori, they are concrete expressions of what I’m actually feeling, like tears or laughter. They are just as primal and immediate for me, though they are constructed and distant for her. Lori’s fake poets may try to impress, but real poets try to express. From what I shared, Lori learned about the potential power of poetry. From what Lori shared, I was reminded of poetry’s limitations.

Before tonight, I never realized how in tune with the Zen spirit and inwardly grounded Lori was. I was a natural introvert who forced myself to become an extrovert; she was a natural extrovert who was forced into introversion. Our new goal is to meet is to validate each other’s modes of experience and meet in the middle. I am excited with the path that lies ahead of us, a path of playful experimentation, new experiences, and deepening openness. It is my sense that we can not only grow inwardly, but also towards each other and that sometimes, we can grow in both directions at once.

The Confrontation of Adulthood and the Meaning of Maturity

By Adam J. Pearson

Adulthood (noun): The period during which you come face to face with all of the personality faults, mental hang-ups, bad habits, wrong actions, and psychological problems that have built up in you since you were a child and have to come to terms with them.

As to what happens next, you have two choices. One possibility is that you avoid facing all of these inner shadows and stagnate in an immature state of escapism and inauthenticity until you finally die without ever having reached your potential for inner growth. Another possibility is that you face your inner shadows, own and integrate them, accept and make peace with them, and grow. This is maturity.

Adults talk about growing up as if we’ve all done it. The fact of the matter is that in the sense of true maturation, many people never grow up. They die somewhere along the way between being a lost child and a hopeless adult who has given up on ever knowing or fully being themselves.

The sad truth is that the wholeness that the lost ones always sought was never far away, never out there in a better job, richer possessions, more money, or a different spouse. It was always right here, in the shadows within them. Our shadows hold the keys to our growth. They are not our enemies; they are the innocent relics and remnants of our first stumbles through a confusing world. They are our friends. And if we take responsibility for them, accept and own them, and make peace with them, they can give us the serenity and fulfillment we so badly seek. They can fill the inner hole or void that nothing else can fill.

Only embracing your shadows can take you to into the light.

Update: After reading this article, a friend of mine commented that adulthood in general and the process of facing our shadows in particular can be “uncomfortable, even downright painful, at times.” My own experience echoes hers on this point. On the positive side of things, however, the process of facing and integrating our shadows instead of pushing away, denying, avoiding, or resisting them is absolutely worthwhile,  liberating, and empowering.

You can tell those who are weighed down by and resistant to their shadows from those who have included them into their light. The latter shine brighter. They are radiant. I think there’s a reason we resonate with or respond to these light and darkness metaphors. They speak to us on a deep level; they are archetypes and mythical symbols that have been with human beings since we first noticed the difference between night and day, dark space and bright stars, cold caverns and burning fire.

In my reality tunnel or view of the world, this process of inner growth and maturity isn’t something we do once and for all or even in several few sessions. It’s an ongoing lifetime process and it happens by degrees. I believe that our capacity for inner growth is, in actual fact, infinite. At first, we integrate and bring unit to the very obvious chasms within us, we make peace with the biggest shadows that stand out, loud and clear. Over time, the integrations get subtler and subtler. The deeper you go, the more minute the shadows and inner rifts you find.

As this progress proceeds, the light of consciousness gets deeper into the cracks of your unconscious, the realm of the repressed, the rejected, the terrifying, the painful, and the depressing. It can be painful to explore this vast inner landscape, but exciting and deeply fulfilling too. You meet aspects of yourself you never could have even imagined and bring healing to wounds that have long laid buried within you. And in the end, that’s a tremendously positive and uplifting process, however painful it may sometimes be.

People sometimes talk about self-discovery as if it’s this fluffy and joyful process. In fact, it’s often extremely painful and uncomfortable. It hurts. And that’s what’s so great about it. The more willing we are to feel our way through the pain and face the aspects of ourselves that hurt, the more healing and inner unity we achieve. Facing your inner wounds, shadows, and voids, making the unconscious conscious without resisting it, this process is inherently healing. Anyone who has gone through it can tell you this. When you make the journey for yourself, you can verify it.

Ways out of Drowning: Four Ways to Respond to Troubling Memories, Thoughts, and Feelings

By Adam J. Pearson

Yesterday, I noticed shame, sadness, and embarrassment arising from an old memory coming back to haunt me. It is a memory that I have had to confront many times in the past. And yet, it still holds some power over me. When it comes into the light of consciousness, it tends to detonate troubling feelings that linger. However, this time, when the feelings came up, instead of getting swept up by the memory into the emotional charges that it carries, I met it mindfully and dove deep into the present experience of it. And I found that there are four wise and healthy ways to respond to these thoughts, memories, and feelings that can come to our aid in moments like this, when these powerful disturbing emotions are storming through us.

Way 1: Meeting with Mindfulness
One way of responding to troubling memories, thoughts, and feelings involves just meeting them with mindfulness. The feeling comes up, and it hurts, but instead of pushing it away, you stay with it.  You don’t let it carry away. Instead, you look at it with detached curiosity. You dive into it and try to see what it feels like from the inside out and how it looks from the outside in.  You observe it and try to understand how it is working within you, what is giving rise to it, how it is making you feel, what it is trying to tell you about “the kind of person you are.” You meet it with totally present, careful attention. And you let it do its thing without trying to change it or manipulate it in any way.

You roll with it and ride it out like a surfer riding waves. You don’t think up a story about it; you just watch whatever thoughts are naturally arising around it. You watch the stories your mind is weaving about it to try to control and deal with it. You just stay present with it and watch it. And what I have found in situations like this is that just mindfully watching the feelings can weaken their power without creating even more problems with developing beliefs about the feelings or identifying with them or holding on to them as if they are “me” in any meaningful sense.

Way 2: Tracing the Feeling Back to the Basic Feeling of Being

This way is a little more abstract, but I have found it helpful as well.  This way involves tracing the feelings back to the core parts of us that give rise to them. For example, I traced the troubling memory back to the core epicenter of the feelings that the memory was igniting within me. It came back to the feeling that “I” was under attack, that “I” was being threatened and jeopardized. And at the core of this feeling was the deeper feeling that “I am” as the  sage Nisargadatta Maharaj called it. What I found was that the powerful emotional charges carried by this memory had become mixed up with the feeling of I-ness, with thoughts that “I am this, I am shameful, I am suffering, etc.” “I” had lost myself  in a storm that “I myself” created. 

The event that happened in the troubling memory was experienced as carrying a threat to my separate sense of self. And this threat manifested as emotions, which in turn manifested as thoughts or beliefs about “me.” The emotion of “shame” manifested as the thought “I am shameful, a disgrace.” The emotion of “sadness” manifested as the thought “I am pathetic.” The emotion of embarrassment manifested as the thought “I am embarrassing.” These thoughts went on to amplify the emotions that engendered them. For example, feeling that “I” was shameful, intrinsically, in the core of my being or my self, led the shame to deepen and intensify.

Let me get a little abstract for a minute. The ironic fact in these moments of emotional storming is that the egoic stronghold, the web of beliefs and feelings that I take to be “me,” is basically attacking itself with its own mechanisms. Just as our sense of separate self reinforces itself by associating with conventionally ‘positive’ traits such as strength, courage, and attractiveness, so does it ironically weaken itself by associating itself with socially devalued traits like weakness and inadequacy. However, the same mechanism of association (“I’m this kind of person…”)  and identification (“I am this….”) is at work in both cases. In one case, the association with traits our society considers to be positive produces feelings of confidence, self-assurance, and potentially even pride and arrogance. In the other case, the association with traits our society considers to be undesirable gives rise to feelings of insecurity, self-loathing, self-hatred, self-doubt, fear, cowardliness, and potentially even thoughts of suicide. Without a doubt, the urge to kill oneself  is the most ironic manifestation of egotism of all; it is born out of a sense of self that has paradoxically created itself in order to destroy itself.

All of these mechanisms that the mind uses to identify with things in order to build up a separate sense of “who I am” can be experienced in the emotional repercussions of a single ‘disturbing’ memory. What I had to see, though, was that this whole play of identification, association, and emotional disturbance was not me. The true core of who we are, our sense of being present, our bare sense of being anything at all, is totally unaffected by all the swingings of the egoic pendulum from self-love to self-hatred, from yearnings for self-aggrandizement to feelings of being extremely small. We are here, we are present before any of these identifications with positive and negative traits ever come up. We are born into this world without any of these, and yet, we still exist, so they cannot be basic or fundamental to who we are. “Our existence precedes our essence” as the French existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre put it.

What does this mean for our painful emotions? We can practice coming back to this bare and basic feeling of being present. And this is one way of responding to troubling memories, thoughts, and feelings. We can trace the pain back to the feeling that “I am,” back to the bare feeling of simply being, simply existing. And when we just hold our attention on this feeling, I find that it takes us back to this feeling of deep affinity and connectedness with everything because everything shares this basic fact of being present. Even as everything is constantly changing and impermanent, still, this presence is here, taking all these forms, making all these changes. Being is undergoing all these transformations, saying all these words, doing all these things.

And it’s this same sense of being that we find in the core of our experience; just thinking the words “I am”  takes us back to it. Beingness, hereness, presence; these are words that suggest it. But we can’t get lost in the trap of just thinking about what these words may mean. We simply have to experience it. Follow that feeling that ‘I am” straight into the feeling of being anything at all. When our attention rests in that feeling, we feel an expansive peace and connectedness that is indescribable. What we find is beyond ‘a feeling,’ or ‘a sense’ at all. It’s unspeakable and it is amazing. No concept can latch on to it and describe it. It’s beautifully ineffable.

But about that disturbing emotion that I mentioned in the beginning? How do all of these reflections affect that basic everyday experience? The basic fact of the matter is that these powerful feelings of shame, embarrassment, insecurity, etc. are all not fundamentally me. They are just emotional reactions to the mind identifying with traits or activities that society devalues. They are the emotional repercussions of my mind grabbing on to these things and saying “this is me, this is what I am, I’m the pathetic one, the embarrassing one, the inadequate one, etc.” But this is just the play, the activity of the mind. It’s this innocent ego trying to build itself up and sometimes ending up knocking itself down. It’s not me. This feeling that “I am” is more primal than any of these other thoughts or feelings that reinforce a separate “me.” It’s more meaningfully me than this falsely, but innocently, constructed “me.” The thought and feeling that “I am” can take me home to the basic feeling of being present that comes before the word “I” being spoken at all. And in this more basic state, awe, wonder, and peace can emerge and the embarrassment, shame, fear, etc. can drop away. This happens because these feeling depend on a sense of separateness, and when we turn back to this naked sense of being, which all things share, the separateness drops away.

Way 3: Meeting with Metta (Loving-Kindness)

But what if this is all too abstract and the feelings are too overwhelming or too powerful? Then what? If that happens, we can try just meeting it with what Buddhism calls ‘metta’ or a feeling and attitude of ‘loving-kindness.’ The memory comes up along with all of its emotional baggage, and instead of pushing them away, we just meet them with a lovingly kind attitude. We love the heck out of them. We see the innocence that gave rise to the feelings and we meet them like a loving parent meeting a child. This simple approach can work wonders.

Way 4: Meeting with “I’m sorry, please forgive me, thank you, I love you”

What if this fails too? What if the “I’m pathetic, I’m a disgrace, I’m not good enough” thoughts still continue? In this case, we can try using the “I-language” that the go uses to build itself up and knock itself down, but in a more constructive way. I learned this technique from the Hawaiian spiritual tradition of Ho’oponopono.

How does it work? I find myself in the midst of these powerful feelings and identifying with the trauma of this memory. However, instead of jumping into all of the “I am nothing, I am horrible, I am pathetic, I am shameful” thoughts that we would tend to jump into, I do something else. I turn my attention straight on to the “negative” feeling–the shame, the fear, the embarrassment, etc.–and I think “I’m sorry, please forgive me, thank you, I love you.” I’m sorry that I have given rise to this feeling and that I feel bad about it. Please forgive me for this innocent activity born out of a curious wish to know who and what I am. Thank you for the mindfulness and insight that has led me to realize what’s going on within me. Painful memory, feelings of shame, fear, sadness, I love you. This approach uses the ego’s mechanisms to dissolve the conditioning and emotional charge over time. There were a few times in my life where this simple practice really hit home for me.

Summary of the Four Ways
Really, though, if I’m being honest with myself, I have to admit that these disturbing memories, these troubling thoughts, are not really a problem at all. Ultimately, they won’t make much of a difference to this vast universe or to Being in itself. But I have to deal with them anyway because they feel like a problem. So what can I do about them, if I feel like I absolutely must do something? I can:

(1)  Dive into them, be fully aware of them from the inside out and from the outside in, meet them with total mindfulness and peaceful attention.
(2) Trace thoughts like “I am worthless” back to the feeling that “I am” and trace this feeling that “I am” back to beingness. Then rest there.
(3) Meet the memories, thoughts and feelings with metta, with loving-kindness and just love the heck out of them.
(4) Meet the memories, thoughts, and feelings with the four phrases, “I’m sorry, please forgive me, thank you, I love you.” Then observe how their power gradually weakens.

The power and the charge of disturbing memories, thoughts, and feelings will almost never drop away immediately. But these approaches give me healthy ways of meeting them and relating to them when they do arise. These are ways that don’t depend on rationalization or on self-deception. They are grounded in experience and in what works. They can give us a safety rope to hold on to when we feel like we are drowning. And sometimes, that’s all we need.

The Allure of Complexity: Reflections on Scorsese’s A Wolf of Wall Street

By Adam Pearson

As a great fan of Martin Scorsese’s masterful crime films, Casino, Goodfellas, and Taxi Driver, and an equally admiring appreciator of the acting skill of Leonardo Di Caprio, The Wolf of Wall Street was a film I simply had to see.  I left the film feeling a great mixture of contradictory feelings, a confused blend of disgust, anger, sadness, exasperation, and respect for the artistic prowess with which the film is crafted.  I’d like to share a few reflections on the film; if you have not seen it, do not read on, as a few spoilers follow.

Before I say anything more, I must praise the film’s artistic merits. The acting, especially that of Leonardo Di Caprio, is absolutely excellent; indeed, the film’s many disturbing aspects would have no power whatsoever if it weren’t for Di Caprio’s fantastic dramaturgical talent.  In addition, the framing, the editing, the cutting choices, the camera angles, the the wardrobes, the colour palettes, and the soundtrack all are superb.  The casting choices all suit the characters very well and all of the actors contribute to give the film the complex blend of realism and surrealism that marks its visual tone.  The viewer is even taken into the experience of Quaaludes along with the characters through some skilful special effects. At the same time, however, most viewers will find the film contentiously disturbing in many ways which are worth remarking on, even as it is praiseworthy for its many brilliant artistic choices. I must also say at the outset that I love Scorsese’s overall approach to controversial subject matter, which is to leave the audience to make their own judgments rather than tell them what to think in a boring flourish of didactic moralism. This approach is what made his films about organized crime so poignant, interesting, and humanly relevant.  And it is a methodology that also works well for this film, albeit in a different way, which I’ll expand on later.

The very title of The Wolf of Wall Street gives the viewer a sense of what they are going to see when they go to see this film; it is significant that the title derives from the same Forbes magazine article that initially exposed Jordan Belfort as a kind of “twisted Robin Hood.” And yet, there is a disturbing edge and resonance to this Robin Hood appellation in the film. Just as the famous Forbes article attempted to expose Belfort for preying on people and instead ended up boosting his fame and propelling his crimes even further, so does this film (intentionally, and with some irony, perhaps) glorify many aspects of Belfort and increase his fame. Admittedly, Belfort is first presented as a heartless man who has no qualms about cheating the poor out of their life savings by selling them worthless “pink stocks” with promises that they will make it rich on these fugazi investments.  However, even here Scorsese does not show us the repercussions of Belfort’s scamming on the poor people that he victimizes, we gain no sense of the impact of their having been swindled out of their life savings .  Even having a single character, a single victim of his careless financial ruining given a voice and some sympathy, would have added a powerful dimension to the film. Such a character could have stood in and artistically represented the multitudes who were defrauded in this way. However, Scorsese opted to leave the real victims of Belfort relatively voiceless, which is unfortunate.

As the film proceeded, I couldn’t help feeling like The Wolf of Wall Street was playing on the “twisted Robin Hood” characterization in a somewhat disturbingly glorifying and almost admiring manner. There are important parts of the film in which we, the audience, are encouraged to admire through the narrative that Belfort was a man who empowered poor, desperate people and made them rich by cheating the already wealthy out of their money. We are drawn into the unhealthy, indeed, insane world of Wall Street extravagance and encouraged, much like many contemporary pop music videos, to admire and envy the world of luxury and wealth.  We are shown Ferraris and Gucci boots and Chanel dresses and Armani suits and encouraged to drool over them in a flood of consumeristic, materialistic envy and desire.  Perhaps somewhat ironically, however, it is significant that we, the audience, are primarily composed of the very people Belfort disdains, the poor people, many of whom work menial jobs just to scrape by. And yet we are made almost to look up to this man who looks down, hatefully and condescendingly, on us.

Scorsese’s films are always complex, however, and at the same time as we are encouraged to admire the world of luxury that Belfort inhabits, Scorsese’s film’s superlatively excessive and shallowly surface-oriented portrayal of great wealth also leaves us—at least those of us who are lower or middle class—with a simultaneous sense of disgust at all this “wealth.” The Wall Street culture of the 1980s is essentially a play of flat surfaces with nothing underlying these surfaces, and it is significant that this setting is the same setting of the novel and movie American Psycho, which also presents this same culture of luxuriance as essentially vacuous, meaningless, empty, and one-dimensional.  Our response to wealth in this film is ambivalent. On the one hand, we part of us yearns to possess Belfort’s wealth. On the other hand, however, we simultaneously feel disgust for this wealth because of how utterly empty and meaningless it is and because of the horrible things that Belfort does to secure it.  Indeed, Belfort may be wearing a gold Rolex, but his first and second wives both hate him and his own child is terrified of him.  He is devoid of any genuine feelings apart from those originating from utter selfishness and self-indulgent egotism.  It is notable that even Belfort’s wife was selected by him on the basis of her idealized sex-object status in his male-dominant gaze.  Furthermore, one could even argue that the film is utterly devoid of love of anything except greed, money, drugs, and meaningless sex. Certainly, we see a lot of ‘screwing’ in the film, but nary a single a scene of genuine love making. If you love your lower class wife, in Belfort’s eyes, your love makes you not rich in some deeper sense, but a sucker who deserves to be poor and lack all the golden toys he has purchased by scamming other poor people out of their money.

It is true that Scorsese does not encourage us to glorify or admire Belfort in any straightforward sense; he is far too complex a director to do that. Indeed, I could feel the hearts of many people in the audience sinking when Belfort slapped and punched his wife in the stomach before traumatizing and kidnapping his own daughter.  And yet, for much of the film, I looked at the faces of the people around me and saw admiration.  We were encouraged to admire a man who is a complete psychopath: everyone around him is simply an object and a pawn to be used to meet his needs.  Their own wishes are irrelevant especially when they conflict with Belfort’s desires. For instance, when Belfort’s wife Naomi’s most beloved aunt dies, he doesn’t care either about the aunt’s passing or about his wife’s feelings; his pressing concern is the state of his money stored in a Swiss bank account in her name.  Moreover, Belfort has no problem selling out all of his friends and all of the people who had come to love and depend on him simply to reduce his own sentence.  He uses charisma and the powers of charismatic persuasion, suggestion, and motivation to manipulate people as he pleases to do his bidding. Indeed, Belfort as a character in this film, has no deep care for anything apart from money, drugs, and sex. And yet Scorsese’s film reveals material wealth to be not just “luxurious and carnal,” but “also excremental, sanguinary, emetic, carnivalesque, and violent” (Richard Brody, 2014). The things that are the sole locus of meaning in Belfort’s life are empty of any real fulfillment that would put an end to Belfort’s voracious, Titan-esque greed.

In terms of tone, the film oscillates wildly.  We come to sympathize with Belfort when he is a poor man struggling to support his wife and a keep his head above water as a greenhorn on Wall Street. We are filled with amusement, laughter, and entertainment blended with disgust at the wild antics of his brokers during their bacchanalian weekly parties.  We are made to sympathize with Belfort’s first wife’s discovery of his affair, mere moments after we are caught up in the Naomi and Belfort’s wild sex and drug romp in a luxurious limo.  We are made to envy the rich characters in the film and then to hate them. We are shown the illusion of depth and the reality of surface superficiality. We paradoxically find Belfort and Naomi’s love story to be utterly devoid of love. We are made to feel sad, angry, and disgusted at the justice system that gives Belfort a mere slap on the risk / wrist before releasing him. The tone shifts rapidly from comedic to tragic. The tragedy at play in The Wolf of Wall Street is not traditional however, for Greek tragedy has led us to expect that a man filled with hubris or arrogant pride will inevitably and utterly destroy himself in a perfect expression of universal justice.  Scorsese’s film is not a Greek tragedy, however, and the tumultuous fall we expect never comes. Instead, Belfort gets off easy and we feel disgusted with ourselves for having felt admiration for a ‘wolf’ who caused so much suffering for so many innocent people. Unlike in the 19th century melodramas where crime evil goes unpunished, Belfort’s is a story in which crime and ruthless do pay. In the millions.

Furthermore, the shot that is arguably one of the most important in the movie is the lingering shot of the audience at one of Belfort’s motivational seminars, which ends the film.  This shot greatly exemplifies both the complex film of the tone and the self-reflection that Scorsese aims to view in his percipient viewers.  In this scene, which pans across the faces of the seminar’s audience members, their faces betray a strange brew of admiration, expectancy, lust for wealth, lack of imagination, and unfulfilled desire. And yet we know these people to be total suckers who were drawn like moths to Belfort’s fire (much like we, the film’s audience were drawn into the theatre by Belfort’s notoriety, to view the film). Moreover, many of the feelings we see in the eyes of Belfort’s motivational seminar audience are feelings we ourselves find arising within us as we watch the film. It is as if Scorsese’s final statement in the film is a question: look at yourselves, you audience members, are you any different or better than these people? Were you, too, not just as taken in by the wolf? Indeed, as Richard Brody, a reviewer at The New Yorker wrote in his reflection on the film,

Scorsese puts the film’s viewers face to face with themselves (…). The movie is about the drives and urges, the pleasures and the self-indulgences, the power plays and manipulations, the ingratiations and deceptions, the allegiances and the compromises and the calculations on which human society runs—about life in this fallen world.”

And yet, I found that many of my fellow audience members seem to have missed this profound call for self-examination or even to have realized that Scorsese did not seem to intend us to leave the film worshiping Belfort as his mesmerized, almost brainwashed employees do. As people left the film, I could hear them saying things like “man, Belfort’s such a badass,” “I wish I was like Belfort,” “I wish I had what he had; he’s such a boss.” It must be noted, though, that this uncritical admiration has a cultural context; many modern “men” are inexorably wrapped up in a superficial “bro culture” that sees women as mere sex objects to be used, discarded, and racked up as mere numbers of conquered ‘lays’, and luxury and wealth as worthy of reverence as the true marks of a man’s worth.  The Wolf of Wall Street, simply by the nature of it’s historical context and subject matter, contains many aspects which feed right into this misogynistic hyper-consumeristic culture. Indeed, the film portrays a world in which women are purchased as easily as drugs and essentially serve as pleasure objects for the wealthy men that buy, use, and discard them.  At one of his confessional voice-overs, Belfort even lists a hierarchy of prostitutes who get more expensive as they get more conventionally attractive, with the model-like escorts on top and the cheap “skanks” on the bottom.  The “best” women in this superficial world are presented as those who are most sexually attractive and most expensive, those most like the expensive yachts and other material toys that these men enjoy. It would not be an exaggeration to say that Belfort and his cronies see women as simple sex dolls.

If Scorsese’s film leaves us with a somewhat poor taste in our mouths, albeit a very complex and fascinating one, however, this is not the side effect of a bad film; on the contrary, it is the intended effect of a very carefully-crafted work of art. As Scorsese himself said in an interview (January 6, 2014) for Deadline Hollywood:

“I didn’t want (the audience members) to be able to think problem solved, and forget about it. I wanted them to feel like they’d been slapped into recognizing that this behavior has been encouraged in this country, and that it affects business and the world, and everything down to our children and how they’re going to live, and their values in the future. It’s almost becoming like, these days in Hollywood, people misbehave, they have problems in their lives, drugs, alcohol, they go to rehab and come out again. And that means it’s okay, it’s an expected ritual you go through.’’

As I move towards a closing reaction to the film, however, I must admit that for all of the complex and often negative feelings that I felt throughout the film, it also inspired a strangely positive reaction in me. Even as I felt disgust at my culture’s meaningless and endlessly superficial of wealth and designer exuberance, I also felt a great sense of gratefulness. I felt grateful for all of the amazing and truly deep and interesting lower and middle class people I know and love, the people that make up the overwhelming majority of my friends and family.  I felt grateful for the love and deep relationships I have with the cherished people in my life, relationships which are the absolute opposite of the shallow interactions that The Wolf of Wall Street portrays. I felt grateful for the amazing women in my life who are so incredibly multidimensional in contrast to the view of women-as-mere-sex-objects that is current (and currency) in Jordan Belfort’s world. In short, I felt grateful for all the meaning, experiential richness, and emotional depth that I find in my life and in the lives of the the people around me.

In conclusion, to me, these final reflections suggest to me that we can conceive of an alternative, indeed a somewhat radical, and countercultural definition of wealth, of what it means to be rich. We can be  ‘wealthy’ or ‘rich’ not only in terms of money and expensive things, but also in terms of depth of relationships, love, meaning, and fulfilling experiences. If Jordan Belfort would laugh at this proposed view of richness, it is perhaps only because his own conception is so exclusively materialistic and because he never experienced the kind of deep relationships, love, and meaning that this definition encompasses. Indeed, I find it far more meaningful to look at people and ask to what degree are they wealthy or rich in this deeper sense. For some of the financially poorest people I know are also some of the richest in this alternative meaning of the term.  They may not have Belfort’s multi-million dollar yacht or designer clothing, but they have great intellectual and experiential depth, emotional abundance, and profound value in their own right.  These are the people I know and love, the ones I consider to be truly the ‘wealthy’ ones in this world.  And in the end, I am grateful to Scorsese for both creating a masterful work of art that encourages discussion and reflection, but also, for casting this deeper meaning of ‘richness’ into greater relief.  For even as the anger and disgust fade away, this sense of gratefulness remains, and of what value is wealth without gratefulness?

alive and free : a poem

by Adam Pearson

i try to be all rough and tough
like silver and steel and iron and ore,
serene like the winter waves
that drift and lift
to lap up on the shore,
but when i see you,
i glow warm,
and i grow cheesy
to the core.

under the heat of fond and fleet
new feelings deep
and sweet
and red,
ah! corny kernels,
endless pictures
pop, pop, pop up in my head–
poetic popcorn
in a spread.

O soon,
i’m in a word typhoon
as ocean pictures flood my room
and I’m Ulysses lost at sea,
within the images in me.

and soon they cover us in gold
these waves of light ‘til now untold–
your smiles, twinkling galaxies
your voice like music silk, so sweet
your lion heart, your kitten dreams,
your neon golden diamond beams,
your sapphire hope, your beauty stream,
your emerald care, your passion gleam,
your endless eyes, infinity,
your heaven kisses, tenderly,
your comfort hugs, a pleasure sea,
your refuge arms surrounding me,
we feel it all, alive and free,
together in eternity,
just me and you and you and me.

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