Josna Rege

289. Only So Much

In reflections, Stories on November 14, 2014 at 12:29 pm
Gentle Awakening (c) Kavita (paperblog.com)

Gentle Awakening (c) Kavita (paperblog.com)

This morning, in that hypnopompic state between sleeping and waking, a snatch of conversation came to me as if in a dream. And like a dream remembered vividly for only a few moments upon waking, it has already faded beyond recall. I can no longer remember the details, but I still have the drift. So I must try to set it down quickly before it blows away altogether.

I can’t even remember whom I had been talking with, although I’m sure that it was a dear friend, that it took place recently, and that the subject was important to me. But what came to me this morning with such clarity was not the main body of the conversation in which we had been intensely engaged. It was a question asked by my friend, and one that I never answered. Alas! Unless she asks it again, it may remain forever unanswered.

It is not the content of the question that is the most important here, but the realizations that came with it as I re-remembered. Clearly I had heard it on some level, since it registered somewhere in my brain; and clearly it needed to resurface, even though it has sunk once more beneath the clutter. But as it came back to me this morning I realized that my failure to answer this question had not been intentional. I was engaged in a rapid-fire back-and-forth with my friend at the time, and experienced it as coming out of left field, entirely unrelated to the subject at hand. So although this morning I remembered my friend having asked it, at the time I must have unconsciously swept it out of the way, so as not to interrupt the forward thrust of the conversation.

Several possible explanations come to mind at this point; and I suspect that all of them are correct to varying degrees. Perhaps it raised an issue I did not wish to entertain, so I repressed it as soon as the sound reached my ears. Perhaps, in my impatience to drive home my own point, I brushed this seemingly irrelevant question aside. Or perhaps I was one hundred percent taken up with the urgency of the main conversation and simply could not take it in.

The Return of the Repressed, by Louise Bourgeois

The Return of the Repressed, by Louise Bourgeois

It occurs to me that when the shoe is on the other foot, when a friend fails to answer a question I have asked them (in an email message, for instance), I tend to interpret it as an act of passive-aggression, jumping to the conclusion that they are deliberately ignoring me. And, taking offense at the assumed brush-off, I nurse my hurt without considering other possible reasons for their lack of response, foremost among which may be that they are simply overloaded.

TMImost users of social media know the meaning of this acronym: Too Much Information. In this information-drenched age, we all know what it means to be told more than we know what to do with. I receive many unwanted commercial email messages that I delete without even opening and personal emails that I mean to answer but do not have the time or emotional energy at the moment of receipt to give the attention they require. And of course this phenomenon is not restricted to the cybersphere; we are bombarded with a constant barrage of information, information that makes sometimes-overwhelming demands upon us and makes mincemeat of our concentration. It is no wonder that we go into information overload.

(from jimsmarketingblog.com)

(from jimsmarketingblog.com)

Of course, it’s important to make distinctions between information and information. There’s intrusive commercial solicitation—advertising—that one should have no qualms about dismissing, dispelling, deleting altogether; and then there’s critically important personal information. But they can both be experienced as overwhelming and unwanted if they come at the wrong time or in the wrong way. When the phone rings at dinnertime, my first impulse is to rush to answer it. It’s probably a sales call, but what if it’s not, what if it’s a family member or friend with an important message? I have to remind myself that if it’s important, they’ll call back. And that’s what I’ll have to hope that my friend will do, if the question she asked me the other day was important enough.

As an inveterate motormouth, but also—despite much evidence to the contrary—someone who cares about two-way communication, I must take the next step and turn this morning’s fleeting insight into action. I may never have the opportunity to answer my friend’s unanswered question; a second chance came this morning, it too now gone. But I do have the opportunity to take it as a sign to slow down, listen more carefully, and develop ways to circumvent the mind’s own tendency to sweep inconvenient truths under the rug. When it’s my own question that is not being answered, I can learn not to assume that the non-reply is deliberate, but instead to develop more effective ways of asking questions that do not overwhelm the recipient. And when I am asked a question that, for whatever the reason, I cannot deal with at the moment, I can learn to do what I sometimes do in class when a student interrupts the flow of a discussion with a completely different question: acknowledge it, but remind myself and ask the questioner to hold the thought so that we can come back to it later. After all, there’s only so much information we can take in at one time. We can only hope that it will keep on coming back, until we wake up and really understand.

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  1. Hi Josna
    A new word: ‘hypnopompic.’ I love the ‘Jim’s Marketing Blog’ pic! I, too, am hypersensitive to the possibility of a personal slight . . . Perhaps this studying of people’s non-responses is a phenomenon common to us all. I think more of yourself – your attitudes and emotions – is tending to enter your writing? Perfect use of English as usual. It’s the austerity I love.
    E

    • Yes E, isn’t that a terrific word? It was worth writing that story just to have the chance to use it. Glad to hear that it’s not just me who finds myself obsessing over such things! And thanks for your insights and kind words. You’ve had a chance to step back, so perhaps you notice changes when I don’t quite so much. And wow–no one’s ever called my writing austere before! x J

  2. I needed to read this today. Thank you!

    • Glad the timing was right for you, Morgan! Wishing you well and hope you’re somewhere warm; it’s absolutely frigid here. x J

  3. I’ve had so few real in life discussions lately. That’s what this post made me think of.

    • I think I know what you mean, Kristin. There can be misunderstandings and failures of communication in face-to-face conversations too, but they can be set straight right away. This conversation via email and text, even as it appears to allow an easy intimacy, is fraught in all kinds of new ways, and often feels rather too much like talking to oneself. Although that unanswered question that I re-remembered in a dream, then promptly re-forgot, had been asked of me in a face-to-face conversation; so in a way I must have been talking to myself even then!

  4. This is an excellent blog entry, Josna. You take small occurrences and use them to illustrate life lessons. And you do it well. 🙂

    • Thank you, Linda. It’s good to get some encouraging feedback on a post that I feared was rather too obscure and self-involved. It seems that as I keep writing this blog the stories become less about things I did or happened to me and more internal–reflections, explorations of ideas, often (as you note) starting from a very small, commonplace occurrence.

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