Friday, November 23, 2007

Suzanne's Gift to Me

Yesterday, Thanksgiving, I had a pleasant surprise. A friend I hadn't seen in over two years showed up on my doorstep, healthy and happy.

The healthy and happy bit was very much part of the surprise. Suzanne has suffered over many of her 28 years from a nearly debilitating emotional disorder. But yesterday she was quite happy and seemed healthier than I remember as being usual for her.

So far as I know, Suzanne is the world's only former Victoria Secrets model to join a traveling circus.

She lasted a year in the circus job, which is a long time for her to last in any job. She's energetic, exceptionally intelligent, and hard working. But then there's that emotional disorder thing. It impairs her judgment, and she tends to screw things up with the result that she's had very little stability in her life.

She was 16, I was 39, when we first met at a coffee shop. It's been a dozen years now, and that circus stint is still the longest she's held onto a job. She says she's known me longer than nearly anyone else in her life outside of family, and I believe her. I've lost count of the number of apartments and rental homes she's had. It's as if Suzanne repels stability.

Like so many people with an emotional disorder, Suzanne has been in a protracted abusive relationship. He was twenty years her senior and the sort of man who habitually preyed on much younger women. Quite charming at first.

She had two sons by him. She finally left him when he began to abuse her sons, too.

I've always admired Suzanne's buoyancy. No matter what else that emotional disorder has done to her, it hasn't taken her resilience. She always bounces back. And maybe her buoyancy has something to do with the fact she and I can laugh together at even the worse of her misadventures. Yesterday, during her visit, we laughed so hard recalling her miscalculations and misjudgments that I had to wipe my eyes -- several times.

I don't recall who started it, but there's a running joke between us. It's a bit crude, and she's a bit more likely to express herself crudely than I am, so maybe she started it. At any rate, each time I bail her out of some distress she's gotten herself into, she swears she owes me a blow job for it. In return, I tell her that I'm not feeling like one at the moment, and so I'll put it on her tab. Yesterday, she reminded me that she now "owes" me 53 blow jobs for the number of times I've bailed her out of some mess since we started that joke years ago.

In truth, Suzanne has taught me a great deal about giving. Even before I met her, I had learned to give without most strings attached, without most expectation, or most hope, of gaining anything in return. But there was something I hadn't yet learned. There was something I still expected to come from my generosity.

I expected improvement.

Without being consciously aware of my expectations, I hoped when giving to someone that they would learn from their mistake -- from whatever mistake put them in a position to need a hand out -- and that they would improve themselves. I even unconsciously considered a gift wasted if the person did not learn from their mistakes.

Someone once defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over again while expecting a different result. That's a pretty good insight into what a severe emotional disorder can do to a person's judgment. Suzanne is like that.

Suzanne will repeat a mistake again and again, without being aware that she is doing the same thing over and over with only insignificant variations. Her disorder is a cruel one.

At first that frustrated me. When I examined my frustration, I saw it was because I expected her to improve. When I thought about my hope she would improve, I discovered my hope for her was a string I was attaching to my gifts to her. And then I was struck by how unrealistic and unfair to her it was of me to do that.

It was through giving to her I learned to give without even that expectation of any reward for my generosity.

If you yourself make a practice of giving without strings, then you know how liberating it is to do so. And because I myself know that feeling of liberation, and value it, I am grateful to Suzanne for helping me realize it. Perhaps that's her greatest gift to me. If so, it's a good one.

She has many fine qualities, and there's nothing genuinely evil or humanly indecent about her. If life were a child's fantasies of life, then life would be fair; and if life were fair, the Suzannes of this world would never be afflicted with cruel emotional disorders. For someone with her talents and abilities could accomplish a lot of good, both for herself and others -- if only she were healthy and not such an habitual screw up.


Mystic Wing said...

Extremely impressive act of self awareness on your part, Paul. It takes this to recognize the inherent agression found in many so-called acts of compassion. I know many people who wield "love" as a weapon. Not only is this perceptive, but very well crafted. Great piece.

David Rochester said...

What a very intriguing post.

I completely understand what you're saying ... but I wonder if the attitude of generosity you espouse would actually be appropriate in any situation other than the one you've outlined. Because, you know, people who are capable of improvement often simply won't improve if they can find unstinting generosity instead.

I also confess to some small curiosity regarding your absolute certainty that Suzanne cannotchange or learn, and that therefore it is appropriate to be completely generous to her,forever. In some small and admittedly contrarian corner of my mind, it seems to me that she might benefit more from people believing that she can change and learn, and expecting her to do that, whatever it might take. There are few psychological/emotional disorders that are truly beyond the realm of any help or improvement.

There are of course situations in which absolute selfless generosity is not only appropriate, but required ... particularly when the recipient is extremely helpless, vulnerable, or dependent. It seems to me that you've put Suzanne in this category ... but is that how she wishes to be seen? Is that how she sees herself? Is it truly the greatest service to her to view her thus?

I am not intending to aim these questions at you personally, nor to criticize you in any sense ... my musings are more rhetorical in nature. I have a friend much like Suzanne, and so the topic is very interesting to me.

Paul said...

Thank you, Mystic! I've also known people who wield "love" as a weapon. It's quite sad -- and sometimes frightening. But in my view, even the Churches sometimes do that.

Hi David! You raise a very interesting set of points, but they are somewhat incidental to what I was trying to get at in the post. In the post, I was mainly concerned with the effect Suzanne has had on me -- on refining my ability to give without strings attached. I took that approach because I have largely given up trying to improve people. However, the issues you raise are very legitimate ones and I think they should be deeply considered by anyone who sets out to improve people.

David Rochester said...

Paul -- I realized belatedly that I had left a paragraph out of my comment in which I acknowledged that my comment had nothing to do with your actual point ... sorry about that. :-)

Trinifar said...

Beautiful post, Paul. Most of us have a Suzanne in our lives (or are Suzanne) and it's really hard to simply appreciate them for what they are rather than what we wish them to be. Come to think of it, I guess that's true of all the people around us.

I find it a rare and delightful experience to be around someone who offers me true acceptance.

Paul said...

No problem, David! I think the points you made were well thought out and very much worth reflecting on!

Hi Trinifar! That's something I should have mentioned in the post: How Suzanne has helped me not only to accept her, but to accept others too through the lessons I've learned from accepting her.

I think I'm profoundly blessed because my best friends in this town offer me that true acceptance you mention.

Trinifar said...

I think I'm profoundly blessed because my best friends in this town offer me that true acceptance you mention.

Ah, I'm very glad to hear that. It's something I've been lacking for a while and am struggling to remedy.

Paul said...

I'm sorry to hear that, Trinifar! It can be very difficult to live among people who do not fully accept us. I did that for a number of years and found myself becoming increasingly withdrawn. Hang in there!