Can I Have Your Attention Please?

“Peek-a-Boo” by Nikolaos Gyzis (1882)

You and me, we talk all the time about the way we are (don’t you love talking about yourself? I do), partially because we’re trying to do better. We genuinely want to figure out a better way to live with more happiness based on what we understand and what we’ve learned. It’s in our DNA.

This is what I’ve come to know about myself after a half century: I’m pretty ordinary. I’m committed and loyal, though I’m also fearful and full of doubt. I’m mercurial and often difficult for those who care about me. I am loving and expansive and moody. I am quick to plunge into a cerebral place of ideas and meet you there, but I can also be distant and haughty. It’s taken these fifty years to realize that none of this is something to be ashamed of. It’s also taken me forever to try to put myself in the place of someone who loves me, and to see myself from that perspective.

This might ring true for you. We become who we are in a fluid process of mind, and things and conditions we didn’t choose: it happens outside and in. Emotions and thoughts co-mingle from second to second, establishing patterns, processing what comes in from the senses. It’s work on a factory floor that is only dimly lit and with obscure assembly lines.

The fundamental sensation from childhood, in my recollection, is a profound feeling of being alone. I would never have described it as loneliness because it was all I knew. My whole personality developed in reaction to this ineffable sense of things. It tuned into a deep chord, an anchoring wavelength in my mind and being.

I liked being alone. And I was very good at it. I could be alone even among other people. I delved into a realm of thought that was in turn comforting and frightening. I carried on long conversations with people real and imagined in total silence. I read and read, internalizing the feelings from the stories as things with substance and reality as strong as anything I experienced in everyday life at school or with my family.

In my bedroom was a painted dresser with a shining purple gloss. The glow of it fascinated me, and I would stare at it in the ambience of the granular reality filtering through the window screen on warm, quiet evenings. This trance-like state overwhelmed me after a time, and I littered the surface of the dresser with Disney-themed stickers that I found as prizes in loaves of bread. I pondered their puns, and eventually began to scape them off until the purple and the stickers occupied equal psychic and real space. This gave me no satisfaction; indeed, it fed a sense of hollowness and fear.

I ruminated on these puns about codes and precognition for hours and hours.

It would be decades before I examined why I felt the compulsive pull of these states that verged on dissociation. I harbored an assumption that these solitary reveries were me: a core that would have reacted in the same manner under any set of circumstances, an unshakeable persona that was absolutely unique (and exquisitely flawed).

I wasn’t just passively engrossed in books and reveries. I was roiled with emotions that I had no way to express, feelings that rose up from before I had words to say, tidal sways and storms inside that felt inappropriate and wrong.

How could I feel such anger toward those closest to me, while constantly craving their attention?

When there was nothing left of the little boy but the cast of my eyes, I began to explore the concept of attachment injury. The theory is straightforward: the way in which one relates to their closest caregiver in their earliest experiences will harden and become a bedrock from which develops the internal self and how it formulates relationships with others.

It’s a pattern, a dynamic. It masquerades as a personality, but not for any reason other than self-protection. It also clings to its own existence and vociferously asserts its realness.

My childhood bedroom today, waiting for a new tenant.

A clearer view on this can unlock many things, depending on your experience. My inner life had been heavily influenced by an Anxious-Ambivalent attachment. In this case a child doesn’t receive consistent connection (words, eye contact, touching) in early development, and develops a self in reaction to this unpredictability. This can lead to passivity, indirect ways of communicating, a tendency for sudden anger, and an ambivalence about feelings of love and need.

All of this can live alongside a deep love for the parent, and eventually others who become close, but it filters through life with the inevitability of rain washing down a mountainside toward the river below. In my case, it manifests as a difficulty trusting my feelings and a fear that connection is not genuine, along with a deep need for closeness and a rapid-fire denial of that need when connection feels unstable.

It’s a challenge.

It can have complicated ramifications. It can lead to words and behavior under stress that feel as though they are coming from a stranger. You’re inside your head, watching and listening, wondering who’s in charge and how you’re going to make things right once you’re back in the driver’s seat again.

It’s not terribly difficult to understand why my experience of attachment with my mother might have been an inconsistent process. She was very young when she had me. She raised me mostly by herself. She endured considerable social and economic stress and pressures, as a secretary with a high-school education. She sacrificed for me, loved me, and her way of being is intertwined with my own in ways that I honor and treasure forever. And she suffered a mental illness that would later in life become severe and all-encompassing, and hasten her death.

Rod Carew, master technician of baseball.

I was always reading and writing, and watching dust motes play in the afternoon sun. The air smelled of grass and coffee. Those long, parched afternoons at my grandmother’s house, reading Baseball Digest and feeling estranged from myself. Something was stirring, a field of emotional gravity that would transform into unwelcome storms and lonely fear . . . as well as a reliable alchemic factory of creativity.

I got older and became an adult. Adult things happened. My skill at navigating this was mixed at best. Whenever I got close to someone, I began to examine them and I would ask every day: Who are you?

I craved their attention, their gaze. My passion was mixed with vigilance. I would watch them for evidence that they saw me and confirmed my reality. I was benevolent, I tried to be kind, I saw them and reflected them with love . . . but I was never able to relax. In moments of true stress, I went away and was no longer there.

I would become aggrieved and irritated when I felt them recede, even when it was natural for them to do so, or when they really weren’t. I needed to know that I was real and safe. I was never satisfied. I could give myself over, and receive another person in body and spirit, but I was never at peace.

It was a game of metaphysical peek-a-boo. When the game is played right for a young child, the attention always comes back on a reliable basis, the beloved adult’s face reappearing with delight and adoration. When it doesn’t, that kid is left to devise for himself a story to explain that absence. It has to be a very strong and compelling story, always changing, because it has to distract from confusion and anger that he doesn’t want to be feeling.

In quantum physics, a particle exists in a state of open possibility until it is observed or measured, at which time it collapses into a single thing, an event in the world of solidity as we intuitively understand it.

It doesn’t truly come into being until it is seen.

And what can possibly see except for consciousness?

How much connection and possibility, as well as discord and misunderstanding, are woven into life around how we perceive feeling visible? Are we brought out of infinite possibility and into existence by being seen?

Nothing is seen without a mind to see it. The mind brings everything into being. It’s the greatest conjuring trick of all, summoning solidity out of the emptiness of total possibility.

But who is doing the seeing?

And how much agitation, and pain, and misguided words and actions can be spun and woven around the question: Do you see me? Are you real?

Am I real?

Other Stories in This Series:

First Things First

The Point of Returning