In the previous post I considered transactions at the extreme end of the Blue Wall continuum and their effects on perceptual truth, exemplified by child sexual abuse.
In this post I consider mild to moderate forms of the Blue Wall dilemna, ones that are far less apparent and graphic, often even to those most directly involved. These insidious Blue Wall choices often stem from early life experiences and can lead to debilitating mental states – anxiety, depression, and obsessional patterns, behavioral enactments. Here are two illustrative case examples, one of a child and the other an adult.
Andrew is three when his sibling is born. During those first three years Andrew and his anxious mother, Sarah, are inseparably bound together. With the baby’s arrival, Andrew suddenly finds himself in daycare. Stung by his fall from the grace of his mother’s constant attention and presence, Andrew responds angrily. He lashes out, hitting and pushing his mother and at times acts aggressively towards his sibling.
Deeply stung at what she experiences as the rejection of all her earlier attentions, Sarah reacts angrily to Andrew’s aggression, frequently shouting in outrage and inflicting harsh punishments. Sadly she takes personally his angry and retributive reactions to his sibling’s arrival. In Sarah’s mind Andrew inexplicably transforms into a “monster” posing “danger” and “threat” to herself, her infant, and their family.
The family believes Andrew is a disruptive and disturbed child. Children come to know and experience their senses of self in the reflective mirror of their parents’ representations of them. Andrew internalizes the vision of himself as a troublemaker and the source of his family’s distress.
How does Andrew’s story reflect the dilemna of the Blue Wall allegory? Like many older siblings, Andrew reacts angrily to the arrival of his sibling and its unwelcome impact on his little-boy life. Like Zeke’s white wall, this is his truth, his perceptual reality. However, in the context of his mother’s intense reactions and reflected representation of him, Andrew unconsciously concedes his sense of self to the reflected and toxic view of him as bad seed, the disruptor.
Acceding to his parents representation occurs entirely outside of Andrew’s conscious awareness. In 2005, David Foster Wallace opened his commencement address at Kenyon College with a parable about an older fish swimming past two young fish. In passing the older fish nods saying, “Morning, boys, how’s the water?” The two young fish swim on a bit, and then one turns to the other and asks, “What the hell is water?” Like the two young fish, little Andrew knows no other water but his family. And with his dependency and level of cognitive development, it would never of course occur to him to say to his parents like an adult might, “What the hell are you getting so angry at me about? I am just pissed off that I have to deal with an intrusive infant who takes you away from me. Cool your jets!”
Without conscious awareness, Andrew opts for the relationships that so centrally sustains him without in any way recognizing that it comes at the cost of his perceptual truth – the Blue Wall choice. One might say that he has no choice. What is so striking about Blue Wall choices is that they are most often initiated earlier in life and are then replayed repeatedly over time, often with damaging impacts on mental health, one’s sense of self and one’s relationships.
Peter is a highly accomplished married professional with two adult children. Early in his young life, his adored older sibling died suddenly. He and his family were plunged into grief, particularly his mother who withdrew into a depressed stoicism throughout his childhood. Not only did his beloved sibling die, but emotionally he lost his mother as well. No one in the family ever talked about what had happened.
As a youngster Peter soldiered on with hypervigilant concern for his mother’s state of mind. Fearing that she would worry about his safety, he repeatedly asked (the school secretary phones home) his mother to pick him up after school, claiming that his books were too heavy to carry alone.
Peter adapted, steeling himself to the relational leanness. He carefully, albeit unconsciously, avoided sticking his neck out emotionally, understandably fearing that whatever he had, could suddenly and without warning be ripped from beneath him and disappear. One might say that based on his experience, he comes by his emotional reserve honestly.
In his early twenties he met and fell in love with a young women, drawn to her lively warmth and kindness: there was a spark about her. Like standing in front of a crackling fire on cold winter’s day, he soaked in her warmth, but maintained his cool reserve. Over time and with children, she becomes increasingly disappointed, at times infuriated with the lean quality of his reserved presence, and she lashes out resentfully. Like her husband, she had had her own miserable experience of childhood neglect and deprivation and longs for deeper connection. It is a perfect storm.
He feels enormous guilt, like he is more of a taker than a giver, that he had somehow entered the relationship deceptively, not being honest either with her or himself. Her anger and resentment toward him are excruciatingly painful and awaken his massive latent fears of loss and abandonment.
What does this have to do with the Blue Wall allegory? With the tsunami of his wife’s recriminations slamming over his psychological shores, Peter is compelled to find his perceptual truth. Is he the failed and betraying husband? Or is he a devoted and loyal husband who keeps his feelings under wraps, holding himself back from demonstrations of affection? To preserve his marriage, is he obligated to accede to his wife’s insistence that he is overwhelmingly responsible for their disintegrating love, or do they both contribute and share responsibility? These are challenging questions, not easily answered or understood. However, as in the Blue Wall allegory, he is called on to find his own perceptual truth and vision of himself and his relationship with his wife. These are profound and profoundly difficult and important challenges.
Finding and refusing to relinquish one’s own perceptual truths while resisting the pull of relational comforts and security requires an assertive process of determined courage and bold self-reflection. What is the true color of the wall of our minds? What is truly ours? And what can we agree on with others while keeping our truths?
A sixth century Confuscion aphorism is well-suited to this post.
By three methods we may learn wisdom: first, by reflection, which is noblest; second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third by experience, which is the bitterest.
In the next post I will offer some thoughts about navigating and resolving relational differences without having to relinquish one’s own perceptual truth.