Oops, my coping mechanism has jammed

by Gautam Raja

On paper, Jarvis (name changed) should be a great friend. We’re almost the same age, from similar backgrounds, with similar non-traditional interests. Like me, Jarvis enjoys words and language, and we love the same music. I really like Jarvis.

But, spending time with him is work. Hard, annoying work, like breaking stones or filling in expense reports. For some reason, I can’t let this go. I don’t just roll my eyes, and go on with my largely Jarvis-free life. Almost perversely, I reach out to him, and hope he’ll annoy me. And so, I know my problem with Jarvis has more to do with me than him.

It’s not like Jarvis is free from fault. He builds Brand Jarvis all the time. Almost every utterance of his seems calculated to push himself forward and upward. And, far harder for me, he is one of the worst listeners I know (and for some reason I’m friends with a number of appalling listeners). At best, he simply nods and shuts down conversations, but at his most annoying, he scans your conversation for keywords, and uses those to backhand a return story of his own. While you’re still talking.

I know well the damage that most likely fuels this behaviour. Not being heard and not being accepted for who you are has lifelong consequences, and I can’t look away from these faults. Sometimes we are drawn to that which is scarred the way we are scarred, so we can hate it and curse it, and pretend it isn’t like us at all. And thus, I often feel unmoored, and I’m not alone. So many of the newly minted forty-year-olds around me seem just as adrift. I feel that we’re hitting an age when the coping mechanisms start to wear out, and suddenly we’re asked to look into the blackness within. By this age, the body runs out of room to hide away its stresses, which then show up as depression, anxiety, psychosomatic pain and other illnesses. Our youth window for other abuses, such as comfort excess eating or smoking or extreme dieting or crazed exercising closes, and the chronic injuries start to show. Or quite simply, the afflicted person comes up against the same toxic situation so many times, they start to wonder, “Am I part of this pattern?”

One morning I realised that the way I call out Jarvis is the way I want to call out someone else in my life. Jarvis was the easy target. That wasn’t the revelation. What was startling is how this crept up on me, even though I believe I’m in good contact with my true internal motivations. This loss of attention is what results in you voting for Brexit because the Polish neighbour’s baby’s crying disturbs you. It’s what makes you choose a bigoted clown to be your country’s president because he vocalises your darkest mutterings when the Chinese woman in the white Mercedes cuts you off on the street you grew up on.

“Sorry for subjecting you to my psychological residue,” I wrote to Jarvis. Jarvis was gracious and mature in his response—he had never once taken the bait. “I sensed your disapproval,” he wrote, and that word shook me. Disapproval comes from on high, and is linked closely with expectation. And expectation, as I’ve learned, is a form of control. How dare I attempt to control Jarvis? I have the choice to accept him, talk to him about it, or refuse to meet him. I do not get to try and change him. Ah well, one more day, one more step towards a truthful existence.

First published in Gulf News, August 2, 2016