Discipline and Tears

Joseph J. Flores

Writer’s comment: I imagine most people will read this essay and assume that I’m some tortured youth who wrote this in a flashing moment of angst-ridden self-revelation. I wish my life was that dramatic. The truth is “Discipline and Tears” was written during a quiet moment, after an average day, late at night, after all the late TV shows had gone away, and I was left alone with my thoughts. I decided to try to finish the l03 essay that had been due the day before. The assignment was to explain my choice of major or career. I had been trying to write about what I was doing after graduation. I had three, maybe four paragraphs completed on what was supposed to be a four- to six-page paper.
      But after staring at the computer screen for an hour without typing a single character, I decided it was hopeless and opened a new file and began to type. I’m still unsure where the first sentence came from; I was surprised to see it and the paragraph that followed. The rest of the essay was my attempt to explain that paragraph to myself. It’s more of a diary entry than an assignment, a relatively unedited peek at my mental process. I hope readers don’t find it too self-indulgent.
—Joseph J. Flores

Instructor’s comment: One of the most popular assignments (so students tell me) I give for English l03 is the task of explaining one’s major or career choice. Many students use this topic as an opportunity to write a preparatory essay for whatever application or interview might await them in their future. Pre-med students describe their experiences in hospitals; pre-vet students narrate their adventures handling animals; and engineering students discuss their life-long fascination with how things work. When Joe set out to write his essay for this topic, he told me that he was going to explain why, as an art studio major, he was specializing in photography rather than in painting or sculpture. The essay that resulted is not the usual kind I receive for this assignment—instead Joe’s essay is an intensely personal, admirably honest introspective examination of why he feels that photography is a discipline that suits him. I leave it to the readers to discover the connection between this discipline and tears.
—Kathleen Dixon, Lecturer, English Department

I would cry, but that would be a pointless waste of energy.
      It’s one of those things that I envied my mother. In a flash she could go from the stoic lady of the house to a sobbing goose. I never understood how. I’d go from astonishment to disgust to envy. I take more after my old man. I’ve never seen him shed a single tear. Then again I’ve never really seen him smile either. I grin a lot.
      I was supposed to be in my home town right now, tossing back cold ones and laughing with my best and oldest friends. My schedule wouldn’t permit it, however. It’s probably for the best. It’s never a good idea to hit one’s home town in an ungood mood. I’d probably just end up hanging around the main drag, pissed off my ass and yelling at cruisers. Chances are I would end up in jail, or calling an old girlfriend and reopening old wounds that should have healed years ago. I wonder which of those two prospects is worse.
      So instead of expressing my emotions as I should, I have withdrawn them and locked them away deep inside me. Rather than call a friend and talk, or go walking, or listen to records, or break things, I am in front of the computer, writing. It is a safe form of expression; if this gets too revealing or too corny, I can always delete the file, or password protect it, restricting access to me alone.
      So the question on my mind lately has been why. What happened and when that has left me so numb to my feelings? I’ve tried countless times to trace it back and pin it down to an event, to that key moment when I started down the path of self-imposed isolation.
      Of course, Freud would insist I failed the oral stage, the stage where trust and security develop. It occurs usually around the second year of life, when parents wean their child. If all goes well—according to Freud—the child tastes for the first time independence from his or her mother and begins to explore that independence. If, for one reason or another, the weaning process goes awry, the child becomes insecure, and the world becomes a very scary place. Oral fixative behaviors include alcoholism, smoking, and overeating. I learned this in Educational Psychology class.
      As far as I can figure, I didn’t have any problems getting weaned. My mom tells me that I couldn’t wait to go from nipple to bottle. I practically made the switch on my own without any encouragement from her. I made the switch to solid food earlier than any of my brothers, sisters, or cousins had. Besides, as we all learned from our public high school teachers, Freud is a load of hooey, and everything he wrote should be treated as such.
      Freud believed in the subconscious, and ultimately, that the environment created the person, not genetics. I have wondered if for some reason, some of us are marked before birth to be untrusting, to be eternal skeptics, to accept nothing at face value. Could it be that I am biologically doomed to paranoia?
      Science now accepts that biological factors account for some forms of mental illness, factors like too many sensory receptors in the skin, brain tumors, and restricted cranial arteries. So am I nuts?
      Unfortunately, I vowed to never allow biology to act as my scapegoat. Having been shorter than most of my peers the majority of my life, I have learned early that whatever physical limitations fate imposes upon you, you can always overcome them with your mind. Unlike most animals, humans have the capacity to run their own lives and serve their own wishes rather than the wishes of nature, biological need, and instinct. Somewhere along the line, I must have made a conscious or subconscious decision to shut out the world.
      I pinned one thing down last week—the divorce. My parents separated on my fourteenth birthday. I am always quick to insist that the divorce had little or no affect on me, but I am learning otherwise. Anyway, as the last of her luggage made its way into the back of my eldest sister’s car, my mother walked up to us to say goodbye. In succession, she hugged and kissed her children; meanwhile, I swept the porch. When my turn came up, I looked her straight in the eye and said, “Don’t touch me.” I have never forgiven myself for saying that. I meant to hug her really, but all that would come out were those three words. I wish I had said, “I love you,” instead. To this day, I recoil from physical contact with anyone I don’t know very well. I play it off as homophobia, but I know better.
      But that was an honest, open expression of exactly what I felt at the time. I really hated her for leaving. I knew full well why she had to go, and I could hardly blame her. It didn’t change the fact that someone I had depended on to be around to take care of me had decided to move to another city. Expressing what I felt, though, only served to hurt her. Mine was a selfish act timed for greatest impact, meant to punish her; at least, that’s what I figured out that night, lying in bed, wondering if I was ever going to sleep soundly ever again. I decided, that night, that I would never, ever, lose grip of my emotions.
      Ursula K. Le Guin in her essay “Why Are Americans Afraid of Dragons” explains the difference between repression and discipline. Discipline permits controlled growth, while repression seeks to prevent any growth. Thus, repressed individuals operate only at the level at which the repression took place, while disciplined individuals continue to grow and mature. Am I still fourteen emotionally?
      I hope not. Fourteen-year-olds are annoying.
      I still haven’t a definitive answer. All right, my parents' divorce had a profound impact on my development, as did biology, but that doesn’t come close to explaining why I feel the way I do now: I would like so very much to cry, but the tears just won’t come. They’re there, just behind my eyes, as is the lump at the base of my throat, but they’re trapped by some last line of defense against showing my feelings. I put my head down, clench a fistful of Kleenex, and tense my shoulders expectantly, but always at the last minute my brain punts, leaving me in a mild state of shock. Rather than let it happen, I shut it off.
      This has come in very handy actually. Even if I’m having the absolutely worst day of my life, I can push my feelings aside and plow through whatever it is I have to plow through. In the most emotionally intense situations, I can pull back and objectively evaluate situations from an intellectual frame rather than be distracted by personal feelings on the matter. It’s no wonder I chose photography as my specialty in the art studio major; photography in its purest form objectifies reality, removes a moment from context, and captures life with an almost clinical detachment. Unlike painting or sculpture where the artist can invent whatever he or she must in order to present his or her theme, a photographer can portray only what already exists. In order to be really good, you must be able to step back and see a scene for what it is, without any perceptual filters.
      Is that what I am, a living camera?
      Maybe I’ll go see Ordinary People. There’s a tear jerker. Or maybe Old Yeller. My sister takes sadistic pleasure in reminding me how at age six I cried at the end of Old Yeller. What I really feel like seeing is a Schwarzenegger film (a little mindless escapism never hurt anyone), or maybe I’ll flip on the tube and watch some old Bugs Bunny cartoons. I’ll watch the TV news and soak in some watered down reality first. I’m not going to cry tonight.