Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Gobstoppers

I woke from a heat-induced, involuntary nap one day last week haunted by the shreds of images, emotions and tactile sensations of a dream. A group of young women of high school or college age were gathered around a large table laughing and talking and I overheard one of them make a comment that shocked me by its ignorance and mean-spiritedness. The others were eating her words like candy and I was overcome by the need to speak. That girl was obviously irritated at my interruption and yet I kept talking. I do not remember what I said, just the passion with which I spoke and the sense that I was marshaling a rebuttal of her comment with facts and reason. As I continued to speak her expression morphed through anger and defensiveness to surprise to thoughtful to engaged. I now had her and her group eating up my words and I must admit that I was loving it. It irks me to not remember the issue that set me off nor any of what was said and yet have all the emotions and physical sensations remain so vivid. But since that is the case, I must assume that the point I am to take from it is to be found elsewhere. If the storyline of the dream had ended there, I might think it was about the fact that I was moved to interject and did so. But there was more.

One girl named someone she wished could hear what I was telling them and the rest chimed in with names of their own and suddenly I am agreeing to share my thoughts with their friends and family. Segue to a hallway outside the room I am to speak in. I had thought it was to be another informal setting with a couple dozen people invited by the half dozen girls I’d wowed with my words earlier. I was nervous but not really anxious. And then the door opened onto a huge auditorium with a stage and podium. The room buzzed with the voices of hundreds of people. All the elements that tend to trigger my panic attacks were there--the chaos of light, motion, noise and the crowd of people. My mouth went dry and I said, I can’t do this, and a man handed me a stick of gum, saying, Here this will help. As I chewed, the gum turned into a wad the size of a golf ball. I wanted to spit it out but there was nowhere to put it and then it started to change from a thick bubble-gum like consistency to a soft, stringy mass that clung to my teeth and tongue as it tried to slide down my throat. It was like choking on a Koosh ball coated with melted marshmallow and string cheese. It was gagging me. I had to get it out! I grabbed hold of it and pulled and now it was sticking to my fingers and coating my hands to the wrists and the more I pulled out the faster it filled my mouth and throat. It tasted like chalk and ash and charcoal. It was then that I woke.

Over the next several days I experienced waking events through the filter of the emotions and images of that dream as I mused on the associations of each of its elements. Those girls and the table they sat at were reminiscent of several similar situations--a high school cafeteria table, a library or study-hall table, a college seminar table and the table around which my Panic, Anxiety and Depression support group once met. Those were places in my past where I had had a voice and not been too shy to use it, where I had gotten positive feedback from peers who found what I had to say entertaining or informative or persuasive. Yes, persuasive. And there was the rub.

Persuasion is the tool of proselytizers which I once was and which I had repudiated along with the fundamentalist worldview I once pushed like a narcotic. When I swore never again to subject my mind to the authority of another human mind, I also swore never again to be the authority attempting to impose itself upon another mind. Memories of my past efforts gagged me as surely as that gob of gluey, stringy gum in the dream. I began to see proselytizing as one of the evils of civilization. It seemed to me that any attempt to persuade another person to change their mind was fraught with all the elements of assault. Like a rape of one’s soul. I could not figure out whether that was intrinsic to the act of persuasion itself or depended on the motives of the persuader and the informed consent of their audience. Either way, at that time, I could trust neither my mind nor my motives. So, as I set out to learn how thinking works and what makes ideas viable, I declared a moratorium on attempts to persuade others.

What I had not quite grasped then was that all rhetoric was intended to persuade. It was its raison d’etre. From recipes to romantic comedies, from tech manuals to Greek tragedies, from sermons to sonnets, from news reports to novels--it is all about persuasion. Maybe the moratorium was wise at the time, given my sudden realization of how little I understood about anything and what I had witnessed of the damage done with the power of words. Now I am wondering if this dream is telling me that it is time to lift it. It could just as well be chiding me for violating it. Either way, this rule that I enjoined on myself in 1992 has been one of the most effective gobstoppers ever imposed on me. If I can’t spit it out, how will I ever ‘Sing the secret from my center?’

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