I don’t propose to wade into the Caitlyn Jenner controversy, especially since my views on the role of shame in transgender identification offend some people, but I’d like to share a few of my reactions to the Vanity Fair cover and the questions it evoked. I’d like to start a conversation rather than to deliver an opinion. I invite you to share your respectful, non-hostile views.
One day many years ago, my friend Ann told me she had scheduled an appointment with a surgeon to discuss whether to undergo a hip replacement. She and her doctor would be evaluating the results of x-rays and a recent MRI. As a candidate for this type of surgery, Ann was young, in her late 30s, but she was in more-or-less constant pain as a result of a car accident many years earlier when her hip joint had been shattered. She walked with a limp. When she told me about the upcoming appointment, Ann seemed quite apprehensive. I knew she was preoccupied with her decision, whether or not to go under the knife.
I fixed the date of Ann’s appointment in my memory and recalled it from time to time as the day approached. Throughout the day itself, I kept her in mind then called that evening to find out the results. She had decided to have the surgery, she told me. We talked at length about what the surgeon had said, the nature of the operation, and how much relief she could expect. A few days later, she left a message on my answering machine: “Know who else called to ask about my surgery? No one.” Besides family members, not one of her other friends had reached out to her. She seemed grateful that I had kept her in mind.
My client Ari got married this past weekend. Given his family background, and in light of a gloomy prognosis for his future made by a former therapist, it was a major and moving event. And yet, in our sessions leading up to the ceremony, Ari seemed “dispassionate,” as I expressed it to him. I found no evidence for the joy I expected him to feel. I tried to help him connect with his happiness, while suggesting some reasons why he might find it difficult to rejoice.
During the session, I felt moved on his behalf though at first I didn’t say so. Then, toward the end of the hour, Ari said, “Trying to help me connect with my joy is not the same thing as telling me you’re happy for me.” Words to that effect. I can’t remember exactly how we got to that point, why my feelings about him mattered at that moment, but it really caught my attention. He needed to feel my joy on his behalf.
Last weekend, our friend and next-door neighbor Gayle invited us to go with her to hear some live music at a local venue here in Grand Lake. We arrived after the band had already started its set and we sat down at a table with some of Gayle’s other friends — two retired couples we’d never met. Elaine, one of the women, sat at my left. After the band had played a few more songs, she started up a conversation.
It began, as many such conversations do, with questions like “Do you live here in Grand Lake?” and “Where are you from?” I naturally reciprocated. I learned that Elaine and her husband spent most of their year in Louisiana, after relocating from their native Florida to be closer to their son and grandchildren. When I asked how she liked living in Louisiana, a pained expression came over her face. In both Florida and Grand Lake, Elaine told me, she had found a sense of community through her churches, but hadn’t managed to do so in Louisiana. The congregations there were of the “holy roller” type and she felt out of sympathy with them.
During the first year or so after I launched this site, my post about narcissistic behavior and the lost art of conversation was always a reader favorite. One of mine, too. I thought of it this past weekend when we were dining at a restaurant here in Colorado to celebrate a friend’s 60th birthday. Passing by our table, the hostess overheard mention of North Carolina. A Raleigh native, she stopped by a few minutes later to introduce herself. Here is what I learned about this woman during our conversation, all without the prompting of a single question. Let’s call her Ellen, a quite attractive blond who recently turned 40.
Ellen had married as a freshman in college and gave birth to three children during each of the following years. She and her husband separated when the youngest was three and Ellen subsequently reared those three kids alone, without his emotional or financial support. During all that time, she vowed that once the youngest had left home, she would leave North Carolina and make an entirely new life for herself somewhere out west. Two years ago when the third child finally went off to college, she packed up and moved to Colorado in order to start anew. Now she works as a hostess in a tony restaurant and gives riding lessons during the day.