Stephen F. Dennstedt
Self-portrait – Yucatan, MX
When is it, exactly, that we trade places with our children? When is it that they become the wise teachers, and we become the reluctant students? And how do we feel about this role reversal when it finally arrives? I’ve often said that this blog is for me; that I am emotionally challenged beyond the norm, and find it easier to communicate using so-called logic and the written word. So Expat Journal provides a venue for personal soliloquy and introspection, and coming to terms with my own emotional challenges and baggage. Plain and simple, it has been a cathartic exercise from its inception. This world adventure I’m on is not only about an external exploration of planet Earth, but also (and maybe more importantly) an internal plumbing of my own interior quagmire (and the mess it contains). That I seemingly come up with more questions than answers can be a bit problematic, but at least I’m not bored. So, be forewarned, if feelings make you nervous (like me), especially other people’s feelings, you might want to take a pass on this post.
One of my kids recently updated me on what it was like growing up with me as a parent. It wasn’t entirely flattering. Accepting criticism, personal or professional, without being defensive can be very difficult. Even if well-intentioned it can be hurtful. It was pointed out to me that a parent oftentimes has to be unconditionally supportive of their offspring, to spontaneously jump to their defense whether they’re right or wrong. To fully support them, and their feelings, justified or not. I find that this is an impossible task for me, and that it just isn’t in my DNA. And this inability, on my part, is viewed as disloyalty and totally lacking in emotional support.
In my experience, you have always tried to take a fair and measured response to everything. You listen to both sides. You understand the world is many shades of gray. You know there is rarely an absolute right or an absolute wrong and so you are very slow to judge or condemn anyone. But when someone needs your support; when someone needs for you to say, “Fuck it, ride or die, let’s go,” when someone needs you to be by their side unconditionally, a fair and measured response is extremely UN-supportive.
Your support has always come on your terms. Getting an immediate answer out of you is near to impossible. Words like, “Maybe” and “We’ll see” or “Let me find out” don’t cut it. You may as well just say what you really mean, which is “No” and “I don’t feel comfortable doing that” or “I’m going to let someone else make the decision.” I’ve had a lot of angst about that very thing over the years.
I readily admit that I don’t trust feelings, with the possible exception of my “gut instinct” or that “small voice” inside that tells me if something is right or wrong. To me feelings are seldom rational or logical, and they don’t merit trust. It’s logic, intellect and pragmatism that speak to me. Joey, on the American sitcom “Friends”, says it best:
They’re just feelings, they’ll go away.
The feeling I have the most experience with is anger. And anger has never served me well. I have hurt people with my unleashed anger: emotionally, psychologically and physically. I trust my logic and intellect, I do not trust my feelings. It makes me feel bad that those whom I care most about, feel the lack of my emotional connection the most. I probably feel more than most people realize, those feelings just go unexpressed in any kind of meaningful way. So, I guess, those that I love the most probably feel the least loved. A sad state of affairs.
I love you Dad, but your relationships have always come on YOUR terms. It has always felt to those around you that your support and interactions came when it was convenient for YOU.
You don’t want to get involved with a woman, because she will make demands on your time, and yet your sense of honor or your moral compass or whatever won’t allow you to simply enjoy a “friendship.” You seem to think a sexual relationship implies some sort of emotional commitment and you don’t want that to get in the way of your world travel.
I’m not totally convinced this is all true, although it certainly could be. My perception (or delusion) is more like my life has rarely been lived on my terms. I worked for almost 50 years, I spent 6 years in the military, I was married for 45 years (to three different women … 8, 13 and 24 years respectively) and raised 3 children. I feel as if I’ve lived most of my life on other people’s terms: first my parents, then the government, then any number of corporate bosses and finally trying to placate and keep the peace with 3 wives. My life, up until now, has felt like one big compromise (and rarely has it been a 50/50 compromise … at least in my delusional state). Am I delusional, and in reality have I have been selfish? I really can’t answer that question (I’m not sure if I’m even the best qualified person to answer that question).
I do know that in my relationships with the opposite sex I am ill-equipped. I cannot (and now—will not) concern myself with the drama that swirls haphazardly around feelings. When I’ve tried to meet feelings with logic, all I ever get is: “You just don’t understand”. And I don’t. Just because someone feels something doesn’t make it right or even valid. It’s all well and good to feel something (we all do, even me), but to expect someone to ride that hormonal roller coaster with you seems unfair at the very least, and more often than not leans more towards the toxic side of things. And to me that is—selfish. I feel as much, and maybe even more, as other people, I just can’t make decisions in my life based on those feelings.
I am still conflicted about the premiss that: failure to unconditionally support someone’s feelings is somehow inherently disloyal (even with your children). Do the people we love really need that kind of immediate unconditional emotional support? Is that what a father is supposed to do? Is that what a husband is supposed to do? Suspend logic, reason and intellect to satisfy the emotional needs of another? If so, then I have admittedly failed miserably. I’ve always thought a measured, well thought out response to a situation was the better choice. I am a product of my own upbringing, poured out of my own crucible of life experiences. If I am defective, and the empirical evidence might suggest that I am, then I hope my kids can overcome my imperfections and be better human beings than I am.
I do know that I have to live my life my way, and on my terms going forward. And for the very first time it feels as if I am. Selfish? Possibly. Probably in fact. I have made the decision to eliminate the drama in my life, and the people who create it. I regret any hurt I’ve caused throughout my life (emotional, psychological and physical), and vow to do better in that regard. But I have no more patience relative to drama, just because someone feels a certain way doesn’t make it my problem, and I have not one single ounce of compromise left in me. Yep, that does sound pretty selfish alright—but so be it.
“Not my circus, not my monkeys”
To my family, to my friends, to those I care about: I have feelings; I do feel; I just don’t run my life on feelings. I am a rather tough-minded, traditional man who operates primarily on logic, intellect and pragmatism. I don’t see the fault in that, though many do (certainly my three ex-wives and maybe some of my children). I can love, and I do love. Any resemblance to the Tin Man (hollow and without a heart) is just a matter of perception.
The Tin Man