Patterns of feeling and what lies beneath
Rage is the one I have struggled with the most this past year. And I hesitate to write this because it would be better if the feeling were never there, and more comfortable for us all if we could get on without it. But this ballooning pressure has had a big enough presence for me to want to do something about it now, if anything can be done; at least to attempt to find a way of understanding or coming to terms with it. And so I have sat with these thoughts for about a month, noticing how the feeling waxes and wanes, and how time is starting to take effect.
I suppose the first thing to say is that it is hard to manage by virtue of it being so very private. We are familiar with rage being demonstrated in public, but this is usually of a particular kind: many people have great reason to be angry, and are expending large amounts of energy protesting their cause. But the kind of rage I am thinking of is not socially acceptable, and it is hard to find a safe place to express it.
In the thick of it, in months past, I started off by googling ‘rage and motherhood’, and had to do this several times just to keep myself from going mad inside my own head. The articles I found went some way towards helping me feel that there might be some cause why I was feeling this way; that the various factors at play and the conditions of this new life had led others to find themselves in a similar place. (To name but a few, from my own perspective: think hormones, the ‘mental load’, the immediacy of a baby’s demands, and the changes in role as one’s family takes on a completely new shape). But it has taken me most of the year to register that there had been someone whose writing I’d read in the past, who had a unique ability to get underneath the intensity of it all. It was the perhaps unlikely and much-maligned figure of D.H. Lawrence.
What I’ve written so far doesn’t fit easily with the image we would like to have of ourselves, nor of mothers – but this is where I need Lawrence, who was so vehement in his call for conventions to be put aside where he believed that they hindered rather than helped the expression of the human spirit. He simply wouldn’t be bound or constrained by the opinions that others held of him and his work.
And so as I returned to his novel The Rainbow, I found myself recalling a kind of understanding that the rage, and the conflict, starts further back. Although I don’t necessarily mean back in time, even if it does manifest in that way, but rather the sense that certain feelings on this level could have come up before, in another stage of one’s development. In the book, Anna and Will, a young couple, are still only on their honeymoon when the difference between them – as individual minds and beings – begins to show. It is not that there is anything wrong with what they both want, but that they are geared almost to different frequencies. She is ready to think about holding a tea party, when he is not yet ready to relinquish the intimacy that he has newly found with her, in isolation from everything and everyone else. It is not just a difference of opinion about what they should do with their time, but a symptom of a different orientation towards the world.
Driven by fear of her departure into a state of helplessness, almost of imbecility, he wandered about the house.
And she, with her skirts kilted up, flew round at her work, absorbed.
“Shake the rug then, if you must hang round,” she said.
And fretting with resentment, he went to shake the rug. She was blithely unconscious of him. He came back, hanging near to her.
“Can’t you do anything?” she said, as if to a child, impatiently. “Can’t you do your wood-work?”
“Where shall I do it?” he asked, harsh with pain.
How furious that made him.
“Or go for a walk,” she continued. “Go down to the Marsh. Don’t hang about as if you were only half there.”
He winced and hated it. He went away to read. Never had his soul felt so flayed and uncreated.
It seems so petty, and yet the emotion runs deep. She thinks she is the one who has cause to be irritated, and yet the feelings that are described are all on his side: ‘resentment’ turns to ‘pain’ and then fury. And yet still, the moment feels rather ordinary, until we come to the last line and read of the impact on his soul: ‘never’ had it felt ‘so flayed’. Is that whipped? Does the sting of her words feel that bad? I get a sudden reminder here that the soul cannot be the rarefied part of a human being; it is intimately engaged in everything that we see and touch. It is the vehicle by which we know we are alive, in the most individual of ways.
When these feelings are new – ‘never’ had his soul felt like this before – it can be difficult to know what on earth to do with them. Will goes away to read, leaving behind little indication of the raw intensity of what he feels following Anna’s chiding. But how could he verbalise it? What would there be to say?
Though he couldn’t know it at the time, this scene will form part of an unfolding process between Anna and Will, one that will be marked by recurring conflict and dissatisfaction on both sides. It often seems during this time as if it could all be over between them, or as if what they had together could all be lost and thrown away, though they are still only a matter of days in. How can something that was meant to be so wonderful feel so wrong? How can you make any sense of the two extremes?
Lawrence’s comments in his essay, ‘Love’, do help I think in making sense of it. The essay also makes me think that without having a concept or an idea of love – one that is flexible and grounded, as well as aspirational – it is so easy to come unstuck. Lawrence’s theory might not work for everyone; some might disagree with it. But I like the idea that it is there to be tested:
Love is a coming together. But there can be no coming together without an equivalent going asunder. In love, all things unite in a oneness of joy and praise. But they could not unite unless they were previously apart. And, having united in a whole circle of unity, they can go no further in love. The motion of love, like a tide, is fulfilled in this instance; there must be an ebb. So that the coming together depends on the going apart; the systole depends on the diastole; the flow depends upon the ebb.
How painful that ‘going asunder’ can be! And yet viewed as part of that larger picture, it almost seems as though the pain might not be necessary to the whole thing. The flow and the ebb back and forth is what makes the motion timeless, what sustains it, and lends it beauty.
But it takes time for this new pattern to establish itself, and to become apparent. Until the point when you can accept that this is the way it is, the raw feelings can often be overpowering.
What makes it hardest, I’ve noticed, is when the reaction that gets released in you seems beyond your control, when it starts first in your body or blood, and explodes from there.
Then he came home at night, and she knitted her brows because of some endless contest between them. As he stood in the doorway her heart changed. It steeled itself.
The reaction has become automatic, embedded; it doesn’t seem to be about just one thing any more, or to come from one particular thought. Something changes between ‘she knitted her brows’ and ‘it steeled itself’. It’s that short circuit that often worries me, the sense that you’re back in a loop that you hadn’t chosen to be in. The moment that should have offered a new start, one of my favourite moments in the day – getting back home after time apart – is here suddenly closed down.
For Lawrence, though, these inner disturbances aren’t discrete, one-off events, as perhaps we might expect them to be. It is not as though there are simply good and bad days that can be summed up in this way. Rather, there is a constant flow of feeling that is never stagnant. It is perhaps hard for us to connect with the deep foundations of this idea, given how we are now so reliant on devices that can be switched on and off, and are trained almost as much in tuning out noises and voices as in tuning in. Often it is easier to turn to distraction than to admit to the strongest of our feelings. And I do believe distraction can help, in the short term, when we need an out. But ultimately, we have to allow ourselves to own what is going on in this individual flow of feeling. It is there to teach us, one way or another.