That Which We Resist Persists, a commentary on a passage from Nella Larsen’s Passing

Today I was reading Nella Larsen’s novella Passing when a particular passage jumped out at me:

“That strange, and to her fantastic, notion of Brian’s of going off to Brazil which, though unmentioned, yet lived within him; how it frightened her, and – yes, angered her!….

“He had never spoken of his desire since that long-ago time of storm and strain, of hateful and nearly disastrous quarreling, when she had so firmly opposed him, so sensibly pointed out its utter impossibility and its probable consequences to her and the boys, and had even hinted at a dissolution of their marriage in the event of his persistence in his idea. No, there had been, in all the years that they had lived together since then, no other talk of it, no more than there had been any other quarreling or any other threats. But because, so she insisted, the bond of flesh and spirit between them was so strong, she knew, had always known, that his dissatisfaction had continued, as had his dislike and disgust for his profession and his country…

“It wasn’t now, as it had been once, that she was afraid that he would throw everything aside and rush off to the remote place of his heart’s desire. He wouldn’t, she knew. He was fond of her, loved her, in his slightly undemonstrative way. And there were the boys….

“It was only that she wanted him to be happy, resenting, however, his inability to be so with things as they were, and never acknowledging that though she did want him to be happy, it was only in her own way and by some plan of hers for him that she truly desired him to be so. Nor did she admit that all other plans, all other ways, she regarded as menaces, more or less indirect, to that security of place and substance which she insisted upon for her sons and in a lesser degree for herself.”

Wow! I really appreciate the psychological subtlety as well as the universality of this passage. It encapsulates so well the common dynamics that go on between couples. It is unfortunate, but, in many long-term relationships, people are coerced into relinquishing pieces of themselves, aspects of their hearts’ desires in response to the selfishness and insecurity of their partners.

I have seen people pushed into giving up school, abandoning their dreams of entrepreneurship, dumbing down their talents, abandoning friends, and even family. This list goes on. But, for me – because I am keenly aware that I have only one incarnation that I know of for certain – I am not willing to do this.

I accepted long ago that my belief system necessitates certain trade-offs. What other people call “security,” for example, I do not have. But what other people view as security I view as minimum-security prison. I am also aware of my privilege to hold these beliefs due to the country and time period in which I live. In many parts of the world, people, especially women, still face dire consequences for not submitting to society’s plan for their lives. I plan to use my privilege to live my life full out, whatever that means to me over the years. I accept that this makes me an oddball. While other single women often look at couples with a sigh in their hearts and a lump in their throats, I view relationships as calculated risks, mostly ego-alliances, and socially sanctioned refuges from fear and insecurity. Such relationships often encourage mediocrity, consumerism, frustration, and stagnation.

On the other hand, I celebrate the fact that there are also vibrant, dynamic couples in which both parties are evolving, living their lives full out, and actively supporting each other’s dreams, goals, desires, and happiness. In these partnerships, each person feels free to be fully themselves and to pursue their deepest longings, free from emotional blackmail. I admire and respect such couples. On the opposite end of the spectrum, there are couples in which neither party has desires outside the culturally-approved goals of a “normal” life, an easy retirement, and a gentle coast into the grave. These couples are traditionally-minded and very well matched. They are doing no one any harm.

But in the many cases in which people are clinging to each other in a desperate attempt to control the natural unpredictability of life, where one or both parties apply external restrictions and psychological manipulation in order to prevent their partners from growing and changing, where people have resigned themselves to an unsatisfactory life out of guilt or obligation, I would hasten to remind such people that Impermanence is an inescapable fact of life.

The protagonist in Passing assumes that she can beat back the passionate longing in her husband to explore Brazil, and pursue other career paths, with a barrage of threats, manipulation, blackmail, and fighting. She is wholly and singularly concerned with her own needs, comfort, and happiness, not his. She comes to learn that what we try to deny in ourselves, and in others, has a sneaky way of rising to the surface anyway. Then we are left not only with the original problem of Impermanence, but an even greater feeling of panic, failure, and helplessness.

The best way to deal with change is to get out in front of it and embrace it. (It’s coming anyway).

Peace and blessings,

Raven

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