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Ambivalence



Out of indifference, duality immediately breaks forth.
SCHELLING



In Girl Interrupted, there is a scene where Winona Ryder's character, a young lady diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, talks with a profound psychiatrist after a series of mishaps in the insane asylum where she was confined. The psychiatrist, an old woman who knew Latin, asks the troubled lady how she was feeling that morning. Winona answered curtly, "Ambivalent."

Somewhat struck by a word that patients in such places would perhaps never use, the doctor asks what she meant by it. "I don't care," Winona answers, "it means 'I don't care.'" And rightly so. For we usually take "ambivalence" to mean as being "apathetic" or "indifferent"--that whatever is in question does not matter to us."It does not concern me" or "wala akong pakialam." And when there is no concern, there is also no care.

But the good doctor immediately corrects the presumptuous lady. She says that ambivalence originally did not mean indifference; that ambi meant "both" (as "ambidextrous" means being able to use both hands well) and valence meant "strength" (from valencia which in chemistry indicated the capacity and power of an element). Thus to be ambivalent really means to have strong feelings for both this and that, to really care too much either way. This is why ambivalence really means being undecided, hesitant, and feeling caught in between two values (thing, person, ideal, etc.) And this being "caught in between" is really what having a borderline personality entails: being neither here nor there, being "split" and bifurcated, or better, as a border separates two places, being cut absolutely--like a self-inflicted cut on the wrist that now bleeds.

Imagine a weightlifter. With the enormous plates placed evenly on both ends of the steel which his hands grasp, he lifts the barbell toward his chest before thrusting it above his head. For the barbell not to fall, he must squarely and evenly position himself and his hands equidistantly, with his head at the median point so that the center of gravity would fall perpendicularly on his hips, balanced by his feet that are also equally separated from each other. One inch to the left disrupts all balance; any movement of the head would tilt the shoulders and make one side heavier--and this is all the barbell needs to fall. One must be like a pillar to carry two weights; and not only a strong one at that but a just (impartial) one as well.

The "trick," if you wish, of carrying two things is to avoid favoring one weight over the other; it is a matter of finding where one ends and the other begins, or better, of finding that neutral point where both meet or both separate. In other words, it all boils down to choosing both and neither of the two.

What then happens to the weight on either end? What was supposed to be supported or lifted as a weight now merely becomes something that is only countered by another something. In other words, it is disqualified as weight because it is no longer carried but only canceled out by a diametrically opposed weight. Being canceled as such and suspended by the counter-weight, it suddenly becomes weightless and floats. Weightless?

Sure, as if there were no gravity because, after all, the gravity which supposedly would apply to it is now buttressed by the man who carries it. And if there is no longer gravity applying itself on it, the weight then becomes disqualified as weight, in the same way that the counter-weight is also disqualified by its own being-countered by the other weight. Like a magic trick, the barbell ceases to be heavy in its being carried in balance.

That is all well and good for the barbell. What of the weightlifter then? We already said that he stands like a pillar--or needs to stand like one for the weights to not fall out of imbalance. But what happens to him? If the weights on either side become weightless in canceling out each other, to be sure, this can only happen because the weightlifter absorbs the weight of both weights. He cancels both, and in doing so acquires their combined weight (for the earth on which he stands does not help him in the way that he helped the two weights; on the contrary, the earth now acts as his most forceful resistance). By canceling the weights, he is now heavier and is himself the weight he now carries.

This suddenly incorporated weight, a burden he chose, may be negligible if it is light. But what weight is light? Of course any lifter can choose a light weight; but that disqualifies him as a weightlifter and thus becomes a lightlifter. Not only does he usually carry a weight fitting to him--"in his weight class"--but most of the time he knows that it is not him who chooses the weight, but it is the weight that chooses him. And sometimes, what he chooses or what chooses him can become too heavy for him. He loses balance, he cannot cannot counter the combined weight, and, since he can only take so much weight, his knees can crumble, his arms may give way, and when the weight falls, it pins him down to the ground in a deathly sandwich between two insurmountable weights, ultimately causing injury if not death.

Such is the plight of a man who has chosen to carry what is heavier that what his strength could allow. Such is the difficulty of the man who tries to balance both worlds, where each is already heavy on its own, unlike Atlas who was given only one world to support on his shoulders, or a Sisyphus who was given only one rock to play with in his mountain in hell.

The undecided man, who is unable to choose, only lives to see the next day by his calculated effort of staying in balance, by staying in the middle of the two things he equally feels strongly about, by his sheer hubris that he can sustain both, and with his decision to not decide.

But of course, we know that it only takes time. Even Christ fell three times.

Comments

  1. nice read! esp. the last two paragraphs... by the way, it's a borderline personality disorder, more than a mere syndrome... in case you wanna be obsessive compulsive about the use of terms. hehe (= God bless!

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  2. yvaughn, thanks for the correction. and yes, you might say, if you do not already sense it, that i am somewhat of an obsessive compulsive myself; and that, to note, it is in turn another disorder. thanks for stopping by.

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  3. welcome to the club! i'm also a self-confessed/self-diagnosed OC. have a mild case of OCD actually. hush, okay? :P you're very welcome for the comments (=

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  4. yvaughn, well, I think I saw that coming as I sense you are a perfectionist. I have a mild case of OCD as well, and even took some medication for it before. That bad, huh? Don't worry I won't tell if you promise you won't tell on me as well. It's our little "public secret." Thanks for stopping by again.

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  5. Wow, really haven't tried drug therapy. Maybe i should give it a shot some time. Hehe. Just kidding :P It's just that i favor talk therapy more... Your secret's also safe with me, Mr. A. (;

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  6. I would also suggest that talk therapy is way better than medication most of the time. But you see, and I may be wrong in this, OCD, like most disorders, are brain or chemical dysfunctions, which are in large part genetic in nature. Yet, as with most disorders as well, what you "inherited" can be aggravated by how one was brought up, the models we admire, and the pressure exerted upon us. It is also no secret of mine that I am of a maternal lineage notorious for being OC and grew up seeing their actions, which now strike me as eccentric. You are right as talking makes you conscious of it, and being conscious of it, you can then decide and go against genes or upbringing. When I admitted I was OC, I would not wear my watch when I wanted to enjoy; I disrupted my daily schedule; I began to trust people more; and, as is evident, instead of thinking about things I decided to put them on paper (or on these pages) and create something with it. It is a matter of changing the vector and using its force not against you but for you. But of course, I know that you have realized that already. I'm sorry for this long reply as I did not have time to write a shorter one. Thank you for dropping by and keeping my secret.

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  7. i really appreciate the reply and self-disclosure. hehe. thank you very much also for the insights. learning new things every day from your site (= but recalling all the psych courses i took up in college (which are, by the way, a lot), i don't think it was mentioned in books or lectures that most disorders are of biological chemical origin. the book we used in abpsych class presents the etymology of the disorder; i.e. both the biological and psychological explanations to the different disorders. they are both nature and nurture thing, instead of either/or. genetics play a very vital role, and so do vicarious learning. in that case, i got my OCD from my father's side and acquired a large part of my handwashing behavior from media (the commercials of safeguard make me shrink at the sight of dirt. hehe. not really blaming the soap brand or anything.). another public secret to keep (;

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  8. Probably because you were in a psychology class and not in a psychiatry class. But "nature and nurture" would still be the best way to describe it. Yet more and more, with brain research being an infinite task, psychiatry (science) has long been gaining an edge over psychology (art). In the US, for example, doctors rarely require talk therapies anymore; they just give you prescriptions and believe that since it's just a biological matter, all it takes is a bottle of pills. Of course we see the difficulty of such a reduction: while I am my body, I am more than my body. And it is that excess which grants us the power over our bodies--if not at the least by merely being conscious of it or understanding it, and at the most by willing to heal it. Yet we also know that, for example, if I have cancer, I can only do so much willing and praying while the cancer spreads all over my body. I guess one of the difficulties of having a psychological disorder is precisely that it is not seen as something of the body, in this case, of the brain. While I am least of all a scientific reductionist or a dualist, my interest in psychology stems from he discovery that there are many things that it can explain that the philosopher imagines he understands through his concepts. I want to know, however impossible for me who knows next to nothing in psychology, the limits between psychology and psychiatry--and where philosophy, as self-healing, can--if it ever could--come in. But I have already experienced it; I just do not have as yet the vocabulary to express it. Yet another secret? Thank you for your reply as it is always interesting.

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  9. you were right. the classes i attended were psych courses (= by the way, i learned from my genpsych (general psychology) or probably abpsych (abnormal psychology) class several years ago (haha. yeah, i'm that old :P) that psychology got its origin from physiology (biology) and philosophy. derived from the greek words "psyche" and "logos," psychology is the study/science of the soul/mind (= yeah, only psychiatrists are allowed to administer drugs to clients/patients since they are doctors of medicine while psychologists can only do so much as to refer clients who need drug therapy to psychiatrists. psychologists, however, aim to understand, describe, prevent, and predict behavior...

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  10. yes, psychology was once part of metaphysics (of Aristotle) as one of the metaphysica specialis, as that which is the study of the substance called the soul. Aristotle wrote an interesting treatise on it called "De Anima" or "On the Soul." Way, way back with the Greeks, all the sciences were under the "jurisdiction," if you wish, of philosophy which was the "queen of the sciences." It is, however, a prank of history that nowadays philosophy is depicted as a Thales--ironically considered to the the first philosopher--"who looks to the stars when he does not even see what is under his nose." The hard sciences have stabbed the mother which gave birth to them. It is no longer fashionable these days to be a philosopher.

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  11. Whenever I feel agitated, I go to the washroom and wash my hands. The act cools my head off.

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