When People Don’t Finish Their Thoughts…

Photo credit: Tartantastic

Remember those “choose your own adventure” books that were really popular back in the 80s and 90s? I think maybe they’ve made a comeback now, too, because my kids know about them. I despised those books as a kid, scoffing at them as poor quality literature even while not knowing that’s what I was doing. I don’t read books to create my own ending, I would think to myself. I read the book so the characters in the book can tell me their story and show me how it ends. The end of the story is supposed to show me where the meaning and gravitas of the whole narrative really lay. I would rather, both then as a child and now as an adult, encounter a heartbreaking or absurd end to a story than being told I have to decide how it’s going to end. I think it puts an unfair amount of responsibility on me….I’ve hung with the characters through their adventures and struggle and suddenly I”m told that I have to carry their fate in my hands? What if I pick the wrong ending? I don’t want to play God with anyone’s life. And anyway, doesn’t having multiple possibilities to end the story make the bulk of the story meaningless in the first place?

As much as I hate “choose your own adventure” stories, I even more so hate the stories that leave you hanging, ending abruptly, without any closure or solid understanding of what just happened. I mainly hate these because they resemble so many of our stories in real life….where things that you thought were solid and going somewhere suddenly derail with little warning…and you can see no path forward, no way to tidily wrap up what happened, and you’re left once again to try and find meaning in all of it or resign yourself to the belief that maybe it was all just a bunch of random experiences strung together that didn’t ultimately mean anything at all. That’s the absolute worst thing that can happen to anyone in life, I think. When you live through something…maybe that you completely invested your heart and soul into….and then without warning a sinkhole opens up beneath you and you are swallowed into a black abyss of “did any of that matter or mean anything at all?”

***********************************************************************************************************************

I”ve had multiple people pass through my life who are terrible about not being able to finish their spoken thoughts. Some of these people couldn’t finish a thought out loud about the most mundane or trite thing (ahem…my ex husband), while others could speak eloquently about the minutiae and superficial of life….but once the conversation went deep or became difficult….out came the dangling thoughts that went nowhere and left me grasping to understand what was being said. Some people will do this, having a complete thought ready to go in their brain…and then either can’t complete it for you out loud because they refuse to or because, I think, the finality of speaking their deepest selves out into the world scares the hell out of them. Some words, once released, can’t so easily be retracted…and the vulnerability that comes with that is too much for some people to bear.

At other times, people can’t finish their thoughts because inside their brains, the thought is tangled and rambling and can’t be laid out clearly into structured sentences. This makes me think of Michael Scott on The Office, with the following meme:

I know I’ve been guilty of this….where my ADHD kicks in, usually while I”m feeling a strong emotion, and I’m trying to express what I”m feeling and thinking but also don’t entirely know what it is at the time….so I just start talking out loud hoping I’ll eventually find my way. You know how some people who are really culturally insensitive will just start talking louder to others who don’t understand English….thinking that words at a staggering volume will suddenly translate meaning across the language divide? I think I do that when I’m emotionally rocked and trying to communicate and it’s clearly not getting received by the listener….so I get louder and louder until I discover I’m hollering and the whole thing has just gone to hell in one moment. Ugh. I so hate this about myself.

I never actually realized I was a verbal processor until last year. Most of the time I have to get things down on paper or spoken out into the air so that I can know what I feel and believe about something. This need can get me into trouble alot because 1) It’s sometimes difficult to be able to verbally process when the person I need to process with has to retreat into a silent cave within to process, and 2) When I’m processing out loud and figuring out what I think about something, people tend to believe what I”m saying is my conclusion or final decision about something, when it often is not at all where I am eventually going to land. Then the misunderstanding about all of my verbal rambling is often used against me later, when people are like….”but you said….!” And all the while I was literally just trying to think and work through something out loud.

Either way, the point I am getting at is that unfinished conversations make me crazy, especially when I’m trying desperately to understand someone and learn to speak their language so that I can communicate more effectively with them. Unfinished thoughts feel like carrots being dangled in front of me as I chase after them…in hopes that at some point I’ll be able to catch the whole thought, gain understanding, and the conversation or relationship will progress forward in a meaningful way.

The thing that sometimes undoes me is that you can’t make people finish their thoughts. You can’t make people come your direction if they don’t truly want to or if they are unable to for whatever reason. And, in fact, people that are determined to misunderstand you, will misunderstand you. You can try and make the path as smooth as possible for you to connect, you can try and try and try to use your best communication tools and practice new ones. But I think, maybe, sometimes in life certain conversations will remain unfinished, and as much as it pains you and as hard as you try to bridge the gaps, there’s not a goddamned thing you can do to resolve it.

And so you are left with the abruptly ending story, and the gut-wrenching question of whether or not there was ever any meaning or “real-ness” there at all.

************************************************************************************************************************

For much of my life, I always assumed that all the bad story endings in my life or the failed communication attempts were entirely my fault. This was actually a learned pattern because in the bulk of my familial and friend relationships early on in life, when there was a rift or break or argument, it fell to me to repair things and restore the relationship. In a huge chunk of those cases, especially within my family., I really had no clue what I had done wrong. But I would desperately want and need to resume connection with the person, and so I would search deep within to figure out what I had done wrong and then go apologize for it so that I would be drawn back into the fold, so to speak. The problem was, most of the time, as I mentioned, I could never actually determine what I had done wrong that incited anger or estrangement against me, and so I began to accept the belief that it was just inherently ME. I was bad. I was the problem.

Over the years, this belief became so entrenched within that any time a relationship strained or broke, I would assume the fault lay squarely on me. Even in the moments following arguments where I felt righteously indignant or justified in the belief that I had been wronged by another person ( or that there was shared responsibility for an issue), I would inevitably slip back into that old familiar neural groove that reminded me that I was the problem and that if I didn’t want to be alone I would have to figure out some way to prove to myself that I had entirely fucked the situation up single-handedly, and then go groveling back to the person I was at odds with so I could patch things up. Whew. Catching my breath. Sorry for that long sentence.

This belief that rooted itself in me did alot of damage along the way. Narcissists and others with those tendencies could spot me a mile away. Energy vampires loved me because I would always validate all of their personal tragedies, let them suck me dry, and then not complain when they would leave lying me empty and gasping for air on the floor. Then, of course, when I would voice my own needs and wants, I often got the “this isn’t a good time” or “I’ve got too much of my own stuff going on to focus on you” in response.

The thing is, it was easy to hang on to that belief about myself…that it’s all just my fault and I’m the problem….because, from a very close perspective, it made sense. It was the puzzle piece that could explain why my life functioned the way it did for so long. It ascribed meaning, or at least explanation, to alot of sucky experiences. To be a little melodramatic here…..”Julie went through this struggle, she tried to make things work and it failed spectacularly.” And the final line of the story…..” It all failed because Julie is too much for most people, or isn’t worthy of x, y, z, or Julie is just inherently bad.” It’s an unpleasant ending, for sure, but at least it’s an ending, right? One small thing in life that I can point to and be certain of?

************************************************************************************************************************

I’m not writing this blog post, nor do I write any blog posts, as a means to elicit sympathy or pity. I write about this stuff, and how I’ve struggled with being secure and safe in myself, because I know so very many other people who have struggled and still struggle with the same things. So many people are afraid to talk about these things out loud, or they can’t put the thoughts together to do so, or they’re worried that if they speak their truth they might piss off someone or ruin someone’s reputation.

And I write about this stupid kind of stuff to get my own self through each day. When a story ends that I was so invested in and I can’t find my way forward….I have to get all the thoughts out….to mold them and look at them from every angle, and wrestle with the wise words from my great cloud of witnesses that have carried me on their shoulders this far. Because….when I can’t find meaning in the hard things and tragedies and endings…I just completely despair.

Today, Malcolm Gladwell, of all people, is saving me. I’ve scarcely gotten out of bed the last day and a half after feeling broken and like a zombie for a week, and am wondering how I’m going to make myself go to work tomorrow, or parent my boys when they come back to my house from their dad’s, or actually cook the next meal beyond what comes out of the french press. Even the dog is despairing that he’ll never be walked again in this lifetime.

I signed up for Master Class almost a year ago and have successfully donated monthly to the cause without ever actually watching more than one episode. Today though, while debating on going to get a bottle of wine or retreating back to my safe cave beneath the covers, I flipped open Gladwell’s master class on writing on my phone. He began his lessons on writing with: jigsaw puzzles.

************************************************************************************************************************

Clearly, one has to pay for Master Class, so I’m not going to go into much detail on Gladwell’s content other than to expound upon one metaphor that he hit on. He was making the point that for alot of people (including me) jigsaw puzzles can be incredibly compelling and can really suck you in, even if other equally compelling entertainment might be around you….in his example, the awaiting French countryside. He went on to talk about how when we’re putting together puzzles, sometimes we can interlock two pieces together and convince ourselves for a while that they were a matching pair…until finally we have to admit that we can see a gap here and then also here, so they weren’t truly the pieces for each other. We are trying to achieve a complete puzzle….the one that matches the lovely picture on the puzzle box. But, Gladwell says, sometimes the most compelling metaphor…the one that should really be loooked at more closely and appreciated, is an imperfect puzzle.

Moving back into my broader ideas in this post about unfinished thoughts and story with the foundational metaphor of unfinished puzzles….Gladwell alluded to the idea that it’s these imperfect puzzles in life, the stories that leave you hanging and uncertain….these are the things that are actually the most interesting and compelling. And maybe, I’m telling myself, they are the things that actually bring meaning. Because if everything worked out perfectly every time, exactly as you were hoping and expected, what kind of meaning lives in that? Where you never have to wrestle or engage or search hard for what you’re really longing for?

************************************************************************************************************************

One of my greatest struggles in life has been trying to figure out the rules for the game. Evangelical Christianity worked for a while, until I finally threw up my hands in frustration with it’s breathtaking ability to stick it’s head in the sand and ignore crucial phenomena and facts. Science has appeased me at times, but it can really only speak to things that are objectively observable, and is only sometimes a decent finger pointing to the moon of the meaning of life that we are all searching for.

I keep trying to put all the puzzle pices that I have together, and I keep hoping that i’ll eventually stumble across that final puzzle piece that will make it all make sense. The problem is….the further I travel, the more puzzle pieces I think I’m missing, and that also, the puzzle pieces haven’t been cut to fit each other perfectly. There’s always gaps. The older I get the more I realize the less I know, the less I believe in with real certainty. I have no clue what is going to happen when we die. I don’t know for absolute sure if there is really a loving, intelligent whatever holding everything together, although I’m asymptotically close. Honestly, the only thing I think that I know for absolute sure is that I have been invited, by something, to either engage in this life and try to live into my humanity as fully as possible, or to just try to hang on and survive it until I die. OK, maybe I know one other thing: I’m trying really hard to learn to love people and love myself, as much as I royally fuck it up on the regular.

Point I’m trying to make here….I don’t think there is really a structured set of rules for this existence. And maybe striving relentlessly to discover those rules and create perfect explanations for everything is really what contributes most to our suffering. Maybe the whole point is to accept an imperfect puzzle with gaps and missing pieces because those are the ones that keep us moving forward and growing and living deeply into our humanity. Where things aren’t just handed to us in nice tidy packages, but must be sought out and uncovered and carefully considered.

And so maybe, too, unfinished thoughts and abruptly ending stories aren’t “nothing”, but are part of the imperfect puzzles that keep us engaged, and asking questions, and interested in what life is ultimately about.

Maybe when people don’t finish their thoughts or can’t be completely and fully present and open with you…you aren’t really being offered an either/or statement with only two choices: 1) keep pushing, prodding, and begging for answers, and 2) just saying “fuck you and fuck this” and storming off in anger and self pity. Maybe there’s a third option….one that isn’t neat and pretty…that doesn’t succinctly wrap up the experience or story or necessarily make you feel better quickly… but encourages you to keep looking for answers and finished thoughts in new places while listening to new voices. And maybe most imporantly, the third option is to discover your own unfinished thoughts where you’ve left yourself hanging, and unveil and release the words that your own voice has struggled to speak out of fear or uncertainty, and find ways to communicate clearly with your own self that is longing to be heard and validated and understood.

************************************************************************************************************************

Other than thoughts and stories, I really hate unfinished things in general. Really hate them. I get so angry at myself because I’m one of those people who is great at coming up with ideas and starting projects….but my ability to follow through and bring them to completion is dismal. So my life is a sordid display of numerous projects and relationships that are scattered around in varying degrees of “done-ness”. I think this is one reason why I get so frustrated with people I’m in relationship with who can’t speak their stories or communicate who they are, or when I get so frustrated at myself for not being able to communicate myself well….because it ends up being just one more incomplete thing in my life that started well and is now laying unfinished and dusty on the kitchen floor….and I never know which ones will be resurrected.

This all brings up yet another question within me….how do you know for sure when things are finished? How do you know when you should walk away with finality or try one more time? How do you know when projects or people or expereinces in your life have given you what they were meant to and now need to move on? How do you KNOW when you’ve reached a necessary ending? What are the rules for this? What do you do when those last puzzle pieces just aren’t fitting together very tightly?

I could clearly keep at this, but I”m caught a bit in a cyclical argument of my own making. I’m trying to put together a puzzle and finish a story that can’t achieve perfect completeness in the way that I want. Malcolm Gladwell said, “If we can’t solve the problem, all we can do is digress.”

So, with that I’m going to leave these thoughts hanging, abruptly end this post, hope that maybe somewhere along the way we’ll find some meaning in it, and digress back to my safe place beneath the covers.

One thought on “When People Don’t Finish Their Thoughts…

  1. Gladwell is not the worst of guides! I have only read his book about outliers but I liked it a lot. (I presume we’re talking about the same man although I wouldn’t rule out that there are more ppl in the world with the same name 🙂

    A few unfinished thoughts …

    I sometimes like ‘unfinished’ stories myself. But I think the trick is if you sense the author is leading you somewhere by leaving an ending hanging, or if it’s more about messing with you and showing how ‘cool’ the author is for having ‘understood’ that life is meaningless (which it isn’t to me, but it’s a viewpoint that still has a lot of support generally.)

    Another reason for people not finishing their sentences and arguments before veering into something else, might be that they are not focused on the conversation really – on who they are with. Only on themselves. Thus, there is no need to seek resolutions to their own arguments, because 1) what they said was valuable in itself because they said it or 2) they did sense that they got into a dead end – but would really rather like to move on because they don’t like being caught in a gaffe. It’s quite a common phenomenon at family dinners, I’m afraid 🙂

    Like

Leave a Reply to Christopher Marcus Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s