Not Smiling Through Pain

From another site, an adoptee seemed to overgeneralize that adoptees become adept at smiling through pain. I addressed that one way here. And while I make an effort to not merely was autobiographical when I post, I have to say this “smiling through pain” business gets me in a very personal way, and it is more difficult for me to find the social value (not just the personal value for me) in exploring something in a public post.

Culturally, we tend to valorize the laughing one, the joyful one–the one who is funny. We also, to a lesser degree, embrace our trenchant, sarcastic critics, although it seems (in the US) that most of our great purveyors of that stuff are dead. There are plenty of people who are sarcastic, and many fewer who are sardonic, and the fact that people often don’t know the difference is a sign of what I’m talking about. But, though sardonic, at least these critics can make us laugh at cocktail parties. we also valorize the mellow ones who at least don’t get in the way of the first two.

Those who are more serious characters, however, the one’s for whom the false smile is accomplished, at the very best, awkwardly and unonvincingly, the one for whom all of the niceties of social conventions seem to have no purpose except to disingenuously ingratiate yourself to others, or–to put perhaps the most brutal and simplest word of all on it–the one who cannot bring themselves except by violence to themselves to submit to that social demand to be liars toward their fellow human beings in all of their public or social interactions, that person tends not to be popular. As the Joker relevantly asked, “Why so serious?”

It is vaguely disgusting to me that I feel I ought to point out: I laugh, I smile.  If comedy is timing, the “problem” of modern life is we laugh at the wrong times–and the one who is serious is the party-pooper, the buzz-kill, the kill-joy. Empire is joyfully laughing as it crushes the faces of Africa into the dirt, and the kill-joy says, “That’s not funny.” The adoptive parents are wallowing in the largesse of their generosity, and the buzz-kill shits in their face. The white kids are having a dance party with pirated Motown music, and the party-pooper can’t keep her mouth shut about the sick irony of it.

But all of these examples are the “mature” fruits of what would have been called in the old days the melancholy temperament or personality or humour.

The temperaments are sanguine (pleasure-seeking and sociable–the laughing one), choleric (ambitious and leader-like–the sarcastic or sardonic one), melancholic (introverted and thoughtful–the kill-joy), and phlegmatic (relaxed and quiet–the mellow one).

Phlegmatic, Choleric, Sanguine, and Melancholic

Phlegmatic, Choleric, Sanguine, and Melancholic

Not to defend the melancholic type, though it needs it, what matters in the above visual representation (using emoticons) is that apparently the most socially recognized image of the melancholic is the sad face, but in fact, if the melancholic is fundamentally thoughtful, then a blank face might be just as appropriate. and because our faces aren’t easily read–or else only get read when we are “sad” and so get called bummers, kill-joys, buzz-kills–it seems like the “helplessly social” types mistrust the melancholic. The only type by habit helplessly reflective, we can’t be counted on not to notice something awful or stupid in our environment if you ask us about it, and there’s are party-pooping–or else we learn to say nothing or, more likely, just don’t go.

So, if nothing else of use can be extracted from this post, at least let it be neither that the experiences of all adoptees are different, which in a sense they are, nor that they are all the same, which in a sense they are. If I use the language of temperament, it might be that the poster of the article I’m responding to is a sanguine personality and that other sanguine personalities might find her “smiling through the pain” to be right on point. Or maybe she is an ambitious crusading type and her choleric biliousness may resonate with other such.

My hope for this post is to illustrate not only these large classes of experience amongst adoptees that seem particularly pertinent to me–the common ground shared by us between the point of unique specificity (of experience) and general similarity (of experience)–but especially that there is more than one such common ground. I can empathize (or at least try to) with someone whose dominant experience, when she describes it, resorts to descriptions like “smiling through the pain” but that organizing principle or detail of a life, which might have some role in my own adoption experience, was not my primary one. And what we place first (or what we discover in ourselves was always placed first there from the beginning) makes a difference, because everything else is related in terms of that dominant (at least for the duration that that dominant is dominant). This (to offer an illustration) is what makes patriarchy patriarchy: society is arranged according to the needs and values of males. This doesn’t mean women play no part in it, or can’t ever have power, but it means that whatever part they do play in it is is relation to males. Similarly, this is what makes colonization colonization: everything is arranged and framed according to the values and needs of the colonizer, which does not mean the colonized have no role in that, only that whatever role they do have is in light of that framing.

So also here.  Whatever is fundamental in our personality–and that is a fundamental I’m suggesting that we share with other human beings, but only some of them–our lives, our values, whatever term is appropriate that we place here, becomes the dominant in light of which the rest stands in relation. To illustrate this plainly in the present context, if mine was an experience of invisibility, of being asked to disappear or of electing to disappear, then I would certainly never “smile through the pain” because I’d already not be there to smile at all.

Partly I feel a need to emphasize all of this because, perhaps though a misplaced empathy, I can easily imagine that the adoptees who committed suicide and are no longer here would have been the ones with a melancholic temperament. So if we are going to have any part in activism to reach those who are at increased risk for suicide (assuming my analysis has any relevance at all), then coming at it through the lens of the experience of ‘smiling through the pain” will be going wide of the mark. And I suggest this without ignoring there are many assumptions built into it.

I may have done a terrible job of creating a space in this for replies, but I find both similar differences and different similarities of the adoption experience to be something not much chewed upon in depth so far. At least for myself, and those who care about this, I’d be interested in more chewing.


5 thoughts on “Not Smiling Through Pain

  1. I keep coming back here to reply. But then I don’t know what to add. I want to make references to things like court jesters and minstrels. I want to talk about being the “class clown” and the one who people say, “you used to write funny stuff—now you’re too serious.” I don’t think there’s room for humor here, in this place we inhabit as adoptees. There just isn’t. And relying on humor—smiling through the pain—is an invalid crutch; a sign for the Audience that I can’t read; tears of a clown.

    • Daniel:

      Just to stick with the temperament theory emphasis in this post, (notice in the graphic that the melancholic is specifically tagged the kill-joy), while anyone might be a class clown, it will tend to be dominated by the sanguine or choleric types–that is, by the class clown who does it to belong to the group, and the one who does it to stand out from the group. (I would propose that a jester, in the classic sense of the one who is capable of speaking truth to power, i.e., the King, is predominantly the melancholic/reflective type, who is–more or less happily–neither a part of the group nor not a part of it).

      To the extent that one is sanguine (sociable) or choleric (ambitious), humor can be used as a way to express affinity with the social. The sanguine and choleric types, again, are explicitly oriented to the social–to the collective, the group. This is how the melancholic becomes a kill-joy, because she doesn’t assent to whatever social fiction is being used, abused, or deployed by the sanguine and choleric types. In this sense, sarcasm (attributed here to the choleric) is a reflection of frustrated ambition; it arises out of a failure to recognize the (ambitious) choleric type as leader. sarcasm arises from a politics of envy, and if the frustration gets bad enough, it morphs into bitterness, and then all humor goes away. Although, frankly, I say that sarcasm already is devoid of laughter in its positive sense. Almost all satire these days is of this sarcastic variety.

      To the extent that the large majority of sanguine and choleric types insist that the outward forms of sociability are not only real but that there are no fundamentally different alternatives to it, hence the melancholic type, which really should be called the “reflective type”, gets labeled a kill-joy. In general, the domain of our humor is wit, playing with language, which is why our poetry often seems constipated, because it can’t stop playing with language. Continuously when I write poetry, I find myself drifting thematically toward gloomy meditations ‘against my will,” even as I “ruin the mood” by equally helplessly making internal rhymes and, essentially, punning.

      For example:

      I read about a suicide today.
      A washerwoman’s zinc pail finally broke;
      she’d scrubbed the fourth floor’s wooden floorboards now
      for four years twice per shift per day, and each
      day twice per shift her shift supe drifted through
      to check her work; but once her overse-
      er sees that pail, she rails and cans the wo-
      man then and there, then goes home, slits her wrists
      and bleeds, across her foyer’s parquet floor,
      to Mahler’s Sixth–her day maid found the corpse.

      So I don’t think that it’s there’s no room for humor but, in the case of the reflective type, how the humor is received, the space for recognizing and honoring it. Not that I’m insisting you’re the melancholic type–you might be choleric or sanguine (if temperament types is a useful analytical lens in the first place). I think it really matters a lot that the dominant form of choleric humor (sarcasm) is generally not “healthy” anymore. (I don’t know if just asserting this this way is too obscure.) In the old days, satire still had its authentic forms of social laughter–Rabelais is a great purveyor of this, as if Aristophanes. At some point, that social quality fell away, and now looks like e-bags like Dennis Leary, the turd.

      There’s more; this is more than enough for now.

  2. I think what is bugging me a bit is the categories, that we “are” some way all the time. What I’m realizing now is how stressful it is for me to “interface” (sorry) with certain groups of people whom I see as basically affected individuals. Meaning, trying to maintain some false sense of self based on social and cultural expectations. I have no ability to put on a face for these people anymore.

    At night, on the other hand, in my neighborhood, hanging out with this pathetic nation-state’s bottom rung as it were, I’m much more at ease. And when I think what these people have gone through in terms of previous and current wars, economic and political distress, lack of anything resembling a base modicum of education or medical care, their status as dispossessed or marginalized people, etc. ad infinitum, the fact that we spend much of the evening laughing speaks to your point in a different item about how those in a ghetto are able to be creative, or find life livable, amongst themselves.

    I think it depends on the “audience”. And the distance one maintains (or not) from them.

    • Controlling narcissists must and do insist on the world around them being a certain way or they start to feel like they are unraveling (or some such shit). This particularly seem to me to be the kind of affected people that might most often be impossible for you. (One study found a disproportionately high number of narcissists in Wall Street industries). This pretense–the effects of controlling narcissism–definitely come in stronger and weaker radioactive isotopes, some of them being fatal to live in the presence of.

      When I hang out with “Furries” I tend to be equally relaxed as you describe your “night self.” And the defining feature–at least the one that sticks out most for me–is what could be called the absence of marginalization. But let me be more precise–marginalization is a myth (a social discourse) that we either orient to or not, i.e., accept as socially operative or not. There are, of course, advantages to marginalization–being “out of the supervising eye” can be very helpful, as the “bad” student who slumped down in his seat in the back of the class “spontaneously” discovers.. But it is rather the case that everyone is already always present in society, so that it is never a question of being “admitted into society” but rather than society “admits” we exist. Marriage is equality is all about this.

      So those controlling narcissists who need to be exclusivist, and for those who are glad to be excluded, this set up doesn’t necessarily present a problem on the face of things. It is, rather, when those who are DESCRIBED as excluded cannot and do not want to live with that label; thus, one of the first gay slogans in the wake of AIDS was: we are everywhere. The emphasis was: we are already here; stop ignoring us. The complementary figure of this is the “insider” who wants to go his own way (without being made a scapegoat)–thus, the wealthy use their wealth and position to get exceptions made to them and for them (very frequently with respect to the law, and contrary to the principal of equality before the law). This has gone so far that the very principle of the judiciary–representation by a paid lawyer–is not even recognized as an act of bribery any longer. We tend to see only the disadvantage to the poor who cannot “afford a good lawyer”.

      So there is social friction–visible in self-evident sparks–where the “outsider” who wants to be acknowledged and where the “insider” who wants to be overlooked occur, but this is all part of an included/excluded paradigm that contains also the “excluded who are pleased to be excluded” and the “included who are pleased to be included.”

      As with all social problems, it is never enough only to solve the problems we see; the “pleasures” that go unseen (because they’re not seen as problems) are part of the problem as well, i.e., in this case, those who benefit from the insider/outsider social distinction.

      This isn’t a problem that an go away. Culture, by definition, is a constraint, a limitation; therefore, it implicitly asserts an “inside” and an “outside”. So where the social justice part emerges is not in pretending that we can erase the boundary of culture, but rather to ensure that the dialogue that occurs between those who are (willingly) “inside” and those who are (unwillingly) “outside” is conducted in a way that honors the basic human values of fairness, empathy, recognition, and cooperation.

      We could split a hair whether it is fairness, empathy, recognition, or cooperation that is being flouted when a dominant discourse can only talk about the Other in parodic terms, if even at all. I personally see it fundamentally as a failure of recognition–of not taking seriously that those who are DESCRIBED as “outside” are not allowed to speak in such a way that precisely their status as a non-recognized outsider–as something “alien” to whatever is deemed culture–is not allowed to make (implicitly) a proposal to change that understanding of culture.

      Controlling narcissists, who throw around their pretenses, on an interpersonal level cannot allow your Otherness to be felt as a presence, and so they oppress, suppress, repress, ignore, misrecognize, slander, or (in the worst cases) kill you–although the “milder” forms of social dismissal have perhaps more unpleasant social consequences and certainly more lasting emotional consequences. When the adoption crowd similarly does not/cannot permit the voice of the adoptee to challenge its hegemonic discourse, the situation gets reprised, but this time on a larger social scale–although it will probably always be someone more like that David Fisher narcissist type who will speak up, because it is more crucial for him (and his types) to control their world in order not to unravel.

    • Daniel: I have to add to my comment that some forms of described marginalization are, of course, explicitly materialized: prisons, schools, “the family,” mental hospitals, Palestine, &c.

      If these are, in the most general sense, the institutionalized (i.e., those subjected to the onerous imposition of an institution), this in no way erases their already always presence in society–it just makes them that much more difficult to see at all, thanks to the institution’s containment.

      The institution is a manifestation of the intensity of naming applied to those in the institution, and so indicates the relative impossibility of escaping that naming.

      It is interesting that merely the passage of time often serves as the mechanism by which one may escape the institution.

      The power disparity tends to be extreme as well: crazy, criminal, childish, only a stern patriarch can answer that kind of problem. And so simultaneously the pretenses of compassion are that much more pitched, and so also the resorts to violence. Even the correctional officer, if he cares at all, believes he’s doing the inmate a favor–at least the officer’s official title carries that conceit.

      Childish, criminal, crazy–all are dangerous like wild animals, and need to be tranquilized, contained, and in extreme cases, put down. It’s the particularly strident pitch that gets involved in this discourse (by the oppressors) that distinguishes it from the “kinder, gentler” repression that people living in the far more mildly “institutionalized” world at large experience.

      By that, I mean in relative terms, of course. I don’t want to over-extend the notion of institutionalization so that it ceases to describe anything. There are analogies (lots of them) between the life of prisoners and their warders and the people of Palestine or Afghanistan under the thumb of their warders; and all of them have had sand-blasted into their skin an ineradicable label. It seems there should be some distinction between institutionalization and colonization and assimilation (for instance). Somehow, colonization seems more set on determining a space and ensuring that the “native” (whoever or whatever they might be) don’t get in the way of that–as if in some sense, colonization doesn’t care about people at all–whereas with institutionalization, the space already exists, and it becomes a matter of preserving (a definition of kinds of people) as the central gesture of its existence.

      If this distinction holds at all, it means that the colonized may well have experienced it as institutionalization–I don’t know if it can be made helpful to split that hair. It certainly brings to the fore the inherent moral conundrum of wanting to develop institutions in a post-colonial setting.

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