The Compartments We Devise


We never know the full story when we look into someone else’s eyes. It doesn’t matter who it is. Our spouses, our children, our friends, our business colleagues—we all have chapters in our stories that are as yet untold or never told. It will always be that way. The best we can do is get better at listening, remain open to compassion, and craft compartmentalization strategies to balance the myriad conflicts that attempt to overrun us even when we appear to be at our best.

Appearance is always deceptive. It’s why writers have something to write about. It’s why most of us like to read stories, see plays, and watch movies. We trust storytellers to reveal to us the points of backstory we need to piece together a coherent narrative. Sometimes we call that entertainment. Other times we call it the awakening inspired by a cautionary tale.

Life instruction is much harder. Think about the people you will encounter this week. Which of the following might they be experiencing and trying to integrate into the disjointed career demands of their workplace and the to-do lists filling their calendars:

  • Might they have a dear friend in the hospital with a terrible disease?
  • Might they have just learned one friend is getting divorced and another divorced a year ago in silence?
  • Might they be looking for ways to support people living far away whose lives are being devastated by a natural disaster?
  • Might they have bet heavily on a seemingly safe investment and lost enormously in its bankruptcy?
  • Might they have heard from the IRS that no matter how careful they were on their tax filings they are being audited?
  • Might they have recently discovered their retirement savings will not sustain them as they had planned for decades?
  • Might they have signed up for a critical deadline at work that is no longer achievable?

Don’t fret; odds are not all of this is likely to happen, at least not at the same time. Yet no matter how well things may be going or appear to be going for someone, you can be assured strife of some sort is lurking behind the curtain. None of us are invincible. None of us can entirely hide from adversity.

You never know any of this is happening to someone until it is revealed—and often it is never revealed, or revealed so long after it occurred you can be of no help. Other times it is you who are overwhelmed by the conflicts hidden from others. Life’s twists and turns find us all. We all have stories no different from tales we read, built on conflict, secrets, revelations, and resolutions.

Some people are better at maintaining the status quo no matter how hard they are being side-swiped in the dark. You know that person at work who seems superhuman, who just keeps delivering and never utters a peep about any kind of distraction or digression. You ask yourself how that person pulls it off. You wonder if such stoicism is sustainable.

Often these “superheroes” (or robots) are not as bulletproof as you think. They might just be very good at separating their life into components, ruling out clouding aspects of conflict to focus on the task at hand. That’s a skill, one that can be developed. Those who are particularly good at it know one thing for certain: it is not a magical power. It does not come with unlimited gas in the tank. It’s a bridge, and while it can be a long one, the beams supporting it are not infinite in strength.

Devising compartments is a coping strategy. Almost everyone figures out how to do this to survive, some better than others. When someone is too good at it, we might think them cold-hearted. That may seem an apt critique in the throes of emotional exhaustion, but it may not be a warranted conclusion.

When we segment our lives into compartments, we attempt to deal with difficult things separately, one at a time, one hour and one day at a time.

The problem with these compartments is that no matter how well we think we construct them, they all have not-so-secret wormholes connecting them. They send messages to each other through an impenetrable network. They shares walls of the same real estate. Those walls are thin by design.

Compartments are awkward. The storyteller knows this, which is why we listen to the storyteller. When the storyteller is ourself, there is all the more reason to listen.

Sometimes I think of song lyrics that have resonated with me and helped me develop perspectives on the compartments of my own life and those I observe in others. In his first solo album in 1984, Roger Waters of Pink Floyd wrote a very simple phrase that has stuck with me:

I recognize myself in every stranger’s eyes.

These simple words of reflection and contemplation put us all on the same playing field. When you take in the faces you pass along the street, each one constitutes a life that likely contains the same levels of success and failure, bonding and betrayal, health and illness, triumph and capitulation. The same holds true for school, for work, for community service, for the organizations you join for camaraderie and insight.

You don’t know the stories of the people around you any more than they know yours. Those stories are difficult and complex. The question is whether the obstacles in those stories will be overwhelming.

Sometimes you can help. More often you really can’t. When you integrate the compartments of your life with theirs, you can always move toward a path of shared understanding.

If you recognize the breakdown of artificial deconstruction in tales of fiction, you can recognize it in the real people around you. More important, you can trust yourself to see it in your own machinations. When you acknowledge the connections in your own compartments, they cease to be traps. That’s when compartments become shared spaces. That’s when real character building begins.


Photo: Pixabay


Comfortably Numb, Stupidly Unashamed

I have been agonizing for weeks whether to write about Rielle Hunter.  The notion of a single additional millisecond consumed by the public on this media danse macabre peels the skin from my typing fingers.  Still I need to share a few words, less about what’s happened, more about how troubled I am with our inability to look away from the body.

Rielle Hunter is not a celebrity, except that she is.  She had a sexual relationship with a married man.  She got pregnant.  She chose to have a baby.  In all sanity, it ends there.  Give the child the slimmest chance at a sane life.  Be with the child’s father, don’t be with the child’s father, just go away quietly and be a good mom.  How hard is that?

Apparently it’s hard because there’s money at stake.  As fate would have it, the father of her child was once a party primary candidate for President of the United States, and then the ticket’s Vice Presidential candidate in a national election.  How about that.  His wife happened to have cancer at the time of both the election and the affair.  Now she has passed away.  He happened to try to hide the affair from his wife and may have crossed a few lines in doing so, enough to get him hauled into court and tried, although not convicted.  Okay, it has to end there.  Give the child a shot at any kind of normal life.  Preserve any fragment of dignity left for mom and dad.  Separate your private life from public spectacle, at least so the public does not have to disgrace itself.

Nope, there’s real money at stake.  She cannot help herself, she is cashing in.  We are letting her cash in.  She didn’t take her fifteen minutes of fame, we are giving it to her.  We cannot seem to help ourselves any more than she can.

I am not reading the book.  I am not watching the television interviews.  Ms. Hunter has nothing important to say, not a word of value will cross her lips.  Yet I can’t miss her, she’s everywhere.  Why does anyone care?  Why do we feed Piers Morgan’s hunger for this flavor of anesthesia by subscribing to it?

It’s supply and demand, free-market capitalism, 100% free speech, no law against it.  Nope, don’t want to regulate it.  Nope, don’t want to restrict it.  Completely agree.

It’s still icky.

Criticize me if you wish for condemning a book I have not read, but if this is a book, we have forgotten what it means to read.  There are an infinite number of interesting topics to ponder and curious events to discuss — the mending of our nation’s polarization, Europe’s seesaw economic outlook, interest rate fixing scandals, Wall Street arbitrage incinerating millions of dollars on derivative trades, heartening private sector innovation at wondrous new companies like SpaceX, lower gas prices for summer, a new Aaron Sorkin show on HBO, and a new novel by Kurt Andersen.

In 1992 Roger Waters produced his last solo album called Amused to Death, inspired by Neil Postman’s 1985 landmark book about the grinding impact of media on our critical thinking abilities.  It was dark, even for Roger, and it didn’t do too well.  It was about a monkey watching TV, just changing the channels on the TV, over and over, through an invasion of our planet by other-worldly creatures observing our demise, until the apocalyptic concluding refrain, “This species has amused itself to death.”  Both Postman’s book and Waters’ album preceded the commercial internet, and their observations were anything but unique.  But when I saw Rielle Hunter on her book cover staring at me from a display shelf, suggesting there could be any reason for me to buy and read her transcribed words, all I could hear was that refrain: This Species Has Amused Itself to Death.

Well, we’re still here, so not yet, right?  We can pay attention to more important things if we want, no shortage of free will to be entertained.  We all have our own ideas about what’s relevant.  News.  Politics.  Music.  Family.  Sports.  Pets.  Who’s to judge?  Does it matter that Entertainment Tonight fills a full hour following every 23 with fluff we used to dismiss as tabloid?  Is there any way that hour could be better used, perhaps to learn the name of a local candidate running for State Assembly or why Shakespeare wrote The Merchant of Venice?  Maybe not, but it’s bugging me, mostly because I once campaigned for John Edwards and believed he could have been a decent Vice President and/or President of the United States.  Now I feel ashamed — ashamed that I was ever on this bandwagon, ashamed that I was duped by lies, ashamed that he denied a child he fathered and can’t take that back, ashamed that we are still paying attention to the mother of that child.  I don’t like the way this feels, and I want it somehow, at some level, to stop.  That’s my problem.

This one notches beyond tabloid, because the clever maestro Ms. Hunter has made an active choice to compose opportunistically despite the requisite price.  She is fully aware of the stakes, the trade, the auction, and the orchestrated bait.  Still this compromise of judgment is not Rielle Hunter’s problem.  It’s not John Edwards’ problem.  This is our problem.  I am picking on them to make a point, an egregious case that is emblematic of serial apathy.  If we can’t help ourselves and just keep gobbling up this gunk,  then in an amiable daze we hand wealth to those who least deserve it, financial reward for nothing earned, nourishing amusement an abandoned aspiration.  Our thoughts turn to mush, and there we sit on the cold floor tile, trapped again in a Waters’ refrain, banging our hearts against The Wall until we are Comfortably Numb.

This species can do so much better than that.  Really, we can.