Chekhov’s “The Party” as a Study in Non-FIML

“He was probably thinking, as he looked at her, of his farm, of solitude, and — who knows? — perhaps he was even thinking how snug and cosy life would be at the farm if his wife had been this girl – young, pure, fresh, not corrupted by higher education, not with child. . . .”

“Listening to her husband, Olga Mihalovna, for some reason, thought of her dowry. ‘And the time will come, I suppose,’ she thought, ‘when he will not forgive me for being richer than he.'”

“Saying this, Pyotr Dmitritch picked up his pillow and walked out of the bedroom. Olga Mihalovna had not foreseen this. For some minutes she remained silent with her mouth open, trembling all over and looking at the door by which her husband had gone out, and trying to understand what it meant. Was this one of the devices to which deceitful people have recourse when they are in the wrong, or was it a deliberate insult aimed at her pride? How was she to take it?”

This short story by Anton Chekhov (linked below) seems almost tailor-made for a FIML analysis. We can watch Olga’s neurotic interpretations as they arise, and it is tantalizing to imagine what kind of stew is brewing in Pyotr’s mind. Readers with any grasp on the basics of FIML practice will likely feel a sense of frustration as they watch these two characters flail through the evening with no effective way to check their interpretations.

The Party

Non-FIML Bonding Phenomenon, #1

Non-FIML Bonding can be well-intentioned, but is not practiced with the specific aim of fostering clear, conscious, honest communication with another person.
 
The kind of Non-FIML Bonding I’d like to introduce here will tentatively be referred to as “Shallow Insight”.
 
Shallow Insight may be defined as the open, recurring, and oftentimes eager admission of some perceived character flaw, weakness, deficiency, or habit that is never accompanied by any real intention to change. The mere recognition and acknowledgement of the flaw is seen as being socially appropriate or even indicative of deep self-knowledge, and is therefore considered sufficient, poetic, possibly heroic.
 
This phenomenon can be variously interpreted:
 
As a cultural vestige of Christianity, with its emphasis on humility, confession of sins, penitance, etc.
 
As revealing of a human tendency to see ourselves in terms of dramatic narratives. It is an age-old device in drama to present a character as having a tragic flaw or as making a fatal error in judgement. This is a quick and easy way to turn a plot, make a point, elicit sympathy. We have all had so much exposure to this kind of thing – not only in drama but film and literature too – it is no surprise that we might tend to mimic the form in our own autobiographies, casting ourselves as tragic heroes with a sorrowful secret as a central feature of our being.
 
As an easy way of generating feelings of closeness with another person. By entrusting someone else with highly personal information about yourself, especially if it is embarrassing and/or unflattering, you create a private world with them.
 
From a modern psychological perspective, as a defense mechanism, whereby admitting to a problematic behavior or thought pattern paradoxically allows it to continue. An alcoholic, for instance, may be able to forestall abandonment by repeatedly admitting to his interlocutor(s) that he is aware of his drinking problem and is disgusted with himself.

As a socially expedient gesture of submission. The psych-stream underlying this might sound something like: “You are right and I am wrong. I am always wrong. You are so much smarter than I am. I admit it. I give you the gift of dominance. Okay? Now, please like me and accept me.”

As a badge of genuineness. “Everything is a mix of good and bad, including me.”

Details

Most humans enjoy precision-work. If you have a hobby that you’re at all serious about, you probably know what I mean.

If you’re into riding motorcycles, you probably spend significant time and energy tuning up your machine, all the while paying great attention to very small details. You may enjoy discussing at length with other motorcycle aficionados topics like what is the perfect tire pressure. You may even enjoy massaging your bike with a super-soft microfiber cloth to remove the tiniest smudges.

If you’re a writer, you probably take great care in choosing your words and constructing your sentences. You probably have a dictionary and thesaurus on hand and refer to them often. Many writers enjoy having others look at their work so they can get useful feedback and suggestions. I would be surprised if there’s a writer out there who doesn’t read over their work numerous times before they consider it done.

If you’re a clothing designer, you have probably agonized over such things as: Mauve or dusty rose? Scallop or picot edging? 3/4-sleeve or full-length? You may have called up a fellow enthusiast at some weird hour to consult with them on how to execute such-and-such a stitch perfectly. Of course your sewing machine is oiled on a regular basis.

You get the idea.

So the problem is not that humans don’t enjoy examining and discussing small details. The problem is that we have not learned to apply our detail-orientedness to the realm of interpersonal communication.

Strangely, it seems that there is nothing we humans are more terrified of than the prospect of asking that person who is supposed to be our beloved, “what was in your mind when you said that?” or “why did you choose that word?” And yet we’ll express great curiosity as to why so-and-so from our gardening club prefers to grow amish paste tomatoes over san marzanos. We are willing and eager to discuss such matters in depth.

Why does it never seem to occur to us that we might treat communication with our beloved more as we treat our beloved hobbies?

Eschewing FIML-type analysis and attention to detail in our interpersonal communication and choosing instead to groove on feelings of love might seem good enough or even wonderful. And perhaps it is. But FIML says there’s more available.

More thoughts on “Empathy”

It seems that many individuals who self-describe as “empathetic” think of empathy as a talent they have for “reading people”, or knowing what others are thinking without having to ask. I think this is a huge mistake that can actually lead such people to have less empathy over time. To me it seems much more appropriate to think of empathy not as a talent one possesses but as a desire to understand other people. If we think of it this way then the ever-problematic “I know” becomes “I want to know.”

If empathy is conceived as an interest or desire, it is more likely to be developed and pursued. If, however, it is conceived as a static quality or talent, it will be taken for granted, misapplied, and probably warped into just another form of hubris.

I wonder what a self-described “empathetic” might learn from FIML. I have a feeling many of them would find that they’re not so good at “reading” others after all. Perhaps they are just adept at getting along in some sort of professional capacity and have generalized their confidence about that to other social realms.

As FIML has shown me and my partner over and over again, we are comically substandard at knowing what the other is thinking. But I hope the fact that we want to know means we have empathy for one another.

Be sure to read or re-read our previous post entitled “Theory of Mind and FIML” for a much more comprehensive treatment of this subject.

Examples of FIML Practice: Tomato Sauce

It’s less than a week before the winter solstice and our vegetable garden continues to support a few hangers-on such as cabbages, arugula, and leeks. But the bounty of summer is a distant memory. And so we are now starting to dig into our pantry of home-canned goods.

I have only been gardening for a few years and canning for even less. I have not yet gotten to the point where I can reliably produce the very high yields I desire. My insecurity about this is what primed me for a neurotic reaction the other night.

In an effort to conserve our limited supply of homemade tomato sauce from our own homegrown tomatoes, we occasionally use store-bought sauce instead. This is what we did the other night. When we sat down to eat, my partner almost immediately began commenting on the dinner. “Your sauce is so much better,” he said. And then a few bites later, “This store-bought sauce just doesn’t make me feel as good as yours does…there’s just no substitute for homegrown tomatoes.”

Neurotic human that I am, I could not help taking these comments as a reminder of my failure to grow enough tomatoes so that we could have homemade sauce as often as we wanted, which turns out to be pretty often. I was pretty sure that he wasnt intending to remind me of my failures as a gardener. But not being totally sure, I responded by growing a little bit sullen and wishing he would stop making those comments.

“Yes, yes, I know homemade sauce is better. Don’t worry, I’ll grow enough tomatoes next year. What else can I say? For now, can’t we just enjoy our dinner?” I said, probably somewhat sharply.

At this point we commenced with a FIML analysis, during which I learned that my partner had only been trying to compliment me when he made those comments. The rational part of my mind had suspected this, but FIML gave me a way to make sure, so that I wouldn’t leave the table believing that I might have been indirectly scolded. The exchange went something like this:

Him: OK, stop. What is in your mind right now? Why do you sound upset?

Me: I just wonder why you keep making those comments. I think the sauce tastes good.

Him: It does taste good. I was only commenting in that way to emphasize how much better yours is.

Me: But we know that homemade sauce is always going to be better. I guess I’m wondering if maybe you’re subtly grousing about my not having made enough to fully stock the pantry?

Him: No, not at all.

Me: So, there’s no part of you that’s criticizing me for not having grown enough tomatoes last summer?

Him: No, there’s none of that whatsoever. I was simply trying to say, “Honey, your tomato sauce is far better than any commercial sauce and I really appreciate it.”

Now, this is not just some typical make-up session where the offending party says what s/he thinks the other person wants to hear in order to smooth things over. This is a FIML exchange in which I have the opportunity to find out whether my suspicions are true about what my partner is thinking. Prerequisite to FIML are mutual agreements to tell the truth and to believe the other person. So, I can be confident that my partner is telling the truth (“No, I was not criticizing you”) and he can be confident that I believe him (“OK, then I guess I was just being neurotic”).

In that particular exchange I was shown that what I had reacted to was a phantom in my own mind. It had nothing to do with what my partner was thinking.

What is FIML? Part 1

FIML is different from anything you’ve done before. Our society, as well as probably every other society that has ever existed, offers no real encouragement or training in this type of communication. Consequently, when you first read about FIML you may struggle to fit it into some familiar category. Well, here are some:

Science – FIML can be conceived as a sort of interpersonal scientific method.

Like science, the process is rational and can be explained to, and practiced by, anyone. It is not the exclusive property of some esoteric priestly class.

FIML is based on data. In this case, the data is the contents of your mind and that of your partner. You and your partner will attempt to be objective about these data and check your interpretations against each other.

FIML does not ask the practitioner to banish his/her emotions, just as “science” makes no such request of the scientist. Rather, the point is to “hold your emotions in abeyance” while data is gathered, i.e., while you ask your partner what they meant.

It is considered good science to test a hypothesis and find out that it’s wrong. Likewise in FIML, you will find that your interpretations about what the other person said/meant will many times be proved wrong, or at least partially wrong, when you “test” them, i.e. query your partner.

FIML inquiries are not scientific experiments that can be replicated by others. We are dealing with the unique dynamics between unique individuals. However, the general results of increased interpersonal understanding and decreased neuroticism should be replicable by anyone, if FIML is practiced correctly.

Romance – This may be hard to see at first, but FIML is indeed deeply romantic. By querying your partner, you will gain insights that are simply impossible under the constraints of ordinary communication. You will come to know him/her better.

But at the same time, you will become more aware of how little you know.

You will find over and over again that your neurotic interpretations – about what the other person meant when they said this or what they were thinking when they did that – are wrong. The self-centered tales you’ve woven will unravel as neurotic “certainty” is replaced by doubt. You will be filled with a most pleasant sense of disorientation.

You will begin to see your partner as a continually unfolding, tantalizing mystery. And that’s exactly what they are. What could be more romantic?

Entertainment – Humans spend lots of time and money to be entertained. Movies, TV shows, concerts, art galleries, sporting events, strip clubs, restaurant meals, vacations… Friends, couples and family members commonly engage in these kinds of activities together, activities that almost seem designed to supplant real communication between people.

I would love to better understand why we’re like this but that’s a topic for another post.

What I want to say here is that FIML is not just to be thought of as some serious endeavor. It is also a lot of fun. The little dramas you uncover/create with your partner will be much more interesting than anything on TV or in the movies. Don’t be surprised if those dramas start to appear cartoonishly simplistic by comparison.

You will gradually acquire a more appropriate sense of your own ridiculousness.

Perhaps most significantly: Insofar as FIML is a form of entertainment, it is one that you and your partner actively engage in. You will not just be sitting there, passively absorbing someone else’s ideas.

The Shaming of the Shrew

Contemporary American culture tells us that we’re supposed to function as free, autonomous, self-sufficient individuals. Certain behavioral guidelines and proscriptions have arisen to support this ideal. They exert tremendous influence over how we conduct our interpersonal relationships.

For example, we are not supposed to be clingy or needy. We are supposed to allow our loved ones to “have their own space”. We should be “cool” and not interfere too much. We are definitely not supposed to nag.

As long as they are properly applied, these proscriptions can be seen positively as facilitating healthy consideration for the needs of the other. But hypertrophied and over-applied, as no doubt they often are, they present a barrier to communication and true intimacy, thus rendering FIML very difficult or even impossible.

Terrified of being thought clingy, needy, or dependent, we may adopt a position of anti-clinginess; we may go so far in that direction that we end up isolating ourselves and neglecting our partners.

The idea that our loved ones should be allowed their own space may get twisted into a policy of spending lots of time apart, though deep down we may wonder at the reason for this.

The fear of being a nag (or “controlling” or a “shrew”) may cause us to repress our natural desire to better understand the other person, discouraging us from asking FIML-type questions. Or any questions at all.

FIML depends on our ability to ask questions. Moreover, it depends on our being able to query each other about trivial subjects during mildly difficult moments. This might sound easy. But it’s my guess that many or most of us, if we pay attention, will be able to recognize those culturally programmed voices speaking through us, effectively sabotaging us, at crucial moments that would be ripe for FIML practice. The voices might say things like: “Drop it, it’s not important”; “Don’t ask annoying questions”; “I’m so glad s/he doesn’t bother me with annoying questions”; “Understand Your Man”; “Oh well, she must be PMS-ing”.

Once you see it for what it is, it’s not terribly difficult to disentangle from this kind of programming. But in order to do FIML you may have to struggle against it for a while, especially at first.