What does mom like to eat? And other mysteries of family life

The briefest of touching little thoughts: Last Sunday, I traveled with the young lady to my home to upstate New York to visit my parents (and dog) for mother’s day. Hearing of my imminent arrival, my mother had naturally inquired which of my favorite dinners she should prepare for my first evening at home. When I told the young lady this, she proposed a radical idea: Perhaps, on the second night, we (the young lady and I) should prepare her (my mother) her favorite dish. “What does your mom like to eat?” asked the young lady.

The truth is, I had, and still have, no idea about my mom’s food preferences whatsoever. I can’t name a single food she doesn’t like; am totally naive regarding her attitudes toward Indian food; and can’t say what she would prefer between filet mignon and angel hair pasta.

Does this mean that I am a bad son? Very possibly. But allow me a short argument in my defense.

In a strange way, ignorance of another’s preferences, desires, idiosyncracies, intentions — their subjectivity and interiority, to use the pretentiously academese terms — can be a product of those most deeply loving relationships represented within a family. Let us imagine a graph with “extent of love and closeness” on the x-axis and “attention to the other’s subjectivity” on the y-axis. Our relationship with a stranger — say, a barista we will never see again — registers a zero on both the x and y. We treat the barista, unfortunately, primarily as an instrumentalized means to the end of getting our coffee — we don’t wonder much about his political views or taste preferences. But as we start to move out along the x-axis, toward relatively closer, more loving relationships, our y-value, attention to the other’s interiority, rises. Consider a boss we admire and aspire to imitate, a crush we wish to date, a prospective buddy with whom we wish to become closer — we are extremely interested in getting inside each person’s head; we are more attentive to, and more easily able to remember, what they say and what that evidences about them. We are this way with people we admire, because we wish to more fruitfully interact with them; because we wish to be able to express our respect for them and satisfy their preferences; and because they are still foreign enough to us that it makes sense to stand back and look at them with curiosity.

But as we move further down the x-axis, toward the closest and most loving possible relationship, I submit that our y-value reverses its upward trend, and begins to decline. Family members don’t really behave like distinct individuals hoping to learn what they can about each other and get inside each other’s heads. Once we become sufficiently close with a person — particularly when, as with our parents, we have been infinitely close since birth — they are no longer foreign enough that it makes sense for us to stand back and ask ourselves questions about them. Mom is not a person to be learned about — she is, rather, a permanent quality of the universe, both as essential and as unexotic and uncurious as oxygen.

But, much more broadly and interestingly, the other thing going on here is that family members don’t really operate as, or even conceive of each other as, separate and distinct individuals. Think of it this way: If you’re going to ask a crush to a movie, you’ll really want to figure out what kind of movies (s)he likes. You think, “This person is a distinct and independent person, whom I should approach with respect for that; I should work to satisfy his/her preferences.” But this isn’t how family members decide what movie to see. The decision is a bit more — to use a slippery word — organic. Your mother’s preferences, goals, intentions — her entire interiority — are bound up in yours. It doesn’t make sense to ask what her distinct, individual preferences are, because they are defined in terms of your own. The family decides what movie to see through a sort of more mysterious process in which everybody is thinking about the preferences of the others, which preferences are themselves determined by the others’ preferences. Out of this process, which is not like bargaining or negotiating or contracting, a communal preference arises.

And so it’s no wonder that I, at 23, have no idea what kind of movies my mom likes. And so, also, perhaps we should not be so scandalized by the sometimes thoughtless attitude children can have toward their own parents. The children don’t always think about what their parents want and like, because what their parents want and like is what the children want and like. So the egotistical, following-his-happiness child is, rather curiously, doing the most loving thing — doing just what his parents want.

I don’t know what my mother likes to eat — or how her tastes differ from mine — because I have never been able to conceive of her as a curious other person. My own food preferences were formed by what she choose to cook and feed me from my birth. Those meals, in turn, became regular features, and other meals were eliminated, long ago, perhaps through a single, now-forgotten declaration of liking or disliking from any one of six family members. Through this organic process of piecemeal adjustments — of food choices forming tastes, and individuals’ tastes then going back and reforming food choices — we have unconsciously arrived at a set of meals that all of us like, without any one of us being consciously aware of what, in particular, any other particular person particularly likes.

***

It’s a really hoary cliche that love and hate are two sides of the same coin. Allow me to take a stab at reconstructing this idea. I think that love and hatred are both relationships of possessiveness. In relationships of both love and hatred, the other’s subjectivity partially disappears. When we hate somebody, or if we hate even an entire group, we do not empathize with their pain; we do not acknowledge the legitimacy of their goals and intentions and aspirations and views. We have, in short, little interest in inhabiting their head. We implicitly feel that they properly belong to us, and should accordingly be submitted to our will. On an individual level, we feel outraged and humiliated by the successes of those we hate — we feel that we should have a veto on this success. For the anti-Semite, it is an outrage that a Jew has succeeded in public life without her permission. Physical violence flows from hatred for this same reason — we can only justify violence unto others when we feel that they are not entirely in possession of their own bodies, but that their bodies belong to, and are properly subordinated to, our own will.

This is very strong language, indeed, and so the specifics of hatred above obviously do not apply to love. But the basic relationship of possessiveness, of disappearing individual subjectivity and separateness, hold. When we merely admire somebody, as noted above, that is when we are most attentive to their subjectivity, most eager to meet their preferences, etc. When we are indifferent to somebody, like our barista, we conceive of them, in good Hegelian fashion, simply as separate, rights-bearing fellow citizens. Out of respect for them, we make the most eager and conscientious efforts to respect their autonomous sphere. But in a loving relationship, a boyfriend can guide his girlfriend by the waist across the street, she can pull him by the arm to speak to her cousin at a party, without either feeling it as a violation. Very clearly, it is only in the most loving, and the most hateful relationships, that even basic, physical tugs like these make sense. To be awkwardly explicit about it, a sexual relationship — in which pairs interact as physical bodies receiving and enacting desires upon one another — is the antipodal opposite of the Hegelian relationship among citizens, who interact as disembodied minds recognizing each others’ sovereign rights and contracting in the marketplace, etc. Sometimes, we even resent the successes of those we most wholly love, like we resent the successes of those we hate — because these successes are a reminder of their independence from us, and we feel that we are entitled to participate in everything about them. In other words, admiration looks like this: “I think you’re great, so I’m going to do everything I can to figure out what you want and satisfy that.” But love looks like this: “I conceive of you as a part of myself and myself as a part of you. So I can pull your arm and you can pull mine. And we’ll organically decided what movie to see together as a unit — not through a process of negotiation or contracting, for the same reason that it doesn’t make sense to talk about a person negotiating or contracting with himself.”

How do love and hate differ? My first idea was that in loving relationships, the possessiveness is mutual and bidirectional — i.e., we are willingly possessed by as much as we possess those we love, while we only possess those we hate. But as I think more about it, I think even the hater feels himself to be possessed. Ironically, we often feel the most cowered, ashamed, and moved by the judgments of those whom we most hate. So what’s the difference between love and hate? I guess the answer is a lot more mundane and boring sounding: Hate is destructive and love is creative in many different senses.

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