1) When I was a child, my mother couldn’t bear what a picky eater I was, or how interminably slow I was in doing the eating. As a result, she often set a timer. If I wasn’t finished eating by the time it dinged, I was punished – usually by having to go immediately to bed, and not being able to have dessert. Sometimes I got spanked with the fly swatter first, my mother’s favorite implement for leaving welts on the tender legs of her children. Sometimes I just got yelled at as I was sent off to bed in broad daylight. Sometimes I got lucky, and the dog would come around the table at just the right moment while my mother’s back was turned.
A few years ago, my sister reported that she had told her therapist about this hideous dinner ritual – and that her therapist expressed surprise that I didn’t have weight problems or an eating disorder.
I don’t know the criteria for an eating disorder, but I do know that those early childhood food experiences later gave way to compulsive (and fast) eating of the first order. I couldn’t stop eating until I was uncomfortably full, often even in pain. When I was a teenager, people marvelled at the skinny girl who could eat an entire large pizza by herself. Never mind that I spent the next few hours barely mobile. And before it was all quite digested, I’d do it again. Whatever the pathologies that drove me, I experienced it as a desire for food, and then a complete lack of satisfaction after having achieved it; I had to keep trying to sate the desire until I literally couldn’t hold anymore. I eat normal amounts of food these days, but am acutely aware of keeping the compulsion to eat in check (most of the time), and often of being unsatisfied by the supposed slaking of desire.
2) I was about 22 years old when I wrote one of my first “real” short stories. I wrote it in response to the battle I had been waging with extremes since adolescence. It was one of the manifestations of a new aspiration to be more balanced in my dealings with the world. I didn’t know that then. I thought it was about theater, in which I was (extremely) immersed at the time, I thought it was about artistic vision, I thought it was about sexism and gender roles. To some degree, it is about all those things. Looking back at it, though, I notice a theme running through it with which I’ve been unwittingly obsessed all my life.
Witness this line: “A surge swelled through her body, catching in her throat, and tears filled her eyes again. She put his hand in hers and wondered, what is this feeling, this wanting to consume my son in some way, this never being satisfied? She wanted to retard him, to nail him to her so he would be a very part of her.”
3) I wrote an essay in graduate school about Virginia Woolf’s novel, Mrs. Dalloway. The essay is entitled “The Moment Becomes Eternity” because I was honing in on Woolf’s perception and use of time in the novel.* If you had asked me at the time what I thought tied all of Woolf’s writing together – the grand theme of her life and work – I would have said that it was the impossibility of humans to ever fully know one another. Indeed, Mrs. Dalloway is a prime example of this theme working itself out in a novel. This theme of hers was the main thing that had caused me to reject Woolf when I had first read her work much earlier in my life, for it was “depressing.” It was only the other day, as my mind was rambling over all sorts of miscellany, that I understood that my idea about “the moment” in the novel is inextricably connected to that other idea of human (dis)connection. In Mrs. Dalloway, Woolf stretches moments of time into – as the title of my essay suggests – eternities. The moments are illustrated as that place in which we eternally connect with and “miss” each other in equal measure.
4) When I was still foolish enough to think that I could quit smoking by cutting back, ever so slowly and torturously, it seems that I made myself more miserable than I ever did by smoking, or by trying to quit all at once. No sooner had I taken the first drag of my allotted cigarette than I was actively discontent because I was thinking about how long it would be before I got to have the next one. So, as I was taking smoke into my lungs, I was desiring it again. In this way, I was never satisfied for even a split second.
Though these may seem like very disparate stories, they all illustrate an experience of what Mark Epstein calls “the gap” in his book, Open to Desire. Due to various circumstances in my life lately, I’ve had ample opportunity to contemplate the gap and the human response to it.
The gap, simplistically defined, is the space that exists between fulfilling a desire and actual satisfaction. As Epstein says, “desire always leaves us wanting more.” When my stomach was full to bursting and I was yet unsatisfied, I was experiencing the gap. When we desire so keenly to “be one” with another person and are disappointed in our inability to maintain that state, we are experiencing the gap. When we feel depressed at the notion that humans are incapable of truly knowing one another, we’re experiencing the gap. And, of course, when I was desiring the next cigarette even as I smoked the current one, I was wallowing miserably in the gap. It is desire’s raison d’etre to never be fully satisfied.
Epstein’s book represents a middle ground in Buddhist thought around desire. While many have interpreted the Buddha’s teachings to mean that desire is bad and must be eliminated before we can achieve happiness, enlightenment, contentment – whatever you want to call it – he argues for us to embrace desire without resisting the gap. In all the above scenarios, I was not simply experiencing the gap, but resisting it. And according to Epstein, this – not desire by itself – is the cause of our misery. What if we could simply dwell in the gap? What if we could just notice it – say, “ah, there it is, isn’t that interesting? Now, what can I learn from it about what it is to be human?”
One reason that I’m writing about this now is that I think I finally get it. I’ve known about the gap, have grappled with it for many years – though I never knew it as the gap. A few years ago, a friend sent me a postcard that shows a woman standing with a sign that says “my grip on life is rather loose.” For a long time, this friend and I would say “loose grip” to each other whenever one of us seemed to be getting anxious or holding on to something a little too tightly. We found it amusing, and sometimes it helped. Similarly, Mark Epstein talks of holding things that we desire in an open palm. One of my friends says that he practices this by holding a polished stone in each of his literally open palms. He has them no more or less with an open palm than he does with a closed fist. This is good stuff, I think, and can help us with the gap. But inevitably we will hold some of our desires in clenched fists, and the gap will get us. And then what? How can we benefit from being caught in the gap?
The other night, I was discussing this topic with two friends when one of them brought up the signs in the London underground. When stepping off the train, there is a gap between the train and the platform, and the signs warn passengers to “mind the gap.” When he said this, I thought that is exactly it. We must not be careless and we must not be fearful; we must simply mind the gap.
* A version of this essay is in my book, Sex, Death, & Empire.