A Life or Death Struggle with Dragons

Reveal too much and you expose the fact that you’re a bore. Reveal too little and you fail to spur even a shred of excitement in others about yourself. Yet the amount to reveal that’s “just right” is incalculable; it’s simply a wild guess. And the possibility exists, of course, that there is no “just right.” It’s entirely possible that others’ interest in you is an accident, pure and simple; that curiosity easily can be replaced by other sensations like thirst or exhaustion or craving for an Italian sausage. So, in that context, is underexposure any worse than invisibility? Is overexposure any more damaging than a misinterpreted smile?

My point is this: In the end, it doesn’t matter what you say or what you don’t say. It doesn’t matter what you express or what you hold close. It doesn’t matter what you reveal or what you hide. Any interest sparked by any piece of it will disappear in the mist of time. Or it will succumb to more interesting alternatives. None of what we cling to matters.  At least not to anyone but ourselves. We wish it were not so, because we’re “not like that.” But we are. Or if we’re not, almost everyone else is.


Real engagement is possible only between two people at a time. Any more than two and it becomes a competition for attention. Limited to two, though, conversations can become intensely personal, if we let it happen naturally. But even limited conversations can be intensely superficial, as if one or more of the participants are unwilling to take the risk of revealing themselves, for fear of exposing weakness or fragile emotions. We are afraid. Afraid to be ourselves, lest that persona be embarrassing or ostracized or something else equally likely to trigger reactions in others that will cause us pain.

The problem with conversations, in general, is that one participant may be deeply interested in a “serious” topic, while the other’s interest may focus, at that moment, on what to make for dinner. A connection between the two can be made, but it will be a connection rife with psychosis; leading, for example, to an absurd unspoken question: “Can broccoli feel its life slip away while it cooks in the steamer?”  Yes, it’s absurd, but it’s about as deep as some conversations get, even those intended to mine intimate thoughts between people.

Conversations with strangers can be more informative than conversations with close friends, because strangers are more likely to listen more intently. That may seem intuitively backward, but it’s not. Strangers know they must pay close attention because the normal cues of inflection, tone of voice, volume, accompanying facial expressions, etc. are foreign. Naturally, then, they are more keenly attuned to what is being communicated. When friends engage in conversation, they tend to anticipate what will be said as much as (or more than) they actually listen to learn what will be said. Friends assume a great deal about one another. That’s why friendships sometimes dissolve; it’s nothing sinister, it’s just a matter of unfortunate, but natural, decay.


Jokes or witticisms can be troubling. They can suggest truths we do not want to hear or they can expose attitudes we’d rather not witness. Even when their message is unintentional, it can be loud and precise. A joke intended as a friendly jab can deliver a punch in the gut—so hard that one’s internal organs are bruised or ruptured or dissolved into masses of nerve-endings that can deliver to the brain only messages of pain. The same is true, of course, of innocent comments. Under a therapist’s “psychological microscope,” they may not be innocent at all but, rather,  sharpened claws itching to draw blood; to shred tissue and bone.

So we either tiptoe about, fearing we will offend through our accidental (or not) revelations, or we stumble through the China shop, wearing a blindfold and combat boots. In either case, the fight or flight response grows in intensity, with flight seeming easier and more appealing than interactions that could draw blood. And so we flee, looking to find new places and new people to conceal the past. As if history can be erased. History cannot be erased, even when we write the textbooks and burn the historical novels. History remains, serving as the foundation for whatever we build today or tomorrow.


Despite the topics I’ve mused about this morning, my intent it to transform this day into one in which I can revel and enjoy. I will not allow reality to intervene in my pursuit of serenity. Even artificial serenity, purchased in the form of barely legal drugs and wildly legal liquids, is better than no serenity at all.

And now a couple of quotations about serenity, in the hope one or both of them will trigger an avalanche of the stuff:

What I dream of is an art of balance, of purity and serenity devoid of troubling or depressing subject matter – a soothing, calming influence on the mind, rather like a good armchair which provides relaxation from physical fatigue.

~ Henri Matisse ~


Decide that wherever you are, is the best place there is. Once you start comparing, there’s no end to it.

~ Sodo Yokoyama ~

What I think I’ve done this morning is this: I’ve tried to tear serenity from the chest of a dragon. The end of the day has the answer to whether I have been successful. I must wait, patiently, to learn whether I am at peace or must engage in a life or death struggle, again, with dragons.

About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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