It is a feeling that starts early in
life.  You are a toddler, fascinated
by watching a show with scary
animals on it, both afraid and drawn
to the danger at the same time.  Your
mother looks pensive at a camera
while you live in a small rent-
controlled New York City apartment
and she does not notice that you
are fascinated by the dangerous show
that is on public television.  And yet
it does not stop there.  Later on you
may find yourself feeling that a
situation is unpleasant and awkward
but you cannot quite entirely distance
yourself from it at the same time.  Maybe
you will find yourself in an awkward
sort of friendship with someone else
and communication will be spotty at
best and you will hover around that
person even though talking to him makes
you uncomfortable.  Maybe, if you are
particularly unfortunate, that person will
be me, and they will find you equally
unpleasant to be around and yet equally
fascinating at the same time.  And how
unfortunate is that, wasting so many years
of actually getting to know someone because
it is too awkward to move beyond the
ambivalent feeling you both have for each other
until there is no time left and you both go
your separate ways, only to repeat the experience
again with someone else.


This poem was definitely inspired by life, and really by the connection of several different facets of my life.  Some years ago, I took a trip with my mother and some friends to Portland’s art museum [1], where my mother and I lingered long looking at a pair of photographs that were of the same woman, taken twenty to thirty years apart.  In the second photograph, we see the woman as a mother with a toddler who is fascinated by the scary predator on the television while the mother looks pensively at the photographer and shows no attention to what her child is looking at.  For some reason the vision stuck with me, as I wondered what the photographer was trying to capture in the photo and why there were photos of the same person so far apart in time.  As it happens, I was reading a book last night on odd German words made up and explained by the author, and one of the words was bammelbegierde, a word defined by the author as an inexorable attraction to something that one simultaneously finds to be deeply unpleasant.

That ambivalent feeling, unfortunately, is one I know all too well.  Nor is it a feeling that is unique to me, I suppose.  There is often a lure to something that we know to be bad for us, but I consider that one of the lamentable aspects of our fallen human nature.  We see a line and even know intellectually (and from painful experience) that the line is there to protect us, but we want to cross the line because it’s there.  This feeling is somewhat different, though, and a feeling that I think (and hope) is somewhat more unusual.  What can explain the attraction to something that makes us unpleasant?  I know myself to be a fairly complicated person, and I also know that even if my own emotional life is something that is usually subterranean and sometimes even assumed not to exist, I feel deeply but also usually in a deeply conflicted way.  And it is that deeply conflicted emotional state that this word captures so well, and is a feeling I deeply understand because hardly anything I feel is straightforward.

What is one to do about this?  I suppose, speaking for myself personally, since I am not aware of just how common this complicated feeling is, that the main reason I persist in this sort of feeling is because I think there might be something worthwhile on the other side of it.  I assume that my own persistent feelings of awkwardness [2] are my own issue, and that if those could be overcome, and if I could feel safe and comfortable around other people that the unpleasant feeling would be overcome by the more persistent fondness and attraction and respect and affection that I would have with the other person involved.  I do not figure that any intimate relationship I have with any woman is going to be easy–I know myself far too well to expect that–but I do expect the effort at overcoming my own issues will be worth it.  I would also assume that it would be worth it on the other side as well, given the fact that I tend to be interested in ladies who are themselves spectacularly awkward in their own ways.

That is to say, I think the reason why there is often an inexorable attraction on the part of some (myself included) to that which makes us feel unpleasant is because there is the hope of something worthwhile on the other side of that discomfort.  There are many different types of discomfort and unpleasant feelings that we have.  Some of them result from our own experiences and our own background, the baggage we invariably bring to whatever situation we find ourselves in.  Some of them result from the general awkwardness and discomfort of being out of our comfort zone.  And some of them result from the specific awkwardness of the situations we find ourselves in.  Ultimately, when we are dealing with interactions we have with other people, we have to decide whether or not it is worthwhile to take the time and effort to overcome what is unpleasant at first, and whether that person is worth that investment so that we may be comfortable with them and enjoy their company.  Sometimes we may choose to endure quite a long period of coming to terms with someone else because we think it worthwhile, and sometimes we may decide that any interaction or situation that does not pay off quickly is not worth dealing with.  Sometimes two parties will come to different conclusions on the desirability of overcoming the unpleasantness to between them, where one party wants to draw closer and the other wants to go very far away.  But that’s life.


[2] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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