adventures in making stuff with Daniel Higginbotham

Look Into My Eyes

10 January 2010

My first attempt to give myself super powers merely gave me sore palms. Riding in the back of my mother’s beater as a five-year-old, I focused sunlight on the center of each hand using a magnifying glass likely found in a cereal box. After I was “charged up” I would point at trees, cars, fire hydrants, and other hapless objects and think to myself, “In five years, that thing’s going to burst into flames.”

A couple years later I set out to hypnotize people. Wagging a watch in front of my friends’ faces and intoning “You are getting very sleepy” had little effect. By that time I could read well enough to consume hypnosis books at the local library. I learned to put myself in a trance, making myself unable to lift my own arm. Making yourself immobile didn’t seem suitably spectacular for a super power, so I moved on to practical endeavors like building electric motors and crystal radios.

Still, the promise of hypnosis is compelling in a deep, almost primordial way. Since the time of our earliest ancestors, we humans have believed in the power to manipulate the world — our environments, our fellow humans, and ourselves — with mere words. The ability to wreak devastation or relieve suffering with spells and incantations still captures our imaginations. What I would give to be able to say “abodicus immaculatus” and have my house cleaned!

Many even believe in this power literally, especially when it comes to religion. Here in America, the majority still believe that prayer offers us a direct link to God, and many believe that saying prayers can relieve illness or financial hardship. One sect of Buddhism holds that you merely need to recite a prayer, even without meaning it sincerely, and after death you’ll exist in nirvana as a buddha on a golden lotus for all eternity, while in ancient Jewish tradition pronouncing YHWH, one of the names of God, was punishable by death.

Our species is at once terrified of what words can do and faithful in their power to heal and save, and hypnosis is still viewed in both these lights. A quick google search for “evil hypnosis” yields this quote: “It is obvious that hypnosis is lethal if used for evil purposes.” If you’re willing to take this risk, you’ll find that hypnosis can help with “weight loss, smoking cessation, pain management, public speaking, creativity, astral travel, self confidence” and on and on and on.

I began seriously trying to learn hypnosis again in high school, mostly out of curiosity. My interest was piqued after reading an essay by Aldous Huxley where he described the beneficent uses and effectiveness of hypnosis. I remember thinking to myself, “If he thinks it’s so great then maybe there’s something to it.” So once again I immersed myself in hypnosis books, this time with a realistic idea of what hypnosis can accomplish. None of my family would submit themselves to my budding powers, so it wasn’t until college that I actually got a chance to try and hypnotize someone.

After a lot of badgering, my new friend Lea agreed to be hypnotized. One night we went to her dorm room and she lied on her bed while I sat nearby and tried going through a script. We both tried not to laugh when the script had me saying “Remember: you are in control. You are in the driver’s seat” over and over in my best monotone. Lea never did get hypnotized all the way, but she said afterward that she became deeply relaxed and that it felt good. Even if I wasn’t 100% successful, the experience was thrilling.

However, the real power of words was revealed years later when I deeply hurt Lea without realizing it. She had come to visit me in the house we had originally rented together after our first year of college. During our year of college and co-habitating we went through some crazy, crazy stuff together — family problems, relationship problems, and one surreal night at the hotel where I worked involving college applications, Aerosmith, gun shots, and flooding — and we’d become great friends. So it made me really happy that she was staying with me and we’d get to spend time together. Yet, one morning a few days after she arrived, she was gone.

The previous night we’d had a discussion about politics — healthcare, actually — and I acted like a complete ass. I didn’t just disagree, I was strident and contemptuous in my disagreement. I cut her off, raised my voice, acting in a way no friend should act. Looking back now, my behavior seems even more ridiculous because my views on healthcare have completely changed, matching hers.

Eventually we smoothed things out and we remain great friends, but I’ve tried not to forget the lesson of that experience. Lea had left a note that said I must think her stupid to say some of the things I did. I’ve never thought Lea stupid, but I was so concerned with making my points that I succeeded only in pushing her away, rather than connecting with her and understanding her, as I would try to do now.

Over time I’ve come to appreciate the inescapability of the fact that we’re islands of consciousness, that we are forever bound to see the world from within our skulls. Some people claim that they’ve achieved a feeling of oneness with all of humanity, but I certainly never have. It’s often a struggle to bridge the vast gap between my island and the islands of those I love most, to say nothing of acquaintances or strangers. Words are a material — perhaps the most abundant — for building those bridges, or destroying them.

Last year I saw a different friend for the first time in five years. We had been through a lot together and it made me more than happy to see him, but it quickly became obvious he had changed. The morning after arriving he asked, “Hey is there a place around here I can get some Bud Light?” For the remainder of his stay he almost always had a drink with him. Over six days he drank at least thirty-six cans of beer, plus some bottles here and there. Despite the amount he drank he seemed pretty normal, and I probably wouldn’t have even known if I hadn’t seen the cases he bought.

Except one night when we were driving home from the beach. My friend is a very kind, very gentle person. But that night his voice got louder and his speech slurred as he inexplicably argued with me over something that had happened nine years ago. I was scared that night but more scared the next day when he didn’t remember what happened.

Eventually I tried to talk to him about his drinking. I told him it worried me, that even if he considered himself a functioning alcoholic that it was unhealthy for him and dangerous. Looking back, it’s almost like I can see my words soaring toward him, shining and proud and certain. And I can see them falling, can see them limping forward to die at his feet.

I wasn’t able to persuade my friend at all, and I’m afraid that I may have alienated him. What could I have said differently? “Look into my eyes…”

I’ll always love him, I’ll always care about him, and I’ll always be his friend. Hopefully I’ll get a chance to regain his trust. In the mean time, I’m not as concerned with “wielding” my words. I’m cultivating the ability to really listen – not just to what’s said, but to what lies beneath. And in this endeavor, the words of James Merrill have left their mark on me:

“Salt lick big as a fist, heart, hoard
Of self one grew up prizing above rubies —
To feel it even by a grain dissolved…”

Rather than inflicting my “hoard of self” upon people by insisting on my cleverness, my wisdom, or my rightness; rather than hailing others from my superior position, I’m learning to open the fist of my heart and reach out.