Reflection 63: Learning Mandarin

Dale, my wife, and I were hiking the desert in Sedona, Arizona some years ago. Finding a cozy crevice in the rocks, we watched the sun set. Dale was enraptured, seemingly breathing in this glorious moment with every cell in her body. Me? I liked it. I noticed the beautiful colors and felt the soft desert breeze. Pretty soon, however, I was glancing at my watch, wondering when we would be leaving and where we’d go for dinner.

In a bookend scene, Dale and I are driving in the car and a song comes on – one of many that I carry around in my soul. Now, it is my turn to be transported. It seems to take over my very being, deeply soothing my body and brain. Every musical phrase is inside me. The words come pouring out of my mouth, not as remembered phrases, but from a deep place chiseled within my brain where they (like hundreds of other lyrics) seem ever ready to emerge as soon as this or that tune begins.

And Dale? She attends to the song – often at my urging – and does enjoy it. But with utter predictability, her attention wanders and she starts talking (a sacrilege in my world!) after the initial verse and chorus.


I share these stories because they point to a key, easily overlooked, aspect of who we are and, thus, of the challenge we face as we seek to grow into the person we hope to become.

In seeking to live differently and better, there are many things we need to learn. Thus, for example, I often point out that our seriously out of whack culture encourages up to think and act in ways that are plainly destructive to our sense of well-being: Perfectionism, an obsession with winning, fear of vulnerability, a compulsively acquisitive mindset, and so on. In a committed Radical Decency practice we are always learning more open, relational, loving, and self-loving ways of living and, in the process, weaning ourselves from these painful habits of mind.

For most of us as well, the things we need to learn also involve fairly obvious ways of interacting that interfere with our ability to create and sustain relationships and, more generally, to live well: The man with a hair trigger temper; the woman who experiences debilitating anxiety in social situations.

But there is a far less obvious, and vital, aspect of our growth work that the examples from my marriage illustrate – and that is coming to understand those parts of being that we profoundly don’t know; that is, learning to speak Mandarin when, for your entire life, you have only spoken English.

In my case, knowing what I don’t know – my particular brand of Mandarin – is in the visual and tactile realm. While I do, in my way, appreciate color, form, and the visceral texture of nature, there is something that goes on in Dale’s mind, body, and heart that I am unable to access. And in the auditory realm of music, there is an analogous part that is intuitive to me but not to Dale.

While these examples create no immediate pain or dysfunction, they are not in the least trivial. Living well very much requires us to address depression, anxiety and other spirit draining states of mind. But that work does define its limits. To the contrary, our minds and bodies offer a myriad of potentialities – intellectual and emotional, tactile and kinesthetic, intuitive and spiritual – and being open to all of them expands and enriches our possibilities in life.

When we develop an abiding curiosity about those areas of living that are beyond our intuitive understanding, we also expand our ability to relate a broader range of people – and to relate more fully to our most intimate companions in life since, like Dale, they will inevitably inhabit areas of living that are Mandarin to us.


The place where “knowing what you don’t know” takes on an extra sense of immediacy and consequence is when familiarity with that territory is deeply implicated in a person’s ability to overcome a dysfunctional pattern. When it stands in the way of her ability to live well.

Take Nick, for example. He loves his wife and, to him, she is just as attractive as she was when they got together 20 years ago. And yet their sex life has gone off the rails. His desire is down and, at times, performance issues have come up. He arrived in my psychotherapy office when his wife discovered his pre-occupation with online pornography.

When our work began, it focused quite naturally on the dysfunction in his sex life. But what emerged over time was a profound disconnect from his needs. When she would ask where they should go to dinner his invariable, automatic response was, “I don’t care. It doesn’t matter.” Similarly at work, where he is a valued employee, it never occurred to him to tell the boss that he preferred to focus on a particular aspect of their work.

In these, and in many other areas of living, Nick’s failure to speak up was not about fear or shyness. Indeed, at a conscious level, he wasn’t even frustrated. It’s just that expressing a need or desire never occurred to him.

This was, it turned out, profoundly a place where “he didn’t know what didn’t know;” his particular brand of Mandarin. And, what we came to see over time was that it was a key to understanding his sexual malfunction.

In the bedroom, while Nick could attend to her, he was wholly unable to ask for – or to take – what he wanted since, quite literally, he had no idea what it was. The result: Their sex life lacked the mutuality – the reciprocal passion and spontaneity – so essential to its long-term health.

Failing to understand this, his wife never complained. After all, he was so sweet to her and so attentive to her needs. And since, at a conscious level, he was utterly unaware of what his needs were, his body simply quit on him. The pay off from dutiful sex was tepid and going for what he wanted utterly foreign territory.

The key here is to distinguish Nick from a person who is afraid to ask for what he wants or stops doing so because his partner is indifferent or dismissive. In these situations the pattern that needs to be changed – once it is named — typically makes intuitive sense to both parties. In this environment, the necessary change work, hard as it is, can happen since each party has an intuitive understanding of what they need to change and how to do it.

In Nick’s case however – and in other cases where profound not knowing is at play – the revealed pattern typically seems theoretical and unreal until, that is, he is somehow able to develop some sense of the look and feel of Mandarin.


So what can be done in these situations to facilitate healing and growth?

This question frustrates me since in most cases – mine included – Mandarin will, at best, remain a second language; unintuitive and halting. So while there are many things Nick and his wife can do to improve their situation they will never, in all likelihood, “solve” this core issue.

But that does not mean the effort should not be made. Success in changing a more accessible behavioral pattern – an anger issue or social anxiety – is important and life affirming.

But the larger truth is this: There is something uniquely profound, soul and, ultimately, healing and transformational about the understandings, however, imperfect, that can come our way when we are genuinely curious about, and determinedly open to, the things in life that are beyond our initiative grasp. We do well to embrace them, not just in our immediate healing work as with Nick, but in our day by day ways of living as well.

And so it was when Dale and I recently visited an exhibit of Cezanne landscapes at the Barnes.

I have also had a special affinity for his work. But that day, at that exhibit, something very special happened. Part of it was the brilliance of the written commentary – something that clearly spoke to my native, analytic language. And some of it also had to do with the pictures chosen for the exhibit. Finally – I strongly suspect – my mood that day, and in that moment, played a pivotal role.

In any event, as I went through the exhibit, I accessed something that felt entirely new: A deeply intuitive appreciation of the breath, virtuosity and profundity of Cezanne’s’ visual expressions.

This aspect of living never will be available to me in the way it is to Dale. But, by remaining open to possibilities – and to Dale’s role as my teacher in this area of living – I am able to experience moments such of these. They are, truly, one of life’s precious gifts.