I was driving home to Oakland one night, up Interstate 5, on my way back from Los Angeles.
Earlier that evening, I stopped at a Denny’s for tea, which was comforting—to encounter a safe, reliable little cube of sameness out there on the otherwise dark, unfamiliar stretch of road.
As I drove, I found myself switching between the heater and the AC quite frequently. It was hard for me to locate that sweet spot. With the AC on, I felt too much like I was free-falling–or like nothing was supporting me. No force held me in place. It even felt like I could drive right off the side of the road.
The following passage from, The Library Book by Susan Orlean comes to mind:
“The wide openness of Los Angeles is a little intoxicating, but it can be unnerving too—it’s the kind of place that doesn’t hold you close, a place where you can picture yourself cartwheeling off into emptiness, a pocket of zero gravity.”
Switch to the heater. Back to feeling supported.
Pretty soon, though, the hot air begins to make it harder to breathe. I start to feel claustrophobic. Change back to the cold setting. The out-of-control feeling returns.
The cycle continues. It gets harder to breathe in here—switch to the AC. Don’t feel protected—back to the heater. Feeling smothered now, return to…
Ugh. Where’s the comfortable middle ground?
Author Jamel Brinkley described so eloquently in his short story, A Family:
“Curtis indulged his sense of feeling contained, but not trapped. Under the capacious dome of sky, he was free, but bounded, so his newly freed limbs wouldn’t fly apart.”
Amidst all the switching, my mind makes a leap from my Toyota Corolla into the loftier realms of human psychology—onto fear and need, onto how our core needs and core fears, at times, directly oppose one another.
The cold fulfills our need for independence and autonomy, the heat, our need for closeness and connection.
Human fears of abandonment—of being alone and out of control, not tethered to anything, just out there loose like a pinball (the AC taps at these).
Fear of being smothered and engulfed—of losing grasp on who you are (turn the switch to the heater to summon this set).
All of us possess both to varying degrees. Both their intensity and degree of influence on our life wanes from day to day, person to person.
How do we reconcile the needs and the fears? How do we turn down the volume on both to exist in that peaceful middle ground, upon which neither pokes holes in our equanimity?
Discomfort—maybe there’ll always be some. Maybe we just have to choose which type is more tolerable, and then make do…until, eventually, we habituate. The negative won’t feel quite so intense. The only way it will is if we keep changing back and forth.
An example of a couple whose sweet spots (or middle grounds) differed from one another’s (taken from Alain de Botton’s, The Course of Love):
“Kirsten is convinced that she needs a lot of fresh air at night to keep her head clear and energy levels up the next day. She’d rather that the room be a bit cold (and if necessary that she put on an extra jumper or thermal pajamas) than stuffy and contaminated.”
The window must stay open. But winters were bitter during Rabih’s childhood in Beirut, and combating gusts of wind was always taken very seriously. He feels safe somehow, snug and luxurious when the blinds are down, the curtains are tightly drawn, and there’s some condensation on the inside of the windowpanes.”
Readers, can you think of any more places, objects, or daily experiences wherein the duality between these two opposing states presents itself?
Here are some for me:
>> Loose shorts versus tight/snug pants. In shorts, I feel freer, and I run faster. When evening rolls around and temperatures drop though, I feel less protected, more vulnerable.
Pants, while they might stifle me (like when I want to go for a run), also provide more safety—therefore are at once protective and confining.
>> Smothering love wherein you lose yourself, your sense of identity, and ability to take care of yourself versus the cold indifference of a lukewarm partner who grants you Olympic swimming pool size amounts of space and independence.
>> Heat versus cold, in general (Jared Diamond in Guns, Germs, and Steel writes of the “stimulatory effects of their homeland’s cold climate and the inhibitory effects of hot, humid, tropical climates on human creativity and energy”).
>> The snugness of blankets that tightly tuck you into a bed versus the ones that provide prodigious amounts of space to move around under.
>> The freedom of having the driver’s seat pushed back versus the control and safety afforded by sitting close to the steering wheel.