by Norman M. Brown Ph.D. |

Touch, caresses, holding another’s hand or arm for steady support in a crowd or on a careening bus; all these meetings of skin begin connection that can bring us as close as family once was in our childhood—or never was except in human ancestral memory. Being held in safety and comforted with eye gaze has been the primal path for mother and infant to release all distress into contented joy.

But contained contentment does not just echo from our mother’s embrace. Skin holding skin and hearts beating time together can also spark sexual excitement and lead our inner force to want more. Energy rises up for action, like girls going to sleep together can start to giggle. A shadow flits up from joy and out into our bodies’ narrow alleyways in quest of chiaroscuro courtship play. Touch flares on into desires, setting old familiar passages aflame. Excitement is rarely twinned with joy, except when slowed by rapturous breathing into languid ecstasy. For it is a force that must keep moving, even though where it goes in sexual embrace for each of us is usually familiar.

Although the sexual climax may arrive and achieve expression individually for each person in another’s loving care, men’s “little” sleep is incompatible with a woman partner’s resurgent readiness to launch into contemplation and conversation. As much as the mythic image of sexual union is nourished by desire, enticement, ecstatic bliss, and surrender, our cosmic-creative oneness out of two is but a glimpse beyond our impulses into the sanctuary a dream.

Yet this mix of light and shadow is as good as it gets for us, and it is enough. A second side of joy’s shadows sequels in addition to the excitement that moves in sex is harder yet for us to bear.

It’s the new growth energy that may blaze novel paths for one person’s curiosity, and/or an inner push to avoid some intimate habits that hurt, that makes one person turn away from the other’s yearning to feel the rush of peak scenes of habitual harmony again.  The splendor of sight, sound, touch and meetings of the mind that merge into our partner his-and-herstory again rises up to intensify one’s urge to revel in the well-known intimate magic, and when this fails, one or both partners are hurt. And the greater the experienced beauty of past splendor, the more the lack of it when expected may burn against the naked skin of one’s yearning for what’s gone—all the worse for noticing that one’s beloved isn’t feeling that loss at the same time or in the same way. How can we cope with this wrenching emotional clash in consciousness?

In one example of a common intimate wounding that gained public attention, our American public conscience once despised Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich. But public contempt was aimed not just at his political betrayal of two-party democracy by carrying the war on equality of social support first begun by Reagan into the elections and operations of the Congress, a campaign still in full swing today. For Newt was also hated especially by women for betraying his second wife while she was dying of breast cancer by mounting an affair with another younger woman. He pursued new life, and a new wife, while his second wife lost both her husband and her life.

Yet life naturally wants to go on, and to beget new life. And death can fade from view, except in the memories of those left behind.

The interplay between love’s joyous communion and the tragic course of loss when one partner must die before the other is one of the great paradoxes of human life. I had a client who couldn’t imagine leaving his wife the way Newt Gingrich did and took the best care he could of her during ten years of her losing struggle with cancer. He was bruised many times by her emotional ups and downs. One could even say he was emotionally abused by her anger that he would get to go on living and even find a new life, while she would have to die. But he excused everything she did and said as the tortured thrashing of her fragile soul as she made her own way as carefully as she could towards a fate she had no way to escape. He had to keep leaving her bedroom to escape her rage at him. But sometimes he wondered if he was failing her because he couldn’t find a way to approach her death emotionally with her while still choosing life for himself and their son. So he kept trying to find and apply alternative treatments to save her. Yet two months before she died she asked him if he was having an affair and promised that she would understand and not blame him, since she wasn’t doing anymore what a good wife should do. He was hurt that she might suspect him, and he remained devoted to her till the final hours of her life. But afterwards he was still worried at times that the best he could do hadn’t been as good for her as he might have done.

JOY, Part 3: Touch-Pleasure and Two Shadow Sides of Joy

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