“Why didn’t they just tell me that?”

I remember one day in high school—I was sixteen or seventeen—when I was discussing Oscar Wilde with an English teacher. Wilde had been one of my favorite authors since childhood; from the age of eight or nine, I had begun reading and even memorizing his plays and stories. An adult in the family had hinted to me that Wilde had gotten in trouble with the law because of his personal life, but I didn’t know what that meant. I mentioned this to my teacher, who said, “Wilde was homosexual.”

“Oh,” I said. “Why didn’t they just tell me that?” The question remained unanswered.

I got to college, where for the first time in my life I met people who were coming out as gay. The issue overwhelmed me. I had never encountered it directly before. I had no adults to talk to about it. I thought I must be gay too, that this would explain the differences I had felt for so long. In my early twenties I had a relationship with a woman (considerably older than me—I read her obituary a few years ago). Over many years, I have come to know myself as heterosexual, but this came after years of self-doubt. I wish I had had someone to discuss this issue with, in high school and later: an adult who understood something about it and who wouldn’t be scared of the topic or hurt by my ambivalence. I needed room to think and speak, room not to feel terrible about anything I said and did. There were a few such people later on, and I am grateful for them.

I support gay rights and believe that many people, gay or not, have had some kind of attraction to the same sex. Maybe the attraction is sexual, maybe not, but homosexual attractions have existed as long as we know. At the same time, I know how difficult the subject can be for a young person, and how badly it can be mishandled. Today’s teenagers are much more aware than my generation was; through social media and popular culture they learn about things that many of us were shielded from. Many of them have strong opinions on the subject (or cluster of subjects), but they don’t have a place to air these opinions, or to ask questions, without being applauded or attacked.

So Hungary’s new “anti-gay amendment,” which, among other things, prohibits the inclusion of pro-gay or pro-transgender material in classrooms with children under 18, will not accomplish what its supporters in the most generous interpretation hope to accomplish: the protection of children from pressures and ideas that they are not prepared to handle. High school students, and even younger students, are exposed to these issues anyway, through social media and their own lives.

On two occassions, my students have asked to debate the topic of gay rights, which, we found, was not the needed approach, since it made the conversation divisive and antagonistic. Nor is my classroom the place for the topic. But there are ways to discuss it calmly, in the upper high school years, ways that would help students make sense of what they already see around them and what they might be feeling. A calm, unpressured, voluntary discussion can protect young people by helping them get a footing, no matter who they are. It should probably take place in a sex education class (these do exist in Hungary) or in another context where it is understood that the discussion will take place.

One thing that doesn’t get said enough is that not all attractions are sexual or have to express themselves sexually. We live in a highly sexualized culture, on the heterosexual front as well as everywhere else. Many young people think they have to have sex to be valid at all, or to know that they are loved. But some of the most beautiful relationships in life are friendships, acquaintanceships, family relationships, mentorships, collegial relationships, or even encounters with strangers, where two people see something special in each other but also respect each other’s autonomy and privacy. Such relationships can be between people of the same sex or of different sexes, of the same age or different ages, of the same or different walks of life.

Sexual relationships are particular. They are precious but fragile, because sexual wounds go deep. It is good to protect children from such wounds, and to give them the tools to protect themselves. The best protection is to teach them to cherish themselves and their feelings for others, to recognize that feelings do not have to be sexual, and to take romantic and sexual feelings in healthy directions when the time is right. “Healthy” means true to them, true to the other person, capable of being nourished over time, and not subject to coercion. Abuse can happen in any type of relationship; it’s possible to learn to avoid abuse and to foster the good.

No one can protect another from pain; parents try to do this, but it’s futile. Pain will happen. Hearts will be broken. But if the children (or people of any age) have a footing, they can stop short of complete devastation. Conversation alone will not give them such a footing, but it can contribute. Maybe more than anyone realizes at the time.

But big discussions aside, there are other times when the topic of sexual orientation will come up. Many writers, artists, composers, and others have had same-sex attractions and relationships; this comes up in their biographies, and sometimes in their work too. It is better not to make this a taboo topic, because that will just create confusion. Just acknowledge it when it comes up; that is not propaganda.

I know that many Hungarians are worried about what they see as Western extremes of gender-fluidity, pansexuality, and so on. Even some liberals here cringe at the idea of asking young people which gender pronoun they would like to use, which they see as a fad. And I have heard young people say that they support the basic ideas behind gay rights, etc., but not to the extreme to which they are sometimes taken in the U.S.

Instead of decrying these concerns as dumb or narrow-minded (or as fronts for homophobia), one can acknowledge the importance of approaching the topic conscientiously, considerately, and sanely, in the right contexts and forums. And the dangers of just shutting it off. The world, whether internal or external, does not go away when you make it taboo.

Some of my friends might say I’m being too gentle here, too compromising. But God, gentleness is needed. People need to be able to live and find their way without getting screamed at. To hear, in a secular context, Paul Tillich’s words, “You are accepted.” That doesn’t mean we accept everything that others do or say, but we can accept who they are, who we ourselves are. It has taken me years to reach this point. I am finally here.

Loneliness vs. Solitude

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Recently I received a thoughtful, respectful message from a former student (who is now at university). He was curious to know how someone like me–warm, caring, intelligent–would be without a partner, or seem to be without one, at any rate. He understood if I chose not to answer the question. I think I understood why he would ask. For one thing, young people (and older people too) wish to understand the world better, and asking questions is one of the best ways. Also, there are cultural differences at work. Moreover, it’s a question I could stand to ask myself.

I replied that my answer was not going to be anywhere close to complete, but that there were a few things I could say briefly. One was that being single is much more common in the U.S. than here in Hungary. (The difference is marked, actually.) Another was that I truly enjoy being alone–not all the time, but for substantial stretches and for certain things that I do, such as writing, biking, thinking. The third part was that the situation could change, that I was open to the possibility of meeting someone, here or elsewhere, with whom I would want to build a relationship.

All of that leaves a lot unanswered, but it’s also true. How the situation took shape–that’s a much more difficult question. If I were to do it all over, I probably would marry and have kids, and they would be grown up by now, or at least well into their teenage years. But we don’t get to do our lives over; we can only live them from the present onward, or rather, in the continual present, with memories and anticipations, but no choices except for the ones right before us, including choices of attitude.

Back to the point about enjoying being alone. Right now I want to look briefly at the difference between loneliness and solitude. I wrote about this in my first book, Republic of Noise. The distinction isn’t absolute or clear-cut; the two can overlap. Nor does either of these have to do entirely with the presence or absence of others. You can be lonely–or solitary–when someone is right beside you. So what are they, and how do they differ?

Loneliness is a felt lack of human company. It can come upon you when you are all by yourself, or when you are around others with whom you do not feel at ease, or when you are enjoying the company of others but missing a particular person, or even when there’s no one in particular you are missing, but you feel a longing or ache, maybe even for someone you haven’t met yet. Loneliness isn’t always bad; sometimes you need it to pull you into the world or to see things more clearly. But in its extreme forms, it can be crippling and can take hold of millions of people.

Solitude exists at many levels and takes different forms. It can be understood as a basic, elemental aloneness that we carry with us at all times. People sometimes define it as productive or healthy aloneness. But I think there’s more to it than that. At one level, solitude is part of us whether we enjoy it or not, whether we think about it or not, whether we do anything with it or not. From there, it’s possible to shape the solitude that you have. Even in conversation, solitude comes into play; it allows you to stand back from the trend and form your thoughts.

Solitude can take the form of spending time alone. Over time, I have come to find this form essential; I need it not only for writing, not only for thinking things through, but also, often, for experiencing and enjoying things. I love going on long bike rides alone, because I don’t have to talk or stop, I can just be on the road as long as I like, going as fast or as slowly as I wish, looking around me, and letting my thoughts fly. I also love going to performances and films on my own, because I can take them in fully that way. I find solitude essential (paradoxically) for learning a language.

But that doesn’t mean I dislike company. My friends are dear to me. I have friends from across the years, from the various places I have lived, gone to school, and worked. I can’t imagine my life without them. I also have room in my heart for a relationship, should it come along. I imagine there’s someone out there with whom I would get along terrifically well, who wants to build something with me, who can make me laugh, who finds life interesting, who isn’t already with someone, who is fairly close to me in age and priorities, who understands solitude, who shares some interests with me, and who doesn’t ask me to be anyone I am not. I would offer my own version of the same.

Such a thing is possible and wonderful; at this point I have no idea who it would be or how we would meet, or even whether it would happen. If it happened, I think we would meet in person, not online. It would feel right to both of us, not forced. In the meantime–that is, the main time–there is much to do, learn, and enjoy: teaching to do, languages to learn, projects to work on, places to bike to, concerts to listen to, people to spend time with, pictures to take, questions to ask, and things to puzzle through and dream.

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  • “To know that you can do better next time, unrecognizably better, and that there is no next time, and that it is a blessing there is not, there is a thought to be going on with.”

    —Samuel Beckett, Malone Dies

  • Always Different

  • Pilinszky Event (3/20/2022)

  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR

     

    Diana Senechal is the author of Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture and the 2011 winner of the Hiett Prize in the Humanities, awarded by the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. Her second book, Mind over Memes: Passive Listening, Toxic Talk, and Other Modern Language Follies, was published by Rowman & Littlefield in October 2018. In February 2022, Deep Vellum will publish her translation of Gyula Jenei's 2018 poetry collection Mindig Más.

    Since November 2017, she has been teaching English, American civilization, and British civilization at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium in Szolnok, Hungary. From 2011 to 2016, she helped shape and teach the philosophy program at Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science & Engineering in New York City. In 2014, she and her students founded the philosophy journal CONTRARIWISE, which now has international participation and readership. In 2020, at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium, she and her students released the first issue of the online literary journal Folyosó.

  • INTERVIEWS AND TALKS

    On April 26, 2016, Diana Senechal delivered her talk "Take Away the Takeaway (Including This One)" at TEDx Upper West Side.
     

    Here is a video from the Dallas Institute's 2015 Education Forum.  Also see the video "Hiett Prize Winners Discuss the Future of the Humanities." 

    On April 19–21, 2014, Diana Senechal took part in a discussion of solitude on BBC World Service's programme The Forum.  

    On February 22, 2013, Diana Senechal was interviewed by Leah Wescott, editor-in-chief of The Cronk of Higher Education. Here is the podcast.

  • ABOUT THIS BLOG

    All blog contents are copyright © Diana Senechal. Anything on this blog may be quoted with proper attribution. Comments are welcome.

    On this blog, Take Away the Takeaway, I discuss literature, music, education, and other things. Some of the pieces are satirical and assigned (for clarity) to the satire category.

    When I revise a piece substantially after posting it, I note this at the end. Minor corrections (e.g., of punctuation and spelling) may go unannounced.

    Speaking of imperfection, my other blog, Megfogalmazások, abounds with imperfect Hungarian.

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