Like many of you, I have been doing a bit more reading since the beginning of the year and have returned to one of my favorite story-tellers, a prolific but not generally well-known author. Born in 1913, Irwin Shaw was a playwright, screenwriter, novelist, and short-story writer whose works have sold more than 14 million copies. His poignant stories reveal the desperate interior lives of Americans in the mid-twentieth century. He passed away in 1984.
I recently read Shaw’s “The Girls in their Summer Dresses,” originally published in The New Yorker in February, 1939. It is a touching story of how relationships go bad.
Michael and Frances, an upscale married couple from New York, are out for a summer Sunday morning stroll along Fifth Avenue. They have no specific plan, except to spend the day together, doing whatever comes to mind. They are a happy, carefree, and loving couple. A young woman comes towards them. As she passes by Michael turns his head to watch her. “Look out,” Frances tells him, “You’ll break your neck.”
Her remark starts a conversation about the way Michael looks at every woman he sees. She complains to him about his habit and how it makes her feel bad. He becomes defensive, trying to convince her that it is no big deal, that all men do it. He elaborates:
“I like the girls in the offices……..
I like the girls on Forty-fourth Street at lunchtime, the actresses, ……
I like the salesgirls in Macy’s,……..
I like to sit near the women in the theaters, …..
and the young girls at the football games…….
and when the warm weather comes, the girls in their summer dresses . . .”
As the conversation continues, Frances becomes increasingly upset. In response, Michael is more defensive, showing no concern about his wife’s feeling. The beautiful day has gone cloudy very quickly, darkened by a casual gesture and a few disparaging words. As if to convince Frances that everything is OK between them, Michael explains:
“I’m wonderfully happily married.”
“I am the envy of all men between the ages of fifteen and sixty in the state of New York.”
“I have a fine home.”
“I got nice books and a phonograph and nice friends.”
“ I live in a town I like, the way I like.”
“And I do the work I like”
“ And I live with the woman I like.”
His list is his way of demonstrating that he has made the right choices in life. Unfortunately, he puts Frances at the bottom of his list.
I will stop here with Shaw’s discomforting story. You can see it in its entirety as a video on YouTube, in two parts of ten minutes each. The film features Jeff Bridges as Michael and Carol Kane as Frances. As an option, an internet search will let you read the text.
This story painfully illustrates what humans need from each other, how we often fail to provide it, and how that failure to connect leads to unhappiness. Frances needs affirmation from Michael that he feels for her as deeply as she does for him, that she is all he wants, totally. But he cannot or will not give her that affirmation. Instead, he enumerates the features of his own life that give him personal satisfaction. The act is insensitive, bordering on cruelty. It is as if he were telling her:
“You are on my list of favorites. What more do you want?”
We all use lists, sometimes handwritten, sometimes on our laptop, sometimes on a white board. A list is a simple, helpful technique for managing complexities of daily life, useful in ordinary, impersonal activities. But a list has limits. We should be careful of treating our fellow human beings as items on a list, as if they were possessions or objects to be managed. We need to relate to each other from the heart, not just from our logical mind.
In the story, Frances gives clues about how she and Michael are out of touch. But he misses or ignores her clues. Because of his self-orientation, he is untouched by his wife’s feelings, he cannot connect to her state of mind, to what she is going through. His awareness does not extend beyond himself.
In the early days of our practice, when we start to explore Buddhism, the first teaching we come across is the Four Noble Truths. The fourth of those, the Noble Eightfold path, is said to be the prescription for ending suffering. And the third of those practices is Right Speech, mindfully embracing the listener with care when we speak, so that the relationship can be enriched by the conversation, whether it be a few minutes in the coffee shop or an all-day workshop. Right speech is how we take care of each other and create trust. It includes the words we choose as well as when and how we say them.
This story illustrates how the lack of Right Speech creates divisions in relationships and drives people apart. Our practice deepens the quality of our caring, enabling Right Speech to arise naturally. Then everything and everyone feels nourished and at peace.
Abbot of Kannon Do