The perils (and heavenly rewards) of upward affiliation


A central concept in my own psychological or inner life has always been “upward affiliation” in my social relationships.  George Gilder introduced this term in his notorious (even in the view of Andrew Sullivan) books “Sexual Suicide” (1973) and “Men and Marriage” (1986).   Allan C. Carlson talks around it in “Family Questions” (1989). The meaning of the term should seem self-evident:  a tendency to relate emotionally to people who seem “better” or “higher” than self and who have attributes one might covet for the self.  Perhaps the Tenth Commandment extends to psychological as well as material and money areas.

In my second DADT book, “Do Ask, Do Tell: When Freedom Is Stressed” (2002), I wrote an essay “Narcissism, Affiliation and Polarity”,  which becomes a short Chapter 7, on p. 118 (iUniverse).  The best thing is to have the book (Amazon), but the essay is available online here.   The “polarity” term refers to the  “The Polarities” known in the Rosenfels Community (as in the 1972 book by Paul Rosenfels, “Homosexuality: The Psychology of the Creative Process“, almost a ground text at the Ninth Street Center in the 1970s) Were I to rewrite the essay today, I would add a fourth term, “complementarity“, which I know was a favorite term at the Vatican (at least with Popes before the current one).


I recall Christmas weekend of 1989, when, about to take a new job at USLICO (eventually to become ReliaStar and then ING), I went out to Oberlin, Ohio with my mother to see her sisters for Christmas.  We stayed in a senior center owned by the College.  I recall the drive home on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, in the bitter cold with snow everywhere.  About the time we had passed through the Allegheny Mountain tunnel, we talked about some personal stuff.  Yes, she had always hoped I would meet a “nice girl”, and yes, I was an only child.  The family would not continue into the future.

Being in my eighth decade, the lack of progeny has more sway with me now than it did.  At a certain intellectual level, I see life as a miracle.  The idea that a single fertilized egg can use water, air, and some elements to make a Clark Kent in 14 years or so is miraculous — but it might make much “less”.  When I was younger, I saw fecundity as commonplace and took it for granted.   The buck stopped with individual success.  Not so much now.  But the intellectual wonder, whether there are people like us another planet 20 light years away, doesn’t produce excitement downstairs when around women.  Just vague curiosity.



I had left a job at Lewin-ICF (which has done well since), and would start at USLICO Jan. 15,  The first Saturday in January, after a bit of a thaw, I drove up to Gettysburg for a day trip, and then through three tunnels in the eastern part of the Turnpike (including the twins at Blue Mountain).   I soliloquized (as does Barker in “Carousel”) and said I wouldn’t get caught in the trap of “upward affiliation” again.


I would have a tendency to become attached to a young man whom I “cathected” and derive a lot of stimulation from being around him.  (I expressed this in a musical composition, score here, and words at tag “505” on this file.)   The “withdrawal” could become uncomfortable.  (I’m reminded of the sadness in the second movement of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata #26 in E-flat, “Les Adieux” (youtube)).   I could feel deserted, if the person left the scene first (remember, how Clive Barker starts his novel “Imajica” by telling us you can’t have more than three people on stage at one time).  Of I could find myself staring at my memory of the person with an other-worldly magnifying glass (maybe out of Harry Potter’s world) looking for the slightest evidence of a flaw.  “The Ocelot has clay feet” and Army buddy at Fort Eustis would warn.  And if the feet and legs are brittle, not only to they go bald, they break off.

That was the hooker.  Several times in my life, especially in earlier years as a younger adult, I went through the cycle of affiliation, then separation and a new kind of freedom.  The most telling example may have occurred when I left New York City at the beginning of 1979 for a new job in Dallas.  It turned out well, in the long run, but there had been a “personal” motivation. Maybe I did lose out on a possible “relationship” by being the first to go.

I tend to perceive another person (or perhaps apperceive) based on what I see at any particular moment.  I know that my memory of the past can navigate the time dimension of space-time — but only in one direction.  Sometimes I can project and simulate the future mentally.  I could even say that we all exist across all time (at least during this incarnation), in the sense of physics and spirtualism.  Still, my experience is limited by the visuals of the moment.  It is absolute.

A person may be down and out for reasons not under his or her control. Of course, we all will age — and die of something — after living long enough.  As I approach my 71st birthday, of course I know that, but that isn’t the real point.  It’s more that people can have just plain bad luck. Or they can make sacrifices for others, like on the battlefield — a point in my previous post here.  He or she might be disfigured by criminal violence related to the distant indignation of someone else.  And the implications of my “upward affiliation” are clear: if something happens to the other person, I would lose interest.

One can ask the question: could I take the vow, “Till death do us part?”  Could I want to share a family bed with someone for decades, even after the kids are “all right” and grown?

After all, my own “fantasy life” has been just that.  I could “melt” in the hands of the right person (from a list that remains secret, like the contents of a grand jury preceding), but, following the metaphor of an aggressive gambit in chess, what’s the followup?

Is that even a fair question?  A “gay marriage” context for that just wasn’t possible when I was growing up, so fantasy was a lot safer — stadiumsespecially for someone who could not compete physically with more virile (“totally complete”)  men in a conventional way.  In fact, I gradually found, as I came of age, that “submission” to “them” could be exciting in some transformative way that certainly had disturbing implications.  The awareness came on gradually from about age 12 or so but especially in the high school years.  There was one evening in August, 1961 with a friend where it really hit me (and I was about to go away to William and Mary in three weeks).  Oh, nothing happened on the surface: I came home at a normal time, to see the baseball “new” Washington Senators eke out an infrequent ninth inning win on TV — something I remember because the evening had been so monumental internally.

As I’ve covered (Jan 14),  I got a taste, at NIH (in 1962) as well as at William and Mary (in 1961), about how concerned others were about the significance of my “fantasy life”.  If this was allowed to become OK, then others in life could be shortchanged of any chance of love.  (Conservative columnist George Will once wrote that the duty in personal relations with the disabled was to give them the best life possible, but no more;  that doesn’t get in the way, in his mind.  I wonder if that cuts it everywhere.)  I was supposed to be beholden to those upon whom I depended (don’t bite those feeding hands, even the way a playful cat does) and still learn to love others with some pretense of “complementarity”.  My own attitudes had significant implications — leading back to the theories of Nietzche (mentioned in the NIH notes) with the endpoint of something like Nazism, maybe — something we had won a war over less than two decades before — just as a nuclear showdown with Communism approached soon.   If human life was intrinsically always valuable, then one had to be open to loving in a complementary fashion (and that equates to having the down-to-earth, common labor skills to do so).  But of course, what does this say about how others had treated me?  It sounds like the same problem.  I felt disgusted by other “shims” who failed the mark (and I said so at NIH, particularly).  I applied the same standards in judging others than I thought had been applied to me.  Logical, and dangerous.

Somewhere the circle had to break.  In my retirement years, I’ve been surprised at the variety and number of approaches from people to actually become more personally involved with disadvantaged others, and let it mean something — and there has sometimes been an element of coercion in these approaches.  It all ties to notions of fairness and reduction of social tensions around, which can become disruptive whatever my choices. I’m in a world where the buck has to stop with somebody and sometimes, regardless of fault in a usual sense, that person will be “me”.   It’s a novel situation.

I can add one more paradox to the mix.  Most of the accounts of Jesus available to me when I was coming of age presented him as a young adult attractive white male.  And Jesus had the “gall” to demand that others “follow him”,  like in Matthew 10:24-39.

When upward affiliation works, it’s “pom wonderful”,  But it can crash hard.

(Published: Wednesday, June 25, 2014, at 12:45 PM EDT)

3 thoughts on “The perils (and heavenly rewards) of upward affiliation”

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