A child raised by angry parents spends a lot of time wondering what they did wrong.
“You did nothing wrong,” a rare, compassionate friend of the parents might eventually tell the kid. “I love your parents, you know they’re my best friends, but they are unhappy people. Unhappy people get mad a lot. There is nothing you could have done differently. It’s not you, it’s important for you to know that. It’s just that your parents have their own frustrations that have nothing to do with you and they often took them out on you.”
Holy shit, you think, I’m fifty years old and just finding this out. Wow.
My father remained in his terrible twos until he was eighty and hours from death. Then it hit him. “Goddamn it,” he wheezed, “I’ve been a horse’s ass.” Never heard him use the phrase before, but he was at a loss, I suppose, to explain why he’d been such an implacably choleric two year-old his whole life. A few moments later, there it was again: “I feel like a horse’s ass.”
It hit me recently, how destructive, if understandable, my anger at my father was. Once I realized how much it hurt me to carry it, how reasonable I was to feel hurt by his actions and refusals, how incapable he was of doing any better, I was able to start letting go of it. Not of the damage his rage had done, only a bit of that ever slipped away, and it waits like a nightmare to leap out at me in moments of weakness, but I was done with my need to carry anger at a father who was not able to do any better than he did.
“He was a grown man, a father, he lived an otherwise responsible and moral life, why let him off the hook after he cursed at you and your sister every night, screamed and threatened and undermined, did his best to make you cower, even if you didn’t cower, even if you turned the rage against yourself sometimes, even as you banged your head against a wall. Why let him off the hook for what he did?” says an angry friend.
Because he’s dead, dude. Because, based on what was done to him when he was a baby, he couldn’t have done otherwise. Because, lucky for me, and for him, I had let go of that anger at him by the time I was standing by his death bed hearing his last confession like a priest who’d never dream of fondling a parishioner. He was contrite, apologized for the first and last time for his inhumanity. I reassured him that he’d done the best he could. I have gone over this many times in my head, here on this blagh. The main thing, though, was that seeing him as incapable of doing better made me realize how pointless it was to be mad at him for it. It’s like being mad at a cat for not addressing you in perfectly accented French.
I thought of it just now because I’ve been angry sometimes at people who have not helped me advance my idealistic plan. The insight came late — they have no idea how to help me advance my idealistic plan, nobody helps them, life is hard. Their incapacity to help makes it ridiculous for me to be disappointed that they don’t help. They cannot help, even if they wanted to, except in the rare case when they actually can, but the rare case is extremely rare. They have less of an idea than I do about the best way to proceed doing something that is most likely impossible for one person to do.
“But what about me?” snarls an angry former friend. “You pretend to be Jesus Christ to everybody else, you talk a good game about mercy and forgiveness, but you could hardly have been less merciful to me.”
Ah, yes, there is that. Aware of the harm that was done to me I’m determined never to be treated that way again. My father apologized as he was dying, an apology that was perhaps 45 years overdue. My sister never got any apology. If I tell you time and again that you are harming me, and you justify yourself and plead your case instead of acknowledging that a friend should have acted less hurtfully?
Well, my father was my father, I had strong reasons for trying to look beyond his faults. But in the case of someone I am friends with, someone I’ve told multiple times that just because I can take a punch doesn’t mean I like being punched? Well, “but, I don’t get to hit anybody, and I’m mad as hell, and you can take a punch, and I really didn’t mean to hit you in the face again…” only means one thing to me in the end. Time to go.
But that popped into my head just now in answer to an obvious question. What I really intended here was to acknowledge, in black and white, how silly it is to expect people to do things they are not capable of doing. If they don’t do something they have no idea how to do you can’t be mad about that. They can do many other things, many of them good. Don’t get hung up on the one bad one, I remind myself. It is a relief to remember this.
Unless the hurtful thing they do is bad enough, objectively, and they make a habit of it and won’t acknowledge they’re acting hurtfully. Then it is probably best to take a two second break from trying to be Ahimsa-Boy and say, with all necessary mercilessness: sayonara.