“I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, Elie,” said the skeleton of my father from his quiet grave on the outskirts of Peekskill. “And I know you’re taking a break from the long research and first drafting of my life story and all that. Something just occurred to me. In every case in our family, where rage lasted thirty, forty years, as long as it took, neither party would acknowledge the feelings of the other party. It was like a mirror offense, if you want to think of it like that, each one denying the other one the right to their genuine feelings of being unfairly attacked.
“Think about it, Elie, Eli didn’t speak to his sister for what, forty something years? I think of other grudges in the family. It always boils down, it seems to me, to a refusal to grant somebody else the right to their feelings. I was as guilty of it as anybody. More guilty than many, actually. When you take the trouble to make yourself vulnerable and express how you’re feeling, expose your weakness, your fear, there is nothing more damaging, more infuriating than being told you’re crazy, off-base, an asshole. I had that down to an art form, of course, because I could always redirect any discussion to whatever direction I felt it had to go. I was an expert in that sort of conversational jujitsu.
“It seems like a small thing, not to tell a crying kid to grow the fuck up, not to say to a moody teenager that she’s a victim of hormones coursing through her, making her irrational, not to deny somebody’s right to a feeling, to just offer a soothing word. What is hard about offering a soothing word? Or just being respectfully quiet as the person expresses how they’re feeling? Maybe we’re all ego-driven beasts designed to feel our own pain much more than anyone else’s. I don’t know. It is not always our reflex to soothe, even our loved ones, sad to say, especially our loved ones. We may rush to offer a solution, but that is a much different thing than acknowledging the other person’s true real-time suffering. Should be easy, like not killing, or not stealing, but there is nothing easy about sitting with another person’s uncomfortable feelings. If it was easy, not as many people would be killing each other, killing themselves.
“So I guess that tit-for-tat insensitivity leads to the classic vicious cycle: you were brusque with me when I was in pain, so, what goes around comes around. ‘Now you want to cry to me, you insensitive motherfucker? Who gives a shit about your tears? What about my fucking tears?’
“That is always the question: ‘what about my fucking tears?’ Like that great formulation by Mel Brooks: tragedy is when I break a fingernail, comedy is when you fall into a manhole and die.
“It’s quite a world, Elie, quite a twisted work of fiction, and facts worse than the most twisted fiction. As Eli told you ‘this world couldn’t be more cockeyed and fucked up if I’d made it myself!’ But you already know that. All I wanted to add today is that the right to have your feelings simply acknowledged appears to be one of the most abused rights out there. This inability to comfort others when they are upset… hoo boy, big source of conflict, of rage. It’s not any great wisdom I’m laying on you, it’s pretty basic stuff, but I just thought this was a helpful way to phrase it. Someone whose feelings are routinely dismissed often goes on to shut down emotionally when faced with other people’s troubles.
“When I felt bad as a young kid, I got whipped in the face. Not really the response you hope for from your mother, of course, but there you are. So much easier to picture the damage when you think of it as a refusal to grant someone the right to feel the way they feel. You can’t argue with a feeling, if you’re a kind person, anyway. The first line of help is let the other person express how they feel, take it in, acknowledge it. You will be lucky to find one person in your life who has this essential skill, who makes a habit of listening.
“Usually, of course, it’s ‘well, I think you should try to think of it, not as being whipped in the face, but as your mother having intimacy issues that have nothing to do with you, baby. You shouldn’t feel bad that you’re whipped because you’re hungry, you see, because your mother has terrible problems of her own. Maybe if you focused on her pain when you’re feeling like a victim, you’d realize that she has it much worst than you do, and you’d stop feeling so sorry for yourself. Phew! your diaper stinks, kid. You really should think about using the toilet, like everybody else. Why do you want to go around smelling like shit?’
“Do you get the point I’m making here, Elie?” said the skeleton.
I did, but I said nothing, my mind and thoughts being far away at the moment.
“Asshole…” said the skeleton, reclining back into the soft earth.