How Do We Learn About Life?

I will grant you at the start, learning real lessons in this difficult life is hard work and many people do it only haphazardly, when some crippling tragedy knocks them back and forces them to take stock.   In fact, if you’re like most people, you might want to skip this entry entirely, because I am pretty much talking to myself, and for myself.

I find I learn some of the most valuable things I know by studying the lives of people I know well who do not learn the lessons of their own lives.   My father was one I knew very well, watched very closely for decades, and there are many others.   This makes me sound judgmental, I know, but I don’t stand by, like a scientist with a gigantic pair of tweezers, observing my lab rat friends.   I was once accused of that, actually, by one of the cheekier lab rats, he actually said to me “I get it now– you’re the scientist and we’re all your lab rats!”   I smiled, because he was right, in a way, but I said nothing, because, you know, I don’t talk to lab rats, as a rule.  I try to help the people I know as I hope they will help me if the need arises.   It is sometimes subtle, but I like to think my good will is always apparent.  I am willing to listen and keep talking until the story breaks apart into incoherence.

Humans need a story to grasp anything.  I’ll tell you an old one, featuring the brilliant, troubled lab rat above.   He was the youngest of three brothers, always felt he got the short end of everything, that life was a zero sum game he was always losing.   He learned to negotiate, wheedle, demand, pout, glower.   These things served him well in business, I suppose, I believe he eventually made a shitload of money by nickel and diming everyone involved.  It did not make him successful in friendship or love, sad to say.   But here’s the thing:  over the years I watched him stage and brilliantly perform an identical three act play maybe a hundred times.    There is a lesson in this.

Act one: meet a new person and view this new person in glowingly idealized terms.  If the person is funny, he’s the funniest person ever.  This goes for coolness and every other perceived quality.  Act one is animated by playfulness, infinite promise and  the protagonist’s belief that he has finally found a great person, not just another neurotic asshole like all the ones who have previously let him down.    You will always be compared, unfavorably, to the new person, just so you have a personal stake in the rest of the play.  Audience participation, you dig.

In Act Two: complications arise, as in any good drama, or any good comedy, for that matter.  The person is still very funny, sure, but there’s a snide edge creeping in sometimes.   Yes, the person is very charismatic, but also, careless, not very thoughtful, kind of dumb, in a weird way.   The promises made in the first act are being strangely revisited in act two and everything is suddenly coming into question.  Reality itself is starting to come into doubt.  Drastic corrective action is called for and eventually taken by the protagonist.

Act Three reveals that this is no tragicomedy we are watching, it’s a rather stark tragedy.   In Act Three the inevitable betrayal comes, sometimes in a terrible form.  One time it’s an anti-Semitic outburst and threatened punch in the fucking face.  Another time it’s the trashing of your commercial kitchen.   People break into your house, almost certainly people you know, steal a bunch of your things, including every valuable in the house, take a shit on the piano bench, for good measure.    Or you’re invited to the wedding of illegal immigrant, underpaid workers of yours and are then served food stolen from your own kitchen.  Or the new best friend is fucking your now ex and the two of them are laughing about it when you confront them.  Or, paint your own betrayal picture here, the possibilities are truly endless.

Classic repetition compulsion, one of the defining neurotic behaviors of our time, maybe of any time.  I could not have learned about it more thoroughly from even the best psychology course as I did from watching a close friend tirelessly at work for many years.   It’s a simple process, keep repeating the same painful thing the same way until, well, just keep repeating it.  

If at first the play seems a tragedy rather than an enlightened comedy, recast the play and play it again.  You dig how this works, right?  You get a new star to play opposite you, you stage the thing with a genius director, or better, direct it yourself, who knows your vision better than you yourself?   No need to change the script, because this time– THIS TIME– everything is perfect for the desired result.   The play cannot fail to entertain and enlighten because– look at the incandescence of the new star I have cast!

But back in the dressing room, it’s always the same.  Opening night and the incandescent new star is loudly having sex with your mother, who is loving the sex and shockingly uninhibited about expressing it, not even looking away when you walk into the dressing room shocked.   Another fucking putz!   Un fucking believable… Another shocking betrayal, is it not?  IS IT FUCKING NOT?!!!

You look at this lab rat, after he tells you story number one hundred identical in every detail to the ninety-nine that came before: idealized new person, disillusionment, betrayal.    Every story exactly the same dramatic arc, exhausting.   You think to yourself: how can you not see this, my dear lab rat?   Hard for the scientist in me to truly understand.   When they hook me up to the machines that deliver that awful shock, I try to figure out how not to get the electricity full blast, there is always some way to get less pain from the sadists who designed the experiment.  That’s just me, OK, I get that, and maybe I haven’t come up against a sadistic enough experimenter, but still.   I’m left holding my clipboard and scratching my head when I see a rat rushing constantly, inexorably toward the button that delivers electrocution.

Now I have told you a simple story, about a rather extreme case, yes, but true in every detail, I assure you (except for mom and the star in the dressing room).  Most people conduct their repetition compulsion business on a much more subtle level.   We are, virtually all of us, geniuses of justification.    We can give a rationale that makes insane behavior seem more or less rational.   Why did you march all those indigenous people to their deaths when you could have made an arrangement that would have served everybody, preserved peace, honored wisdom and honor itself?   Manifest Destiny.  Social Darwinism.   Freedom on the march.   Done.  What is your fucking point, asshole?  Get off my land.

I am trying, as I believe I sometimes demonstrate in these pages, to understand the sources of pain in my life, in the lives of my friends and loved ones, and behave in ways that seem productive, healing rather than harming.    It is better to be gentle than to be harsh, better to help than to hurt.  I may not always be up to that challenge, but it seems better to struggle with remaining gentle than not to.  For me.

Not everyone welcomes this kind of struggle, it’s a matter of temperament.  I understand that, even as it sometimes makes me sad.  It is, to my way of thinking, cheating yourself out of the full richness of this life, not being open to looking deeply into these highly educational situations that shed what little light there is to be had here in a world of darkness.  

If I manage to reel myself in from anger over and over, while provoked without mercy by someone who believes I am stronger than them and therefor able to take multiple punches and kicks, it is a good day for me– not giving in to rage, remaining calm enough to remain open and almost cordial.   It is not as good a day, of course, as a day when I don’t have to prove my ability to take multiple punches and kicks, but there is something worthwhile in it for me– proving to myself again that constantly giving in to righteous rage is not my fate.   If the person I finally have to walk away from is sobbing piteously, or cursing me angrily, convinced that I am a heartless bastard, it is something I just have to live with.   

All this is well worth thinking about, I think.  And if not– well, there’s always the weather, good books, politics, culture (and lack of same), our well-stocked catalogues of frustrations and the relative fascism of various nations to discuss. The vexing smugness of powerful lying fucking hypocrites who make decisions the rest of us must live by is always easy enough to bat around (see previous several posts, and the next few, no doubt).

There is also philosophy, of course, observations about life made in a general sort of way that don’t need to  touch on tangible details that are personal or difficult, don’t force us to take sides in moral pissing contests.   No need, in a philosophical chat, to go into the well-known intimate examples of the thing we are talking about– why go there?   There’s always all that to kick around.   But that shit is really not the beating heart of a human life, or why it sometimes grabs us by the throat, this flickering miracle of being alive.

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