Provoking vs. Disrespecting: anatomy of a fatal falling out

I will use a personal story to flesh out a mechanism that commonly leads to violence and sometimes death.  It is a mechanism that is particularly ubiquitous in this black and white zero-sum society we are living in at the moment.  It is the reduction of a complicated story to a simple, primary concept, like betrayal, or loyalty.   One party wins all, the other loses all, or it’s mutual destruction — fine, everybody loses and everybody wins, sort of.

In this particular personal anecdote no punches, kicks or bullets were exchanged, though both sides wound up feeling hurt and completely justified in their final anger at the other.  Every person who knows my once good friend, including two who claimed recently to love me, has cut me dead, which is as bad as the underlying impasse with a guy I’ve known since fourth grade.   In some ways it’s worse, more painful, this tribal closing of ranks after an ultimatum to forgive without condition or forever be seen as the vicious loveless party persecuting a weaker man. 

This is an aggravating story Sekhnet, who tries her best to take care of me, urges me to somehow put out of my mind every time I mention anything connected to it.   I don’t know how that’s done, until I am done working through it to my satisfaction.   A gnawing, vexing story untold is just a fucking tumor in waiting, as far as I can see. There is nothing I can do about a lying sociopath president or a lockstep political party who seems to have, with alarming speed, acquired a taste for the inside of their new leader’s ass, but this situation with an old friend I can wrestle with directly.  I believe it also sheds light on our larger problem as a culture, which comes largely from partisan oversimplification and a mass failure of empathy.

The common response to a fight is to take sides, be loyal to your people.  They call this tribalism now, reminding all of us homo sapiens that when it comes to war, we jump with those closest to us.  Loyalty has been elevated to the highest value, they used to call this kind of reflexive patriotism “my country– right or wrong” — you defend whatever America does because you’re American.   Somewhere far down the list of civic virtues, after loyalty, are being analytical, and fair-minded, and trying to find the causes of friction and the best solutions for difficult problems, including interpersonal troubles like I had with an old friend recently.

My mother always expressed frustration, even anger, at her daughters’ children’s seeming ingratitude.   My sister (my mother’s daughter) always expressed frustration, even anger, that her mother could not just give with grandmotherly generosity without demanding a “thank you”.    I always thought that a skilled mediator could convince my sister to teach her kids to say “thank you, grandma” when grandma gave them something.   This simple act would have gone a long way toward reducing tensions, but they were both too angry, and too stubbornly committed to being right, to ever go to a mediator.   Each one dismissed the idea of mediation as something the other would never agree to do.

Sekhnet reminds me of all the other things I should be worrying about, instead of this intransigent former friend who is too hurt and angry to make peace.   I have worry enough to cover these other things, and have made appointments, or at least calls, about all but one of them. [1]   Seems funny, in light of these other immediate worries, that I’m returning over and over to the sad and now sickening falling out with a friend of more than fifty years, but here we go.   On the other hand, this is the only vexation I have any chance of getting closer to solving today.

Much violence among armed teenagers is over the issue of perceived disrespect.  “He dissed me,” more than one violent young man will say in complete justification of why the person he shot needed to get shot.   Disrespect is a fundamental blow that we are taught not to tolerate.   For purposes of my friend’s case against me, I explicitly told him I don’t respect him and I gave several specific reasons why I don’t.   It would seem to be case closed for our friendship.  

I disrespected my friend, first by my actions and then by explicit words, and that’s all she wrote.  If you don’t respect someone it’s impossible to be friends with them.   End of story.   There is no coming back from this.   It’s as bad as lack of trust, lack of mutuality, lack of empathy, lack of affection.   There is nothing else to tell, many would say, closing the case, though I will tell the rest, as is my way.  The details may be useful in seeing how this sort of irrefutable tribal conclusion is often reached.   

What I was seeking from my friend, by the way, was that when he saw me getting aggravated as he pressed ahead in some conversation — the reddening of my face, the clenching of my arms and hands, the gritted teeth, the labored breathing, the other universal signs of approaching anger, plus my words to that effect — that he could take his foot off the accelerator, apply the brakes a little and change direction.   He was increasingly unable to do this in recent years, as his own life got more and more stressful.

During our last discussion my friend told me, three separate times in the course of about twenty minutes, that he felt disrespected by me.  He felt this because I had been ninety minutes late to meet him for an important discussion to try to save our failing friendship.  He told me at once, and slightly sheepishly, that he knew the feeling was irrational, since we’d been loose about the time, and he’d declined to accompany me on the errands that took longer than planned so that we could meet at the original time.  This talk was important to him and he’d saved the entire day for it, from two pm on.  

He told me we could meet at any point, true, but still, I didn’t show up until almost 3:30 and ninety minutes is past the border line for disrespect.  It was even worse when you start the clock at 1 pm, which was my initial suggestion, making me a full one hundred and fifty minutes late.   It was true, he said, that I’d called as soon as I knew I was going to be late, spoke to him from the middle of a traffic jam on the Grand Central, and that each time I called he’d reassured me that he wasn’t, for once, under any particular time pressure. He’d told me not to worry, in fact.   All this was true, he said, and so it might seem irrational to me that he felt disrespected, but there it was.  Ninety minutes.  It’s hard to ignore ninety minutes.

The second time he told me how disrespectful I’d been to him, about ten minutes later, he was in the middle of denying that he had provoked me again recently, intentionally or unintentionally.  He told me that he’d only apologized to me in the most egregious previous instance because I seemed so peeved.   He had actually been in the right, he told me, to insist in the face of my rising aggravation, on the annoying thing he’d been insisting on me hearing, for a second time in a week, as it turned out.   In fact, he added, he’d do the same thing again, if it came to it.  

I was just wrong, he said, to see what he’d done as provocation.  He is not provocative, he is actually a lifelong peacemaker by nature, and besides, I was the one who’d behaved disrespectfully toward him and was now not accepting his most recent apology.  Ninety minutes, he reminded me, more than enough time for my disrespect, intended or not, to sink deep inside of him.

This line of counter-attack is familiar from my childhood.  My father liked to reframe everything away from whatever I was concerned about to a discussion of my terrible temper, how angry I always was.  When I was young, this used to piss me off pretty quickly, the abrupt pivot from what I needed to talk about with my father to the general subject of my crazy anger.  Once I got mad, I lost any chance to talk about anything.  “You see,” he’d say with a smug smile, “this is exactly what I’m talking about.  The People rest, you’re irrationally angry again.  You really have a fucking problem with your violent fucking temper.”    

My father did me a favor, in a roundabout way, since by the time I was a middle aged man this kryptonite became a weaker and weaker weapon against me.   It took years of work, but years well-spent, in my opinion.

My disrespected friend, on the other hand, had been actively taught never to show anger.   Anger is a threatening emotion, particularly to someone raised never to express it by word or conscious deed.  “I was taught to swallow it,” his mother told me recently, “avoiding conflict at all costs is how I was raised.   My mother used to tell me to use any means necessary, including creatively altering any details of what happened that could possibly make anyone mad.  The only supremely important thing, according to my mother, was avoiding confrontation.”  

I experienced a few untruths from this now very old woman over the more than fifty years I’ve known her, but I never held that personality quirk against her.  She’s a lovely woman, outside of that.   I spent hours on the phone with her last month advising her about a very aggravating and frightening situation I must keep secret.   That’s the other piece about her approach to anger, fear, shame — really emotionally explosive things must always be kept secret.

The son is like her in some fundamental ways.   His occasional bending of the truth was something I just accepted as a regrettable feature.   I always felt I could trust him about the big things, in spite of his tendency to be less than truthful at times about small things.   Funny that this equivocation was never a terrible issue in my friendship with him, I guess because our affection went back to childhood and since I always felt I could trust him in the larger sense, I never worried when he did that dance he sometimes does to try to make sure everybody is happy.   I suppose I never questioned his motivations when he was being less than honest, it was for the sake of avoiding what he saw as an inevitable confrontation, I could always see that.  

Now here we were in a real confrontation, and his dance was not at all endearing nor did it give me any reason for optimism.   He simply could not admit, beyond saying the words “I’m sorry”, that he’d been wrong to blame me, based on a casual remark made to his wife in passing, for willfully, or recklessly trying to destroy his long-troubled marriage.   I was his oldest friend, and I tried my best to help him get the full context to that particular, unfortunately weaponized remark.  

I was not at all angry at the pointed accusation, odd to say.  I was on the spot, I was concerned, there was a slight tightness in my gut, I felt under pressure, but I wasn’t angry.  Seeing him in such distress I did what I could to try to help him.  It took an hour or more to get things to a reasonable place that he could offer to his wife and their therapist in explanation of his oldest, closest friend’s alleged treachery.

When I was finally done with that he asked me if I harbored anger at him, conscious or unconscious, and told me I’d never once in our long relationship ever admitted I was wrong, had never apologized to him about anything.   These are faults I work on not having, when I become aware I’ve hurt a friend I do my best to make amends as soon as I can.  He brought up a thoughtless thing I’d apparently done to him years ago and I told him I was wrong and apologized, for what it was worth.

As soon as I was done telling him how sorry I was he accused me, based on something “someone in his family” had disclosed to him, of insultingly treating him like a helpless child.   The vexing information he complained of being spilled by a family member (there are only three possible candidates) was something I later realized that I myself had told him months earlier.   It was quite an emotional trifecta in his car that afternoon.  It took a few days before it began to strike me as an unfriendly, and unfair, assault on my character and my friendship.   My friend kept telling me how impossible his life was, worse than ever, the pressure on him was unbearable.  I told him we needed to talk face to face, that things between us were very bad.

Now I was in a suddenly aggravating conversation, doing what I could to try to save a friendship that was hanging by a thin, fraying thread.   The conversation was hard work, because he’s very smart and quite capable of putting up a strenuous emotional and intellectual fight.   His position was that he’d apologized to me already, about everything, including that “thing in the car”, and that it appeared to him that I was unforgiving, unreasonably demanding more than an apology.   “I apologized to you already, but my apology apparently wasn’t enough for you,” was his opening line to this conversation we needed to have to better respect each other’s feelings if our friendship was going to survive.  

In his defense, I’m pretty sure he honestly does not see himself as capable of expressing vehement hostility.   That, he likely believes, is my area of expertise.  I am the one who expresses anger, after all.    All of his efforts in interpersonal relations are intended to keep the peace, make peace, be a mediator between angry people.  In the short term, his efforts sometimes work, two angry people kiss and make up.   Long term, his record is not as good — as nobody’s can be when “peace” is based on persuading everyone to let bygones be bygones and a polite agreement that everybody loves each other.  That’s not how love, or anger, actually works.  In any event, the impasse between him and me is a special case and he really couldn’t be expected to make peace with someone as angry and unforgiving as I apparently am.   Plus, of course, the disrespect, how do you get past that?

In the end, the third time he brought up the disrespect, about five minutes after the second time, I finally lost it.  Outside of provoking me, I have no other theory for why he kept mentioning this perceived feeling of being disrespected.  I snapped.  I told him he was right to feel disrespected, that I don’t respect him, not the way he treats people, not many of the choices he’s made in his life, not his inability to empathize, to be honest about his feelings, to have any insight into his anger, to make a meaningful apology.   If you apologize for hurting somebody, I said, and you continue to do the same hurtful thing over and over, your apology is a shit apology.   A lie.   A meaningless fucking lie, dude.    

It may be worth mentioning here that we spoke for another four or five hours after that.   We talked quietly, but in circles, each trying our best to somehow rescue our deeply wounded friendship.   Oddly enough, he seemed to calm down and fight much less after making me explode at him.

 My childhood friend now spends a lot of time studying the ancient wisdom of Judaism with an orthodox rabbi, though he chose not to contact me during the Ten Days of Repentance, a time when Jews are supposed to make amends with people they know they’ve hurt.   Feeling the aggrieved party (victimhood is one of the most frequently and potently weaponized feelings in Trump’s America) I am sure he contented himself praying for his soul and the souls of his loved ones.   I thought about this falling out, blamed entirely on me for my inability not to be provoked by what I falsely claim is provocation, extensively during those ten days and beyond.  

I heard a rabbi talking about apology, atonement and forgiveness.   A fascinating seven minute segment on On The Media (click here for the excellent conversation) .  The rabbis apparently require someone seeking forgiveness to apologize at least three times before they can give up with the human and atone before God.   Element number one of an apology is empathy– I know you’re hurt, if someone had done to me what I did to you I’d be hurt too, just like you are, I’m sorry I hurt you, I’ll try my best not to ever do it again.   Remove empathy and you have only the empty form of an apology:  I see you’re hurt and waiting for an apology, so I’m sorry, can we just move on now?

Can we just move on, you merciless fucking irrationally hurt self-righteously enraged prick?

Think about any member of his family who might want to keep in touch with me– impossible.   There is a huge cost to taking sides against your own family, going against the current of your tribe’s strong feelings, even in a small way.  This conflict in the soul when a person opposes the will of the tribe has been the stuff of drama forever.  First, it is seen by those who trust you as disloyal.   Second, if you are critical of the accepted tribal story your head can be next on the chopping block, you see how upset everyone is.   Best to say nothing.  

I have a friend fond of quoting his grandfather’s aphorisms, gleaned from the teachings of the rabbis.  One of our favorites is “yaffa shteeka leh cha-chameem”   beautiful is silence to the wise.   Dig it.

 That said, the only hope we humans have, if we truly seek to change things for the better, is looking as deeply and dispassionately as we can into things that are sometimes, frankly, terrifying.  It is easy to resolve conflict in your own mind by reducing something to a simple scenario.   Few scenarios are actually as simple as we easily convince ourselves they are.


[1]  I have a CAT scan of my kidneys, bladder and ureters early next week, then a camera on a long stick up the penis into the urethra to look for the source of a large blood clot, gross hematuria, some emergency dental work I need to set up and a bit of fancy footwork to do playing the insurance odds, by the December 15 deadline to buy health insurance for 2019, trying to learn before then if I’ll need another $88,000 infusion of chemotherapy for my eventually life ending kidney disease.  

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