This ongoing denial of human feelings is like a stubborn fiber, stuck between my molars. I think about it in relation to someone I was good friends with, who, without explanation (beyond a reference to “and other things”) has stopped communicating with me. He frequently suffers from Tension Myoneural Syndrome, a condition he introduced me to, intense physical suffering related to repressed rage. He cannot process all the rage he has, I understand that completely now. Still, his silence irks and baffles me, whenever I think about it. It appears to be an angry reaction to my attempts to escape and stay out of the trap of my own anger.
The underlying mechanism of most human tragedy, of course, flows from a lack of empathy, or from extremely selective empathy (which allows ruthlessness toward anyone outside the selected group). Unhappy people believe themselves doomed to never get a fair hearing anywhere and it makes them understandably angry. As a result of this unfair sentence upon them they cannot tolerate the expression of certain feelings by others. They are not allowed to express anger, too much sorrow, discontentment, voice meaningful complaint that will be taken seriously — so why the fuck should anyone else be allowed their fucking feelings?
How hateful is it, to somebody angrily resigned to being caught in a trap, to hear somebody else struggling against their own cage?
If you have some time, and patience, you can read the background story about a group of problematically married men, often angry, and the roles their unhappy, demanding wives play in their endless, embattled unhappiness. The piece is here.
One of the wives called me, a week or so after “a bad day” for her husband. It was a day I’d spent five hours with the guy walking and talking, waiting for him, pressing him at times, to acknowledge that he had treated me in ways that he would hate to be treated. He had accused me of deliberately trying to destroy his marriage, for one thing. He bobbed and weaved, told me he’d already apologized for everything, including “that thing in the car” (when he told me our friendship was on death row and I’d better come up with something good if I wanted a reprieve) and that I was being an unreasonable hard-ass who would not accept his multiple expressions of regret.
His wife called (yes, I can hear you, Sekhnet– “flush!”) and told me she was very upset that I was refusing to forgive her husband, who told her his apology apparently wasn’t good enough for me. I began to explain to her that if you tell someone they’re hurting you, and that they owe you an apology, and they then apologize and keep doing the same bad things, then the apology is an apology in form only. She brushed past this. “We are family,” she told me, “and we love you. You can’t stop being friends with us! We love you. Our children love you.”
Here is what I’m trying to capture: that moment when you express your feelings as clearly as possible and are given an anodyne statement in response: but we love you, stop complaining, you big jerk! Anodyne, no controversy, who could argue with the idea that a family fights but in the end loves each other in a love that conquers everything else.
People who love each other certainly hurt each other from time to time, it’s part of the human condition. Love means, above most things, empathy, and in my mind love demands that you make peace as soon as possible after becoming aware that you’ve hurt a person you love. Love involves a certain amount of conscious work to keep it free of sabotaging, inchoate grievance. Love doesn’t avoid the hard questions by saying “but you can’t be hurt, because I love you, you crazy asshole!”
To underscore the absurdity, and destructiveness, of not acknowledging you’ve caused somebody pain– and claiming they should just pipe down about it because you love them– the woman telling me I had to forgive her hapless husband spends much of her time enraged at the guy. SHE KNOWS EXACTLY HOW AGGRAVATING THE FELLOW IS. They are now attending marriage counseling, after deciding to divorce and reconsidering. She rages at him herself regularly, they both fear the psychic harm they’ve done to their two children by violently screaming at each other in front of them over the course of the boys’ lives.
So a better strategy, on her part, if she’d really been intent on making peace, would have started by acknowledging what a maddeningly frustrating opponent her husband is. “Look, we both know how infuriating he can be, you know I struggle with it every day, I want to kill him a lot of the time, for sure. All I can tell you is that he really is going to therapy twice a week, and he’s working hard, and I ask you to keep an open mind about him. There are great things about him that become hard to see when he provokes us, as you know better than most people. I’m asking you to remember all the reasons you and he have been friends for more than fifty years.”
But that was not part of our conversation. Instead the wife’s call was a referendum on love– either you love us, because we love you, or YOU’RE FUCKING DEAD TO US.
I had to breathe deeply a few times in that frustrating hour of talk, to keep my anger in check each time it flared up. I was being blamed, over and over, for not being loving enough, for not forgiving, even if the apologies I received had been extracted, strained, and ultimately false. I was the one who was being unforgiving, unloving. No matter what the provocation, I had no right to remain angry at her husband. He really can’t help himself, and. after all, she had still not divorced him, and he’d done far worse to her.
This is how it is done in the zero sum world of damaged souls who truly believe they have no hope of anything better. Accept whatever it is, you can be as angry as you want about it, but you have to keep that in anger check as much as possible. Yes, it will spill out in rage from time to time. Merely the price for love, I suppose, is how their reasoning goes.
In that conversation with the guy’s wife I was not trying to score any points, I was trying to be as clear as possible about my feelings and the reasons I now have to stay away from her husband. If I’d been intent on racking up points there would have been an easy moment, right at the start, to put some points on the board. “We are family, we love you, you have to forgive him,” gave me an open shot on goal. I’d have pointed out that she was permanently estranged from both her brother and her sister, that her relationship with her high-strung mother was extremely tense and that she had described in detail some of the harms her morally upright macho father had inflicted when he smacked her around when she was a girl and made sure she admired him and emulated his example of toughness.
You can win an argument, in a way, by pointing out such things, but in the end there is nothing productive about it. Empty stats, like buckets scored in garbage time. If you are trying to come to an understanding with somebody, forget about keeping score.
All I wanted was for her, a friend of many years, to understand why I felt the way I do. She initiated a call I would not have made, and I restrained myself several times, as my feelings were being constantly dismissed, or challenged, because I hoped I could make her understand. I could not. The call went on and on. Suddenly I heard a small voice in the background and she screamed.
It became clear in that instant. Her husband was home. She didn’t want him to know she was calling me. She had gone into her son’s room, closed the door, and called me from there, sitting on the edge of his bed. Her son came home, found his door closed, opened it to find his mother talking to somebody in hushed tones. He must have been startled, startled her, said “mom, what the fuck?” or words to that effect and all the anger she was withholding talking to an intractable apparent former good friend she poured out onto her son.
The lesson: nobody has any right to any feelings that fucking piss me the fuck off you goddamned fucking fuck!