I’ve long had the intrusive habit of asking of what often seem to be unanswerable questions. They’re not unanswerable because there is no explanation, no cause and effect that can be laid out, no illuminating reasons that can be produced to get closer to the truth of what’s actually going on.
They’re unanswerable because they are fucking hard questions, the true reasons are ugly reasons, and great forces are arrayed to make sure they are answered only in self-serving, inadequate ways, like Mr. Trump’s (no reply submitted) reply to Mueller’s last long, compromising written question about the actions of his disgraced former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn.
The real answer will often cause more trouble than its worth — to those who have something to lose by it. The anodyne answer (like the ones the New York Times specializes in) is always preferable, though it’s usually only a partial answer that, while accepting the status quo as the way it should pretty much be, makes no trouble. Except that it also provides no real clue about anything but how important it is not to make trouble if you want everything to continue pretty much as it is.
I get that I seem to be acting as though humans are mostly rational creatures, animals who use sophisticated tools and logical means to enjoy the many wonders of nature and live in harmony with our miraculous world. A clever person could say it’s illogical to proceed as if logic ruled the world. Indeed, the world, we can see at a glance, is clearly not ruled by Reason. That doesn’t invalidate thoughtfulness as the best we can do in a world often ruled by selfish, enraged brutes. Understanding is always a net gain, it seems to me, as is honest connection to others.
I also understand that my clinging to “understanding” is an emotional thing, stemming from my childhood need to feel heard and addressed. Not to say some explanations are not far better than others, only that in seeking them feathers will often be ruffled and emotions raised to the boiling point. I grew up in a home where that happened regularly. Some of my parents’ outbursts were understandable to me, I’d touched a raw nerve I had reason to know would be raw — but some were just rage doing what rage does — raging. What the hell is up with rage?
After our father died, my sister used a great phrase to describe a force that decisively shaped his life (and to a large extent our mother’s as well). “Shame-based” she said, and it’s a phrase that explains a lot. The main characteristic about shame is that it compels the sufferer to hide that painful emotion, to rationalize, defend, develop plausible sounding explanations for actions that are not always easy to justify, and often, to lash out violently at others.
Shame is a powerful force in world history. Adolf Hitler spoke directly to the shame and thwarted national pride of his audience. He spoke magic words to larger and larger crowds of desperate, angry Germans after Germany’s humiliating defeat in World War One and its submission to a harsh and destructive treaty. According to the self-taught Mr. Hitler, the German army had never lost the war, not at all; Germany had the greatest military in the world, but it been savagely betrayed, you see, it was stabbed in the back. No reason to feel national humiliation, the punitive Versailles diktat was heaped on a great and victorious nation by vicious, scheming, inhuman traitors, you understand. Inferior traitors who continue laughing at Germany, traitors whose laughter will turn to whimpers and screams when we turn the tables!!!
Shame is the source of much rage and violence. The need to hide shame and act out to keep it hidden is behind many of the terrible stories of savagery we see, many tragedies that unfold before us. Shame leads directly to abuse, in its many forms.
A few years back I heard a great interview on this subject with a psychiatrist named James Gilligan who’d spent many years in prisons working with violent offenders. He put his finger on shame as the common denominator for violent acts of domination, horrible things done out of a sense of being “disrespected”. You can read his article on the subject here. Every sadist was once humiliated, and the reaction to that humiliation is often expressed in a desire to humiliate others. The vicious cycle (literally) is turned harder by the fact that we tend to blame ourselves for our shame, and for the sometimes shameful things we sometimes do to avoid further shame, which makes everything ten times worse.
There is a great scene in the movie Goodwill Hunting that vividly illustrates the first step on path away from shame — addressing the pain and forgiving the self for feeling it. The psychiatrist, played by Robin Williams, finally get’s through Will’s (Matt Damon) resistance to gaining real insight. The young man is clearly in pain, and his nerves are painfully exposed after he lays out the violence of his childhood, the terrible punishment inflicted on him by a brutal parent for no reason. Williams tells him “it’s not your fault”. The statement is undeniably true — the kid is not responsible for the uncontrollable violence of his angry drunk father. Will tries to nonchalantly acknowledge this, but he is only retreating back to his tough guy pose. The shrink, not going to miss the opening, tells the kid again “it’s not your fault.” He keeps repeating this statement, in the face of his patient’s rising emotions. In the end the young man breaks down in the older man’s arms and it’s a moment of great progress in his treatment.
Of course, it’s a Hollywood movie. We know all about successful Hollywood movies — they are pretty much mostly bullshit. Every time a couple has sex on screen — they come together. Every time a victim gets a gun, she shoots her sadistic victimizer dead in the final scene. The poorest characters live in beautiful homes. Violence is cathartic, makes everything better. Plus, for good measure, showing a naked woman or man is much more offensive, for purposes of ratings, than showing people being shot, blown up, smashed in the head with baseball bats. Still, the essence of that scene between Robin Williams and Matt Damon crystalizes something deep and true.
We tend to blame ourselves, which increases our sense of being worth less than others who, aggravatingly, do not seem to blame themselves. Except in rare cases, nobody shows us how not to blame ourselves when we feel guilt, or regret, or shame — or rage, for that matter. It’s our fault we are (slug in your pet fear here). The poor, generation after generation of these hard-pressed fuckers, have only themselves to blame for their poverty. After all, hard work and determined ambition is always rewarded in a free nation like ours — just look at all the successful people who worked their asses off to become celebrities! Surely the poor can grab ahold of their own bootstraps and perform the physics-defying feat of lifting themselves off the ground by their own heels. Even the metaphor is absurd — but no worries, the image is good enough for our purposes. Our purpose, to sum it up, is “fuck you. It’s not me, not us, not the way we do things here, it’s you, asshole.”
So it is down the line with superficial, stupid answers to troubling questions. Husband, finding himself in a tight spot, as a result of unsuccessful embezzling and numerous lying attempts to cover up his crimes, about to declare bankruptcy he’s kept secret from everybody, suddenly threatens mass murder– stabbing, beheading and killing by fire — of his entire family. What the fuck? “He was under unbearable pressure!” Decades later, the wife who never left, dismisses the homicidal raging as an isolated thing that only happened once. Her children, two of the intended victims, must never know about the shameful, terrifying episode. She can’t understand why she still has tremendous anxiety, even though her life is objectively pretty much stress-free, though, admittedly, she does blame herself for the low self-esteem that prevented her from leaving her volatile, serially untruthful husband.
A woman tells you, after a few glasses of wine, that she has always hated everybody. Present company excluded, she adds with a wan smile, realizing how bad that categorical statement must have sounded. We all laugh about it, admit that we hate most people too. Then, over time, it emerges that this woman does hate EVERYBODY– present company now included. Doesn’t talk to her brother or sister, rages at her children, is in a constantly escalating war with her husband, etc. She hates everybody because, when it comes down to it, her life is shit and she hates that too– and, most unbearable of all, it’s all her own fault.
A guy praises and thanks his old friend, offering to do him a favor he then, without explanation, decides not to do. When questioned about this change of heart the guy explodes — “this is the last straw, you demanding fuck, I don’t owe you shit, I don’t owe you an explanation, you pushy fucking fuck! I love you, man, but we have a gigantic personality conflict here, so maybe better if you just fuck off and die.” The guy, on some level, must know he’s overreacting and trashing a long friendship over what seems to be a pretext, but, for whatever reason, it feels good for him to rage at this guy. Certainly better than feeling whatever shame is behind his emotional outburst.
In any of these cases, the facts don’t speak for themselves. The true causes are murky and, most likely, shame-based, as my sister said of our father’s frequent outbursts. The wife whose husband threatened to kill everyone would need, at minimum, a sincere apology from her murder-threatening husband before they could move on together in their lives. The woman who says she hates everyone is reaching out, clearly in pain, feeling isolated, no matter how justified her feelings of hatred may otherwise seem to her. The guy who loves his friend would, it seems, extend a tiny benefit of the doubt rather than attacking, but, who’s to say?
You probe these kinds of shame-based scenarios at your own peril. As we have seen over and over, many people would rather punch you in the face than look squarely at something that causes them shame, or even discomfort. Turn on the news and you will hear the latest “social media” attack by a powerful man whose overbearing, inhumanly demanding, brutish father (and loveless, materialistic mother) instilled in him a lust to blame others as loudly as possible as the better alternative to dealing with the lifelong terror of shame and a deep sense of his “inadequacy”. Better to put three, four and five year old enemies in prisons, let them stink and catch all the diseases unsanitary confinement produces, then brazenly lie about their conditions of captivity, than realize your entire life is based on unbearable desperation not to feel the shame inflicted on you by relentless sadists, no?