An old friend was lamenting the other night how many years it has taken him to learn the most basic things about being a kind person. How to overcome the ready reflex to react violently to provocation, for example . I commiserated, that kind of transformation is not accomplished overnight, if at all, particularly if you grew up regularly under attack in a family war zone. On the other hand, struggling to be a more compassionate person is the right thing to do and whatever progress we make benefits those we love as much as it benefits us.
We’re taught many things as children that are not only wrong, but do great damage to our young souls, damage we’re often compelled to pass on to others who don’t deserve to be mistreated. Every abusive person in the world was subjected to abuse as a young person. It doesn’t excuse the asshole behavior, but it makes it understandable. Nobody becomes a bully unless they grew up in fear, humiliated and shamed regularly.
I reminded my friend at one point of something he’d long ago forgotten, a random moment of kindness he had no reason to remember, but one that made a deep impression on me. That moment showed me, more clearly than anything up until that time, that there was a gentle beauty to life that had been largely hidden from me during a combative childhood defending myself against an antagonist who waited until the last night of his life to express sorrow and regret for the lifelong war he’d always blamed me for. The random act of my friends’ kindness opened my eyes to how nurturing and healing real gentleness is.
I reminded my friend of that long ago day at the lake (which I wrote about here) and he had only the vaguest memory of it. He recalled taunting me, at one point, until I laid back on the rock, a crust of bread held between my lips, and waited for the beaked kiss of a hungry Canadian goose. The aggressive birds had surrounded us during lunch, looking for some lunch. He’d been doing it, and laughing as the birds snatched the bread from his mouth, and urging me to try it, but I’d resisted. He called me a pussy in front of two female friends, “PUSSY!” he taunted, and like a true pussy, I put a crust of bread in my lips, laid back and waited for the hungry kiss of a large bird. It was pretty cool. I then reminded him about swimming in the lake and Audrey, who he’d only met that one time, and I fondly praised her as a great girl, talented, funny, cute, sensuous.
“Why didn’t you stay with her?” my friend asked, hearing the obvious affection I had for her.
I explained that at the time I was still way too immature to know how to handle somebody as damaged as Audrey also was. I loved hearing her laugh, her touch, her beautiful singing voice, many great things about her, but I was too big an asshole, still, at age thirty or so, to know how to take care of the parts of her (or myself) that were so broken.
She gave me stern advice one day, late in our friendship, and I resisted what she was telling me. She pressed on, telling me that she wasn’t telling me anything she didn’t also tell herself. I smirked and told her, with a bit too much coldness, that the things she told herself included “put your head in the oven and inhale the gas” and “take the razor blade into the bathtub and end this suffering.” I said, if somebody told me those things, I’d defend myself violently against them.
That wasn’t the point, of course. I managed to reject her advice, and win that little round of an ongoing disagreement, but the cruelty was unnecessary, and damaging. She had struggled against suicide (and I hope never afterwards succumbed to the urge to do herself in, I haven’t heard of her for decades now) and prevailed more than once against a self-destructive tic I could not relate to. Others might kill me, and I’d fight them about that, but I won’t ever raise my hand against myself (unless, perhaps, I am in unbearable pain in the final stage of a terminal disease). Those things might all be true, but it was very mean of me to use them against her like that. At that time I was simply too hardened against critical voices, even if they were right, and too intent on being right.
The world of hurt in Audrey’s heart, the pain that sometimes made her want to die? I had no way to touch it. I could make her laugh, I could make love with her, I could accompany her on guitar when she sang and played the flute, but beyond that, I was pretty much clueless.
What we learn, I don’t know how we do it. I’ve sometimes thought that the things that trouble us most make us think deeply about them (if we are wired that way, denial is probably a more common response) and look for insights into how to have less pain. Pain, of course, is famous for distorting our thinking beyond endurance.
Look at the tens of thousands of deaths of despair every year in America: suicide by gun, drunk driving, drug overdoses. There is no help for this kind of hopelessness in a nation that divides the world into great winners and fucking losers. We can learn to repudiate this false, asshole version of the world, though it is not easy. “Winning” is really about the love and kindness we have in our lives, everything else is deliberately misleading advertising. If you live without much love in your life you know this, if you live with a lot of love, you know this too.
How do we learn anything? I don’t know, even as I know I’ve learned some important things over the years. Some things we learn without effort, because we love them, are fascinated by them, drawn to them, can’t help improving because we are involved in them all the time, curious, thrilled by them. If you love the sound an instrument makes, for example, and how it feels to play that instrument, odds are you will get better and better playing it. If you love to draw, you will draw all the time, and if you do, you will get better and better at it. Writing, same deal. Critical thinking may also be in this category– finding and assembling the facts to figure puzzling things out.
But the really hard emotional stuff — how not to behave like our earliest role models? How not to blame ourselves for the cruelty that’s sometimes inflicted on us? How not to be tortured by fear? How to remain mild, and as kind as we can, even when we feel hurt? Very hard things, all of them.
I don’t know that I have a nice bow to tie this up with. I don’t. Life rarely includes real closure, or black and white changes that are beyond dispute. In our war-torn world, nothing is beyond dispute, if you are willing to fight to the death over it. Our current president is the perfect example of this: never wrong, always justified, always perfect. Angry too, of course, because he is so innocent and lives in a corrupt world with so much wrong, so many enemies unjustifiably hellbent against him, everything so imperfect.
The changes my friend and I discussed the other night are sometimes subtle, other times impossible to see at all. We still react with anger when we feel provoked, but we probably react with less anger at times. We still are unable to do much to heal the hurt in people we love, but we are better at it than we were. We have learned a few important things, after many, many years. I congratulate my friend for this learning, even as I commiserate about the hard road he is on, has always been on. It is, of course, much easier simply to remain an asshole.
 If there is a harder trick, for somebody who was subjected to abuse as a child, I’m not sure what it is.