No good deed goes unpunished, it is often said. Usually by people trying to be philosophical about that bitter feeling when your best attempt to make something better by doing a kindness comes around to bite you in the ass. I woke up with that cliche in mind today and find myself needing to organize some thoughts about it.
I saw a cool short discussion of why so many people want to be writers these days. The little animation makes a convincing case that the desire to write stems from existential loneliness (which is on the upswing in this era of “social media” — and heightened during the pandemic, of course) — an unfulfilled need for intimate back and forth conversation all too rare in real life. To accommodate ourselves to our relative isolation, many of us conduct internal conversations on the page that we wish we could have in life .
I recently attempted an extended soul-draining good deed over the course of several months and got a sharp, defensive, hurt retort by email the other day. The upshot is that I am mean, vengeful, incapable of generosity– and deluded. This is the verdict of an old friend with his own emotional limitations. Though I had no confusion about where the anger was coming from at this point in our long back and forth, it’s an argument, isn’t it?
Nonetheless, it irked me, after my patient efforts to get through were all ignored, to get this shotgun blast blaming me for being a rigid, vindictive, insensitive putz. I gave an adorably reluctant Sekhnet the two minute version last night, she was sympathetic as I read part of the email, after dismissing anything he might have written to me by telling me to consider the source and the context. She was right. Nobody else I know can reasonably be expected to listen to a few pertinent takeaways as I struggle toward them in conversation. So I’m going to give it an hour or two here, make a fuller account of why this resonates with me so much.
I’m also hopefully doing a good deed by providing a discussion that might be helpful to someone in turmoil about a relationship turned sour, and to anyone who’s had to give up on an old friendship after a long struggle not to.
First, there is the matter of the good deed itself. Most “good deeds” are done for a variety of reasons. For one thing, it makes us feel better to do something nice for a person in need. I once liberated two women, strangers, who were locked in their apartment, plaintively calling out of a window overlooking an alley. Overcoming my feeling, on that dark, deserted street, that someone might be waiting behind the door to knock me out with a baseball bat and take my wallet, I entered their lobby and went to unlock their door. The women were relieved and grateful to be saved from their predicament by a sympathetic stranger. I felt good too, and a little better about mankind in general.
One person’s good deed may be another person’s self-righteous, passive aggressive kick in the groin. Strictly a matter of perspective. Think of the difference between a terrorist and a freedom fighter. Picture outgunned, desperate Jewish partisans in the Warsaw Ghetto as the Nazis were “liquidating” the population. I suppose it’s possible to say there were very fine people on both sides, everyone believing they’re on the side of the angels, especially when fighting for their own notion of freedom. Not many would say that, perhaps, but you see what I’m driving at about our point of view being key to analyzing right and wrong.
For purposes of this exercise, let’s agree that a good deed is rarely 100% selfless and altruistic. It’s just part of the nature of good deeds. They make us feel better to do them, they help somebody else — or not. When they don’t help, they can hurt. Unwanted results in such cases are to be expected, sometimes lead to punishment, as they say.
I try to practice of my secular version of Ahimsa (non-harm) and I attempt to “first do no harm.” This doesn’t always result in a peaceful outcome, though I’m doing better now than years ago. It is much more important to me these days to avoid fights than to win them. I try my best to see things from the other person’s point of view, to listen, to be fair, to phrase things in a way I think will be heard, to eventually realize when I need to accept, with as little anger as possible, that there can be no agreement in this particular case. I try to avoid the bad feelings that can easily come from these clashes. I withdraw when I see a relationship is no longer a mutual exercise in overlooking human flaws in the other. Sometimes, in spite of my efforts, I get drawn into an existential showdown anyway.
I recognize that this strong reflex to fight back is from my childhood. I was raised by an implacably angry, very smart, adversarial father. In my conscious mind, I am now taking a nonviolent stand by being direct: laying out the causes of friction with as little anger as I can and appealing to conscience when I feel somebody is unfairly accusing me of being the aggressor. To a longtime observer, my need to take this stand probably feels like “here we go again, he really, really needs to be right…”
It’s true, it’s hard to know for certain sometimes that what we think we’re doing is what we are really doing. I had a troubled friend who dramatically and infallibly illustrated this principle. He lived the Repetition Compulsion over the decades I knew him– endlessly replaying the identical, primal three-act play in every situation. It always began with great excitement and inevitably ended in betrayal, anger, sometimes violence. No matter how often he fell into the same trap, he was never wrong. Also, he could not see the pattern, had no clue that he was performing the same idiot drama over and over. Maybe I’m the same way?
Memory is unreliable, we’re ruled as much by emotion as by Reason, we believe things that turn out to be shaky, outright mistaken. The world, if we scroll through the Doom that is today’s headlines, offers unlimited proofs of the power of irrationality and delusion. I am obsessed with this issue, as you can read here on any given day .
So, you may be forgiven for seeing my writing here as just so much venting, a twitchy, idiosyncratic virtue dance to make myself seem righteous. People I’ve known who thought themselves the most brilliant, the most insightful, were also, in fundamental ways, the most broken. We all virtually always believe we are doing the right thing for the right reasons. Otherwise, how could people gather to do things like burning down the home of a voting rights activist?
I’ve digressed from the story with these caveats about my own reliability. Of course, I believe I am right in this case– but, of course I do! So just two or three illustrations that I think will complete the point I’m trying to make.
A longtime friend, a lawyer by profession and personal style, called after my health insurance had been abruptly (and mistakenly, it finally emerged) cancelled last January. He was angry that I seemed to be so angry about it, had written him a couple of overwrought emails and then sent him one that he called “snide and inaccurate”. He told me he was concerned about my out of control anger, worried where it might lead me. Within a few minutes he cut me off and loudly challenged me to tell him to go fuck himself, if that’s what I felt like doing.
This guy was an old friend, one of a small handful I have left. I managed to calm him down. In the discussion that followed he admitted that my email had not been inaccurate, or even very snide. It was snide, he said, by the standard of my usual breezy communications with him, which is why the snideness struck him so hard that it also felt inaccurate, which he now allowed it was not. After the call, I felt good that I’d avoided a shouting match with an old friend who was obviously going through some stressful shit on his end.
I know, “Jesus, El, this guy sounds like… well, you described it yourself.” Sure, but we had been friends for about fifty years. He is a very smart guy, good sense of humor, we shared many beliefs about the world, a taste for blues guitar, a love for good, clear writing, we went back decades and had always been loyal friends to each other. You don’t throw all that away because the guy is having a bad day and calls to take it out on you. Or do you?
In hindsight, maybe you do. It certainly feels that way in light of the relentlessness that followed. But hindsight, you know what they say about that superpower.
The crankiness continued, on a slow boil, expressed through endless challenges to most things I said in the weeks that followed. This rigorous contestation was always part of my friend’s nature — he relates by parsing, analyzing, challenging assertions, testing the strength of claims. It served him well in his legal career, if not always in his personal life. I was very slow to grasp how much he was deploying these things to … I don’t even know, destroy our friendship?
He has a dark view of the human race, seeing people as basically flawed, unreliable, deluded, incapable of not being selfish. Perhaps it was inevitable that his closest friend had to be shown to be the same as everybody else. He said I was a better person than him, at least I was struggling against my crabbed human nature, but over the years more and more bitterness crept in.
I will spare you all the ugliness of the months that followed. I isolated for my friend the two most intolerable things in our frayed friendship. These were things I thought he’d be able to see and make adjustments for, as he told me I was his best friend and that he was determined to do everything in his power to make sure our friendship continued.
The first was the lack of response to concerns I raised. He would simply ignore them, no matter how many times I raised them. I told him this was particularly hurtful to me because it was my angry father’s favorite technique for getting under my skin. I presented him with my belief that virtually anyone, bringing a concern to a close friend, would be rightfully hurt if that concern was ignored. He had no comment about this, no matter how many times I raised it.
The other thing that was intolerable was the reflexive lawyerly reframing of every issue to shift the ground of the discussion. This was another dreadful adversarial technique I knew well from childhood. As a kid I’d try to explain why I was upset and my father would cooly counter that I was conveniently sidestepping the real issue: my vicious, uncontrollable temper. Suddenly I am struggling to defend myself, and stay calm enough not to prove my father’s provocative point, the hope to get my father to understand why I was upset long gone.
Reframing is a very easy technique to use. Even a man of limited smarts like Mike Pence can do it almost in his sleep, as he did over and over the other night while talking over his female opponent for Vice President. All you need for reframing is a perceived weakness in the person you’re talking to and a desire to dominate. They say A and you immediately pivot to X, and, HA! now they have to defend why they want to put 100,000,000 Americans out of work!
In the end, after thousands and thousands of words spoken and written, and reducing the friction between us to just these two crucial points, I had no response to anything I’d raised, except for my friend’s protestations that he still didn’t understand exactly what I was asking him for. In the end, after all my attempts had come to nothing, I sent him these thoughts, before repeating, with some anger, a few of my many unheeded attempts to make peace:
Intimate friendship is rare and can be hard to maintain, in my experience. Real mutuality takes trust, mutual vulnerability and sometimes work, including a two-way readiness to overlook a friend’s faults and to accommodate ourselves to a friend’s weaknesses and problems. We can all be assholes sometimes, the beauty of real friendship is that our asshole side is not held against us, not tallied on some kind of ledger for future use at the worst possible time — and that we repay our friend’s generosity in kind.
When our attempt to explain why we’re hurt is met with resistance, reluctant acceptance, impatience, then anger, and that anger is redoubled (as when a friend angrily cuts us off, hangs up the phone and texts us back to tell us he’s done with us violating him), then, for weeks, the friend stands on his right to be angry and unapologetic, and later, after multiple explanations, claims to still not understand the exact nature of his hurtful acts … I’m not sure how a friendship moves on from there. I haven’t figured it out in my life, anyway.
It may be that like all living things, friendships have life spans. As much as I understand from your last email that you want to somehow salvage our friendship, the idea that you’re unable to imagine, after so many years, how I feel, how I think, even what I actually mean when I try my best to be clear (let’s stipulate that I express myself with reasonable clarity), is impossible to get past.
It turns out knowing how to take care of a friend’s hurt feelings is the most essential part of being a good friend. Of having good friends, of deserving the few close friendships we’ve managed to sustain. Knowing how to take care of a friend’s hurt feelings is another way of describing intimate, mutual love, which requires a reflex to mercy above all else.
I’m not entirely sure how we’ve come to this sorry pass — this brutal contest of vanities — and, outside of this little intro, I really don’t have anything to add to what I’ve written below. Along with the sadness is a sense of disappointment at our mutual limitations, that I, in spite of exhaustive efforts, haven’t been able to figure out a way to solve this sickening moral puzzle. It feels like a failure of my ahimsa shtick, the “first do no harm” business of being a loyal friend, and a mensch.
I balance that disappointment with the knowledge that we can only work to change ourselves, not others. If you can’t overcome a reflex to act abusively when you feel righteously angry, even with someone you deeply care about, nobody but yourself can help you with that. The breaking point for me is when somebody, claiming to love me, stands on their right to act abusively — fuck that.
Anyway, no need for a reply like to the other emails. Each reply did more harm than good, in spite of the good intentions expressed in each one, each one made the hole deeper. Your good intentions were complicated by the confusion you expressed, and the lack of confidence that you knew how to interpret the past, understand the present or move productively forward. Your confusion and lack of confidence in our friendship are things it’s unproductive for me to grapple with at this point — particularly since you acknowledge that I’ve always been a good friend to you.
I understand you may want to have some kind of last word, but it’s not necessary. As I’ve sat weeks (now months) with this email ready to go I’ve wondered from time to time if there’s any real point to sending it. I’ve decided I don’t want to leave you hanging after our many years of good friendship and your last good faith attempt to salvage it. It doesn’t seem right to finish without some kind of closure that might help you understand the impossibility of my situation, of our friendship, even if only a complete explanation of why I have nothing to add to what I wrote weeks, and now months, ago.
I understand the impulse to have a last word of some kind might be strong. You may feel a reply would be your last chance for a summary, an understanding, an expression of any final regret, etc., but I urge you to consider, again, out of friendship, whether your reply will do anything to make me feel better about the end of our long friendship, or go any way toward mending what is torn. If not, just don’t do it, OK? In any case, if you need to reply, there’s absolutely no rush. At least hold on to what you may have written for long enough to repeatedly reread and refine it, if you need to make some kind of reply. On my end, there’s no need.
It’s very sad, either way you slice it — eternal silence by way of final reply or a categorical final reply like the one below. Little rehearsals for our own deaths, I suppose, these leave takings from old friends after so many decades. On the other hand, I don’t know anyone else who has a friend from Junior High School still in their life. Also, sadly, we all have to die, something I find myself thinking about more and more these days as the death count continues to rise in the greatest nation Jesus ever blessed.
I’m sad about the loss of our long friendship, but as I’ve seen in other situations like it over the years, it is best to be philosophical. The most important thing when a friend is not treating you with the mercy you’ve tried to extend (and have a right to expect in return), and when nothing you say or do makes any difference in that friend’s perceptions, is to leave.
Sad, truly, but sadder still is fragile, self-conscious, sentimental friendship, waiting for the next chance to repeat the same enraged, clueless dance and shatter into painful pieces again. There is relief at the end, to be finally out of harm’s way.
With that, my regrets and my immediate reply to your email of May 27
(in part that email offered many specific things I’d raised in previous emails that he’d never responded to– this is key to appreciating the last line of his first paragraph below).
Here he is, the final 10% of his long reply:
I understand well that I’ve hurt you, Eliot. I’ve told you I’m sorry. You apparently find my conduct unforgivable. I’ve asked myself (and others) many times what you might be looking to me for that I’ve failed to offer, that would demonstrate to you that I’m someone you still want to be friends with. I find no answers in your emails or elsewhere, and reluctantly conclude you really don’t want that.
You’ve said many unkind words to me, Eliot, and I’ve been deeply hurt. When we were discussing your issues with Noam about a year ago, you said something along the lines of, when you have a disagreement with a friend, you try hard to get to a meeting of hearts and minds, but once you conclude that’s not happening, you give it to them with both barrels. I feel that’s where you’re at with me. I feel you no longer value the relationship, but value articulating your grievances and causing me pain in retribution, for whatever purpose that may serve for you. If at this point you just want to be sure you’ve “given as good as you’ve gotten, and then some,” I think you have.
If I’m mistaken and you actually do still want to be friends with me, the door is open. If not, nothing more needs to be said. In any case, my best to you and M.
The issue with Noam, as presented by my friend, was slickly reframed, probably by the instinct to remember something in the light kindest to oneself. It is reducible to this:
If I have a disagreement with a good friend, try my best and can’t get my friend to agree with me, I give it to them with both barrels, like the brutal, self-righteous asshole I am.
The issue with Noam was not a disagreement, except in the broadest sense of the word. Noam had picked a fight with me, out of the blue, for no apparent reason, over what turned out to be a catalogue of unexpressed resentments, as he finally admitted. It was not a “disagreement” that could be worked out with Reason, it was open hostility that could not be pacified, that had become mutual.
For anyone who has made it this far, a bit of “sorbet”. Here is the footnote (written by this same articulate fellow) that I closed my last snide, if not inaccurate, email with, his own words about the end of my friendship with Repetition Compulsion Man from many moons ago:
Not ever having really known him –I was around him at times but have no recollection of actually exchanging any words with him directly –I could only vaguely comprehend the basis for your position. His email opens a window. Very manipulative and emotionally Byzantine, the art of placing blame while trying to appear not to have done so, but rather to have made a bold and mature gesture. Very frustrating, if not infuriating, watching someone bob and weave so strenuously to evade emotional connection and basic responsibility, seeking to anticipate and counter objections and arguments rather than open a line of communication. I can only assume it’s infinitely more exhausting for him than it is for the recipient, and that’s saying something.
Just the other day, the Supreme Court ruled that lack of evidence of actual voter fraud is no obstacle to the South Carolina state legislature imposing its will in a democracy by passing laws to prevent a practice they believe could result in such fraud. We have a raving emotional basket case as our fearless leader. Tens of millions love him and regard him as their savior from a cabal of immensely powerful cannibal pedophiles. And so forth.
a gratuitous self-quoting headilne: