Dying for Principle

It has been said that the mark of a life worth living is being willing to die for your most deeply held beliefs, your principles. This sounds like a profound formulation, but the jury, as far as I can see, is still out on this one. If someone is coming to kill you or someone you love, and you have the means to fight back, by all means, defend yourself and your loved ones, to the death. But it is rarely this simple.

Usually, in matters of principle, there are no lives directly in the balance, but, equally important principles, larger than any individual life, at stake. You can see the problem right away of willingness to die for your beliefs as the mark of a life worth living: the nineteen Al Q’aeda suicide bombers forced those planes into buildings for their deeply held principles, their most fervent beliefs. Does it make them admirable in any way?

My father considered himself a man of principle, and in many ways he was — in the best sense of the word. As he was dying, he exerted himself to take one last principled stand. It was important to him, before he breathed his last, to apologize, at least to his son, for being such a relentlessly combative father. Everything in life was a matter of principle for him, though sometimes the principle was that he was simply emotionally unequipped to do what he knew deep down he should have done.

As a father he believed he was always acting out of love, and duty to his children’s best interests, but he realized, as death came for him quickly, that his black and white view of the world was not only stupid (he lamented missing the nuanced palette of gradations that would have enriched his life), but had exacted a terrible price on those he loved.

“Life is hard enough,” he said, in a dying man’s voice, “and instead of helping you, like a father should, I put even more obstacles in front of you and your sister, made your lives so much harder…” He then apologized for the only time in memory.

The forces of our personality that we can’t see are the ones that bite us the hardest, this also goes for the hidden obstacles in our path, the things that infallibly trip us up. They are truly the most destructive demons we must battle in our effort to learn from our mistakes, to become better people.

In the last few years I’ve made a close study of my father’s life, looking for lessons for my own. I may have stumbled on an important one recently that had been impossible for me to see until the other day. It was a painful thing to realize, for the first time, at 64, and it hit me with some force. It also gives rise to a great irony of my long, solitary attempt to create a meaningful public memorial for my parents and their erased ancestors, as I will try to explain.

My father was an intelligent, well-read man with a grasp of history and a good sense of humor who fought like the devil his entire unhappy life. He believed people cannot change, because he could never change, never hope to heal from or overcome the deeply instilled pain of a childhood of abuse. In the end he had to acknowledge, in the face of my mildness as I listened to his final confession, as I did my best to reassure him, that he’d been wrong to reject the idea of working to change himself in any way.

He resisted the idea that people can work to change themselves as as a matter of principle, mind you. He was honestly looking life in the face, as he saw it, while weak people who indulged in endless therapy were deluding themselves, and the victims of pathetic quacks working in a field where even the supposed experts wildly disagreed about the fundamentals of what worked. His unshakable belief that our inborn traits and traumas mark us for life was always argued as a matter of principle.

It was insane, he insisted, to think that we can meaningfully change our natures, natures unknowable to ourselves that are largely innate and then baked in before our consciousness is even fully formed. It was no doubt sobering to him to see his lifelong adversary standing by his deathbed without any trace of anger or judgment, without recriminations.

We have too many examples of this kind of mad belief in “principle” to need more than a reminder. Look around, everything in public and private life has been reduced to inarguable zero-sum matters of black and white, non-negotiable “principle”. The principle, for example, that liberty itself depends on defense of the personal right to infect whoever you want during a raging pandemic. To insist that everyone take simple, easy to follow, proven effective precautions to slow the spread of a deadly disease, supposedly for the common good, is AN ACT OF INTOLERABLE TYRANNY that must be resisted!

If you are acting on deeply held moral principle there is little room for discussion with unprincipled people, compromise is certainly out of the question. In my father’s case he saw the world, as billions now do, as a raging, merciless war zone; perhaps not an unreasonable view in many ways.

The harder to defend part was his view that the family dinner table, too, was an eternal battlefield, bloody and savage, where in the end, he warned his young children angrily, no matter how many battles they might think they’d won, they would “lose the war”. In the end he would prevail. It was a matter of principle. An insane principle, perhaps, but a principle nonetheless. Also, of course, the bit about losing the war was a self-fulfilling prophecy in many ways.

Fighting in this senseless war of principle every night shaped me in ways I can see and ways I can’t see. I am like a former child soldier, in some deep recess of my soul I was shaped and scarred by the brutality that was a regular feature of my life at the dinner table war zone, night after night. My sister considers that I suffered more than she did, because while she often kept her head down and endured the attacks, I always fought back. I have the opposite view, though both sides of the argument have merit.

I learned how to use my intelligence to cooly inflict maximum harm on the old man when the fighting got ugly. I learned how to provoke him to rage with a slight shift of my mouth, the look in my eyes, a half turn of my torso, an inhalation of breath.

These skills did not serve me well in the world. Confronted by a bully at any point in my now long life, I was helpless, I could not avoid a confrontation in the end. Once I recognized an unreasonable person craving some kind of violent domination I’d eventually smirk and say the very worst possible thing “you’re an unreasonable person, craving some kind of violent domination, you know you’re a weak, contemptible bully, don’t you, asshole?”

It was not in my skill set to smoothly back away from someone who made it clear they wanted to fight for no discernible reason. It is still hard for me to do when suddenly confronted with this behavior, as much as I strive to avoid confrontation with unreasonable people these days.

It turns out a lot of change is possible with hard work, self-acceptance and the blessing of supportive friends, while other, deeper changes are very, very difficult to make.

You can learn to recognize when you are getting angry, what is about to make you angry. You can take steps to resist getting angry, to allow your breathing to calm you a bit, to control your reaction, to not blurt out the regrettable words that can’t be taken back. There are many things you can learn to do to have a less angry, less violent life.

My father may have been right about one thing – you may never be able, once the hateful game is afoot, to lose that provocative set of your mouth, the look on your face, the exaggerated intake of breath that makes someone want to slug you – it’s baked in, it’s yours to keep forever, no matter how hard you might try to disown it.

Once you do any of those angry moves, it instantly proves the point of the person who insists you’re a ruthless killer, no matter how hard you try to deny it, no matter how patient you’ve already been, no matter how much better you might be doing at self-restraint than before.

I can’t help thinking of political oppressors in the same way. Provoke a hurt response and then punish the person for that response. Keep a knee on somebody’s neck for years. When the person gets up, and is angry about the mistreatment, it proves the oppressor’s point. “That’s why I had to keep my knee on your neck. Look how fucking angry you are!” Bill Barr is a master of this particular despicable trick.

Of course, the beauty — and horror — of being human is that anyone can convince themselves that they are only acting for highly principled reasons. It’s the other side – you know, that is doing all the hating, cheating, obstructing, killing, drinking the blood of murdered child sex slaves. We are only doing these things because THE OTHER SIDE IS DOING IT ALREADY! It’s a matter of principle – and survival.

Here’s what hit me hard the other day. I decided at a certain point a few decades back that I will not tolerate abuse in my personal life. I try hard not to abuse anyone’s feelings, and if I do something that I learn hurt somebody, I am quick to try to make amends, first by apologizing. I’d will this to be a universal principle. I saw the other day that this is only a first step, that it really prevents no part of your lowest nature from coming out if the provocation is sufficient. You can read these posts over the years for several examples of fatal fallings out I’ve had with longtime friends and acquaintances. Here are three off the top of my head. Bear in mind that each of these characters has their own version of these dramas that make me as much the irredeemable villain as these may make them appear to be.

I had an acquaintance I used to see once or twice a year. A writer by profession, a great storyteller with a merry aspect, always good for several hours of spinning interesting tales back and forth and having some knowing laughs. We weren’t friends beyond that, but we liked each other. When I was first working on the book about my father we discussed it over dinner and he seemed intrigued. He told me to send him some pages, he’d give me his two cents. I sent him some pages, didn’t hear back, sent a few more, didn’t hear back, asked him about it, didn’t hear back.

Was it unreasonable of me to feel hurt? Probably not. Was it unreasonable of me to expect a working craftsman of a writer who had never published anything of a personal nature to have any meaningful input on my first draft of a highly personal memoir? Maybe yes, maybe no. Writing is writing, you could say.

In my mind, his year-later defensive email that I was being an asshole to hold it against him that he may or may not have ever commented on pages he doesn’t even remember if he ever read, and that if he had read them he’d almost certainly have written back about, was abusive. Perhaps not everybody would interpret this response, or the ones that followed, as abusive. I did. The gloves I’d carefully kept on came off, I ripped him into several bleeding pieces and walked away [1]. Proving to him, as well as to his ex-wife, that I was indeed a vicious, unreasonable asshole. Case closed, end of story.

Many people might have had a different reaction than mine. OK, they might reason, he was the wrong person to ask for this feedback, even if he offered it. OK, we were never really friends, just acquaintances, it was unreasonable of me to expect him to be able to react to these deeply personal pages. OK, he admitted, toward the end, that he was raised to be insanely competitive, maybe these intensely personal pages were something he felt overwhelmed by, that he felt he could not compete against. I don’t know. I do understand now, that only someone raised in a war zone would calmly slash the guy five times with a sharp sword over it, making sure he knew why he was good and dead, before walking away [again– 1].

Same with the longtime musician friend who offered to do me a favor, then changed his mind, then insisted I had no right to ask why he’d changed his mind, then admitted he did it because he’s been harboring a lot of anger and resentment against me and this was his way of telling me “fuck you.” Many people might file this somewhere, lower their expectations, no longer think of the guy as a friend – maybe even write the guy off. Not everybody would feel compelled to cooly and methodically remove each of his limbs and pile them in front of his head and torso in order to ensure he’d be hurt enough to shut the fuck up [2].

One last, most recent one. A very good friend, since late childhood, and I came to (figurative) blows a few months back. He’s a very smart guy with a dark sense of humor and we’d known each other since Junior High School. In hindsight, most of our intimate conversations were about my troubles. He told me once that he doesn’t like to complain about his life. He always seemed to have a good appetite for my troubles, though. In the latest round his efforts to help wound up antagonizing me, several times in a row. The more I tried to explain why, the more he told me I was wrong, not making sense, that he still didn’t understand. The clearer my explanations became, the more he asked me to please explain further, more clearly, since he was finding it impossible to understand what I was talking about.

A game for suckers, no doubt, and by then I should have recognized it and gracefully written him off, reduced my expectations to near zero, preserved what I could of our long friendship, if only for the sake of our mates. Something was rotten here, clearly, but I kept trying to explain what he kept telling me he still couldn’t understand. I kept believing in this mutual good faith effort we were not managing to make.

He got angry a few times, snarled and even hung up on me during a tense conversation after gruffly apologizing, although he really wasn’t sure what I needed an apology for or why the hell I insisted on shoving him into a corner when he’d done nothing any other good friend wouldn’t have done in his situation.

It is what happened last that lingers for me. I eventually saw that this was an emotional impasse I could not get him to understand with his fine and subtle mind. Emotionally, he was unable to recognize or take responsibility for the hurtfulness of his actions. He waited weeks to apologize for his little temper tantrum, and the follow up text that he was done being “reamed” by me, even as he wrote me several long emails attempting to be conciliatory and expressing a desire to do everything possible to save our friendship.

In the end he once again insisted he didn’t understand why or how I could have been so hurt by anything he might have done, though he apologized again, for whatever it might have been. He made an unusual complaint: since my communications had been so mild mannered he’d had a very hard time realizing how much I’d been hurt by his inadvertent acts. If he accidentally stepped on my toe and I didn’t cry out, how could he possibly be expected to know how much it had hurt me? When in the end I did cry out, he was inconsolable.

Again, why bother crying out at that point? It was clear, over and over, that my old friend did not have the emotional bandwidth to understand what was missing in our friendship. He insisted I was his dearest friend ever, that he loved me and would fight to remain friends. It was equally clear that he had much different expectations of a lifelong friendship than I did. My crying out, upon request, by going through several emails and pointing out the seamless folly of our back and forth, struck a fatal blow in the guy. It was unkind and hurtful of me to make it so clear that there was nothing further to discuss, he wrote. In the end, he couldn’t fathom my unprovoked viciousness.

In each of the above cases, an argument could be made that, after all my attempts to be reasonable, I did nothing to regret in writing a suitable ending to each of these dramas. In one, an acquaintance set me up for a cruel disappointment he then blamed me for. The musician friend had a long list of unspoken reasons to tell me, in no uncertain terms, to go fuck myself. My old friend’s limitations only finally overwhelmed me when I was in a tight spot and his inability to empathize kept making it tighter. In each case, not much to salvage, whether or not I insisted on having an unkind last word.

In each case, yes, in the end I was categorical in stating the obvious. I seemingly could not stop myself. The other party felt brutalized by me. All unfortunate, in a better world than this one.

The insight for me is how hard it is to root out this final urge to kill someone who insists on their right to hurt you. Perhaps I am setting an impossibly high bar for myself, but this reminder that I am still helpless against certain specific emotional circumstances, was an unwelcome one.

If someone accuses you of being angry, and you remain mild, and they keep insisting you are irrationally angry, and you start to become frustrated but hold yourself back, and they redouble their efforts to prove you are an implacably angry bastard – well, a wiser person would manage to get out of the loop before he explodes in anger. This trap is one of the obstacles my father apologized for putting in my path. How I never saw it before a few days ago is a mystery to me.

The irony I mentioned about the seeming impossibility of completing the public personal memorial to my parents and their erased ancestors: it seems impossible to me for the very reasons I’ve discussed above. A sense of futility was instilled in my sister and me, from a young age, seeing there was nothing we could do to avoid eternal war with the father who always blamed us as the aggressors.

“I can hear you whining to the fucking shrink about how your parents ruined your life,” our father would predict from time to time. A pretty judgmental way to put it, perhaps, though not unreasonable, given the hard work he was putting in to make it so.

So, granted, my father had many great qualities, along with a few tragic failings, that would make him an excellent protagonist for a memoir. I’ve written at least 1,300 pages of an unwieldy first draft of his story. Granted, the vast majority of my family, on both sides, were lost in the cold fog of history, mere statistics, victims of Hitlerism without names, their mass graves and even the godforsaken hellholes they came from erased from human memory. I’d like to write and leave a living memorial to them, before I fold up my tents here and cash in my chips. The irony?

The obstacles my father unwittingly placed in the way keep me from feeling able to complete this gigantic task I have set myself, a task I have probably already come more than 80% toward completing. So those obstacles will prevent my father, his life, the world he came from, from being memorialized in a book strangers can read, to ponder the difficult, important lessons I’ve been grappling with since I was a young child.

Ironic, eh wot?

[1] to be clear, this bloody act came in the form of a blahg post methodically dissecting and dismissing his maddening if-pology, phrase by phrase

[2] This gruesome dismemberment took the form of three stinging paragraphs, responding to his “personality conflict” conclusion. I corrected it to a worldview conflict — the first paragraph savaged his vanity and materialism, the second disclaimed responsibility for his inferiority complex — the third I don’t recall at the moment, but it was apparently as hurtful as intended.

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