The Age of Reason was an age of optimism, unfounded in many ways, as an insightful psychiatrist named Frank Yeomans observed. We like to believe that we “wise apes” act based on the intelligent use of actual knowledge — the wisdom gained through experience. We also like to believe that Death will never actually come for us. Look at any newspaper for a glimpse into the role of Reason in our world today and compare its effect to the workings of terror and anger.
In these days of increased isolation caused by this raging pandemic I sometimes find myself thinking back to a series of lost friendships, looking for a common denominator. The common trait in every friendship of mine that went to shit, I can easily see now, is rage — anger and disappointment that wound up being mutual. Good luck reasoning with that force of nature.
My friend Mark, one of the first close friends I finally had to cast over the side, was frequently in an agitated depression but if you pointed out that he was angry, as shown by the harshness of his judgments of himself and others, he’d hotly deny it, quickly become enraged. I am prone to expressing my anger when it flashes, a trait I’m not proud of, but my anger is often there to be seen by others when I am hurt.
Most people do not readily display this unseemly emotion, carefully covering the embarrassing lack of control it reveals. It doesn’t mean they don’t get angry, of course, they just don’t readily express it most of the time. I’ve done better, recently, sometimes, not reacting with anger when something irks me beyond endurance, but the strong reflex is always there.
What I’ve learned, at great expense, is the value of breathing and keeping quiet when the impulse to say something cruel is strong. Quickly apologizing is also a necessity after angrily expressing harshness toward someone, I’ve found, not that it will always be the healing balm it is intended to be. One or two sincere apologies will often be accepted, and I quickly accept the sincere apologies of others, but once the need to apologize becomes a pattern, it indicates something deeper and, well, good luck to you and your friendship.
My father, a man prone to outbursts of anger, always insisted that we cannot change our fundamental nature, our reflex to act a certain way. He’d point to babies born with an easygoing nature, placid and easily contented from day one, and others, like me, that fussed all the time, rarely satisfied, defiant from the day they first focused their eyes to glare accusingly. There is a certain amount of truth in this, the over-the-top surrealism of the description of the second baby aside.
You can see the truth of this principle illustrated in every new litter of feral kittens. Some baby cats are bolder and more trusting than others, others more prone to flee, to bite, to cower. This behavior was not learned, they were born with a certain predilection, a fundamental nature that will not change that much. The reflex to be petted or to cower will always be there to a certain extent, no matter how much they may learn about the tender intentions of the people who take care of them.
A friend of mine cheerfully reported on an article she’d read about the discovery of a suspected “happiness gene”, a bit of DNA that predisposes one to optimism and contentment. She looked across the table with her sly smile and observed to her fellow happiness gene recipient, Sekhnet, that her husband and I sadly did not seem to have much of this gene. I told her to fuck her so-called fucking happiness gene. But the point is made again, we are born with certain traits that are then pounded into more or less permanent form by how we are treated while we are malleable little lumps of clay.
I think back to the list, now considerable, of former friends, people with whom I shared confidences and a love of badinage . All affable, smart people, articulate, many quick with a witty comeback, most of them connoisseurs of dark humor. One other common factor I saw only too late: each had a deep reservoir of rage and an inability to forgive.
I understand the workings of the Repetition Compulsion, to some extent. Some of us are compelled to recast and repeat painful relationships, the dynamics of which we don’t understand, in an unconscious effort to have a better outcome. It’s called a compulsion because it is not something we choose, those of us who do this must do it. I saw it clearly in my old friend Mark’s life– he endlessly repeated variations on the identical three act drama: idealizing, being disappointed by, violent betrayal. Easy to see in someone else, if you are around long enough. In our own case, it’s hard to see if we’re behaving reasonably or out of some kind of compulsion.
So, take my case, say you were raised in a long war with your parents. Your father is angry just about every evening at the dinner table, raging, making ugly pronouncements, baleful predictions. Your mother, for the most part, indignantly takes your father’s side. Her mother once famously said of her, in Yiddish, “you stick to his ass like a wet rag!” Both parents, at the same time, are smart, avid readers, expressive, love to laugh, enjoy the old badinage, are connoisseurs of dark humor. When searching out friends to commiserate with about your often painful life at home, it is not surprising that you would always be attracted to people who had these fine, cherished qualities.
It may seem funny to write this, but witty repartee with friends, which used to mean so much to me, now means little. I like to laugh, of course, I’ll often toss off an absurd take on something ridiculous (the menu of such things is comically gigantic), but whether you are a wit or not means little to me these days. My friends are funny, sure, but that back and forth of smart rapid-fire commentary doesn’t seem to play a large role in my life these days. The release of humor, it seems to me, was necessary in those years to protect me from the painful darkness all around me. Now that I’ve emerged from the worst of that darkness (for the moment) that need for banter just seems funny, if you follow me.
What we want in a friend is a person who will give us the benefit of the doubt. If a friend snaps at us, they will immediately express their sorrow as soon as they calm down. The larger world does not operate this way, neither does nature. This good will is what separates our friends from everyone else. The loss of good will, the benefit of the doubt, the lost impulse to quickly overlook a friend’s bad moment, is painful. Once good will is gone it is almost never coming back.
When I go down the list of people I once shared intimacies with I see that despite variations in their personal styles, they were all capable of titanic anger (maybe everyone is, but each of these bastards sure was).
The more introverted, quiet ones were no less given to implacable fury than the more extroverted ones. In fact, the reservoirs of rage in those who rarely expressed any sort of displeasure was perhaps the deepest of all. Keeping that existentially threatening anger inside at all times means that when it finally explodes, it’s going to cause an avalanche, helpless villagers running in terror.
Then silence again, which in friendship is the deadliest and most final expression of eternal anger.