Moral Clarity

The other day I took a swing at hurting an old friend who’d wounded me by taking extended advantage of my vow to remain mild, to the extent I can. I couldn’t get over how he’d abused my good will, how much it still hurt and how ready I was to hit him back hard, if metaphorically.

I understood that I needed to do more serious thinking about this final estrangement from a childhood friend, his ultimate betrayal and smug sense of righteousness were hard for me to take, I was still angry. He no doubt felt the same about me, that I’d betrayed his long friendship, which caused him to lash out at me. I wrote what I thought was a decently coherent kiss-off the other day, in one short sitting, and contented myself that he deserved no better, was glad to expend no more effort for a damaged former friend I’m done with.

Something nagged at me though. I recognized even as I wrote it that I was writing for myself, to clarify my understanding, and for whatever value it might have to a stranger who finds herself up against the same kind of abuse. My friend’s abusive “hard truth” style is quite common, and it can be subtle, always couched as highly rational, with your best interests in mind, merely sticking to the detailed facts of the case, being thorough, respectful and challenging, in a super honest way. This style casts the other person as the emotional basket case, constantly off balance in the face of multiple intellectual challenges, while, actually, the hyper-intellectual pose is a grotesque mask for a raging emotional incapacity. My father had this feature, (much to his eventual regret), I was forced to counter it every day growing up, I know it well.

Today I realized that my dashed off note the other day, the quick swing of a 38 ounce baseball bat, had failed to reach the essential part of the exercise — the moment of moral clarity that can only come from understanding and describing the action of the hurtful mechanism precisely, in a way that it cannot be misconstrued. This deliberate digestion of the causes of our own pain strikes me as the key to the process of learning and growing. When it comes to setting it out clearly, sometimes a ball peen hammer turns out to be the proper tool, impossible to see when you find yourself tightly gripping a Babe Ruth sized baseball bat.

So here is the thing that was finally so hateful to me. I’ll phrase the rest addressing Paul, who is the ultimate recipient of this elucidation, which I actually write for all of our use, though probably not for poor Paul’s. I belatedly take him at his word that he’s truly incapable of understanding another person’s mind, that he will never reach the level of basic empathy, and vulnerability, required to grasp this most important bit about friendship and intimacy. None of those things, of course, give him the right to act abusively toward others, but that’s another conversation. Here we go:

In the end I kick myself for my many attempts to “explain” myself to someone so limited in emotional generosity and so determined to be right at all costs. I should have seen the whole picture much earlier on, when you angrily challenged me to tell you to go fuck yourself when you called to confront me about an email you called “snide and inaccurate” (which, in the end, you conceded had not actually been inaccurate).

I am not naive about the wars between people, I have been in many, hold my own, survive. I’ve seen the identical song and dance at the end of a childhood friendship now at least twice, so I recognize its features. I remind myself that I shouldn’t have taken you at your word that our friendship was important to you and that you’d do anything to fix it. That was my fault, I repressed the knowledge, based on long experience, that you were emotionally incapable of dropping the argumentative persona long enough to empathize with a friend in an objectively aggravating situation.

You thanked me, at first, for my mildness in setting out some of the early ugliness between us and asked me again and again to show good will by re-explaining, if I’d be so kind, what I’d already set out clearly. All of the things I raised you left eternally unaddressed. You were intent, I suppose, on prevailing in the ultimate contest: to show that my life, my attempt to become a better person, was bullshit, that you were right — we can’t change, or remain connected to people we love for life. You’d prove, by the ugly end of things, that change is bullshit and so is weak, wishful faith in the better angels of mankind.

Finally you wrote to me hurt, felt I’d said very hurtful things to you. So be it. I was disappointed and very hurt myself, as I let you know the reasons for clearly, over and over, before saying those things that hurt you. In hindsight, I’d have done better simply telling you to fucking fuck off the first time you challenged me to.

The thing that sticks in my craw, and causes me to write today, is your final, madly negating closing argument, the diabolical doubling down — that you supposedly read everything I’d written, reviewed everything I’d said, and found “no clue” about how I’d felt, what I thought, what your possible fault could have been or why I was so cruelly unforgiving.

Let me be precise about why this “no clue” assertion was so toxic to me, after I’d given every clue, hint, anecdote and comment I had in several long, carefully edited no-frills iterations. Each time I yielded to your assurance that you were sincerely struggling to understand an emotional position I’d already explained as clearly as anyone could, I became complicit. Each time I tried yet again to clarify self-evident things, I was acknowledging that perhaps I had somehow not been clear. I’d been clear, and taken hours to be as clear as I was each time. Every time I struggled to further simplify and recast the same points yet again, I was participating in a vicious negation of my ability to be clear.

My father used to run this play all the time, making me state the same obvious concern five or ten different ways, insisting each time that I’d explained nothing while trying to distract me by angrily refocusing on my “rage”. In the end, one Yom Kippur when I was close to forty, I was finally able to patiently defuse this asshole gambit. He had to back down and admit he understood what I’d explained to him several different ways, over the course of a few hours. He agreed to tone down the hostility, though years later he triumphantly told me he’d only pretended to tone it down, proving his perennial point that people can’t change on any fundamental level. He “won” by effectively ending his relationship with the son he loved. A small price to pay, I suppose, for those terrible regrets he had on his deathbed.

With a brutal father, there can be a pay off, if you work hard enough, gain enough understanding and skill, and are able not to get sucked into the ugliness of a fight. With a contemporary surrogate for that brutal, implacable father, as we have obviously cast each other for decades (I see you as a bully, you likely see me the same way– a very self-righteous bully in my case) it is unlikely to work things out, the chances of any meaningful emotional epiphany are minimal. Peer competition comes in, back to our sporting days as adolescents, an unwillingness (or inability) to make ourselves vulnerable, etc.

In the interest of reconciliation, taking you at your word, I put my aggravation in a nutshell for you, more than once: there is nothing more frustrating to me than making a point, particularly in a contentious situation, and having only silence by way of reply.

Your reply was determined silence on every point I raised, you relied on an absolute right not to respond to anything you didn’t want to respond to. You kept resting on your right to engage no point I raised, yielded not a millimeter, except to allow that you still somehow didn’t understand why I was incapable of accepting your belated apology for whatever it was I’d felt you’d done.

And in the end, hurt, you provocatively claim I hadn’t given you a single clue, in all the thousands of words I sent after hours and days of careful thinking, writing and editing. It was a pure negation of my thoughts and feelings, my ability to make them clear, an extremely abusive act. Surely you’re already in a kind of hell for it, since you are clearly willing to pay the price my poor bastard of a father did to be “right”.

I pity you, in a way, but more importantly, I’m writing to process the lesson – it is self-destructive to keep showing good faith to someone you understand to be incapable of returning it. It turns out that even after doing a lot of work on the issue, one can be bullied and, thinking he is on some kind of high road, wind up unintentionally consenting to it. I do not consent to it and I recommend the same approach to everyone I know when someone tries to dominate them.

Unlike you, I believe in the potential of the people I love, our ability to grow and change. I’ve seen close friends evolve in inspiring ways, I’ve seen changes in myself that have kept me from the worst of things. I get better at not hurting [Sekhnet], for example. I’ve also seen my share of Noams, and Friedmans, quietly, implacably enraged people intent on, I don’t know what — prevailing, I guess, for lack of a better word. There are plenty of assholes to contend with on this planet of assholes, but there are also souls worth holding on to, and it is worth the ongoing work to learn how to live this way.

For what it’s worth, I do feel the bitter sadness of your worldview, you poor bastard.

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