If you try to fight your way through bodily pain by working out harder, particularly as you age, you will likely injure yourself. There is a difference between overcoming discomfort, a sign that you’re pushing beyond your boundaries and getting stronger, and fighting pain, a sign that you are hurting your own body.
A few years ago I overdid my last-minute training for the 40 mile Bike NY ride and wound up semi-crippled. I spent weeks in physical therapy, unable to stand without pulling myself up by my arms. I’d ignored my tiredness after a long ride to do an even more rigorous ride the next day, at one point even competing against two young boxers as they did road work on a long, steep incline — and paid a price — barely being able to move the next day– that lasted for months of pain and disability before I could stand from a chair normally. I also seemed to have aggravated the arthritis I never knew I had before. It was a great lesson in the idiocy of not listening to your body when it tells you to rest.
The same goes for the pain that comes out as hurt, anger, an unshakeable feeling you’ve been screwed. It is just as important to listen to this kind of psychic pain, particularly if it is persistent or recurrent. It seems to me that listening to your hurt is the only way out of the sometimes subtle trap that holds you. Learning exactly what hurt you is the only way to avoid it in the future, to do better the next time you encounter the same challenge.
I couldn’t articulate, a few days ago, why I was suddenly still angry at my former friend Paul, a guy I considered a good friend for almost 50 years. He’d insisted, for months, that he had no idea why I’d been so hurt by his silence, bursts of anger and his insistence that I was overreacting to whatever he might have accidentally done to me. I’d told him to go fuck himself, in the end, but it still left me feeling stuck with unfinished business, though I couldn’t explain to Sekhnet what it was. She urged me to forget about it, particularly since Paul and I weren’t friends any more and I’d never hear from him again. For some reason I couldn’t let it go, something was bugging me.
I write every day, for better or for worse, and it gives me an opportunity to process things. I hear some shit-dumb racist representative from Texas (Cow Chip Roy) make a bland comment about what they say in Texas about a long rope and a tall oak tree, how they’ve always used Texas justice to take care of their troublemakers down there — in the context of a hearing about the sudden rise in anti-Asian violence in the wake of Trump’s “Chy-na Virus,” the day after a racist Georgia police captain made the mass-killer’s case that he felt he’d taken grave actions to help others and that the killer had had “a very bad day” (presumably worse than his victims and their loved ones) and, after I unball my fists, that might set me to writing. Sometimes it is something much more subtle, and personal, eating at me and I find that thinking and writing it out as clearly as I can helps me process it sometimes.
Why was I suddenly so intent on smashing my former friend, who turned 65 the other day, in the face? I began by writing him a note, primarily to hurt him. I figured it was the least I could do for the smug, disappointing fellow who claimed to love me like the brother he never had. This desire to inflict pain seemed beneath me, I try to aim higher, but I followed the need to hit back, since my anger seemed legitimate to me (it always does, doesn’t it? Persuasive little fucker, anger). My note had only one line that one would expect of such a letter — it accused him of gaslighting and being a long-time pettifogging bully.
Writing the short note, though momentarily satisfying, made no difference in my mood. Something still irked me. It took seeing what had been missing from the letter to turn on the light in my soul. The reason I was angry is because, in taking an old friend at his word and continually extending him the benefit of the doubt, I had unwittingly collaborated with this experienced litigator/manipulator in the dismissal of my legitimate feelings and the erasure of my clear expression of the reasons for those feelings. How about that for a damned good, specific reason to be pissed off (and to never want to feel that particular anger again)?!
So I wrote the piece I posted yesterday, after reworking the letter to highlight the precise thing Paul kept denying he’d done — the complete dismissal of easily understandable human emotions. It felt like I’d worked something through that will help me (and hopefully others) in the future, add to my clarity the next time someone insists they are incapable of behaving any differently, as Paul consistently did. As many a Black grandmother has told her grandchild: when somebody tells you who they are, believe them.
People are not how we might wish they are, how they could and should be, how they might portray themselves to be. We are all as we consistently act. I wish Paul, with his great intelligence and dark sense of humor, was capable of pausing in his eternal arguments to see things from my point of view — he isn’t. I know that with the right insight he could become this way, I also know he has insisted on his grim view of the inarguable, unalterable darkness in the human heart since childhood. He is an eternal pessimist, which is its own reward, since he will always have this pessimism confirmed by the disappointing world of fatally flawed humans he holds in such dim regard. To allow that I’ve made useful changes in my life would mean his pessimism was more a tic of weakness than a desirable feature of his clear-sighted strength. My own struggles to be less hurtful to others, to my self, if in any way successful, constitute an unanswerable challenge to his assertion that we are all doomed to whatever misfortune we find ourselves suffering and that to believe otherwise is pathetic self-delusion.
I also know that we can only change ourselves, and those changes are always the result of hard, sometimes painful, work that most people shrink from. Paul portrays himself as someone who relies on facts, intellectual rigor and a constant, honest search for truth, though he uses argument to constantly insulate himself from any reckoning with his own pain and to make other people feel culpable for oversensitivity and emotional incoherence when he “inadvertently” hurts them.
How’s that for an asshole personality type?
Why did I remain friends with him since he first jokingly bullied me in Junior High School ? How did I not see that gleefully sadistic side of him when I was called back into the typing room (my class had been in the room before Paul’s class arrived) and accused, by the typing teacher, of vandalizing my own typewriter by pulling keys off it? Aside from the obvious reply “Mrs. Landau, if I did want to vandalize the typewriters, which I don’t, why would I have done it to my own typewriter, which would point a finger directly at me?” what could I really say, since I hadn’t pulled any keys off the typewriter?
She might have yielded to this reasonable point, but I never got the chance to make it. Paul, sitting a few seats from where I stood, called out “Look at him! He’s guilty, look at his face, he has nothing to say!!!” Which was true, the mirthful cruelty of this confident-looking class clown motherfucker I’d never seen before had rendered me momentarily speechless. Some of his classmates laughed as I stood there on the spot, at a loss for what to say. I wasn’t laughing though, and if I smiled, it wasn’t out of happiness.
Fifty years to see that this clever lad remained unchanged? Hmmmm. Lesson learned, though.
I’ve written a lot about the surrogates we tend to draft, people we are unconsciously drawn to because they have salient characteristics of those close to us with whom we have long, complicated conflicts. We try to work things out with them that we can’t work out with the actual sadistic father, or narcissistic mother, or crazy grandfather who did the original damage to us when we were most vulnerable. Paul was a version of my asshole father, in his great intelligence, his occasional wit, his assurances of undying affection and his implacable insistence that he was right, no matter how badly he’d acted. Paul was the last of these relentless motherfuckers that I am going to have to deal with, from the looks of it, and I’ll drink to that.