My father, who had his soul broken as a very young child, always insisted that we can do nothing to change our innate, fundamental natures. Some people are born angry, for example, and if you are, my father argued, you will always have the reflex to rage (even if you succeed in controlling its expression) that people born with milder dispositions will never have. They may get angry, everyone does, but they will never have the innate readiness and the quickness to respond with anger that someone born with the anger tic does. As far as that simple proposition goes, I can make an argument for it, if pressed.
My father’s firm, conclusory argument, which melded nature and nurture and foreclosed the idea of ever learning from our mistakes, ever changing to experience less pain, to cause others less pain, had a larger purpose which just occurred to me. It cut off painful debate. You think you can change, I can change, but you are wrong, a sadly deluded fool, as you will learn more and more deeply, the older you get.
Framed in this narrow way, the conversation would never veer into the difficult (but crucial) subjects of what harm was done to you that you can work to fix, how you can react with less anger and violence — particularly when confronted with unfairness, the biological damage abuse does to the brain and the body, the elasticity of the human brain, the resilience of the human spirit, our powers of regeneration, how we physically and emotionally recover from our wounds, how we can learn to treat others with more care and tenderness, etc.
My father could usually argue his positions well, lay out both sides of the argument, or even several sides, in detail. It was part of his skill set, and perhaps it is part of a particularly Jewish skill set, to be able to turn an issue from several angles and make the case, with all the strengths (and admitted weaknesses), that an honest debater seeing it from each perspective would. In the matter of whether we can change ourselves to improve our lives and the lives of those we love he resorted to NO debate.
I woke up today thinking that when you fear the way a debate will turn out, or the pain the discussion will bring up (and my father was terrified of the painful can of worms this conversation would open), when you know that laying out the entire argument leaves you on the short end, an end so fragile you can crush it with a finger, you resort to NO debate. My father always filibustered to prevent discussing issues that were so difficult for him to talk about, so painful for him to consider. In the end, as he was dying, during his last night on earth, he expressed deep regrets about this kind of zero-sum thinking and behavior.
Picture any problem you can imagine. In every case I can think of now, sharing it with a thoughtful friend or family member, who knows how to listen, is helpful. Speaking aloud to another person allows you to sum up and describe a problem in a way that is difficult to do with yourself (outside of writing it out, another helpful practice, I’ve found) and often your friend or family member will have a memory, a story, an insight that will ease your mind a bit, sometimes actually help you out of your trouble.
Of course, this NO debate jazz goes for politics, as we see every day. The filibuster is not only a way to torpedo a policy your party doesn’t like, it’s a way to prevent any and all meaningful public discussion about how to solve a vexing problem we all face. Say the problem is that in some parts of the country violent mobs regularly kidnap, torture and kill people to intimidate their ethnic or racial group and keep them powerless over their lives. The solution is a national law designed to deter this murderous behavior by surely trying and strictly punishing those who take part in lynch mobs, pogroms, massacres. There is not, strictly speaking, a good argument against making the law, except that it would exact a political price for the side that has long used terror and violence to maintain political control in many areas. It is not a winning argument (except to a select few) to honestly point out that lynching helps your political party stay in power. The solution when the anti-lynching bill reaches the Senate? NO debate. Filibuster.
A conservative public-private policy to allow millions of uninsured Americans to have health insurance becomes wildly popular among the millions who were never able to afford decent healthcare. The actual argument for stopping the policy is weak, but when you see the policy about to be introduced into law there is one thing you can do– stop debate. Filibuster! NO debate. There will be no pros and cons laid out for people to consider, no back and forth on this issue, no winning the argument on the merits, you bitches don’t have the votes to stop us so we are using a legitimate parliamentary tool to insist on our right for you to have NO debate.
This was exactly what my father did whenever I tried to talk about the breaking of our souls and our hopes of doing better. There are millions of us walking around with broken souls, in various states of repair. It is very easy to break off part of someone’s soul, particularly if the victim is young. At that tender stage breaking a soul is as simple as hurting a young plant, just calmly withhold adequate water and sunlight.
Had I known the extent of the cruel abuse my father suffered from long before he could talk, I’d have had a good clue how to proceed in this difficult conversation about change, healing, doing better. Sadly for us both, I was born without this innate emotional wisdom about how to proceed with a difficult, broken person. My emotional intelligence lagged far behind what I could grasp intellectually. This is true for many of us, and I don’t raise even the tiniest whip over myself for seeing this trait in myself.
It is easier to understand facts when they are separated from strong emotions. Many of us reach higher levels of book learning than we do life learning. That second kind of knowledge comes from no book, it comes from the faces of the people we hold dear. Back to my father’s innate idea, some people are born with a better grasp of how to correctly read the people around them, and adjust appropriately, than others.
This subject of change/no change is like peeling an infinitely regrowing onion. What is “appropriate” adjustment? Your parents are angry, childish, ill-equipped to provide the water and sunshine you need to grow and thrive. Is an appropriate adjustment to try to make sure they have no reason to be angry, no cause to act childishly? Give it up, kid, they will be the way they are no matter what you try to do. I spoke to a cousin who is moving gracefully toward ninety, she is still tightly gripped by anger at her long-dead tyrannical father, her mother who passively sat by, with a frozen smile, letting the intolerable horrors of my cousin’s long ago childhood proceed.
So we can’t change our lives in any meaningful way, Dad, is that still your position?
“No, Elie, now that I’m dead, and have had sixteen long years — and they go by in a flash, as I’m sure you’ve noticed — I’ve had time to calmly consider the matter and evolve in my thinking. I think you were closer to the truth. If you regularly exhibit a behavior that harms others, and causes pain, and you examine it, and find out what causes you to act that way, you can take steps to, as you say, do better. It’s hard work, though, and painful as hell and there are good reasons many people avoid getting into the whole fucking thing.”
That was the voice of my father’s highly evolved skeleton.
“A tiresome device, Elie, seriously. I mean, that’s one thing you really have to wrestle with as you, hopefully, write a second draft of my story,” the skeleton craned his neck to watch some birds riding the thermals in the perfect blue sky over the First Hebrew Congregation of Peekskill graveyard.
It’s all tiresome, Dad. Watching the way the world is, exhausting. Arguing things that seem so self-evident, like weighing the right to have a voice in your own affairs vs. another person’s right to make you shut the fuck up — phew… The newspaper leads you down a dark path, if you take a wrong step, like reading the headlines. It is all Devils vs. Angels, insane shit, as the world literally burns.
“I’m afraid I have no answer to any of that. The smartest among us, as you suggest, may also be the most destructively ignorant about the larger truths in life. Is anything more important than the ability to truly love and be loved? I offer that to your giants of the Senate and your various lifetime appointees. This world of violently shifting moods is a frustrating mess, as your friend Hendrix sang, and, in a way, I’m glad to be done with it. For you, though, I urge you to keep struggling as long as you can. Keep working on my story. My story is not important because of me, I’m not personally important at all, except maybe to you and your sister. My story should be told for the light it can shed on the human ability to change, the powerful role emotional understanding plays in forgiveness, the real change for the better even the most broken of us is capable of, all the rest of that infinitely succulent jive.”
Ain’t that an ironic mouthful, coming from you?
“Yeah, ain’t dassum shit?” said the skeleton, grinning his manic eternal grin and making a puckish two-fingered hand gesture that conjured a gang sign.