Sitting with corrosive emotions

This has got to be one of the hardest things humans have to do.   A feeling that causes pain, and is left unaddressed by the people involved in causing it, leads to anger or depression (anger turned against the self, in an apt description I read), after an increasing bitterness that becomes impossible to ignore.  The reflex in most will be to turn anger on the person causing the pain, simply blame them, or to quietly take the pain on yourself as confirmation that you deserve no better, somehow.  Hard to sit with corrosive emotions, though sit with them you must, sometimes.   

There are a few reasons a loved one will not hear you when you ask them to, few of them are very promising for the relationship.  Particularly if they, understandably, demand to be heard at once when they are in pain and then tell you just to wait a few more months to talk about what’s bothering you.   

Parents, for example, may feel supremely challenged by a very smart child.  The kid will have to learn to navigate around the insecurity of the parents, find his or her own way forward, without the help of the parents.  Sometimes just a difficult question about something that perplexes the kid will set the parents off.   How do we explain something that gives us so much pain to think about?  Nobody knows the answer to human evil!   Why do you ask such goddamned questions all the time!?   Jesus, can’t you just be quiet?!  The kid derives various lessons from this consistent feedback, adjusts the best they can.

Some people cannot be wrong.  If you point out something they did thoughtlessly, or unfairly, you are pointing to something intolerable, something inhuman, unthinkable to them.   “You don’t seem to understand, I cannot be wrong.  It’s not that I don’t like being wrong, I can’t be wrong.   How do you not know this about me after all these years?  I will not be wrong, I will not be challenged to defend my actions, you have the problem, not me!  I am loved by everyone, you’re the only one with a problem, look at your own life!” 

My dear old dad had this feature, an inability to admit fault for anything.  It endured through almost fifty years of constant war with his children, two provocative little shit snots who constantly challenged him, and lasted until the last night of his life, when he realized how much of a horse’s ass (his phrase, only time I ever heard him use it) he’d been to see the world as black and white.   He wistfully imagined the world he could have been living in instead, full of nuance and color, rather than the bleak high contrast warscape he inhabited and imposed on his young children.  He apologized for forcing my sister and me to grow up in the grim shadow of his irrationally limited emotional worldview.  I appreciated the apology.  He died a few hours later.

Once, two years before he died (two years of the meaningless fake small talk he demanded at the end) he told me I had to respect his right not to respond to concerns I raised. For once I was there with a reply I couldn’t later improve on. I told him I understood that he was choosing not to talk about a difficult subject but that I certainly did not have to respect that choice. He then demanded we keep our conversations politely superficial, talk only about sports, health, politics, and so we did, until that last night of his life, when he admitted he’d felt me reaching out to make peace with him many, many times over the years. He regretted, that last night, that he hadn’t been mature enough to reach back, even once. He’d been too afraid, he told me. And so, to avoid pain he could not bear, we’d had to pretend to be a loving father and son, on his strict, limiting terms, until I was there to support him as he died.

Sometimes, I have to say, I am the last one to understand the full scope of a situation.  Sometimes it feels like I’m the last to realize that something I’ve long cherished is already dead.  My efforts to not react with anger, to fully process what needs to be said so I can speak without the anger, must make me some kind of aggravating holier-than-thou freak to loved ones who get anger off their chest and move on, without the need to understand anything about what set off their anger (since, after all, they know who to blame).    By the time I put my thoughts together, particularly after a couple of follow-up challenges (threats like “I’ve dropped people from my life for doing less to me than what you did”) the subject is ancient history, being dredged up needlessly by a troubled person, and nobody in their right mind cares about that stuff.

My best advice is to somehow make peace with the bitterness that churns up when your needs are dismissed.  That bitterness is to be expected when you are stonewalled in your need to be heard.  Forgive yourself for being unable to stop feeling it. I find that setting things out clearly on a page provides some temporary relief.

You will have to leave the embittering situation in the end, if you can’t find a way to make it better, it is Survival 101 for anyone but the hardcore masochist. Remember that making peace requires goodwill and openness on both sides, you can’t do it alone. In the meantime, finding the patience you will need is a great challenge, a mind-fucking challenge some days, as is maintaining a posture of peace, when the sides seem to have been drawn in black and white, the final irrefutable victim story irrevocably arrived at, all details agreed to, and the terms of any possible peace treaty have already been carved in stone.

Picturing the familiar festive table without you is a little foretaste of death, the place we all must go in the end.  If you’d been hit by a truck, or died suddenly of a heart attack, the effect would be the same.  A chair you used to sit in, occupied by someone else, as life goes on, as it must.

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