My strange belief in the power of understanding

I say strange belief because the world often appears to defy understanding. Look around, and tell me an understanding can be reached between people who hate each other. I believe it is possible for two enemies to become friends, once they learn how much they have in common, how many fundamental beliefs they actually share. It is rare, sure, but it has been known to happen.

The mother of a boy randomly killed by a new gang member tells the kid when he’s convicted that she will kill him. She visits him in prison, sends him books and money. When he’s released she lets him live in her murdered son’s room, which he does gratefully as he finishes his education. They become as close as mother and son. The young man asks one day if she still believes what she said at the end of his trail, that she’d see him dead. She tells him she does, and that his current life proves she did kill that monster he was becoming. He understands the truth of that. A beautiful true story I heard the woman herself narrate years ago on a program about the power of forgiveness. Rare, and wonderful, and also, proof that things that seem impossible can be done, if the heart is right and the actions taken are intelligent and consistent.

I enjoy talking with people, particularly when the conversation goes beyond normal pleasantries and daily observations and takes unexpected turns into new terrain and unknown commonalities are revealed.  There are difficult things we learn sometimes, important life lessons, and I particularly love those rare occasions where conversation takes this deeper turn and we compare the personal details of hard lessons we’ve learned about a particular vexation. 

In my home growing up, though the four of us were all reasonably good at talking, and liked to chat, our conversations often turned into angry arguments.   In that previous sentence we see, I suppose, the roots of my strange belief in the power of listening, speaking clearly, acknowledging — my belief in the importance of understanding.

You can argue adamantly, to prove you’re right, dominating the person you’re arguing with, yielding nothing, ever, or you can argue without stubbornness, open to another perspective and trying to illuminate a misunderstanding or unintended cruelty.  Dispassion is a word Buddhists and others use to describe thinking and communicating that is not the slave of passion, not in service to strong feelings that impede our ability to reason, to weigh things fairly, under a warm light.  If you speak and listen dispassionately you hear better and your responses are not as likely to add fuel to anger.  Dispassion is sometimes derided as unemotional, robotic, inhuman, but the real essence of it, I think, is keeping your thoughts slightly apart from your feelings, particularly strong feelings that will often stir you to assemble the troops to counterattack, and bearing in mind the larger, more humane purpose of the conversation.

In the grips of strong emotion we are often not at our best, emotionally, intellectually or morally.   In the last five years of my mother’s life, on the rare occasions I said something that made her explode in anger,  I became adept at quickly changing the subject to something pleasant.   It worked very well, she’d immediately release her mask of aggression and smile with great relief.  I came to see that the thing she was angry about was something I could immediately stop pressing and the thing I distracted her with showed that I understood her pain and we were now talking about something she liked instead.   I recognized that there were some things, like her painful relationship with her daughter and grandchildren, that she needed to vent about, and get my sympathy for.  She was unable to imagine anything better between them and her hurt and anger got inflamed whenever ideas about how to improve the hopeless situation were suggested by her know-it-all son.   Finally recognizing this inability of hers, an inability she shared with her daughter, sad to say (and which doomed every suggestion I might make),  I would desist in my doomed peacemaking efforts at the first sign of anger.

My father and I had a lifelong debate on whether people can change their fundamental natures.  There are good points on either side of the issue, but I was locked into proving that my belief that we can change much of what is painful to us was reasonable and based on evidence, and he was determined to prove that the idea that we have this kind of autonomy and power to change is a cruel illusion that does more harm than good.  I can see truths on both sides of the debate as I type these words.   Because of the acrimony between my father and me it was never possible to persuade my father of how much we can change our reactions to things that bother us or to move him off his fixed belief about the inevitability of pain, frustration and anger.   

“You admit you’re only changing your reaction, the superficial part, and that doesn’t touch the inborn, fundamental nature at all,” my father would say. “If you are born with a prickly disposition, no amount of navel gazing is going to make you able to resist provocation when it arises, provocation that would not even bother some one with an innately placid nature .   You might get a tiny bit better at not immediately snarling, but you are only changing your surface reactions, not your genetically programmed reflex. The fundamental things about ourselves are immutable and it’s pathetic to believe in something impossible.” 

“But changing your reaction, say not responding with reflexive anger, makes it possible to have a reasonable conversation with others, and that’s not a small thing,” I’d say.  In the end I pointed out that he himself had changed his angry reactions toward me, and that our relationship was better for it.  This proved a bad example to hand to a wartime prosecutor like my father, though he had, in fact, greatly moderated his angry reactions to me in recent years, after a difficult conversation I’d initiated with him one Yom Kippur.

“I only changed my superficial reactions,” he told me, “nothing fundamental changed in me.  I became a better actor, is all.  If I ever honestly told you what I really think of you it would do such irreparable harm to our relationship that we’d never be able to talk again.”   

He rested his decades-long case by saying the one thing that proved he was determined to be right, more than anything else in the world, and this neither he, nor I, nor any power in the universe could change — and here was the final proof.  All this talk of emotional plasticity and the value of a skilled therapist, of introspection, self-criticism and self-acceptance, so much bullshit for contempibly weak people to believe.  As for him, he was man enough to admit the difficult truth about humans — however we are, emotionally, at two years old, is how we are for the rest of our lives.

Therefore, following the logic, we cannot learn anything important, not really.  Superficial things, OK, we all learn to use toilet bowls, and language, academic subjects, but we can never learn how to hurt ourselves and others less.  Some people are born decent, reasonably happy, they get along in the world without friction or conflict.  Others are born riled up, unhappy, critical, ready to rumble, and these angry little ass kickers, who can never be wrong, are doomed to live in a world of hurt.

His tune changed on his deathbed, as apparently not infrequently happens.  Part of it, I believe, was seeing his lifelong adversary quiet, thoughtful and willing to do whatever he could to make his father’s death easier.  He lamented that he’d been unable to consider so many things, had been so limited in what he could imagine, had been so adamant, seen the world as so black and white.   He had painful regrets that he expressed for the first time, and I did my best to reassure him about each one that he’d done the best he could.

Now, it’s important to note how many times I have infuriated people close to me in recent years by my determination to remain peaceful and mild-mannered in the face of escalating bad feelings.   In the end the ugliness where there was once friendship and laughter, the absence where mutual good will used to be, becomes impossible to ignore. In their defense, there is nothing more maddening when you are angry than some fucking prig on the high road, managing to keep the anger off his tongue.

Expressing anger dramatically is a deadly game I’ve played countless times over the years, so, in the end, after enough angry invitations to tell a friend to go fuck himself, I yield to the surge of righteousness I’ve been trying not to express as contempt and tell the person, in detail, all of the irredeemable things about them I can no longer tolerate.   Friendship does not recover from this, because at the point where everything about another person is reduced to their worst and most shameful weaknesses, well, that’s irreparable harm.

So maybe my pre-deathbed father was right all along.  If you are locked in a battle with an adamant rival, intent on winning at all costs, you will, in the end, revert to however you were born to be.   The angry will rage, the placid will cry. You can pursue dispassion, believe in the power of conversation to illuminate difficulties, remove hostility, the plasticity of the human soul, forgiveness and all the rest, but in the end, when a line is crossed that is impossible to get back to the other side of, you are only prolonging the terminal phase of something that is already dead. All your high ideals about the power of understanding are so much useless, smelly, self-righteous baggage. 

Maybe so. 

I continue to work on being clear, and listening carefully to others. It is not the work of a few days, that.  Do we get better at things we practice faithfully?  All signs say we do, however loud the hooting chorus of fatalistic naysayers gets.

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