There are demons within us all, stirring terrors too formidable to face unless we’re forced to. They are extremely painful to confront, even when we’re aided by somebody who has the skills and gentleness to help. My father, a man with more demons than most, and better reason than most to host so many of the merciless little fuckers, always stressed that everybody has his demons and that it’s impossible to know what to make of someone else’s demons. Never truer, in my experience, than with my father.
Although, towards the end of his life I came to understand the source of some of my father’s major demons: regular childhood face whippings from his mother, daily hunger, excruciating, humiliating poverty, illiterate, defeated-by-life father, low expectations from his extended family, a feeling of shame for being stupid because he couldn’t learn to read — they only figured out he was legally blind when he was about eight and the brand new New Deal made it possible for him to have his 20/400 vision corrected with glasses (he went on to get a graduate degree in history). If that’s not enough childhood pain to support a thriving colony of demons, I can only imagine what the rest of the story was. At the very end of his life, he still believed he’d been the dumbest Jewish kid in the haunted small town he grew up in, by far.
Our most ferocious demons make us rage sometimes. If someone touches one accidentally WATCH THE FUCK OUT! Often, after losing your cool and lashing out, you feel embarrassed, particularly if the people you care about are victims of your anger. If one of your demons is shame, it is humiliating to acknowledge that you did something wrong and hurt somebody. You will have developed strategies to not feel the burning of deep shame. Better to get angry again, indignant over and over, than to feel mortified that you’ve hurt someone you care about for a weak reason, or no reason you can talk about.
You stop trusting the person you hurt, if they won’t shut up about their need to talk about what the hell happened, their need to put everything on the table. If everything is laid out clearly, your understandable human weakness is exposed. Weakness may be understandable to others, but it’s intolerable to you, because your demons will immediately start painfully sodomizing you for being imperfect, weak, capable of hurting others who, sometimes, maddeningly, refuse to pretend they weren’t hurt.
If you’re vulnerable to the need to be perfect, you’re in for a lot more pain than the average schmuck who can forgive herself for sometimes acting badly. We all sometimes act badly, no matter how diligently we try not to hurt people we care about.
The only way back to mutual care is through making amends and forgiveness. Forgiveness takes place after the hurt is acknowledged, it can’t happen in any meaningful way if the person asking for forgiveness insists the other person is a pussy who simply can’t put the past in the past and insists on bringing up a painful situation that nobody can do anything about because it’s in the past, duh!
Many people find it impossible to forgive themselves. The hurt we suffered at our own hands can only be forgiven by being honest and gentle with ourselves. It works with the self the same way it does with others. We truly didn’t mean to hurt ourselves, acknowledge the accident, cure it with taking better care never to hurt ourselves that way again. This doesn’t mean shutting ourselves off from others, it means accepting they we’re humans who do stupid things sometimes and there is no point whipping ourselves over them, much better to learn important life lessons from mistakes and avoid repeating the same bad pattern.
When you hurt somebody, and they tell you they’re hurt, listen to them, do not allow a demon you can’t control to jump in and angrily cut them off. Understand why they were hurt, empathize, assure them you will do your best to not do that to them again. The same goes for when we act in a way that hurts ourselves. Unless you do yourself the kindness of letting yourself off the hook for dumb mistakes, the hook gets sharper and sharper, sinks in deeper and deeper. In the end, that hook is never coming out.
The alternative to making amends is that the truth of hurtful past events becomes poison to you, and the one you hurt. A clear recitation of the thing you can’t talk about is seen as an aggressive, threatening frontal attack. You marshal your armies, but they have very little to work with in defending something that can only be defended by spraying ordnance wildly. You accuse, express distrust, and fear, sprinkle in some regret, quickly followed by more anger, and tell them how merciless they are. Direct questions can be uncomfortable, an assault. What can you say to something like: was anything I said inaccurate, unfair, unkind? All you can do is hurl something back “you’re unfair and mean!” Sometimes we are at fault, and if we never yield, do the same thing over and over, fight responsibility and the idea that we can change our behavior in any meaningful way, that’s about it for that relationship.
There is no genius mediator, supremely skilled at her job, who can fix that distrust, denial, anger and inability to forgive yourself enough to reach compromise with people you love, in a single short session where everyone gets a chance to express how they were hurt and the mediator makes sure each one knows they’ve been heard. At least, I can’t picture that kind of alchemist mediator. If there’s only mutual hurt and distrust going in, how does the process have a chance to heal anything?