Are you a masochist, you little sadist?

It’s almost funny, if it wasn’t so tragic, the amount of anger my 66 year-old friend still has toward his mother who is making her way toward ninety.

When his mother walks into a room he begins to seethe. Afterwards he would ask me if I noticed how she stood, with that look on her face, the little cutting comment she immediately made. He will do his duty to make sure she is not publicly humiliated or wanting for medical care, but as for love, fuck her.

Fair enough, those are his strong feelings from early childhood through the time he finally left his unhappy family home. The problem is that fifty years later he is just as angry as he was back then. So he can’t forgive his mother, and worse, he can’t forgive himself for his anger and the beat goes on.

He winds up married to a woman who’s in some key ways very much like his mother. He punishes her regularly with his harshly judgmental attitude and the strict demands he places on her in order for her to receive his love. His wife, rightfully angry about this mistreatment, gives it back to him from time to time with both barrels. They live in a balance of terror, while to the outside world they appear to be fine, upstanding, admirable citizens, neighbors and friends. Periodically they have to replenish their pool of closest friends, but they’re socially adept and charming, so it’s no problem.

If you don’t forgive yourself, you are a masochist. I never knew that masochists could also be sadists, but of course they can.

Duing a protracted, insoluble conflict with these two my old friend would frequently become indignant, stand up and announce that he wasn’t going to take this. He wasn’t going to talk about things like making amends, talking about hurt during the ten days of repentance. He wasn’t going to be lectured about the moral values of his religion, values he knew very well being a religious man. How dare I presume to tell him that he had acted badly!

Each time this happened, and it was not just once or twice, it was fairly regular in our conversations trying to make peace, I spoke to him calmly, the way I’d like to be addressed when I’m upset. I patiently told him that I was his friend, that I was not trying to attack him or make him feel bad but that they were things I needed to talk about. We walked away each time with our friendship intact, but it came at a great price and, though I couldn’t acknowledge it for a painfully long time, it was a stinking zombie friendship at that point.

A friend who knew him well laughed when I described this constant need to patiently calm him whenever he got upset. “You gave him exactly what he’s been looking for his entire life, why would he stop doing it when every time you gave him exactly what he has never had from anybody?” So goddamn true that I had to laugh also.

And my long refusal to understand that these two were in a fight to the death, that I had to accept all fault or be killed after what I witnessed of their mutually sadistic, mutually masochistic, relationship, struck me finally as masochism on my part. I don’t consider myself a sadist, I never recall taking pleasure at twisting the knife into somebody else’s suffering, outside of the ordinary schadenfreude that most people feel when somebody gets what’s coming to them, but these repeated hopeless attempts to placate someone who can’t be placated finally did appear to me as masochism on my part.

And at that point I realized it was a matter of my health, and Sekhnet’s health, which I value more highly than anything else I can think of, to stop inflicting pain on myself (and her) by fretting over and hoping for something that can never be. I also immediately forgave myself for this bit of masochism, seeing as I did what I did in the service of saving a long, precious friendship. Some things can’t be saved, unbearable as that truth may also be, and when you see you can’t save them it is time to save yourself.

Isn’t that right, you masochistic little sadist you?

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