To change or not to change

This dawned on me out of the blue yesterday, as my mind intermittently tries to work out another puzzle that has never made sense to me.   I realized that someone who lives in terrifying anticipation of unbearably painful shame and humiliation lives in a different, scarier, much more threatening world than most people.   In their world, someone they love, someone their children trust, can become an implacable Adolf Hitler clone in an instant.   Think of how terrifying that world would be to live in.

I had a long running debate with my father about whether people can change or not.  I believe that people can change, particularly if repeated, reflexive  behaviors keep causing you the same pain.  My mother confirmed the best of these changes in me over the years, but I myself know how much better I handle things like frustration, anger and depression than I used to.  

Change is certainly hard, it takes a lot of work and concentration, but it is possible.  When you can finally sit with your pain without crying out, you begin to see its causes more and more clearly.  If you see how your behavior, responding to a perceived threat,  makes the problem worse, you can little by little improve how you respond.   You will see cause and effect, understand the steps in behavior that lead to the bad result, and most importantly, learn to catch yourself before you react badly.  You will do a little better over time, if you are serious enough about changing things that torment you.   To believe otherwise is to accept that we’re doomed to a life of enduring constantly repeating misery.

My father believed that people cannot, on any fundamental level, change.   His position was that if you are born with a reflex to react with anger, that’s all she wrote about your ability to ever have significantly better control of your temper.  He told me, the night before he died, that his life had been basically over by the time he was two.   

He was referring to what had happened to him in those formative pre-verbal years before he could develop any memories at all, years that were all fear and pain.  This was a subject he never spoke of, but that I discovered a few years before he died when his older cousin Eli sadly revealed it to me. 

He angrily denied everything when I began to bring it up, denounced Eli as a fucking liar, but he acknowledged it the last night of his life. 

“Whatever Eli told you,” he said, referring to the beloved older cousin he denounced as an unreliable narrator and an idiot, “he spared you the worst of it.  Nobody could ever describe the true horror of the home I grew up in.”

What was this horror?  That he grew up in soul-killing poverty and that his mother was a tiny, religious woman with a Hitler-like temper and no threshold for frustration.   Whenever she got frustrated she took it out on the giant baby who had caused her such pain coming into the world, grabbing the nearest whip and lashing him across the face.

“In the face?” I asked my cousin Eli when he told me the story of watching his beloved aunt mercilessly whipping her toddler son.  He nodded with the saddest possible expression.

To my father, we are doomed when we start, however we’re born, whatever our predispositions, genetic tendencies and earliest experiences are, that’s essentially how we will always be.  What happens, according to my father’s view, is you put together a certain social veneer, you develop a talent for making jokes, have intelligent conversations, enjoy things like college sports, you can be fascinated by history, a one-time idealist and a keen student of politics, a philosopher, even, but all that is a social construct you make to cover whatever demons are churning inside yourself that you cannot change or influence in any meaningful way.  We are doomed, as the victims of whatever trauma befell us before we could defend ourselves, and there’s nothing any of us can do about, my father believed, until the last night of his life.

Fuck that”, was always my position.  If you suffer from a terrible temper, would it not help to understand why you get so fucking mad?  If, say, your mother had repeatedly whipped you in the face with the coarse cord of her steam iron, when you were less than two, wouldn’t that be a good reason to be a bit touchy later in life?   Or, let’s say, you first went to kindergarten with 20/400 vision, legally blind, and no adult discovered this until you were about 9, when FDR mandated that poor kids should have free eyeglasses as part of the New Deal (legislation that also outlawed child labor in the US, when my dad was already 8, working age).  Up until that time you’d been regularly mocked as a big moron for not being able to tell an A from an F on the blackboard.  Got your first pair of glasses in third grade, and went on the honor roll from fourth grade on.   These details are important to consider before condemning yourself as doomed to having an explosive temper and having been a big dummy when you were a young kid, no?

My father might have said “maybe for a novel, or some kind of rumination on human nature, but for the average person trying to get through life, support a family, work two jobs to give his children a good life after the grinding poverty of his own life, all that is more than enough to have on your plate.  Besides, no matter how many of the hideous details you relive, the pain involved in putting that puzzle together to the extent that you would be able to change anything meaningful about your life, which you know I believe one can’t, is unimaginably terrifying.   Why feel that nightmare again when we can do nothing to change our lives, in any fundamental way?”

Circular logic if there ever was an example of it.  Logic, of course, is not the right word to apply to that analysis.  Though my father was capable of sophisticated logic, and was a skilled debater capable of arguing either side of any position, this loop was not an example of any of that.  In formal debating, debaters learn to strategically deploy logos (intellectual argument based on facts and logic), ethos (moral argument) and pathos (appeals to emotion).  The inner world people like my father cannot escape from is ruled by pathos.   Have enough unbearable emotion in your soul and the greatest logical and moral arguments fall off you like rain off the proverbial duck’s back.  

I understand now that for someone like my father, wounded in his heart as deeply as he was, change was impossibly painful to even consider possible.  He simply could not imagine putting himself through the unnerving pain that would have been necessary before he could try to change.  To acknowledge that anyone else could change, but that he couldn’t, would only have added to his shame and humiliation.  His position that people cannot actually change was psychologically necessary for him because, for him, it was true.  

Logos, ethos and pathos, the only one operating full tilt, in many lives right now, is pathos.   Strong emotions rule the world in this age of Alternative Reason.  His will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.  Amen.

Fucking hell.

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