Life’s unfair

Whenever I complained about anything being unfair, my parents’ actions or anything else, my father had a stock answer.  

“President Kennedy said ‘life’s unfair’,” my father would say.

I have no doubt that John Kennedy said that, just as I have no doubt he was shot in the head one morning in Dallas, proving his point.   

Life is unfair, it is also immensely complicated.   Sometimes it’s hard to navigate.   I react badly, unfairly, and I hurt you.  You react with hurt.  I think you are reacting with way too much hurt.  Fuck, I didn’t hurt you that badly!  Now who’s the victim of unfairness?

“Wait, you just admitted you hurt me.  Isn’t it unfair to tell me exactly how much I’m entitled to be hurt?   Do you know what I’m going through at this moment, what makes me more vulnerable than usual to suffering from unfair treatment by someone I trust?  Did I ever treat you that way?”

Now the back goes up, which happens automatically as the body is poised for fight or flight.

“You want fair, asshole?”  and the game is on.

If you are philosophical it may seem possible to arrive at a reasonable  understanding of virtually anything.  Once you have some data and a framework to understand something you have the way to make otherwise incomprehensible things comprehensible to yourself.   Of course, life being unfair, having a coherent framework to talk about something does not always lead to a mutually helpful conversation.

I can try to look at the conflict through the lens of your pain, understanding, for example, why it is so hard for you to compromise or make amends, but that view may cut a little too close to your nerve endings for your comfort.  You’ll feel judged, moreso if the view comes close to a painful truth.  Much easier to continue fighting over who has the right to feel more hurt by the other.  On a bad day you will hear things like “you have to understand that I’m too upset by what you did to listen to why you’re upset.”

Life’s unfair, and part of its unfairness is rooted in its often incoherent nature.  In spite of all the theories, and of science, and the role of the marvelous human mind in fathoming things that are difficult, a good part of life simply defies sense, logic, discussion.  Unfair, if you ask me.

The anodyne versus the difficult

It is tempting to live in an anodyne world, where everything is seen in the most painless possible light.  An angry conflict that continues for months, for years, poisoning the lives of both parties?   Two people who actually love each other deeply who just can’t find the way back to love, yet.  A cluster of bad events and painful symptoms that feels catastrophic in your life?  Not really that bad, when you compare them to a hundred much, much worse catastrophes.  You see?   There is a better way to think of bad things, a healthier way to feel about them.  Anodyne means sparing pain, or killing it.

In an anodyne worldview, warring parties can easily come to the table and work out peace terms, if only their better angels emerge and lead, which they easily can.  

True, but a big fucking “if”, if you know what I’m saying.   We don’t, of course, live in a world that always spares us the worst, but … what is the alternative?

Real courage, it seems to me, is looking at difficult things and seeing them for what they are.  Seeing things clearly is the first step towards progress.   As  for the painless view, your truly terrible medical situation does not make my ordinary, if challenging, medical situation any better.  For one thing, they are two different things.  For another, nothing about your awful situation provides any relief of mine.  It is hard to look at a scary thing carefully, a nasty thing, an unthinkable thing.   There are terrors out there, watching with unblinking eyes.  Death is not a ticket to a perfect world, unless I’m sadly mistaken, but it is surely a ticket from this miraculous one.  

We can truly wish that all conflicts could be worked out peacefully, that with enough patience, kindness and intelligence we can work loose the stubborn knots that strangle and keep the war raging.   We can believe this, faithfully, in the face of seamless opposition.  If only I can be more patient, kinder, smarter, if only I can find the words, the metaphor, the story to make clear that I’m not the enemy… except, that when you are the enemy, that’s what you are.

You know what you do with an enemy?  You dig your fortifications and fight like hell.  

While you are fighting you can think “I am fighting for love, I’m fighting for peace, I’m fighting for my belief in lifelong friendship.”   Your enemy is thinking the same thing, and they are convinced that you don’t know jack shit about love, peace or friendship and for that reason your fortifications must be bombarded, stormed and your army vanquished.

Blessed are the peacemakers, as someone in the days of Jesus said.  Then they took one, a man of peace said to perform miracles, and, after a quick trial by mob, nailed him to a cross, along with dozens of others that day.  For centuries people who worshipped this Lamb killed each other over the proper way to follow in his path of peace and gentleness.  Put their fellow believers to the sword, because they had different customs about the best way to show love to the earthly messenger of God’s love.   Anodyne that for me, somebody.

Gentlemen’s agreement — no lies

My father hated liars.  Lying was a line he wouldn’t cross himself (partly because he didn’t need to, as I will explain in a moment) and something he didn’t forgive in others.  I saw very early on that if you made up a false, childish story to hide something from him, he’d see through the lie and label you a lying piece of shit forever. 

I understand that a lie can make a lasting impression of lack of character, or sometimes no impression (if the lie is minor and doesn’t really affect you).  The trouble is, before you lie you never know which way it will go.

The obvious problem with a lie is that the person you are lying to  can be holding the proof of your lie in his hand.  “Did you ever write a letter denouncing me to Child Protective Services as a ‘vicious monster unfit to raise children’?” my father could ask.  If you said it never happened, and he was able to pull out your childishly pencilled letter to Child Protective Services, point to the verbatim quote right there on the lined paper, that would be it, for the rest of your life, the verdict: fucking liar.

I actually did lie to him once, about having taken mescaline as a teenager.  “Did you ever take mescaline?” he asked the sixteen year-old version of me pointedly.   I denied it, weakly, and he pulled out a letter I’d written to a girlfriend, written in mercurochrome, which might as well have been blood.  The bloody looking scrawling, with plenty of ghoulish drips and glops, was a raving love letter to psychedelics and included a vow to take a lot more of it in the coming days.   

“Shit,” I thought, when he disgustedly pulled out the letter “I never mailed that letter to Barbara, must have fallen behind my parents’ bed when I was sleeping in there for the AC when they were out of town…”   My lie was a one-off, my father recognized, and no big referendum on my character resulted from it.

Not so for other people we knew who lied to my father, even once.  My sister, when she was maybe seven, hatched a caper with her seven year-old accomplice, Jefferey Seigel, to break into my little cash register-shaped piggy bank and use the illicit proceeds to buy candy.  The plan went perfectly, until I came home and found the little cash register pried open and empty of its perhaps 80 cents in coins (this would have been 1965 money, probably $5 or $10 in today’s candy buying coin, shit, maybe more — a Milky Way cost maybe a dime in those days, I think) and the list of culprits was quickly narrowed down to my little sister.  She rolled on her henchman, after a series of the seven year old’s best attempts at lies was brushed aside by my prosecutor father. 

He never let her forget this childish act of piracy on the high seas, made a hundred times worse by the lies about not being a childish brigand.  Anytime he got angry at her, the first salvo would be about how she lacked character, stole from her own brother to buy candy, AND LIED ABOUT IT.  A little thief, AND a liar.

A lie can be maddening, it’s true, and I’ll never know the roots of my father’s hatred of lying, but the reason people lie is also usually understandable.  People don’t often lie without a reason.   The reason is most of the time to avoid feeling bad, to avoid having to take responsibility for a mistake, to avoid punishment. 

This makes the whole exercise kind of ironic: you lie to avoid telling the truth, to make yourself feel less vulnerable, and this places you in the category of ordinary, very vulnerable, fucking liars.  If the lie can be shown to be a lie, you’re a proven liar, and often, in the eyes of many, mostly honest, people, a weak and contemptible person.

My father was an angry brute whenever he felt he needed to be, in the privacy of his own home.  He’d never confront people in the street, or at work, but around the dinner table, with just the four of us there, he was fearless and fierce in protecting his turf and asserting his dominance and superiority.   In this way he was like many other narcissistic people with terribly painful wounds doing his best to feel like a whole person, in the face of unbearable early life humiliation.   I don’t even hold it against him any more.   The thing I’m thinking about now is his basic honesty, the way I almost never knew him to lie.  As I said, he didn’t need to.  Check this out:

If you can control the conversation at every stage, you can change the subject to whatever you want to talk about, before there is any reason to lie.  A lie is told when the liar finds himself in a corner, nowhere to go.  The truth leads to an electric shock, a lie might get you off without the voltage going through you.  The trapped rat chooses option two, sometimes avoids the sting of electricity.  My father mastered the art of never finding himself in a corner.  No corner trap, no real urgency to lie.  He was very good at reframing every argument to quickly turn it back on the person he was trying to cow.

You can say, big man, reframing and gaslighting his own kids!, and sure, when my sister was seven and I was nine, it looked pitiful enough to see this brilliant adult using sophisticated tools to argue his children into submission.  He did the same when we were twenty, thirty and forty.   I eventually went to law school, in a misguided attempt to do something to please the unpleasable old man, and only after graduating and passing the bar did I fairly easily beat him into silence during our last argument, about two years before he died.

But, check this out, if you lack the adroit mind of my father, and find yourself in a heated no-holds-barred argument with someone in command of the facts, with a clear memory of events, who cuts through your rationales quickly and decisively, you will likely feel cornered.   The first line of defense might be just reflexive defensiveness:  no, you say I hurt you, but you hurt me, that’s why I did it, because you hurt me, you merciless fuck!    A second line, change the subject, to anything.  Why are you still talking about this when I’m now talking about that?   See, you won’t talk about what I want to talk about, what I need.   HOW ABOUT WHAT I need?!!!!  You selfish fuck.

If the relentless argument continues, and the attempts at reframing, misdirection, gaslighting and everything else are not working, you find yourself in a corner and there is only one card left: lying.  What you said I said I never said and even if I had said it it was only because of what you said, but you are lying, I never said that!   In fact, I remember exactly why I said it and I was completely right to say it, even though I never said it!

In the end, one party can shake its head sadly, regarding the liar with a shaming expression on its face.  “Dude, at least I never fucking lied to you…”

The person who lied, if humiliated enough to lie and then be caught in the lie, and, the ultimate shame, being name-called a liar?   They’re not going to be arguing with you ever again.   Neither are they going to do you any more favors, or laugh at your jokes, or invite you to dinner or take any chance of a repeat of the horrific shit that just happened, even though you were completely wrong and they never lied, and, even if they did, it was your fault for backing them into that corner of the cage and putting the electrodes on them, and what trapped rat wouldn’t lie under those merciless conditions, you sick fuck?

My father never found himself in this position, never had to bend the truth at all, because he was a master at his craft.  He never found himself cornered.   To him, lying during a conflict was contemptible, it showed you had no fucking game. 

So, during our long, senseless war, I accepted his perverse gentlemen’s agreement:  we fight to the death, and that’s the way it has to be, but we will not consciously lie to each other during our fight to the death.   I shook on that deal, for better or worse.

Conflict as zero sum

It is the hallmark of a certain kind of person to see all conflict as zero sum, win/lose, an existential fight to the death. Most people, who experience conflict as just part of life, know that with sufficient goodwill conlict can almost always be resolved. Unless you see all conflict as a deadly threat to yourself.

If you know somebody who has no skill at resolving conflict, you can avoid tension with them as much as possible by remaining mild, but understand that one day, if conflict arises between you, there will be no solution outside of the end of the relationship.

This limited view of the world, seeing any kind of conflict, no matter how minor, as a deadly threat and compromise as fatal, pathetic, weakness, cannot be overcome by your understanding, your patience, your love, your friendship, your own willingness to compromise. This type sees compromise as surrender, cowardly capitulation, abject submission, humiliation.

When they do apologize to you (to end the conflict immediately, without further discussion) it will be with restrictions, caveats, qualifications and the need to make you understand that they are only apologizing because you are weak, not because they did anything that hurt you, something that would have hurt them .

Once you see an inability to resolve conflict or compromise, know the score. You are dealing with somebody who has no idea how to work out conflicts with others. It may feel like your fault because you can’t fix something that should otherwise be relatively simple to work out, but after you’ve done everything possible to make amends, and the implacability remains, time to walk away.

That walk will be the best thing you can do for yourself, unbearably sad as it also feels when you take those first steps away from someone you have long cared about.

The Age of Narcissism

I read a fascinating book, at my sister’s recommendation, Jon Krakauer’s Under the Banner of Heaven.  It is an exploration of the Mormon faith, framed by a grisly murder two devout, fringe Mormons committed after one of them got a revelation from God that the two victims (his wife and daughter) had to be “removed.”   The book explores the hazy boundary between true religious inspiration and justicially cognizable insanity. 

At one point the lawyers for the murderer are making an argument to keep him from the death penalty.  The lawyer tells the court that someone who has suffered severe early life injury to their self-esteem sometimes compensates by becoming grandiose.  When this happens the person has an overriding need to believe that they are superior, special, perfect, beautiful — on pain of feeling humiliatingly inferior, worthless, fatally flawed and ugly —  and constructs a black and white world view accordingly.  The condition the lawyer claimed had disabled his client is called Narcissism.

It was an illuminating insight to me, since I’d long struggled against my father’s black and white worldview (a severely limiting view he lamented greatly as he was dying) but never made the connection to what I knew about narcissism.  In order to feel superior, you must subordinate others, blame them for your incapacities. 

A person who has not suffered enough shame to become a narcissist can admit a mistake, take blame for a thoughtless and hurtful thing they’ve done, sincerely apologize.  For a narcissist, these things are almost impossible, since it makes them feel terrifyingly worthless, vulnerable and deserving of not being loved.

What I realized recently, having had an otherwise exemplary father (another recent realization that surprised me, how much valuable parenting my father also did, how much better he did than was done to him) who was narcissistic, is that many of my oldest friends were also narcissists.

I knew I’d been attracted to very smart, sardonic, darkly funny, damaged people (as I myself am), knew that they resembled my father in key ways, knew I was trying to work out problems with him through surrogates.

Having the frame “narcissist” suddenly made a lifetime of conflicts with this same type understandable to me.  The end of each of these friendships was inevitable once conflict began to escalate, I see now. 

The connection I had with my father was far deeper than with anyone I met and became longtime friends with, a final split with Irv was always unthinkable to me, and in the end, my painful work in therapy paid off in us being able to have an important, candid chat, finally, hours before he died.   The mutually blessed talk that last night of his life came about because I understood the awful hand he’d been dealt and realized he’d truly done the best he could, as I kept reassuring him as he whipped himself over having been “a horse’s ass” for his whole life. 

We’re living in the Age of Narcissism, it seems to me.  A zero-sum game composed of only absolute winners and contemptible losers, where one side plays for keeps and the moral qualms of the other side are easily weaponized for use against them.   My new personal stake in it, how it shaped my life now that I see my father was largely this way (though, of course, with a capacity for self-reflection and self-criticism missing from most narcissists, plus a great sense of humor) and being vilified by people who profess to love me, has made me grapple with the larger issue of autocracy/democracy on a visceral level.   

It’s easy to recognize in someone like Donald Trump the malignant narcissist, someone so obviously and deeply damaged that their only survival mechanism is belief in an absurdly comical superiority.  When this claimed superiority is treated as the grotesque comedy it truly is, these folks, seeing the world as zero-sum and kill or be killed, have no hesitation to do whatever they feel they need to do to prove they are not worthless, weak, pathetic victims. 

They all want to be “strongmen.”  A psychiatrist who worked with violent felons in prison wrote “every act of violence is an attempt to replace humiliation with self-esteem.”  We all know what these types are capable of, and will do if given the chance (look at Putin, destroying the archive that commemorated WWII war crimes on all sides and unleashing legions of raping mercenaries to execute civilians).

Anyway, not to go down the dark, apocalyptic fascism-on-the-global rise rabbit hole.  Just to say that I feel my personal learnings, coming sharply into focus during this last hellish year with my old friends, help shine a light for me on the larger forces, the narcissistic, arrogant, mediocre, insanely influential sons and grandsons of wealthy sociopaths:  D. Trump, C. Koch, E. Musk, J. Kushner et al.

Understanding is only the first step

You finally understand the painful difficulty you are up against, from an unforgiving narcissistic parent to a global movement marching violently toward international authoritarianism.  It’s a great step, to understand, at last, the nature of the actual monster you are up against. 

You feel a certain relief mixed in with your horror, to know finally what you are actually at war with, and that you did the best you could have done against an unreasoning force that is pure will.   It is important for your mental health, and future prospects, to confirm that it is not only your fevered imagination at work, these things are actually out there, acting against you with every stinking breath.  They will not be fixed by even unlimited goodwill, compromise and extension of endless benefit of the doubt.  That understanding is huge, though it is the first step on a much longer journey.

It’s hard to believe in the existence of evil until you see a willingness to actually kill you up close.  It is easy enough to see disturbed, angry people as suffering from weakness, deformed by damage done to them by others that takes these nasty, deadly shapes in the world. 

It is not important whether you see it as evil, it’s crucial to grasp how it works, why it works that way, how to get out of its clutches, how to neutralize the threat to others.  Understanding the nature of a thing intent on subordinating you, even killing you, if necessary, is not an easy thing, since the force is constantly crushing you, attacking, vilifying, accusing you of cruelly victimizing them.  

To take a recent political example — look how the Covid-deniers scream, they are the victims, US health officials, not corrupt and incompetent hacks working for a malignant narcissist, are responsible for the disproportionate US deaths from Covid, 1,099,866 souls, when the number was last updated by lying Deep State cucktards at the CDC.  The supremely spineless Kevin McCarthy just appointed Trump’s former doctor, now in Congress, to head the investigation into how Anthony Fauci murdered more than a million Americans with his constant lies about the Chinese hoax that put Biden into office illegally.  Justice won’t be served until the retired government doctor is publicly nailed to a cross and mocked by the survivors of his treachery.   

A coherent, evidence-based case can be made that Fauci, at every step, followed the best evolving scientific understanding of a highly infectious, unpredictable deadly worldwide plague.  Coherence and so-called evidence, of course, can go fuck themselves when Marjorie Taylor Green blows her hot opinions into a microphone, next to the compromised Speaker of the House, nodding grim agreement to anything she spouts.    The incoherent message will be hammered home to believers a hundred times a day, until it makes sense that the antiChrist, Fauci, must meet the same gruesome fate as the Prince of Peace, but, obviously, for much different reasons.   

In your personal life zero-sum battle lines may be even harder to see.  Love, long history and faith in lifelong ties will blind you sometimes, to another’s willingness to shove things down your throat until you suffocate.   “How did I not fucking see this before?”  you will wonder, and raise the whip over yourself when you realize you’ve waded deep into an unsurvivable swamp.  Understanding will come slowly, if you are fortunate and persistent in looking for it, and honest with yourself and everyone else.  

Honesty and a willingness to discuss things, it turns out, is only one response to conflict.  A more common reflex is to become incoherent, constantly change the subject, lie, attack, become defensive, blame the other for your defensiveness, admit nothing, fuck you, I’ll kill you, grrrr grrrr grrrrr!   The contest, you understand too late, is zero-sum, only one will live, the other must die.  I will do anything to be the last one standing, so fuck you!

Alien to your way of thinking?  It is also alien to mine, but this mode of kill or be killed survival is in operation all over the place.    Understanding it, seeing it clearly for what it actually is, is crucial, but, depressingly, only the beginning.  How to counter the damage it has done and prevent repeats going forward is a much deeper, gnarlier question.   It is also the most pressing question at this perilous moment in history.

Any ideas?

Deleterious Cognition

As a teenager in anguish, with a rapidly growing vocabulary, I came up with a concept I called Deleterious Cognition [1].   It was a destructive thinking process, starting with a few verifiable facts, that led to dangerous inaction, or actions contrary to your best interests, all based on empirical knowledge that can’t be refuted. 

I was hard pressed to define deleterious cognition, or even give any convincing examples of it, until the other day, a half century after I began to understand the role deleterious cognition has played in my life, and, increasingly, in millions of lives.  I spoke it out loud to Sekhnet and realized: EUREKA!  I’ve got my perfect example of deleterious cognition.

I’m a fairly old man now and I need various medical treatments, sooner rather than later.  I have cataracts that are now clearly affecting my vision, a painful bone on bone severely bowed left knee joint that needs to be replaced, several other things I need to see to.  Procrastination is natural in the face of scary things, particularly when they come in bunches, but here’s where deleterious cognition comes in.

As I try to navigate Medicare (the poison pill-laden gold standard for health care here in the truly exceptional US of A) I am stopped in my tracks, over and over, by lack of basic information, by ambiguities in the written guide book they send Medicare recipients, contradictions that, if not caught, can cost the unwary their life savings. 

You’d think they’d have a warning in bold for all the codgers fearfully poring over the new terms every year, in a country where most people don’t have $400 on hand in the event of an emergency: 


Instead we have only the normal guardrail of the “Free Market” — caveat emptor, buyer beware, you fucking chump. 

Here’s where deleterious cognition comes in.  Frustrated by the poor design, and grotesque porousness of America’s health care “safety net” for senior citizens, I become too angry to read on, make notes, call various numbers over and over to try to solve an immediate and pressing problem.  So an actual objective set of facts, something I know, along with millions of others on a program booby trapped in favor of for-profit companies that live on the blood of anyone with any disease or health condition, becomes deleterious cognition when knowledge of the aggravating pitfalls stops you in your tracks.

Your mind will tell you, as you are caught in this deleterious thought cycle, that you are perfectly within your rights to be angry about a program designed to preserve mercenary corporate profits, at the expense of some of our most vulnerable citizens.  If an answer to a basic question cannot be found in the booklet they send out to “help” you, or by a visit to a website or a quick phone call … you know, fuck it and the fucking fucks who designed the goddamned program.   Deleterious cognition is a breakdown of rationality that the sufferer can present a perfectly rational argument for.

In a cooler moment you will freely concede that, once you find someone to explain what can’t be found in the guide book they send you, the program does allow you to protect yourself against tsunami-sized medical bills.   It’s very far from perfect, true, but, in fairness to Medicare, 80% of a million dollar hospital bill paid by public insurance leaves you only a $200,000 share to pay, which you can avoid by choosing the right “supplemental” plan from the alphabet soup of randomly lettered government mandated but privately administered programs, and pay the extra premium every month, to a private insurance company, to protect your life savings from health care predation once you pay $4,000-$5,000 every year out of pocket.

Deleterious cognition is the stream of aggravating thoughts that prevents you from avoiding danger you can also see coming.

If someone blames you for all conflict, insists you never talk about how the conflict hurts you, gets angry when you try to make peace, you can brood for a long time about what more you can do until you recognize a pattern and stumble on a sensible real-world explanation.  Inability to accept any responsibility, inability to empathize, inability to compromise, apologize, recognize another person’s right to their feelings are the hallmarks of a common, and very intractable, emotional frailty know as narcissism.  The need to be right, to feel just and perfect, in this type, outweighs all other considerations, because the agony of utter humiliation is their only alternative to feeling right, and just, and perfect at all times.

If a dear friend demonstrates these things to you, and your best efforts to show friendship are brushed away as they gaslight you, blame you and assault your reputation among common acquaintances, you can confirm this diagnosis for yourself.

The question remains: is seeing the insoluble stalemate clearly for what it is — your friends suffer a difficult to cure and debilitating emotional condition and will never meet you halfway about anything  — deleterious cognition, or salubrious cognition?  

It is not really a question.  If people who claim to love you also insist you shut up about anything that makes them feel less than perfect … well, is there really a question there?


Deleterious:  1]  Having a harmful effect; injurious.    2] Hurtful; noxious; destructive; pernicious 3]  harmful often in a subtle or unexpected way (as for example deleterious effects, deleterious to health).

Cognition refers to “the mental action or process of acquiring knowledge and understanding through thought, experience, and the senses”.Wikipedia

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?

The sometimes subtle nature of psychological harm

My father, I learned late in his life, was whipped in the face by his mother, regularly, from the time he could stand.  The last night he was alive he told me that his life was basically over by the time he was two.   Grow up whipped by your mother, who also whips your father, in dire poverty, with undiagnosed 20/400 vision that makes you appear moronic, unteachable, once you get to school — unable to speak English when you start kindergarten — it leaves a humiliating mark.   Best to hide all that shit as best you can, collapsing it all into “grinding poverty,” spoken like a seething Clint Eastwood.   

Grow up in a comfortable middle class home, never knowing want of any kind, raised by a mother and father who are both smart, funny and well-educated, and emerge with lifelong disabilities and, you know… kind of pathetic, no?

Unlike physical beatings, which are easily understood as violent and scarring, psychological beatings can be devilishly subtle, and just as destructive.

How do you describe the pain inflicted by silence, maintained eternally, starting at the exact moment you ask for an answer?  An implacable glare can have the force of a hard punch in the solar plexus.   Sarcasm, arguably innocent humor, can be used to great effect, if deployed at just the right moment, and in front of the right people.  These techniques have the virtue of perfect deniability, turning any objection to them into the viciously unfair whine of a sniveler.  

“Now you say I hurt you by keeping my mouth shut?  I can’t win, can I?  I held my tongue, but that’s not enough for you.  You can say whatever you want, make any accusations you like against me, but I can’t even remain quiet without being attacked?  You have a real problem there, you know that?  The whole world is against you, even silence hurts your delicate feelings.  You need help.”

The worst of this kind of untender treatment is that you begin to blame yourself, question your right to feel hurt at all.  Maybe I was being kind of unfair, asking a question that was so difficult to answer.  Maybe my timing was thoughtless, I put them on the spot at the worst possible moment.  Why do I keep making people feel so defensive, so angry?  What is wrong with me that I keep upsetting people like this?

You can sometimes cross a barrier, deep into the unseen private wounds of people you have known and loved for years.  There is no coming back from this, as far as I know.   Mutuality can be destroyed in a moment, though it can take much longer to understand that mutuality has been destroyed.  “I hurt you?  You fucking hurt me, you merciless fucking fuck!”  An argument like that cannot be won.   How did friendship suddenly turn into war?  “You humiliated me by making me feel like a terrible person… you are a terrible person.”

The wife was only trying to make everything perfect for her quietly angry, stressed out husband.  He may be impossible to please in certain ways, but that only makes her try harder.  Then she’s faulted for micromanaging a vacation, as if everything being out of control is better than methodically organizing everything.  Her husband likes order.  How is that her fault?  Then you overreacted to her frustration, which was caused 100% by you resisting her perfectly understandable, laudable desire to please her husband. You insist her sudden “anger” hurt you, but you’re not looking at the full picture, just focusing on what you absurdly claim was a glare of rage and an angry refusal to discuss options or compromise in any way.  How can you not see that you are the angry asshole who caused all of the bad feelings, the one who unilaterally ended our long friendship? 

You understand too late the depths of your old friends’ damage.  See how tricky well-covered up psychological wounds can be?   

In these situations I often think of the four temperaments from Pirkey Avot.  Quick to anger, quick to be placated — loss offset by gain.   Slow to anger, slow to be placated — gain offset by loss.   Slow to anger, quick to be placated — a righteous soul.  Quick to anger, slow to be placated — evil.

Sounds a bit judgmental, perhaps, to frame the ability to forgive as good or evil, but, truly, once you have apologized to the best of your ability, expressed understanding of why what you did hurt the other person, vowed to do better going forward — the reason a dear friend would not forgive you is a deep need to feel superior, to hold the weapon of unforgiveness against your head.  Or, evil.  The pain they experienced is so deep and abiding, and the current hurt brings on the unbearable sting of former abuse so acutely, that the jury will be out forever on whether you deserve to be forgiven.  You will live on probation, with strict rules governing what may be mentioned again.  If you want forgiveness you must earn it, by long penitence.  Even then, the jury will remain out, because you’ve already shown you are the hurting type, the kind who deserves punishment.

We are drawn, perhaps, to people who have suffered similar things to what we have suffered.  It gives us an instant unconscious basis for understanding each other’s vulnerabilities, and fosters a feeling of comradeship, having survived similar mistreatment.  At the same time, it puts us close to an explosive force, one that can easily go off when the stress is turned up.

“What stress?  You claim there was stress, there was no goddamned stress, until you caused it.  Everything was fine until you reverted to despicable form and started resisting every reasonable thing I proposed.  How dare you blame us for your uncontrollable stress?!   The world is endlessly unfair to you, poor little misunderstood genius.  You feel superior to everybody while demonstrating your inferiority every day.  That’s the real problem.  You think you’re great, and you’re angry all the time, and we did nothing to you — you are the one who caused all the bad feelings.”

In an unguarded moment she will tell you that you made her feel like her daughter, an actual  genius, often made her feel.  Challenged and overmatched.  “So good with words, and such command of memory, you both are, that I have to fight to defeat you by any means necessary.  You make me fight you to the death, how does it feel to try to kill me, you murderous black hearted bastard?”

It is impossible to measure the depth and breadth of these wounds.  And futile.