Thinking something over because it perplexes you is not everybody’s path to happiness or a better life, I understand. Contemplating a troubling mystery is not for everyone, you have to be pushed toward it, it takes a certain turn of mind, a predisposition, an odd kind of luck, even. In my own life, because of the things I suffered when I was young (and the ongoing sufferings we all must sometimes endure) I find myself looking for patterns, clues, examples from the past that point to a better way, less friction with others and more peace within myself. The lessons of the past, as they are called are food for thought, if not always delicious food. I’d like to think that as I’ve aged I’ve somehow become wiser and more merciful than I was as a confused, angry teenager. Any improvement I’ve made has been the result of wrestling with things that trouble me.
My feeling is that if you get no insight into the things and situations that cause you pain you will always be in pain for the same reasons you always were. Your reactions will remain unchanged and those reactions will fuel the behavior of others toward you. The philosopher Moms Mabely is sometimes credited with the pithiest statement of this: “if you always do what you always did, you’ll always get what you always got.”
The only way, it seems to me, to avoid getting what you always got is if you learn to do things differently than you’ve always done. In other words, doing that difficult thing: learning what you need to do better from the experiences of the past. Hard fucking work, no doubt, and, though I try not to judge, I often have a hard time respecting people who don’t even make the attempt to learn from their mistakes. Such people are never wrong, no matter what. If you look back with even a small amount of honesty it’s not that hard to see when you’ve impulsively done something that hurt someone or made things worse, justified by a shaky rationale conceived in anger or something like it.
I had a close friend for many years who was extremely bright and also very angry. Because he was so angry, on such a fundamental level, pretty much everyone he ever knew eventually became a rival, an adversary and finally a hated enemy. Not long ago, when his mother died, his older brother emailed, asking me to reach out to him after informing me that I was his brother’s only friend.
I took this news philosophically, as I hadn’t spoken to the guy in more than a decade, after finally realizing there was little I could do to remain friends with someone as implacably angry as he was. Our few emails back and forth after his mother’s death illustrated quickly that nothing had changed in his world– he was still and always the victim, and angry and defensive about it. Because he is a smart and articulate person he also made a brilliantly baroque case that the world, including me, was wrong and he alone was right. Zero sum game, black or white, no nuance or possibility that anything could be any other way — you dig?
Because of the damage done to him as a child, however it had happened, he constantly relived variations on the trauma in every relationship he had. He lived the ‘repetition compulsion’, casting others in the roles of people he blamed for his persecution, a series of putzes he at first thought were very cool, and then playing out the identical senseless drama of betrayal time after time. Each of these future putzes, every one of whom he put great hopes in, came to reveal the same awful thing — that they were complete and unredeemed fucking assholes.
I found this fascinating, and also, very, very disturbing and ultimately defeating. His resistance to any kind of insight into his behavior was fierce. He was convinced, in each case, that he had been viciously wronged, had been completely blameless and absolutely justified in acting exactly as he had, at every step. Each one of his stories was predictably the same — initial admiration, disillusion, betrayal (often violent) — and yet he was compelled to repeat the same aggravating three act drama every time.
If you pointed out the similarities between the new story and every other one, or ventured the opinion that any of it had anything to do with his unattainable expectations of others and his own behaviors justified by his unexpressed anger, he’d become furious, since he was the least angry person he’d ever met.
We like to think that we’ll always have our favorite people in our lives. Sometimes we keep old friends, and some people seemingly manage to keep all of their friends, but other times things like resentment, anger, envy, competitiveness and irrational things that bubble up and are hard to put a finger on wind up prying people apart.
Anger is among the hardest things we all have to deal with. Do we have a right to be angry? Quite often we do. We all live in an aggravating world, in a misguided and often vicious and violent culture. In my own life, both of my parents were quick to anger. There was a lot of yelling in the little house my sister and I grew up in. I don’t hold this against my parents anymore.
I don’t say that lightly, it took me many years to truly understand that if they had learned to deal with their feelings of disappointment, frustration and helplessness, they would not have treated my sister and me the way they did. They did the best they could, but neither ever obtained much insight into how damaging uncontrolled anger is.
As a child, if you can’t learn something like how to deal with frustration and anger from your parents, you are up against a hard game. You have to find teachers, make many, many mistakes, have many fights, accept insights wherever you find them, become your own teacher in how to do better dealing with difficult emotions, difficult people.
I’ll end with the only simple, useful thing I’ve learned for sure. There are certain people who, once they become angry at you, will never stop being mad at you, no matter what you do. An apology won’t work, whatever you’ve done is unforgivable because it is characteristic of the kind of bad person you are. Conversation will not lead anywhere better, there is nothing you can say or do that will lead toward mutual understanding or forgiveness once you are put into this unredeemable category. When you find every attempt to make peace thrown back on you, the only thing to do with this type is to walk away.
I’ve learned this painful lesson only after understanding that the only other choice is a bad one– to make a kind of false peace by accepting that you are an offensive asshole unworthy of being treated any better than the way this angry person is prepared to treat you. If you are ready, in the interest of “peace”, to accept a view of you distorted by someone’s anger as some kind of truth, you’re setting an inevitable trap for the future.
A trap you must continue to live in, harshly judged, awaiting whatever you “deserve”. This kind of bogus peace will almost always come back to bite you sooner or later, when your past offenses will be dredged up as proofs against you, and in the meantime, you must accept the unacceptable as the best you can get. The only choice, once mutual peace is off the table, is leaving the room, closing the door.
On one level, you could call what I am advocating the same thing my unhappy, angry friend who lived in a world of discarded putzes did, but I will try to explain how it’s different. We both justify our actions as the only thing to be done, yes. We both come to see the differences between us and the other as an unbridgeable divide. We both write the other party off as dead. There is no coming back from death, not in this life.
The only difference is that I believe that I make every effort to give a friend the benefit of the doubt, make many attempts to make peace before finally taking up the sword and cutting the guy’s head off. It’s a big difference to me, a willingness to try to see the other person’s point of view, to apologize, to seek reconciliation. To talk instead of fighting– at least until talk proves itself senseless, anyway.
My friend’s drama was always the same unalterable scenario. He’d acted in good faith, been generous, thought the other person was reciprocating, then there were warning signs, he tried to correct course, he was viciously betrayed. You can see this as similar to what I have laid out, but there is a key difference. Unlike me, he was never at fault, in any way, ever. Kind of like our current president and many badly damaged people one encounters.
I have many times realized that I’ve said or done something hurtful to somebody I care about. It is natural to do this from time to time, no matter how hard we try to be perfect, particularly if we were raised by people who often spoke out of anger before they gave themselves time to consider the better thing to say. People who are angry enough to rage at somebody don’t always have the ability to admit they were wrong, even later. When there can be no acknowledgment of a hurtful mistake the cycle of ill will is complete, if you remain within the radius of harm.
When I become aware I’ve hurt somebody I’ve learned to move quickly to reassure them of my friendship, apologize, seek forgiveness. I’ve found that people who value you in their lives are quite ready to forgive. I extend this forgiveness to anyone who shows the humility to express genuine sorrow for some hurtful thing they’ve done. It is not easy for people to make themselves vulnerable to somebody else, particularly in our kind of win/lose culture, I appreciate the difficulty and respect those who can. 
Look, this attitude about seeking and extending forgiveness does not make me Jesus Christ, not by a long shot. When someone behaves badly toward me, refuses to acknowledge any role in our subsequent conflict, and escalates things aggravatingly every time I try to make amends, I have the same initial response that virtually any toxic male in our violent culture has. My first feeling is violence, punch my antagonist hard in the mouth to make him shut up. Just stop the fucking noise. If you are only capable of making things worse with your righteous, enraged bullshit and whining, for the love of Christ, just shut up.
I don’t chide myself for this feeling. The feeling is understandable and the reflex was planted deep, long before I was old enough to have any say about it. A feeling is different than an action. You can feel a violent emotion without acting on it, though it takes work and time to learn to disconnect the two things. I never was one to hit people (my vicious words always did the trick) and I haven’t had a physical fight with anyone in many years. I’ve made some progress in controlling what my anger at first compels me to do. And yet, the feeling can’t be denied, I can’t pretend I’m not provoked to feel that way, once I am provoked. Each of us has our breaking point.
The only thing we can do when a feeling like this is choking us is to make a better decision than smashing somebody’s face. I’m not going to hit this infuriating person in the mouth to make his maddening sounds stop, no matter how strongly I feel the desire to.
I’ve learned to take a breath, as many breaths as I need, walk away, think (perseverate, if you like), recover as much of my better nature as I can. If there is no way to peace with someone who is acting unreasonably, provocatively, secure in his right to rage, at a certain point you have to accept it and keep away from that person.
Once I come to this unfortunate acceptance, after exhausting my efforts to defuse things and make peace, there is only one more thing I have to do. I don’t necessarily advocate it or defend it, but it is the best I can do in these situations, considering the angry environment I come from.
I reach deep into my well-worn tool kit. I set out in words the precise thoughts that will do the most direct harm to the person who can’t stop attacking. I write these thoughts out in detail, politely and firmly but without mercy or any hope of reconciliation (since there is none, as already demonstrated by the failure of all apologies one can muster).
I employ that maddeningly superior tone that unchallengeable masters of the universe always use when addressing drones. In each paragraph I cooly remove another arm, a leg, set them side by side on the table. My last lines sever the head, which I leave beside the limbs. Now it is finally quiet.
In the end the violence is about the same as punching someone hard enough to make them shut up, but the beautiful quiet afterwards is nice and there is no danger of prosecution.
It is not exactly peace, and a terrible loss is still there, along with the sadness that comes with a great loss, but the knowledge that this kind of pugnacious anger will no longer come at you from this particular person– in my mind, better than giving in and socking somebody. No matter how much they might actually deserve it.
 The kind of apology that does not help is what Harry Shearer calls the if-pology. “If I did something wrong, then I’m sorry.” Think of Joe Biden’s decades-belated variation on the classic if-pology, delivered to Anita Hill recently — I feel sorry for what they did to you, and for whatever part you may think I may have played in what they did to you. An apology Anita Hill was right to dismiss.
An apology, to be meaningful, must acknowledge the hurtfulness of the specific thing that one is sorry about and contain some sort of promise to try not to do it again.
Compare that to the kind of apology I was given right before an old friend I finally had to behead told me he loved me and that I, therefore, had to be his friend.
“I already apologized to you, so I don’t know what you want from me. You think I did something to you, which I didn’t, and so no matter how many times I fucking apologize, you are too much of a rigid, angry and unloving fucking asshole — who can never admit to being wrong, I might add — to even hear it”
And then, as though proving his point, I could not find it in my heart to accept his apology.