Mapmakers used to describe gaps in their knowledge of the world under the phrase terra incognita. The legend on old maps described uncharted, unimaginable expanses of unknown terrain. Krakens, dragons and every kind of supremely destructive beast were presumed to inhabit terra incognita. Prove they didn’t, using the maps of the day, you couldn’t. Therefore, under the coercive, superstitious logic of the day, these monsters actually lived in the terra incognita, and if you disagreed too conspicuously, you could be bound and publiclyset on fire as an instruction to other monster skeptics.
Armed with better and better maps intrepid explorers, funded by kings, queens and wealthy early corporations (Dutch East India Company comes to mind) bravely ventured into these uncharted areas and the maps became more and more complete until there was no corner of the earth (except perhaps deep under the sea) that was truly terra incognita. Today the greatest expanse of terra incognita is inside the minds and hearts of homo sapiens.
A friend used to have a footer on his emails (which I was unable to find in a pile of emails to quote verbatim, dagnabbit): be kind, remember that everyone you meet is engaged in a hard battle. True, and good advice. The invisible battles waged by everyone are truly terra incognita. We stumble into this land of other people’s unimaginable terrors at our peril. When your interior battle crosses mine, watch out.
I spent two years, every day, writing everything I could think of about my father, a perplexing man of unlimited potential and unlimited defensiveness. My father was chased every moment of his waking life by what he referred to as the demons we all have inside us. After writing and conducting a long post-mortem discussion with him for two solid years I came to truly understand his motivations, though I didn’t always agree with them, and this understanding allowed me to truly forgive a destructive character who apologized for the first and only time at the very end of his life, hours before he breathed his last. Still, as well as I grasp the tragedy that was my father, the recesses of my heart are still haunted, as all such recesses are.
Do the same thing my father used to do, glare with implacable hostility, maintain an angry defensive silence, defend yourself in lawyerly and inhumane ways, create and insist on an insane counter-narrative to make me the aggressor, you the victim, and I immediately find myself in that familiar, terrifying, incoherent terra incognita. We can’t map this terrain because we can’t bear to look at it for more than a second or two at a time. It overpowers us and seems to limit our options to fight or flight. It is primitive, terrible, maddening business. We push it down because there is little else to do about it. Anyone seemingly not engaged in a hard battle is very good at acting, until you touch a nerve that sets off their fight or flight response.
We live in a culture where our collective terra incognita has been set on fire. Along with actual record wildfires on various continents, and the rage and violence we see and hear in many of our citizens, a fire rages in the hearts of tens of millions of us. This fire is fed regularly, and much of its most potent food is incoherent poison, things a healthy body would never put into its mouth. No matter. Down the hatch it goes, and instead of digestion, fire belches forth, to singe the eyebrows of anyone who dares to ask “Jesus, are you OK?”
When you breathe fire, of course, you are not OK, not fucking OK at all! How infuriating is that stupid question when the burning inside you is actually flaming out of your mouth and singeing the face of your interlocutor? Jesus, am I fucking OK? Yes, I’m fine, you’re the one who is about to die, asshole…
When a relationship is strained, lines are drawn, sides taken and moral stances struck. The first casualty in such standoffs is often honesty, which is a shame, since it’s also the only way back to health. But since feelings are strained, hackles are easily raised and things are at a breaking point, you must be very careful about what you say, how you say it, what you leave out, what is safe terrain and what is a minefield that will blow everybody up if you set a toe on to it.
Though this limited honesty may feel to you like a kind of death, if you are used to an honest back and forth, it is nothing like death. It is an attempt to save the life of a frayed relationship in the only way possible, by putting things on a respirator in hopes of an eventual return to health and good cheer.
Only time will tell if your efforts towards repair succeed. A primal wound feels the same every time someone pokes a finger into it. The loss of a long, close friendship, in spite of your best efforts, always hurts exactly the same way, is identical to the grief of death in its inexorable finality. I will say, from my experience, a friendship that ends with someone screaming at you or bullying you is much easier to walk away from than one where your friend expresses only hurt, confusion and exasperation. It is as if the anger of the friend you are trying to reach cauterizes the wound, since you feel immediately relieved to be away from someone who can’t stop hissing and snarling. Good riddance to the raging bastard.
It is a tricky business, to be a human, as anyone who has tried it will tell you. The most important tool to mending hurt ismutual understanding.
Trying to reach understanding with only limited honesty, certain things never on the table for discussion, is supremely challenging. If the relationship means enough to you it is possible to find the patience to wait, even though it may seem impossible to be that patient at certain points. As long as you don’t lose your temper there is a chance of repair, even with the prickliest, most defensive of characters. The hope is that at that point mutual honesty will also be restored, everyone wiser for the long, terrible disruption of good will.
Close friendship, that state of grace where we extend the benefit of the doubt to sympatico strangers who become friends by returning the kindness with reciprocal care, adds years to our lives, psychologists tell us. We feel this every time we are refreshed by a relaxed visit with old friends. We don’t need science to tell us that laughing, breaking bread together, catching up, retelling old stories is a great antidote to the many daily horrors we are powerless against.
The other side of the picture, a life without close connections to anyone, is about the most hopeless darkness imaginable for social creatures like us. Millions and millions are confronted by this terrible darkness, many of our relationships reduced to tapping out little notes to each other on the phones that surveil us and mine our quirks for dollars. Isolation, as so many of us felt much more acutely during the pandemic lock down, kills.
Deaths of despair multiply where there is no hope for relief, new records are set every year for overdose deaths, deliberate and accidental, here in the USA. Shooting by gun is now the number one cause of death for people ages one to twenty years old in this country! Mass murders of enraged despair become common as young men break under isolation, particularly when isolation itself is weaponized to further divide us, the “reasoning” of the killers being that since nobody will understand or care about me anyway, might as well go out as a “gunman”, in a hail of bullets, and make others feel the unbearable pain I fucking feel.
The New York Times periodically publishes a story like this one, 362 School Counselors on the Pandemic’s Effect on Children: ‘Anxiety Is Filling Our Kids’ Do you need to read the report to understand how shattered young people are absolutely right to feel today? It’s not as if we lived in a harmonious, universally fair nation of infinite promise and hope before the pandemic. Add a world-leading million pandemic deaths, at least half of them preventable, and the hot war over who is to blame for all those deaths, scientists or political absolutists, and you don’t need the New York Times to delve into the uniquely American reasons for more schoolyard fights than ever in our history as school mass murders reach record levels, adults clash angrily over whether any laws can change this grim exceptionally American reality, and a handful of Senators insist on the right of a minority to block all discussion of such laws in the Senate, should it come to that.
The question I wrestle with today is what to do when every direction you look in, public and private, leads to sorrow? There are only so many things we can do to distract ourselves from it, or numb ourselves to it, before the sorrow in every direction we look turns to despair, hopelessness, misdirected anger. Old friends deliberating over whether they can accept your immediate, sincere apology for momentarily losing your cool? A blow that lingers over the course of their ongoing deliberations, which can extend indefinitely through months of avoidance, denial and a pointless argument over who has the greater right to be hurt. A slowness to forgive becomes coupled with a new readiness to take offense? The self-preserving reflex is to walk away, the harder path of continually extending understanding for your old friends’ weakness is very fucking hard after feeling enough extended unresolved hurt. Keep the door open or finally close it, to keep the grave-scented chill out? Hard question, that one, with terrible consequences to loved ones beside yourself for a hasty choice.
My family was brutally truncated by angry mobs mobilized by the fanatical followers of Adolf Hitler, an insane man of limited intellect and great apparent charisma. Of the many dozens of family members alive and struggling before Hitler invaded their insecure little corner of then Russia only five or six (all but one in the US) were alive after 1943. The letters just stopped coming, in my father’s chosen description of their slaughter.
The loss of all these close relatives, whose names I never even learned, these abstractions (“mere abstractions” as my father called them), haunts me as I watch the world gearing up for the next round of irrational mass killings in the name of hopeless, senseless rage that needs somewhere to go, an “ideology” to direct it. That sympathetic, funny youngest brother of my grandmother’s, her favorite, little Joey (the only one whose name I know), might have been my most beloved great uncle, had it not been for the gleeful, drunken mob that massacred them all in a ravine to the northwest of town thirteen years before I was born. It takes one particularly relatable loving family member, or stranger, like a great teacher, or sympathetic neighbor, or friend of your parents, to change the course of your young life. Or, as many beautiful ghosts as you can imagine, which is a poignant substitute for the touch of the living hands and expressive faces of those souls when they werecapable of showing you love.
My niece and nephew grew up without their playful, sympathetic uncle in their lives. They saw him regularly when they were kids, their mother’s only brother, their only uncle, recalled his visits with love, and then, after their grandmother was buried, never saw him again. They never learnedthereason — that the lies their parents tell to protect them, and themselves, those desperate attempts to shield themselves from shame they actually lived were impossible for him to play along with. To preserve his tenuous relationship with their mother, the uncle would never lay out explicitly to his now adult niece and nephew that the reason for their estrangement was the dishonesty required of him, the pretend smile, the erasing of shared, lived history, a strict adherence to a lifetime of lies he, his sister and his brother-in-law all know are lies. How to tell the truth without becoming the enemy their parents always feared stymied the uncle every time he contemplated how to explain to them why he hadn’t seen them in more than a decade. From their point of view, they can only take it as a personal abandonment, otherwise their strange, inconstant uncle would have found a way to spend time with them.
How many years of unresolved sorrow can we expect ourselves to endure before our life expectancy begins to take a hit?I am fairly sure my old former friend Friedman, a man who fought with and was eventually betrayed by everyone he ever cared for, literally died of a broken heart when he expired in his chair from no apparent cause a few years ago, at age 65.
Here is what I have worked out for myself, though I don’t know how coherently I can lay it out or how helpful it will be to you. I exert myself to remain mild in the face of aggravation, in ways I could not have imagined twenty years ago. That, by itself, it turns out,only helps a little. You will get no points for it. The heat can always be turned up and turned up until your old reflexes finally boil up and you must tell someone in no uncertain terms that it’s enough, they can feel free to fuck off now, for the following seven impossible to unhear reasons.
More important to facing sorrow is my sense of fairness, my determination not to treat others in a way I hate to be treated, nor to endlessly accept such treatment from others, no matter how ingeniously rationalized. The knowledge that we can all only tolerate a certain amount of unfairness is important to working through sorrow caused by friends who may, under great stress, need to blame you for the strains we all feel from time to time. I give myself permission to grieve, to feel hurt, to eventually stop extending the benefit of the doubt to people who continue to insist on denying me the same. Their insistence is usually based on a purely emotional appeal, a protestation of love that will be instantly withdrawn if you don’t relent and return their love without hesitation or need for further discussion. That far I know now I will never come in my long quest to be as unfailingly gentle as the Christian’s Jesus, as my imagined Hillel, or the Buddha.
Spend time every day doing something you love. Creativity for its own sake, if we are lucky enough to enjoy it, is a great balm, and an excellent tonic, though it is somewhat dependent on mood. You can become overwhelmed by the sorrow all around and even the act of making yourself feel better by taking your imagination out for a spin can seem futile.
Do not succumb to futility, action to improve your mood and situation, to exercise your liberating imagination, is always better than inaction, impossible as it may sometimes feel.
I write, every day, to you. We have never met, you and I, but I imagine the reader of these words with the fond hope of making an intelligent connection. Those readers who know me, once in yer proverbial blue moon, will mention that they were moved by something I wrote, which always makes me feel good, but most of the time it’s just a “like” or a larger than usual number of readers clicking on a certain post that tells me I have made some kind of connection. I remind myself periodically that the clarifying act of sitting down to write, and making it as clear as possible to others and myself, is itself a net benefit and a good swing in the fight against felt debility.It is also indispensable to me beyond that, the quiet in your mind as you write is a kind of sacred space. Being able to hone your expression, in a way not possible in daily speaking, an infinite blessing.
This impulse to connect to others is important to nurture in the larger project of avoiding despair. The feedback we get is also very addictive. Lately the number of views of these posts has dropped dramatically and I feel disappointed when I don’t get the usual hit of dopamine I felt after posting something when I saw that several people had immediately clicked on it. That piece hit the mark, I think to myself lately, as the number of views stays at the same low count for hour after hour, as if rebuking me in my belief that I can connect with strangers.
This is the world young people were born into, likes, dislikes, friend, unfriend, LOL, WTF. Shoshana Zuboff laid out the dystopian world of social anxiety, conformity and future robbing this online feedback loop from peers real and virtual produces. A brilliant hermit I know, once a good friend, has zero in person social connections, but hundreds of friends and followers on “social media”. Going online to find missing connections, as I am doing right now when Sekhnet is sick of hearing me talk about things that make her sad, is like wearing those goggles that realistically put you in a three dimensional, totally realistic world that doesn’t exist. Girl of your dreams? She’s waiting for you when you put on the goggles and check out that smile of happiness to see you and thedream outfit she’s wearing for you! Why would you ever leave that conscious dream world? Predictions are that you would not, time would disappear, the illusion of fun, love and excitement infinitely preferable to a world where your best bet for coping with your sorrow is a strong anodyne (some of which will kill you if taken wrong) or a military assault rifle to give yourself a feeling of agency, importance and godlike power.
I’d like to end on a note of hopefulness. The forces that would make us all fight each other to the death so that they can own and control everything seem to have become bullyingly triumphant here in the US a few months too early to take the absolute power that has long been their dream. This tiny but powerful reactionary core appear to have overplayed their autocratic hand with time to organize against them before the crucial midterm elections.
After the Civil War (War of Northern Aggression to you, Yank) there was a brief period, called Reconstruction, during which our Constitution was amended to reflect a better understanding of democracy and a more perfect union. We created the Department of Justice to enforce laws required by this better understanding. Reconstruction, which proved we can do much better as a nation, was soon halted in a series of Supreme Court decisions and political compromises, after about ten years.
During the time Reconstruction was allowed to proceed it demonstrated that democracy can work to produce a better, more fair and inclusive society. Such a result was intolerable to thosefew with the most power, north and south, and the most to lose by “equality” and “justice”. In the defeated Confederacy it was not long until a form of race-based American fascism took over. Elite, wealthy local white men, backed by a secret army of terrorists and like-minded police, lawmakers and judges, and empowered by a block of similar white men in the state and federal legislatures, ruled unchallenged in every area of the South, with a firm, autocratic hand, until LBJ betrayed his former buddies by signing both the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and, even more importantly, the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Hope? The American oligarchs and their paid apologists seem to have overplayed their hand in a way that if mobilized around correctly will jar millions out of their apathy to vote for candidates who do not insist that the 75% who support gun control, the right of a pregnant woman or girl — particularly one who was raped, or in danger of death from the pregnancy — to end an unwanted pregnancy, who support fair taxes on the wealthiest to fund desperately needed public programs, a living wage for all workers, affordable health care, real measures to slow the gathering climate catastrophe and all the rest of the “kitchen table” issues simply stop acting like spoiled “woke” babies and socialists and shut the fuck up.
What is the official current GOP platform? The guy who repeatedly lies about losing by 8,000,000 votes is himself the victim of LIES!!! By a bipartisan cabal of powerful pedophiles, queers, anti-fascists, Black racists, dirty immigrants, Muslims and Jews!!! After enough frustration, that kind of transparent bullshit wears thinwith all but a diehard 39%, particularly in the face of a premature, in-your-face celebration of minority triumph in defeating what the powerless 75% strongly prefers. We are told 110,000,000 eligible American voters didn’t bother casting a vote in 2020, thirty million more than voted for either presidential candidate. Those are the sorry, demoralized citizens we have to reach, instill with minimal hope, get them to cast a vote for the minimum of what the majority of us needs andwants.
That may not be direct, personal hope for a lonely world where all we can personally see is sorrow in every direction we look, but any steps we take, with others, away from the march toward worldwide oligarchy and fascism, are steps in the right direction, steps toward hope rather than despair.
As a personal matter, treat your friends and family with as much care as you can, but know also that agreeing to a demand that you somehow overcome prolonged, unresolved suffering has its limits and a time may sadly come when the best course is to step away, that very few things last a lifetime. I’m going to compose a long letter to my niece and nephew, setting out the harm done to our ability to know each other by years of insistence that lies be accepted as the real truth, no matter what some disturbed, childless uncle in NY might think. If I can set out the issues clearly and non-judgmentally enough, one or both of them may actually be able to hear me. If so, I’ll chalk one up to the power of love speaking truth without blame.
Above all, and however difficult it might be at a given moment, be of good cheer!
Growing up in a home where I was treated as a dangerous adversary from the day I came home as a newborn affected my wiring in fundamental ways. Because my parents were always ready with anger and blame, and I was often regularly excoriated over trumped up offenses, sometimes things I was not remotely at fault for, I became painfully sensitive to the brutality of an incoherent, self-serving narrative.
It was much easier for my parents, two overwhelmed abused children who grew up without essential tools to process their own frustrations, to unite in their blame of a kid who was, in their view, just an irrationally angry little bastard constantly fighting for no apparent reason. In their story their own behavior had nothing to do with their child’s mysterious, unfortunate, completely innate bad feelings. They insisted they were right, stuck together most of the time, and that was that.
My life’s work was set for me early on — to discover a truth deeper than the harmful bullshit that was being angrily forced on me and explaining to myself coherently the reasons for the insane arrangement I was expected to subscribe to as simply reality. As I learn reasons that make sense to me I begin to calm myself.
Understanding is my most important tool and I wield it with as much clarity as I can against the sometimes awesome incoherence of a world that requires little by way of reason or clarity to form huge enraged armies to inflict hell on their enemies. Finally learning of the extreme abuse my father underwent, from infancy, (I was in my forties when I learned some key details) unlocked a door of empathy and understanding for me that my father was unable to approach, until hours before hisdeath.
Whenever I am confronted with an incoherent reframing of actual upsetting events it gets my back up. If someone treats me in a thoughtless way that hurts me and when I react with pain tells me I am wrong to be hurt in any way, that it wasn’t thoughtlessness at all, it was an innocent misunderstanding and I have to forget about it because they love me, because they wouldn’t have been hurt at all if I’d done the same to them, it never quite gets down the old craw.
I literally can’t swallow an incoherent story, maybe because it makes no fucking sense. Maybe it’s just me, I don’t know. I think I am probably not alone in preferring a story that is understandable in the light of observation and experience to a senseless one designed to serve an emotional agenda to protect someone else against feeling bad.
Friends, when they feel defensive, see my need for coherence, which requires an openness to accepting one’s part in things that actually happened, as a relentlessneed to be “right”. I can understand why it could look that way to them, particularly in a competitive and violently adversarial culture like ours, but it is a need for honesty and mutualunderstanding on my part, more than anything else I can put my finger on. I was forced to defend myself from before I could even speak, in adversarial proceedings brought daily by a father/prosecutor who was very good at prosecuting. I developed skills in arguing way before I finally, misguidedly, went to law school. People sometimes tell me they feel overmatched and it gets their backs up, because they need to feel “right” too and I’m a more skilled fighter with words than they are, so their disadvantage makes them fight harder. There are many ways to fight against something that makes you feel defensive and many are familiar from my childhood.
Reframing is a famous technique for avoiding any discussion of anything you don’t want to talk about and my father was a genius at constantly steering the conversation away from what his children needed to talk about to a much deeper thing that we were “really” talking about. Any conversation about being hurt was constantly reframed until we were talking about the real, and only, issue: what an irrationally angry little fuck I’d always been, and remain.
If I behave toward you in a way that’s wrong, and keep defending it as a mistake, like all humans make, I am choosing a neutral, understandable synonym to let myself off the hook for hurting you. I was wrong because I made a mistake and I made a mistake because I was wrong are fairly close, almost interchangeable. Wrong carries a bit more moral weight than mistaken, since using it accepts responsibility for the harm the mistake caused, so to shift the ground from the moral idea that it is wrong to do something to you that I hate done to me, I can insist on calling it a mistake and put the onus on you, the person I wronged/mistaked to have the human compassion to forgive me without more. It is a painful thing to be unforgiven and an ugly thing to be unforgiving, isn’t it? About a simple mistake? Come on.
Then there is the greatest weapon of all against responsibility or reconciliation — silence by way of response.
This is kryptonite to me, as it would be to you, if applied steadily and consistently over years to make sure there was no possibility of being heard, no chance for reconciliation of any kind. After months of silence about my last attempt at reconciliation with my father (and, naturally, I’d chosen the infuriating medium of a letter, where I have the unfair advantage of not being interrupted, reframed, dismissed, or ignored while communicating as clearly as I am able) he spoke words that live with me to this day “oh, that letter (the one I’d sent twice before hand delivering a third copy). Yeah, I read that. You have to respect my right not to respond to that.”
A debatable proposition, but there you are. As polite and crisp as my father’s sentence was “you have to respect my right not to respond to that” is, it’s a problematic, even incoherent, response to a loved one expressing a need for something better, even as it attempts to close a door forever, even as it succeeds, until the last night of the poor devil’s life when he admits, hours before he breathes his last and I close dead eyelids over eyes I never really noticed were the stormy grey greencolor of a troubled sea, that he had been wrong. Wrong or mistaken, he blamed himself harshly, as he was dying, for things he understood that last night he should have had the sense and strength to work on in himself, instead of being content to blame a baby for being a deadly adversary.
Sometimes there are swamps we walk into without knowing where we are, and clarity is essential here in order to avoid wading into danger for everyone. We can mistakenly believe that people we love can show us an intimate side, a dark side, make themselves exceptionally vulnerable, and then not act desperately to make painful things disappear. The private lives of a couple, how they treat each other, show anger to each other, accept or reject each other, is a swamp we must exit as quickly as possible once we see we’ve stepped into it. Any attempt to protect one against the other will go as badly as reaching into the muddy depths of a swamp to pull at something you can’t see.
This last piece is recently acquired wisdom, thanks to friends who shared experiences to illuminate the truth of this. If you doubt the truth of it, try it yourself sometime, spend a few days alone with a couple and begin trying to protect the wife against the open hostility of the husband and tell me you are not suddenly neck deep in a hot, humid, mosquito rich paradise for dangerous reptiles. Live and learn, my friend, and take the lessons you learn to heart. Only by doing that can we get out of a dangerous swamp that can easily swallow everything we love.
Sometimes, sadly, we hurt people we care about by our actions or inactions. When we become aware we’ve caused pain to someone we love, the only thing I’ve figured out to do is acknowledge causing the pain, take responsibility for acting badly and sincerely ask for forgiveness. I don’t know of any other way, though some people buy gifts, take special care of the person they hurt as a way of making it up to them. Not everybody is capable of taking responsibility for cruel things they do in anger.
Anger itself is partly to blame, it is a famously terrible emotion and as difficult to sit with as grief. When you’re angry you can only see the thing that makes you angry, in vivid black and white — no gradations of any kind. When you’re mad you can’t see the harm your anger may be making you inflict. You let the arrow loose from the bow in an act of righteous anger and it finds its mark, and even if it doesn’t inflict a fatal wound, it can still kill.
If somebody shows you their shock and anger when you ask to discuss something they did that hurt you, believe what they are showing you. They are not capable of anything beyond that. Believe them.
Perhaps the most mysterious, profound and illuminating thing my father said to me the last night of his life was that none of the long war between us had been personal. It took me a long time after he died to figure out what he meant by that.
“You have to understand, Elie,” my father told me in the strained voice of a dying man, “on a real level there was never anything personal about our battles.” He explained that the hostilities had little to do with me, personally, though I was the one forced to fight. He assured me he’d have acted the same way with any child, regardless of their temperament.
Nothing personal. When I fought you to the death every night, it was, strictly speaking, nothing personal. My father was fighting his demons, the fears that tortured him all his life, those torments just took on my face when I sat across from him. When he snarled at me it was difficult for me not to snarl back at him. Nothing personal became intensely personal, though he told me that last night that I had to understand none of it had been personal, strictly speaking.
It reminds me of the moth joke Norm McDonald used to tell Conan O’Brien. Norm took a ten second joke and milked it for seven minutes. The set up is a moth walks into a podiatrist’s office and starts pouring out his heart to the doctor. In Norm’s telling the moth is tortured by how much he hates himself, hates the reflection of himself in his son. “When I look at my son,” Norm’s overwrought moth tells the podiatrist, “I am overcome with rage and self-loathing, it’s like looking at everything I hate in myself, and I hate that I hate my own son, which reminds me more how much I hate myself and how much I deserve to hate myself. What kind of father feels revulsion when he looks at his own son’s face? I tell you, doc, that kid, it’s like the worst in me condensed into a face I want to literally hit with a hammer. I’m afraid one day I’m going to act on this rage, and I know it’s irrational, it has nothing to do with the poor kid, who I can see has some good qualities. He’s actually a pretty good guy, my son, but I continue to stare at him with rage, I can’t help it, and I know how sick it is, doc, but I look at the kid’s face and I literally want to vomit, I’m afraid someday I’m going to murder him…” and Norm continues in this vein for several more minutes as Conan chides him and goads him on.
Finally the podiatrist says “listen, it sounds like you have some serious issues you need help with, but you really need a psychiatrist. I’m a podiatrist, I treat problems of the feet and lower legs, I’m not the kind of doctor who can help you with what you just described to me. Why did you walk into a podiatrist’s office?”
“The light was on,” says the moth.
Like the light that went on when I finally understood what my father meant by telling me I had to understand it was never anything personal, strictly speaking. That he put it in context was helpful. He told me he’d felt me reaching out many times over the years to make peace, but that he was always too fucked up to reach back. He told me how much he regretted his lack of emotional maturity, imagination, moral courage. He said he wished we could have had this kind of honest, back and forth conversation fifteen years ago, after only thirty-five years of constant, senseless warfare.
Nothing personal, like the universe itself had decreed it. And we, hapless pawns that we are, blown like leaves in the wind, subject to forces too gigantic and terrifying to have any hope of overcoming. Nothing personal, a great relief and a terrible curse, at once.
It hit me last night during a walk, after a day sadly considering the ongoing righteous anger of people I’ve known for years, that anger is a powerful emotion that often masks even more painful emotions. It is unbearable to sit with the pain of feeling unloved, rejected, abandoned, ignored, powerless, harshly judged, vilified, unfairly punished. Shame, of course, is a famous goad to violence, a cycle observed in every prison, in every slum, where people kill each other for the capital crime of disrespect.
The easy fix for terribly painful feelings is a nice surge of anger at the perpetrators, or those you focus your anger on, which works just as well. In the clean, harsh, black and white light of anger, all becomes clear. These merciless fucking fucks deserve no less than the full force of my manly wrath!
Anger is an automatic reflex to being hurt. Easy as kicking when the doctor expertly hits your kneecap with that little rubber hammer. It also has the great advantage of closing off any conversation that might make you feel uncomfortable, possibly force you to confront whatever terrifying personal demons you are trying to hold at bay. Anger is far superior, and feels much more empowering, than crying in pain about something beyond your control or ability to heal from. It also has the inherent advantage of making you the victim of the person who made you mad. Being the victim is very important for a feeling of righteousness and personal integrity since it lets you off the hook for doing anything you’d be at fault for if you had not been the victim of the person you’re rightfully getting back at with your anger.
On a mass level, which is the aggregate of millions of individuals, anger works exactly the same way. You have middle class citizens who work hard and play by the rules, losing ground every day in a world where your savings are constantly losing value and only the casino of the stock market offers the kind of interest banks used to pay depositors, although you can lose it all when you place your small nest egg on the Wall Street roulette wheel. The job you work hasn’t seen a raise in decades, the union is gone, the plant is about to close so the corporation can make a bundle for the shareholders by moving production to a country with no regulations at all about anything. You look around and more and more “minorities” are getting ahead, they’re on TV, in the movies, winning awards, championships, these rich, spoiled bastards complaining about being mistreated, the victims of systemic prejudice. The so-called party of the working class is openly owned by billionaire corporate donors, just like the other party has always been, and has done little to protect what is being taken from you every day. It’s a billionaire’s world now, and you don’t stand a fart’s chance in a hurricane of getting out of this in the comfort your parents enjoyed at the end. We all know who’s to blame.Time to get some payback!
Make America (insert any country’s name here) Great Again! Like it was in the good days, when everybody was prosperous and before a bunch of activist commie dupes on the Supreme Court unanimously overturned the longstanding protections we all enjoyed during perfectly legal racial segregation. Women knew their place in those days too, did their duty and gave birth to whatever was in their womb, as God intended. And the so-called gays kept their perversions to themselves, on pain of a nice ass whupping, or worse. We put Jesus Christ into the Pledge of Allegiance, for fuck sake, and still the godless communists keep coming, for our God, for our guns, for our children.
Much easier to feel rage toward all these hyped up perceived enemies than to realize you’ve been suckered, divided, conquered, force fed a gallon of stinking bullshit, down the old gullet with a funnel and hose. The problem was never a vast cabal of powerful pedophiles, no such cabal exists (except in fevered fascist propaganda, it’s a favorite charge of Putin) these destructive creatures are universally hated (even when protected and hidden in hierarchies, or by their great wealth and political connections) and don’t last ten minutes in prison. The problem was never most of what you are constantly told it is. Believe it or not, it’s not even a worldwide Jewish conspiracy, and I would know. if it was
The problem in the US and elsewhere is that the super-wealthy 0.01% have finally taken over the political system. Here they’ve orchestrated the appointment of a hand-picked Christian corporatist majority on the Supreme Court, installed by them, that decides what’s constitutional and what must be struck down as contrary to our democratic values. These super wealthy include the eternal vampire psychopaths, created by our courts, known as corporations. Endowed by federal judges with feelings and rights, and even personhood, equivalent to an innocent embryo, these artificial persons are entitled to do whatever they feel necessary, legally spend unlimited amounts of secret money to make the laws, and have the government, that protect themselves, and their profits, the best.
The thought that anger is just a mask, much of the time, for more threatening emotions, struck me as a good starting point to think about a lot of things related to non-harm and kindness. The easiest thing, and it is part of basic survival, is to simply get mad when you feel mistreated. Fuck the fucking consequences, I don’t have to take this kind of treatment from an actual piece of shit! I will rage, and feel righteous, and the unbearable pain and life-sapping fear that lurks inside when I start to consider the harms that were inflicted on me personally will be replaced by a surge of being 100% in the right to smash your fucking face, asshole.
This mechanism, I realize now, was the emotional engine that drove my father, from his shameful childhood to his deathbed regrets. A man, particularly in the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, could not give in to the need to have a good cry about the painful betrayal he experienced in his earliest life. Feeling humiliation is unbecoming, unhealthy, crippling, weak. Fuck that, a man takes action!
Sometimes, sadly, that action needs to be righteously bellowing at your children. It’s your right, you feed the ungrateful little provocative bastards, and clothe them, house them, bust your ass working two jobs to give them a life a hundred times better than the horror show you experienced. I understand the anger itself, I saw it regularly, daily, for almost the entire time I knew my father. It was only once, not long before he breathed his last breath, that he had his first inkling that maybe there was a better way to be a human being than raging at his children, keeping his wife on a short leash.
Lack of imagination is a crippling handicap, and a very common one. Without it, you cannot imagine better options than variations on the old standard you inherited from your own fucked up parents. It’s like the corporate insistence that it’s either unregulated worldwide capitalism (freedom) or totalitarian communism. Limited in your seeming choices, you are bound to justify everything you do as the only real choice. Real choice, of course, being limited by what you can imagine your choices to be.
If you do something, and feel totally justified doing it, it must be universal, otherwise, shit… it could be abnormal. The thought of not being normal was one of the most terrifying things my father, who never forgave any hurt, was ever confronted by. When I told him once that he was weird, his brain almost short circuited. The odd expressions that played on his face as he repeated the word “weird” with incredulous inflections made a big impression on teen-aged me. Luckily, for him, everyone in the family knew how fucked up and abnormal I was.
This has got to be one of the hardest things humans have to do. A feeling that causes pain, and is left unaddressed by the people involved in causing it, leads to anger or depression (anger turned against the self, in an apt description I read), after an increasing bitterness that becomes impossible to ignore. The reflex in most will be to turn anger on the person causing the pain, simply blame them, or to quietly take the pain on yourself as confirmation that you deserve no better, somehow. Hard to sit with corrosive emotions, though sit with them you must, sometimes.
There are a few reasons a loved one will not hear you when you ask them to, few of them are very promising for the relationship. Particularly if they, understandably, demand to be heard at once when they are in pain and then tell you just to wait a few more months to talk about what’s bothering you.
Parents, for example, may feel supremely challenged by a very smart child. The kid will have to learn to navigate around the insecurity of the parents, find his or her own way forward, without the help of the parents. Sometimes just a difficult question about something that perplexes the kid will set the parents off. How do we explain something that gives us so much pain to think about? Nobody knows the answer to human evil! Why do you ask such goddamned questions all the time!? Jesus, can’t you just be quiet?! The kid derives various lessons from this consistent feedback, adjusts the best they can.
Some people cannot be wrong. If you point out something they did thoughtlessly, or unfairly, you are pointing to something intolerable, something inhuman, unthinkable to them. “You don’t seem to understand, I cannot be wrong. It’s not that I don’t like being wrong, I can’t be wrong. How do you not know this about me after all these years? I will not be wrong, I will not be challenged to defend my actions, you have the problem, not me! I am loved by everyone, you’re the only one with a problem, look at your own life!”
My dear old dad had this feature, an inability to admit fault for anything. It endured through almost fifty years of constant war with his children, two provocative little shit snots who constantly challenged him, and lasted until the last night of his life, when he realized how much of a horse’s ass (his phrase, only time I ever heard him use it) he’d been to see the world as black and white. He wistfully imagined the world he could have been living in instead, full of nuance and color, rather than the bleak high contrast warscape he inhabited and imposed on his young children. He apologized for forcing my sister and me to grow up in the grim shadow of his irrationally limited emotional worldview. I appreciated the apology. He died a few hours later.
Once, two years before he died (two years of the meaningless fake small talk he demanded at the end) he told me I had to respect his right not to respond to concerns I raised. For once I was there with a reply I couldn’t later improve on. I told him I understood that he was choosing not to talk about a difficult subject but that I certainly did not have to respect that choice. He then demanded we keep our conversations politely superficial, talk only about sports, health, politics, and so we did, until that last night of his life, when he admitted he’d felt me reaching out to make peace with him many, many times over the years. He regretted, that last night, that he hadn’t been mature enough to reach back, even once. He’d been too afraid, he told me. And so, to avoid pain he could not bear, we’d had to pretend to be a loving father and son, on his strict, limiting terms, until I was there to support him as he died.
Sometimes, I have to say, I am the last one to understand the full scope of a situation. Sometimes it feels like I’m the last to realize that something I’ve long cherished is already dead. My efforts to not react with anger, to fully process what needs to be said so I can speak without the anger, must make me some kind of aggravating holier-than-thou freak to loved ones who get anger off their chest and move on, without the need to understand anything about what set off their anger(since, after all, they know who to blame). By the time I put my thoughts together, particularly after a couple of follow-up challenges (threats like “I’ve dropped people from my life for doing less to me than what you did”) the subject is ancient history, being dredged up needlessly by a troubled person, and nobody in their right mind cares about that stuff.
My best advice is to somehow make peace with the bitterness that churns up when your needs are dismissed. That bitterness is to be expected when you are stonewalled in your need to be heard. Forgive yourself for being unable to stop feeling it. I find that setting things out clearly on a page provides some temporary relief.
You will have to leave the embittering situation in the end, if you can’t find a way to make it better, it is Survival 101 for anyone but the hardcore masochist. Remember that making peace requires goodwill and openness on both sides, you can’t do it alone. In the meantime, finding the patience you will need is a great challenge, a mind-fucking challenge some days, as is maintaining a posture of peace, when the sides seem to have been drawn inblack and white, the final irrefutable victim story irrevocably arrived at, all details agreed to, and the terms of any possible peace treaty have already been carvedin stone.
Picturing the familiar festive table without you is a little foretaste of death, the place we all must go in the end. If you’d been hit by a truck, or died suddenly of a heart attack, the effect would be the same. A chair you used to sit in, occupied by someone else, as life goes on, as it must.
The filibuster, which is now virtually automatic under Mitch McConnell, was introduced in the Senate over two hundred years ago by the advocates of a free market that included slave labor, men like South Carolina’s John C. Calhoun (pictured below), spokesman for the Peculiar Institution and perfecter of the modern filibuster . It is a parliamentary device designed to defeat any proposal by cutting off all debate in the Senate . The filibuster doesn’t just stop a vote on a proposed law, it blocks public discussion of the proposal in the Senate.
Think about that for a second, the tyrannical nature of that parliamentary move, an increasingly popular political ploy, with no constitutional support, that can presently be launched by any one senator in the minority party and requiring a super-majority to defeat. It rests on the idea that if people heard the argument, heard the reasons the policy was desirable, our side would lose. The only way to prevail, particularly if the act would be wildly popular, is to kill the idea before it can make its case.
So it is between people sometimes. If I am afraid of something you have to say, for any reason, I can filibuster you simply by making clear my refusal to talk about it. End of story. Good night and have a very nice day.
Mitch McConnell’s claim that “the filibuster is the essence of the Senate” has been tossed aside by his opponents as bad history, violently inconsistent with how Jefferson, Hamilton or Madison aimed to structure the Senate, and perhaps even unconstitutional. All true. But what McConnell’s screed should remind us is that the filibuster has always been the essence of the politics of white supremacy — even as it now poses a broader threat to democracy itself.
McConnell draws on a playbook stretching back to John C. Calhoun, who as vice president in 1841 forged the filibuster into a conscious instrument to block majoritarian democracy as part of his project of creating a durable framework for slavery in a nation he knew would eventually vote against it. Calhoun, generations of Southern senators and now McConnell have shared a determination that majority votes should not be the last word in the United States. Privileged minorities should be able to override the will of the entire people — if their interests are endangered. Yes, Calhoun was focused on slavery and race, but his first filibuster was over national banking. The interest he sought to protect from a national majority was that of the South as a region, extending beyond slavery to issues like tariffs. . .
. . . While the filibuster — the essence of Mitch McConnell’s Senate — is the most powerful weapon the right-wing opponents of democracy have seized, Republicans in 2020 are deploying the full panoply of anti-democratic strategies devised over two and a quarter centuries by Calhoun’s followers. The most important campaigns being waged by conservatives at this moment emphasize the spread of gerrymandered districts, purged voter rolls, legalized bribery, a politicized judiciary, state pre-emption of local home rule and crippling the executive authority of majoritarian governors, even Republican ones.
Gardenier was one of the earliest champions of the filibuster, a term that refers to the use of obstructive tactics such as long, dilatory speeches and the repeated introduction of parliamentary motions to block or delay legislation. Today, filibustering is almost exclusively associated with the Senate, where individual Senators wield extraordinary power over debate. In the modern House, on the other hand, the majority party rules, and individual Members have little influence concerning the course of debate; over the years, the House, which is more than four times the size of the Senate, has developed rules which strictly control who can speak and for how long.
I struggle, more than most, against lifelong impediments installed in my childhood. My parents were generally united in their theories, rationales and accusations, but most of the hostility I faced was generated by my brilliant father, a perplexing contradiction of a man to be raised by. There is nothing more difficult for a child to make sense of than sentimental tenderness expressed with humor alternating with sudden rage, particularly when the anger isdefended in a unified front by both parents.
For example, it was beyond debate, according to them both, that I had been born a very angry baby. After all, they’d say, I’d displayed red-faced rage and challenged my parents on everything from the time I was a few days old. My father referred to the accusing way I stared at him from my crib, with huge, unblinking black eyes, from the day I returned from the hospital, a newborn. This creeped him out so much they moved my crib to my mother’s side of the bed after a couple of days.
It always seemed crazy to me, this insistence that I was born angry, stared “accusingly” at my father from the second or third day of my life, and that there was no concievable explanation for my natural born intransigence as an infant, and my constant anger, but that was always their position, at least until the last night of my father’s life.
I struggle against the damage done to me by insistent, unlikely theories about my character in several ways. One is a determination to avoid any echoes of the unfair, opinionated, sometimes insane, beliefs about me that I was expected to accept as true. I am attuned to the sometimes subtle machinations of angry self-defense and how it often becomes intent on blaming others for sudden outbursts of anger. Such displaced anger is a common thing most people encounter and sometimes practice, the assigning of unfair blame for grievous acts a loved one never committed. It is commonly done by people close to each other, because that is the safest place to prosecute such anger. Or maybe not, most murders, we’re told, happen between people who know each other, often within families.
Another way I struggle is by researching and pondering, often while tapping these keys. It took me years to discover the source of my father’s frequent rage and how that rage shaped my view of the world. I sat down finally, in 2016, at sixty, to write out everything I knew about my father’s life, to write his biography as best I could. I found myself putting together a puzzle with thousands of missing pieces, working in almost total darkness. I wrote daily for two years. Much of it was like searching history for a trace of the muddy hamlet my father’s mother came from, a place wiped off the map in 1942 along with everyone in it, like literally thousands of other little Jewish hamlets and towns in those years.
Initially I was looking for ascene to dramatically convey the severe damage my father inflicted on my sister and me. This was devilishly hard work because his techniques were frequently very subtle, the withholding of an encouraging word, a glare, often just silence applied, by reflex, to strategically cruel effect. I couldn’t point to a busted nose or a broken arm, a tearful midnight trip to the emergency room. The damage that can be done with words alone, backed by an implacable will, is impressive. It is also often fiendishly subtle. We all get hurt by words sometimes, and we can all say, together “boo hoo!”, though the pain hurtful words can inflict is as sharp as the entry of an arrow into our flesh.
I struggle against a ready temper, every day. I overcompensate sometimes in my efforts to remain mild. This has sometimes driven others to rage, that I try not to react with anger when provoked, goadingly clinging to the high road, like a superior fucking prig. This is maddening to people who want a good fight. I don’t want a good fight. I never wanted a good fight, though I was forced to fight daily for the first few decades of my life. Like most experienced fighters, I’m aware that facial expression, tone of voice and body language are potent weapons of war. Part of my struggle against my temper is against an inability to keep these reflexes under control. A look on the old face, no more than a telltale micro-expression, a tone saying otherwise polite words just so, a tensing of the body are still fairly automatic when theheat is being turned up.Mastering that shit, my friends, may well be beyond my powers.
I’m aware that many people may view these struggles of mine as a kind of vanity, if not also folly. My father, for one, put forth a lifelong argument that people cannot change anything fundamental about themselves. He denounced as deluded the belief that a skilled psychiatrist or other therapist can help us gain insights and change anything about our innate natures. As proof he’d point to the reflex to become angry. Some are born with a hair trigger temper and some are born with a more placid disposition, no amount of work is going to change the reflex in a born-angry person to get mad easily. As if in proof of this theory, as much as I consciously try to remain mild, I fly into a rage instantly when a computer or smart phone bends me over, even momentarily. I wax Tourretic when forced into a corporate or bureaucratic cul du sac, or encounter idiocy built into their help line, like having to navigate five menus to learn the help line is currently closed (easy enough to post hours of operation next to the number, no?). I have also provoked a couple of people in recent years, at times by not showing I was hurt by getting angry, as any normal person would.
I can say this with certainty — had I not gone through a painful course of psychotherapy toward the end of my father’s life, I’d have never been able to be calm and supportive the last night of my father’s life as the poor devil was expressing his sincere regrets, and for the first and last time in his life, his apologies. Without the twice weekly wrestling matches with my demons I’d have never realized that letting go of much of my anger toward my father, rightful as most of it undoubtedly was, was a necessity for my own life, growth, ability to evolve into a more insightful, hopefully kinder person than my father was. If we can’t make 100% progress in such changes, I’d say, 50%, or 30%, is still pretty good. At the very end, even my father had to agree.
I can also say this with certainty, virtually any of us is capable of acting like a fucking tyrant, given the right context. And we almost always believe we acted that way with perfect justification.
In the end, the story of the Book of Irv is about anger, insight and the power of repentance and forgiveness. I believe the story of the long, senseless, ugly war between my father and me, and its unexpected peaceful conclusion on the last night of the old man’s life, could be useful to many readers. It is a story of persistence, and the durability of love even under brutal conditions. If I can tell it properly it will evoke the power of learning to forgive, ourselves and others, though the lesson came too late to do my father much good, though my own struggles are lifelong.
My father’s life was an example of a very smart, funny, likeable man, a friend of the underdog and lover of animals, often trapped in the emotions of a two year-old viciously assaulted by an insane mother, a life he told me, hours before his death at 80, had been pretty much over by the time he was two. He said this, in the passive voice, after a lifetime of angrily denying that childhood has anything to do with the adult, that only whiners complain to shrinks about how mean their parents were and snivelingly try to blame their parents for their own problems.
I am a fairly old man myself now. The clock is ticking on my time to put everything I learned in those two years of daily writing into a coherent book that others can read and consider. Much of the first draft is a conversation with the skeleton of my father, the skeleton applying a dead man’s too late insights to much of the discussion, somehow providing me with details it was impossible for me to know from the scant record. The skeleton showed up one day early on in my writing, seemingly of his own accord, and I came to look forward to sitting down each day to talk to the spirit of my dead father, much wiser than when he was alive and struggling in the world, between the beating he took as an infant and his deathbed realizations.
Think about this too, just because serious damage can be inflicted in subtle, deniable ways doesn’t mean we have to accept it and move on. My father’s life, and mine, demonstrate the impossibility of just accepting it and moving on. The price of accepting what is unacceptable, without understanding it and learning lessons from it, is a price nobody should have to pay. To my mind, it is a merciless fucking price to demand someone pay.