Attachment v. Authenticity

Gabor Maté, in The Myth of Normal, points out that we have a primary need for attachment, that it is impossible to survive as infants or live healthily without close attachment to others.

Our other primary need is authenticity, being true to ourselves, being in touch with what we mostly deeply need. When these things are in conflict… watch out.

As Maté writes “for many people these attachment circuits powerfully override the ones that grant us rationality, objective decision making or conscious will, a fact that explains much of our behavior across multiple realms.”

Dig it.

The right to be heard

Chapter 11 (from a work in progress)

If you are a humanistic person, you probably believe that every child is born with the right to be heard. It is one of those unalienable rights Thomas Jefferson enumerated in the Declaration of Independence (omitted from our Constitution for the practical, profit-driven reason that many men – and all women – were not created equal to their owners, nor endowed with jack shit). A child is born with a right to be heard.

Much of what the child has to say, granted, can be annoying as hell. First it’s crying and screaming about things the parents can only guess about, and unless they guess right, it will never stop. Hungry? Load in the diaper? Feeling neglected? Wet? Cold? Wanting a hug? Who the hell can tell? For some parents, this irrationally complaining baby’s incoherent crankiness will set the tone for the subsequent relationship.

You were belly-aching from the time you were born,” a father will tell his needy son, once the boy is old enough. “I didn’t know what you were screaming about then and I don’t know what you’re upset about now. You have a room of your own, in a nice house, with heat, hot water, all the food you can eat, clothes, sneakers, toys, games – and you know how hard I work to give you all those things. And yet you complain. I have no idea what it is you think you’re somehow owed and not getting… (etc.)”

This may all be true, from the father’s point of view, but none of it is any help to the child, who still wants to be heard.

What is your fucking problem, son? Use your words.”

You don’t listen to me,” says the boy.

“What are you talking about? I’m listening to you right now, son. All I ever hear from you is complaints, if it’s not something you can explain to me, it’s some gripe you can’t put into words.”

You’re not hearing me, dad. When I talk I can see what I’m saying does not go into your head. You never hear what I say.”

That’s insane,” says the father, “I heard what you said just now, right now, five seconds ago. You said I’m not hearing you, that your words don’t get into my head, that I never hear what you say. I heard all that. How can you say I never hear you?”

The son is no match for this adult and his implacable logic and soon gives up, still feeling he is never heard. Why does he feel this way? When he says he’s scared, his mother tells him he has nothing to be scared about. When he tells his father he’s cold, the father tells him the temperature in the house and explains why it’s impossible to feel cold at that temperature. The adults always unite to insist that they have heard everything reasonable he has to say.

You have the right to be heard. If someone claims to love you, and will not listen to what you have to say, take the brutal hint, stop talking and call someone who can listen. If there is nobody around, sit in a quiet place and put your words down on a page. You have the right to be heard, no matter what people who claim to be better than you might have to say about it.

Trauma is visceral

If you have experienced trauma, and I hope you never have, you will know that you feel it in your body.

You will feel it, sharply, in your lungs, or your heart, your spine, your skin, in various internal organs. Trauma is experienced viscerally. If you have the misfortune to know trauma, you know that it is awful, disorienting, terrifying shit that feels like drowning or being electrocuted.

To convey the experience of trauma, I think it’s necessary to make the reader feel some measure of how extreme and unbearable the feeling is.

The description of trauma needs to be a bit visceral too. To say that it is blindly terrifying fucking shit is a little more accurate than describing it as extremely discomfiting and acutely painful.

I wrote a post recently that was intended to convey the traumatic feeling of being of being betrayed and vilified by people you love, people who claim to love you, people you trust, who insist they love you while brutally blaming you for their own incapacities. If you have experienced this particular trauma you will know how truly fucking soul destroying the experience is.

So while I can say it hurt terribly when these people unfairly judged me, shouted me down, threatened me, vilified me and did their best to destroy my reputation among our mutual friends, I can convey the experience more accurately by describing it as my lifelong friends exerting all their powers to convince people who are fond of me that I am Adolf Hitler incarnate.

That is the best way I know to conjure the to-the-death zero sum game one is up against with people who will pay any price not to feel they have ever been wrong. There is always a certain percentage of these merciless people in the population, sad to say, and their particular genius is manipulating you to make you question things that are actually beyond question. A sudden transition into Hitler underscores the absurdity of a childish insistence on being right, no matter how ridiculous you must make your claim to righteousness.

It feels essential to me, in describing a complex emotion so terrible, to include an element of discomfort to convey the specific deadly truth of that inescapable trap. If the description is not somehow a bit unsettling, I don’t think the reader can fully understand the particular pain that I’m trying to convey.

The pain of blaming yourself, somehow, for failing to fix a problem you didn’t create and that nobody alive can fix, except maybe the person blaming you.

It is two different things to say my friends betrayed and vilified me or my friends insist that if I deny I am Hitler that proves I am Hitler.

The second description captures much more closely the mindfucking experience I am trying to convey to the young woman I was addressing in the post about our respective traumatic mistreatment at the hands of the same couple. For her this couple was her mother and father, for me this couple was my two closest friends for 50 years, or so I believed.

Let me put it this way, if you find yourself in a disagreement or conflict with people who love you there is always a way to resolve things peacefully, unless one of the parties is incapable of admitting fault for anything, because to admit wrongdoing is humiliating to some. If you absolutely cannot admit fault you must deny the hurt of the other person, and since it is impossible that you caused it, the pain must therefor actually be the fault of the person who is suffering and making you feel bad about yourself.

So it is not that the hurt person who is seeking to resolve things with you is simply wrong, a jerk, or some kind of generic doody head. The other person must be irredeemably evil, a compulsive liar, adamantly stubborn, viciously determined to win at any cost, capable of any insane atrocity, for example recruiting an army of fanatics to build huge industrial camps to murder as many people as possible in the shortest amount of time. In short we are talking about Hitler here.

It’s some sick shit, I understand, but it also is what a zero sum worldview is, sad and horrible as it is to say or write. So referring to myself as Uncle Hitler, even while giving what seems to be compassionate counsel to someone I know to be suffering from something I myself experienced from the same couple, aside from the dark, Jewish irony of it, compresses all that in the best way I know, distasteful as it also, undoubtedly, is.

If someone is not a monster like that, there is always hope of resolving whatever the problem is. If someone is Hitler, you are absolutely right to declare them dead to you and nobody will ever fault you for it. Lest you think that I am projecting, and casually doing the very thing that I hate, I have always proved myself willing to endure a great deal of frustration to try to make peace, until it is clear to me that I am being treated as an implacable enemy. Once you see that, in my experience, the only road is away from that person, no matter how much you may have shared and loved.

Belated Happy Birthday, Mom

My mother, Evelyn, who died thirteen years ago today, would have turned 95 years old yesterday. I had intended to write something touching about her, and started on this yesterday, but … shoot, sorry, mom.

I found myself sitting at the piano yesterday working out a song she used to sing, a popular ditty from the 1940s called Mairzy Doats. My father would be driving the car, we’d be on a longish trip somewhere, and suddenly my mother would burst into song, with only slight self-consciousness, imposed by her husband. He was also a good singer who’d soulfully croon a handful of notes, the hook of a beautiful ballad, and cut himself off after five or six syllables. My father was well-known for singing just enough to let you know that he could actually sing, but not a note more, and he was equally famous for inhibiting my mother’s singing.

Evelyn loved to sing and my father’s side-eye as he drove was not always enough to make her stop, though it did make her a little self conscious. Nonetheless, as we drove across some bridge she’d suddenly sing “Mairzy doats and dozy doats and little lamzy divey, a kiddleedivey too, wouldn’t you?”

Now all these years later, being a proficient guitar player finally, and surprised to find a certain facility on the keyboard lately, which helps me work out songs I’m trying to learn, I find Mairsy Doats is a pretty hip little tune to play, in a nostalgic, artfully written pop tune kind of way. The singer explains in the B part, “and though the words may sound queer to your ear, a little bit jumbled and jivey, say ‘mares eat oats and does eat oats and little lambs eat ivy.” And this B part, if I may say, I could play the hell out of this B part on the guitar, and it works out just fine on the keyboard, thank you.

And as I played and sang the song on the piano yesterday, with the sheet music from an actual paper song book, Songs of World War Two, which also, of course, had the lyrics, I called out “Happy Birthday, Mom!”

I thought to myself what a goddamn shame I couldn’t have played this simple, jumping accompaniment thirty or forty years ago and let my mom just sing it. Same with “Do Nothing till you Hear From Me” another genius tune from the genius Duke Ellington, my father would sing just that riff, with the opening line, the riff that Ellington placed over three different sets of chord changes to such brilliant effect. I could have backed both of them on a tenor ukulele, if things had been different.

But again, as in my mother’s actual life, my love and birthday greetings for her get mixed up in a lot of bullshit that has little or nothing to do with her.

It was my mother’s love, and, as I realize now, that she never gave me reason to doubt her love, that literally saved my life in the brutal war zone my sister and I were forced to grow up in. As I emailed the day before yesterday to a genius from high school (truly, one of only two I’ve ever met in this long life of mine):

Tomorrow I’ve got to write something sensitive about my mother, who’d be 95 tomorrow.  I’ve realized only very recently that in spite of [redacted] [redacted] [redacted] [redacted] she never let me doubt her love for me in that war zone I grew up in and in the end she always listened to me.  Even if I couldn’t change her mind, which I sometimes did, she always eventually heard me out — which is no small thing.  Probably saved my life, actually.

Thanks again, mom, for giving me life, and saving it time and again, by simply listening with an open mind and a loving heart.


When being conciliatory becomes a problem

A friendly readiness to compromise, be agreeable and conciliatory becomes a handicap only when you find yourself in a conflict with someone who has to win, no matter what.

This type quickly makes a deadly weapon of the benefit of the doubt that you keep extending to them. In this moment, it is very important to listen to what that unsettled feeling in your stomach, in your lungs, your muscles is telling you.

You learn agreeable behavior as a baby, as a matter of survival. You must be easy to get along with, easy to love. It is good to be easy to get along with, until you find yourself locked in a struggle with someone who sees the world only as domination or submission.

These motherfuckers play a game where only one person walks away alive at the end. Learn to see the deadly game as early as you can, learn to get away from them as soon as you can. If necessary, learn not to feel bad if you have to kick them hard or punch them in the face to get away from them. They will do much worse to you if you stick around and keep trying to reason with them.

Accepting things we should not accept

The world is, more often than not,  a war zone, a very tragic thing considering the miraculous nature and boundless natural beauty of the besieged place where we spend our fleeting lives.  Think too much about its potential to be a peaceful place where neighbor does not lift up sword against neighbor and your heart will break. 

Right now, worldwide, a violent war is raging over who will own everything – a few people with the power to impose their will on those with less power, even if it comes at the price of destroying the habitat all living creatures depend on to survive — or the rest of us.  The powerful will spend unimaginable sums of their vast fortunes to ensure that their will becomes permanent, inviolable law. 

They will hire huge armies, capable of exerting whatever terrifying force is necessary to silence dissent and all alternatives for the present and future.  They will divide us all and make many angry enough to kill, and make sure they have easy, legal access to the firepower to spray death as easily and terrifyingly as humanly possible.

They will destroy all records of the past, rewrite history by rewriting the laws to prevent the dissemination of history they find repugnant.  They will obliterate all avenues to compromise that could help create a more perfect, more just, more sustainable world.  They want total war because they see the world as a war zone and they have the means to win a total war.  Most of us don’t.

Antisemites call this small group of willful, powerful people with immense wealth, hellbent on destroying morality, controlling governments and imposing their hateful will on the rest of humanity The Jews.  Racists, who can’t give the race they hate credit for being intelligent enough to have thoughts of their own, attribute their feeling of lost power to the Jews, who are replacing them as the power bloc in democracy with brown robots programmed to do the infernal work of the Jew, so they can impose their sick vision on the rest of the good, God-fearing people, the rest of the people like them. 

You don’t have to be an antisemite to reduce the war-torn world to this kind of paranoid cartoon.  Just think of the unknown aged billionaire who legally left Leonard Leo, architect of the 6-3 extremist Federalist Society Supreme Court majority,  a war chest of $1,600,000,000 to strategically spend doing whatever is necessary to finish creating the world this small, powerful minority hopes to see in perpetuity.

We learn the names of most of these creepy reactionary billionaires (and, to be fair, there are some billionaires who bankroll Democrats hence corporate Democrats) only in their old age, after a lifetime of dirty deeds: The Koch Brothers, Sheldon Adelson, reclusive Robert Mercer (patron of Steve Bannon and Kellyanne Conway, Cruz turned Trump patron), secretive Jeff Yass, Ken Langone (Home Depot), Betsey DeVos, Erik Prince, Harlan Crow, who bought his own far right Supreme Court justice, Peter Theil, Elon Musk, among others on the far right with money to burn. There are dozens of these motherfuckers, all cursing George Soros, a Jew, for being the evil radical left puppet master/bankroller of pedophile Democrats.

The Age of Reason, we are reminded, was an aspirational age.  Like the Warren Court, that expanded rights and greater justice to all citizens of our democracy, The Enlightenment was an outlier in human history.  Most of our bloodstained past is written by ruthless rulers, in the blood of the oppressed.  Oppression itself, with its attendant atrocities, is so ubiquitous in human history that we have many words to describe it over the ages, including serfdom, slavery and genocide.   So let’s not talk about any of that anymore, shall we?

The larger war sadly rages in our personal lives too, when conflict arises and empathy disappears.  Damage done to us by damaged people who were in turn damaged by damaged people lingers, may become all we can see.   For a feeling of safety in a hostile world, for the comfort of attachment to others, we sometimes accept things we should not accept. 

As I’m unable to sleep because the replaced knee is making things too uncomfortable, for the 24th night in a row, I find myself wondering about the things damaged people accept from other damaged people that may be unacceptable.  We can accept mistreatment that damages us worse than we already are, thinking it is the price we must pay for things of greater value, like love, friendship, a feeling of community.

We are all born reaching out for love and attachment.  Chemicals are released in the brain of the baby, of the parent, to create an intoxicating pleasure in bonding.  Things do not always go according to this beautiful plan, because most people have been damaged during this earliest stage of life, including, tragically, the parents.   

Parents are often overcome with their problems and nobody bothers to teach anyone how to do the difficult, almost impossible, job of being a compassionate parent when you are beset with your own terrible challenges.  It can’t be easy, to be always loving, always kind, always patient, when you are exhausted and the fucking baby won’t let you sleep.  Behaviors arise in the parent and the child that nobody bargained for.   Then the child is an adult — and then?   We wind up accepting things we should not accept, as the price for things we need in a dangerous life that ends, for all of us, in death.

Being abandoned when you are physically impaired, is it something you should ever tolerate from people who love you?   What goes on in the group of lifelong friends when they decide “if he’s too weak to keep up, he’ll just have to do the best he can, it’s not our problem”?   

Instead of waiting, or turning back to make sure he is not in trouble, let him struggle on, if he’s strong enough, he’ll make it, We made sure he bought hiking sticks and has a bottle of ibuprofen.  If he’s really too weak, we’ll unfortunately have to go back and see what happened.  Why is his trouble walking our problem when we are out on a beautiful day, in a beautiful place, enjoying a beautiful aerobic hike?  Why would he selfishly think we’d be thinking of him if we hadn’t seen him in an hour or two?  He knows the way back to the car, it’s at the end of this clearly marked six mile trial.

When, limping, you show up at the end of the hiking trail, where they have been resting, and will rise as soon as you appear, ready to continue, they will smile at you and say “we wondered what happened to you.  Are you ready?”  Meaning, we’ve had a nice rest, for a while, since you’ve been struggling to catch up with us for the last few hours, you don’t expect us to wait longer for you to rest yourself now, do you?   

Meaning, we smile, you smile, you accept that there is nothing wrong with the strong not waiting for the weak, it is clearly the way of the world.  You have to keep up, or you die.  In the end, you did not die, all’s well that ends well and you go out for a nice meal, pretending, for the sake of old friendship, that nothing is amiss.  Why get angry just because you were treated thoughtlessly?  This is a lesson you learned as a baby, you show you’re fine by acting fine and everything is as fine as it can be.

Being abandoned emotionally when you feel most in need of reassurance from loved ones, is that something you should ever accept?  Imagine what is going through the minds of those who turn away when they know you are most in need.  Imagine what makes them so angry afterward that you can be so unfair as to question their love just because they didn’t reach out after they promised to.  Imagine the immensity of the damage that makes someone act like that. 

Whatever it was, can you really accept a lack of basic empathy from a person who claims to love you?  It harms you in a place where healing is very difficult, it attacks your ability to trust.

I feel great fear for the adult son of parents who live by this ruthless credo of strength and shifting all blame to others.  The son feels he lacks the basic strength of an ordinary person, because, in fundamental ways, he has always been struggling to keep up with the illusion of vigor, indomitability and self-sufficiency his parents have set before him.   

If he can’t accept something as basic as that, maybe he’s not ready to take his place as heir to their good name.  I wonder if they really meant to teach their children the ruthless truth that someone they love can be removed from the world because their parents insist, in spite of they guy being alive and well, and desperately hoping to speak to the one most clearly in danger, that he is fucking dead to them. 

There are winners, son, and there are losers.  Winners persevere, never hesitate, do whatever is necessary to win, they face their fear and conquer it with their will.   You, sad to say, although we raised you to win, to keep up, to never pity yourself, do not seem able to do these things.  We love you no matter what, of course, but you must accept that we had nothing to do with the sad state you are in now. 

The son smiles, accepts their help whenever they offer, winds up, days after moving back into his parents’ house,  in a psychiatric hospital.

Something very serious must have occurred for these two parents, the strongest, proudest, most admirable people any of us have ever met, to subject themselves to the shame of admitting their son to a mental ward.  They taught their adult son that their word is final, if they say people he loves, who are walking around right now, are suddenly and forever dead, those people are fucking dead. 


Bad moves 101

I was raised by an angry, narcissistic father and an angry, but non-narcissistic mother.  While my father could never admit being wrong or doing anything that hurt you, my mother could eventually see things from the victim’s point of view, at least in my case.  

Her love is what saved my life, I realize now, in that constant war zone where my father fought my sister and me every night over our steak, salad and rice-a-roni.  My sureness in her love is what sustained me in an endless, senseless war with my father that I didn’t start and that lasted until the last three days of my father’s life.  

In the end, he saw he’d been mistaken and we finally came to a tragically too-late, but blessed, understanding, the last night of his life.  Before that time, like all narcissists, the idea of being imperfect was humiliating to him.  He could not bear to “lose” and would do any number of ruthless things to ensure his ongoing “victory”.

Twenty years earlier, as I was turning thirty, I began to realize that my dream of becoming a famous artist was actually my ambitious grandmother’s dream for me.  I had talent, but not the “vision” and drive that marks the great immortal artists whose work graces the world’s museums and the walls of those who can afford $20,000,000 for a picture to hang in their home.  

It turns out I was always more of a philosopher than an “artist,” another rarefied calling with a very secure career path.  I was always more interested in discovering deeper truths about this perplexing shitstorm we live in than creating work that the wealthy tastemakers, those who decided who were real artists and who were just regular people with a passionate hobby, traded in. The difference between an artist and someone who simply loved to create, I was beginning to realize, was that very rich people bought and sold artist’s work to decorate their lavish homes, while the hobbyist was just a poor bastard with delusions of grandeur. 

I was too critical and angry at the injustice of vast wealth and vast poverty to be an interior decorator for those entitled fucks but I had a hard time abandoning the dream of living like Picasso.  I became depressed.

I had a minor accident while making deliveries on my bike.  Cutting diagonally across West 57th Street  in a reckless, illegal move, ironically right in front of some prestigious art galleries I used to haunt, the handlebars of my bike were sideswiped by a young driver.  Many months later I was awarded about $7,000 when some shysters won a lawsuit suing the driver.  The accident had actually been my fault, but what the fuck, the kid’s father’s insurance paid.  I took the money.  

With that money I was going to finance my fourth film and then travel to Israel and then east, up to Nepal.  For whatever reason, both of those ideas became too daunting for me.  I’d already put the movie idea on hold and promised to sublet my apartment to a friend but found myself increasingly unable to make decisions.  Soon no decision was too small to cause me agony, in a short time I was paralyzed.  

I remember spending hours in a shoe store, trying on shoes, and in the end leaving with none.  The salesman was furious.  I felt like shit.

The day for the sublet was rapidly approaching, and my father, disgusted by what was happening to me, made the decision for me.  “You made a promise to Brendan,” he said, “you can’t screw up his life because you are having trouble making decisions.  You can move in here until you go to Israel.” 

I took the worst advice I’ve ever followed and moved back into my childhood home.  It was like a miracle, I woke up in my old room crushed with depression.  Things got worse and worse.

One aspect, looking back, is that it seemed my father had won.  It turned out I was a weak, self-pitying, egotistical, grandiose, lazy, unrealistically dreaming young man filled with idiotically self-serving ideas about some imagined glorious life that had led me directly, and deservedly, into the dark abyss I found myself in.  There was no escape.  

I don’t remember my mother’s love in those days, though she was clearly heartbroken.  What I remember is my father’s scorn and that, although he was ashamed of what I’d become, he also had an odd sense of vindication.  My sudden inability to do anything, in spite of my talents, proved to my father that he’d been right about me all along, and look how wrong I’d been about it all.

One day he asked me to type a letter for him.  I was not a particularly good typist (it was only years later, getting a degree in creative writing, and typing hours a day, that I really began to type well — later, in law school I discovered, to my great surprise that I could touch type with no need to look at the keys) but my hunting and pecking was much faster than my father’s.   We had no correction tape or white out in the house, no way to fix a typo.  

My father stood beside me and dictated the short business letter.  I sat at the kitchen table typing carefully.  Amazingly, I typed the whole thing without a mistake.  Until the world “sincerely” which somehow contained a typo.  My father exploded in frustration, which was his way of dealing with things not being the way he needed them to be.

A friend called to check in on me and was alarmed by how despondent I sounded.  I told him the story of typing the letter.  He told me “you have to get out of there.  Today.  I have a spare bedroom in the apartment, you can stay there.  Whatever you do, get out of there.  You will die if you stay there.”

A few days later I was living in his spare bedroom, playing the guitar and recording melancholy songs I was coming up with on his four track reel to reel tape recorder.  I still dreaded every day light hour and was seeing a therapist twice a week.  It was a long, dark road back, but one day, shortly after moving back into my own apartment, I met and began having sex with a very cute young woman, and shortly thereafter a second one.  After a few weeks of this I chose the one I liked better, said goodbye to the other one, and took with me the lessons I’d learned during that long season of depression.   

Lesson number one, do not kick, whip or beat yourself, for any reason, and get the destructive voice of the internalized victimizer (in my case my father) out of your head.  It was a long project, over many years, but I no longer kick myself, and my father’s voice has changed to the humanistic one he displayed the last night of his life.  It has since evolved into the clever, insightful, merciful one that I’ve been in dialogue with ever since.  

The calm after the temper tantrum

Something familiar from childhood that I had forgotten, the soothing reassurances by my parents after a particularly savage parental attack.  Once you were upset by their angry reaction to your needs they could comfort you, prove to you how crazily wrong you were to feel unloved.  

I completely forgot about this practice, a disorienting mindfuck I’d experienced so many times as a child, until I heard the recorded soothing tones of two old friends determined to do everything possible, except listen or compromise, to resolve the raging conflict between us.  They sounded so sympathetic and loving, until I told them they still were not letting me say what I needed them to hear.

I had what became a fatal falling out with old friends, who after a few increasingly stressful days in a rented house, were very upset that I’d said the f-word in anger.   My apology had to be considered, after all, what I had done was so brutal, so upsetting, so much worse than the distance, coldness and passive aggression I’d seen between my old friends, who it turns out are experts at covert warfare. They let me know that I was on notice, after I’d hurled a curse at the love of my life, that I’d be on trial and would now have to pass an ongoing test to see if I still deserved the friendship we’d always shared.

After months of silence, when one of my friends smilingly made a cutting remark (“homo”) to her husband (who winced), I told them I had a few things I needed to put on the table.  Fair is fair, it seemed obvious enough to me.  They’d both immediately had the audiences with me they’d demanded when they needed to speak.  In the first case I had to hear an apology that was later explained to me, more than once, as no admission of wrongdoing, but said only to calm me because, although I’d completely provoked the justified reaction, I was clearly so upset.  The other meeting began with a direct threat “I have walked away from friendships for less than what you did to me.”   

I recognize now that both of these things are characteristic of people who can’t be wrong and who can’t, therefore, honestly accept their role in, or help to resolve, a conflict.  It matters not how otherwise easily the conflict might be resolved, the point is: if there is a conflict, we cannot be in any part responsible for that.

They left hastily, as though in shock (“I was shocked,” my friend later explained), after I mentioned there were things I needed to talk about, after a few months of silence.  I followed up with an email, explaining my purpose, and had the response that they’d be happy to hear what I had to say, once there was less stress in their lives, once the Omicron variant of Covid was under control, once there were no more family emergencies to deal with.  

Three months later I wrote a short peacemaking letter I never heard back about.  After a holiday visit where my old friend avoided eye contact with me (I did get one last laugh out of her, eventually) I told my friend that I used to think of him as a person of integrity, but that I no longer did, and that I now understood that when I speak to him I’m not talking to the boss.

This worked as well as his wife stinging him with a tossed off “homo”.  Within a few days he had dragged his reluctant wife downtown and we were sitting down so that I could say what I needed to say, and they could listen, and we could all finally move on.  It did not go well.  

Whatever I had to say, no matter how mildly I tried to phrase it,  had an instantly inflaming effect.  My old friend did an uncanny impression of a furious, eye rolling, tooth sucking, arm crossing, hissing, head shaking, back turning, cell phone pounding teenager’s tantrum.  I somehow held myself back from responding in kind, though her fucking tantrum, not letting me finish a sentence, was very upsetting.

All this time my phone, with their acknowledgment, was recording, so that I could listen to it back and make sure I’d said everything I needed to say in the clearest possible way.  In hindsight I understand that needing to document the talk shows that I already no longer trusted them to be fair or honest when it came to any role they might have played in our difficult conflict.   

Eventually she told me to turn off the recorder, it was clearly making her feel very defensive.  I tapped it off, put it in my pocket and the conversation eventually took on a calmer, more mutual tone, though nothing I said could actually be acknowledged.  Hours later, when I went to use the phone, I saw that there was an eight hour recording in progress still going on.  The file was 500 MB.

When I realized this I tried to edit the sound file, get rid of the five hours of pocket noise at the end of our conversation.  It proved impossible to do, I’m not sure why.  The few seconds I did hear, my angry friend cutting me off, instantly raised my blood pressure.  The part I wanted to save was two things she said after she finally calmed down.  

Both friends had angrily denied over and over that there had been any pressure or tension in that vacation house until I, for no reason except my irrational orneriness, exploded in anger.   When she was calm after her tantrum my old friend said “there was a lot of tension” and she explained one factor, admitting that she’d been micromanaging everything in an effort to make things perfect for her husband, the sixty-five year-old birthday boy.

As for any tension between them that I might have found alarming, she said, I hadn’t seen anything to write home about.  She then described how when they are really angry at each other they sometimes go days without talking to each other.  I remember her mentioning five days, sometimes a week, though nobody else recalls that number.  I’d like to hear her statement again, just to clarify that I’d heard what I recall hearing.

All this is academic, however.  A friendship, once attacked a few times with an ax, cannot be resumed as though no deadly force had ever come into play.  I have written about this, at every stage of my long agonizing try to save the biting zombie of a once beautiful friendship that I was carrying on my back, in unbearable detail, and it is not my intention to delve any further into the decomposing rot of it all here.  

Trying to free up space on my stuffed, doddering phone the other day, I saw the large sound file and tried again to upload it to my computer so I could delete it from the phone.  This operation proved impossible to do and after several attempts I knew it was a job for Sekhnet, a technological problem solver with infinite patience.  At one point, trying blindly to find the two quotes I mentioned above, I tapped in at around the two hour mark.

“What is it that you think we’re not hearing?”  I heard my once close friend ask me with the soothing tone of a kindergarten teacher speaking to an upset child in the schoolyard.  “I think we know exactly why you were upset, what do you feel we are not hearing?”

My other friend, done with her temper tantrum, came in with the same slow, calm, sympathetic, perfectly reasonable cadence.

For a moment I found myself wondering how I’d missed this conciliatory, loving part of an otherwise frustrating talk.  Had I been so upset I couldn’t hear them?  Sekhnet, at the time, had said as much to me.

This thought lasted only as long as it took for me to reply on the recording, and for them to shut me down again.   The feeling I was left with was long forgotten, but as instantly, elementally familiar as the memory of that time, at eight, that I stepped on a board with a rusty nail sticking up out of it and it went deep into the sole of my foot.

You have a right to your feelings

Our feelings, it should go without saying, are always what we really feel, and, while we are feeling them, they are beyond right or wrong. We have to be gentle with our feelings as we consider how to move forward. They send us important messages our monkey minds can’t always perceive through cleverness alone. What we feel is what we feel, and acknowledging that is much healthier than pushing emotions down and pretending we feel some other way.

When you tell someone, particularly a friend or family member, how you feel, you are hoping for understanding. We are sympathetic to people we care about who are aggravated, worried, afraid, in pain, otherwise in need of comfort.

Compare and contrast:

I’m exhausted…”

That’s not hard to understand, you’ve been working your ass off, and working on short sleep, plus you’re worried, and that takes a toll on your energy too. Hopefully you’ll have a long, restful sleep in a few hours.

I’m exhausted…”

How come?

I’m exhausted…”

You shouldn’t be, it’s your own fault, why do you go to sleep so late and wake up so early? You don’t take care of yourself, I don’t know why you do this to yourself. A healthy person knows how important a good night’s sleep is. I always get at least eight hours of sleep, no matter what.

The first two replies are expressions of empathy. The third is not.

So what the fuck is that third response? An inability to empathize? A need to feel superior? A need to have the last, authoritative word? Obliviousness? Moral idiocy? Fuck if I know.

The only thing I can tell you is that when you get this response from somebody a few times, listen to what your roiled guts are telling you – this is fucked up. No matter how nice we pretend to be, it is not right to be treated this way. It is intolerable.

If you dispute somebody’s right to feel the way they feel, you dispute their right to be an autonomous person with as much right to express themselves as you claim for yourself. You can call it love or friendship, but those things both feel much different than whatever the fuck this is.

Dr. House’s Rule 12

My friend’s therapist, John House, has a great set of 18 rules of life that make a whole lot of sense.   Rule 12 is maybe my favorite, since we see it played out over and over and over and wonder why these nasty, painful cycles continue. 

Many people are impervious to the evidence that what they are doing is causing them identical problems over and over.  It is always easier to blame others than to search your own life for your own damage’s role in ongoing bad scenes. House’s lessons apply to anyone who is trying to learn to have less pain in their life by changing reflexive habits that cause them pain over and over.  

Rule 12:   A lesson is repeated until it is learned. A lesson will be presented to you in various forms until you have learned it. When you have learned it, you can then go on to the next lesson.

At my sixtieth birthday Sekhnet threw me a party at the home of old friends.  I held forth in front of a room full of loving friends, several of whom I’m no longer in contact with.  Most of the people there I’d known since I was a teenager.  Most of the people I met back then, and kept as lifelong friends, fulfilled a psychological need for me, to be close friends with people who had many of the traits of my perplexing father.  My father had all the tools to be a great friend, he was hampered by a black and white worldview that made it impossible for him to be wrong in any conflict.   As long as I avoided conflicts with these old friends who were often similar to the old man, everything was fine, for many years.   The pattern of fatal conflict emerged over many years and I could never see it coming or understand it once it arrived.

Tensions would develop, it could be over anything, often over something dear to me, or upsetting to me.  I’d be upset because my health insurance had been illegally cancelled (this happened to me three times, including during the first full month of the pandemic).  Suddenly a friend would tell me I was overreacting, that my anger was not proportional to merely losing health coverage.  According to my friend’s argument, it was an indication of something fundamentally wrong with me, that I was so irrationally upset.  Now we had an actual conflict:  your feelings are out of line, asshole, and what about my fucking feelings?

This was a mirror of the eternal conflict with my defensive, prosecutorial father — denial of my right to feel the way I did, reframing of my feelings to make them a magnifying glass for my problems and shifting the conversation to his moral superiority in not whining about his, much worse, problems.  I’d react to these friends with patience, with a hard-won ability not to explode in anger, extending the constant benefit of the doubt that strikes me as the heart of friendship.  

For some reason, I was unable to see, until this shitshow had been repeated several times over the decades, that In a conflict with a narcissist, none of these things will help in any way, except to prolong a maddeningly insoluble impasse.  If one person in a conflict is incapable of empathy or compromise, on pain of feeling utterly humiliated, that’s all she wrote, boys and girls.

I was sixty-five when I had my first conflict with my two oldest remaining friends.  The conflict itself was supremely easy to resolve, if both parties had been able to remain open, listening, granting the other person their imperfections.  I agonized for a solid year, waking every day with the pain of this impasse boiling in my head.   It caused tremendous agony to Sekhnet as well, that I was in such pain and couldn’t see my way out of it.   I kept thinking of House’s Rule 12, since this conflict had major echoes of several others over the years.  What am I not fucking seeing here?  I kept wondering.

One day, bingo!  When someone shows you they are implacable, will not listen, no matter what, will not grant you the benefit of the doubt that you are extending to them, take notice.  When they show you that face it may be a warning of worse to come.  The second and third time makes waiting for the tenth or eleventh time an exercise in masochism.  How many times can you reassure an angry friend of your good intentions before you realize they don’t have the capacity to care about your good intentions?  Three or four unrequited attempts to make peace should suffice.

Lesson 12, in my case, when someone shows you over and over that they must win the conflict, at any cost, including the murder of your friendship, the best roll of the dice is to throw them away.  No need to agonize for a year, and extend endless chances for compromise with people who would rather kill you, and murder your good name, than admit they had ever behaved badly.

Lesson 12, when someone shows you that they are a childish asshole, believe them.  House’s rule 13 will only be of marginal use at that point:

13. People always do the best they can. If they are doing poorly, it is because they have not learned the lessons that will enable them to do better.

Some people are angrily oblivious to the lessons of their lives. And those who must win at any cost are the world’s greatest fucking losers.