Too Much Truth can be dangerous!

Truth, a thing that actually happened, or a process that is really taking place, is often excluded from a conversation.  This is done to benefit the side that the truth would be harmful to.   Someone coined a good term for it “an inconvenient truth”. This is a large, explanatory truth that allows us to fully understand something otherwise unknowable.  

Few problems can be solved unless this often troubling truth is set on the table, since without it the clues to the more difficult underlying part of the problem have been made to disappear.  The suppression of this kind of truth is necessary if your intent is to hoodwink people, or to continue an unfair system.   When an important underlying truth, or even a key fact or two, is excluded from a conversation about problems, it’s impossible to arrive at a reasonable solution.  All that remains is the anodyne explanation, a partial story that puts everything in its best light and leaves out anything troubling, upsetting or controversial.

I have a personal tic about the importance of a truthful laying out of facts, of “transparency”.  I grew up in a home where most discussions immediately became adversarial and key points that needed to be addressed were swept off the table.   My poor father’s main technique in conducting these impromptu adversarial proceedings was constantly reframing what we were actually talking about.   This reframing served to remove certain topics from the discussion entirely and to constantly shift the “burden of proof” onto a set of moving cross-accusations.

Whenever you got close to making a point, the conversation would be redirected to your anger, your intractability, whatever unrelated point was necessary to derail your train of thought and make you eventually back off in frustration.  Luckily for me (he said, spreading irony like butter), decades later, as my father was dying he admitted with regret that he’d done my sister and me a grave disservice by turning everything into an unfair zero-sum fight to the death.  I say that with a touch of snideness, though it was a piece of great good fortune, to have my father confirm that for me before he went.

I can see things from another side more now than I could as a young man.  I can easily see now that an upset eight year-old asking his father to tell him about the dozens of family members killed by the Nazis only thirteen years before he was born would be very upsetting to a father.   My father, admittedly, did not respond well, but I can now fully understand the painfully difficult position my question put him in.   His regrettable reaction was to turn the inquiry into a conversation about “mere abstractions” (the people who died) and, more importantly, about why, at eight years of age, with all my so-called maturity, I still couldn’t simply act like a man.   My whimpering, defensive responses only confirmed the sorry image of my unmanliness.   The People rest.

“Nothing to see here!”, following a quick hiding of an inconvenient truth, is so common a refrain today that it’s hard for me to refrain from barking it out regularly.  Shame concealeth itself, only a sucker admits anything!  We live in a competitive culture where any admission of guilt, wrong-doing, shame, is seen as the mark of a loser.  Look at Al Franken [1].  Loser!   The winner, we all know, will always deny everything and make them prove every aspect of the case against him, and if it takes ten years, and a mountain of money for lawyers, so much the better.   The loser will question himself when accused, guiltily slink away, even if he hasn’t really done anything that bad.

I was thinking about this concealing damaging truth business in connection with the National Rifle Association’s wildly successful effort to have the number of Americans who shoot themselves to death daily with a gun (about 55 a day, more than two an hour) excluded from all discussions of gun violence in the United States.   It’s a standard ploy, take a harmful piece of verifiable information, claim it’s irrelevant — for any reason pulled out of your ass–  and bury it as deep as possible.

Here’s a recent personal example, you be the judge if the larger truth changes anything about the story.

An old friend recently refused to do me a relatively simple favor.  When I asked why he told me he didn’t need to explain anything to me, that I was a pushy bastard to ask, that I don’t know how to take no for an answer.  He eventually gave me a flimsy rationale, and later, when things began turning tense, admitted he wasn’t doing me the favor because of his anger and resentment toward me, which finally made sense, although it was not reassuring.

Do the facts really matter?   They don’t really, in terms of our friendship, though they help me see there was probably nothing I could have done to avoid his hidden anger.   Looking at the only solid facts we have, our recent emails and texts, and reading his original offer to do me the favor, before changing his mind later and getting angry when I asked why, it was hard to see this sudden rage as anything I could have seen coming.  Or anything I might have been able to avoid.  It was clear, in hindsight, that he’d been looking for a damned good reason to explode, my pushy query was the fucking last fucking straw!   

Feelings are often this way.  We feel a certain way and then marshal whatever facts we need to support the utter reasonableness of our feelings.   You can’t argue with feelings, they’re as real as our breathing, as the awful prospect of our inevitable deaths.   I can’t help thinking that the things that actually happened, or are currently taking place,  matter and should be part of our consideration, part of any real conversation.   A raw feeling, like rage, should not have the final say in a conversation or friendship (though, sadly, it often does).

This concealing of “harmful facts” is at the root of virtually every vexing and hard to resolve situation we face, as individuals, as a society.   The tobacco industry knew very well that it was pumping up the addictiveness of its deadly product, but nobody needed to know this.  They denied it for years and spent millions defending their denial against a giant class of addicted plaintiffs, before finally agreeing to make a huge payout to a fund for their past, present and future victims.   

The oil industry hired scientists, decades ago, whose studies laid out the harmful effects of burning fossil fuels, the relation of this massive burning to the accumulation of greenhouse gases and the warming of the planet.  They had the answer they didn’t want, so they decided to hire another army of experts to deny the science and create public skepticism and “debate”.   Hard to blame these industries, these “job creators,”  if you truly believe that maximum monetary profit is society’s most important product.

Has our current president monetized the presidency in a way that offends norms, laws, the constitution itself?   Too bad you can’t see his financials, he has an army of lawyers to fight that to the very end and beyond.   In fairness to him, those documents could reveal business connections to wealthy international criminals and even his own criminal money laundering.  The president would be a fool to let these fall into the hands of his enemies, whatever the law might say about it. 

Did former White House Counsel Don McGahn commit perjury, as Trump claimed, when McGahn told Mueller’s investigators, under oath, that Trump called him twice on a Saturday to pressure him to fire Mueller and then asked him write a memo saying they’d never had any conversation about it?   Too bad it will take months, if not years, for the courts to decide on the facially absurd blanket immunity defense the president is asserting as he blocks all subpoenas and document requests of any kind.  Etc…

I heard a great discussion of an issue deeply related to this whole truth vs. half-truth spin business on the July 31, 2019 broadcast of  WNYC’s On the Media.   The show is about an alternative to punitive incarceration and the hopeless cycle of violence caused by our carceral state.   The conversation centered on Restorative Justice, a community-based process of truth and reconciliation where perpetrators acknowledge the harms their actions have caused and seek the forgiveness of their victims.  Bob Garfield’s guest,  Danielle Sered, a pioneer in the Restorative Justice movement and executive director of an organization called Common Justice, makes a strikingly succinct and deep point well worth pondering:  

The four core drivers of violence are shame, isolation, exposure to violence and an inability to meet one’s economic needs.    The four key features of prison are shame, isolation, exposure to violence and an inability to meet one’s economic needs.

These are also, coincidentally, four key features of poverty: shame, isolation, exposure to violence and an inability to meet one’s economic needs.    It is a terrifying and demoralizing constellation of features that all but guarantees a terrible outcome, including a high likelihood of being locked up.   Those four factors form a terrible truth that explains a lot about the failings of our prosecutorial law enforcement culture and our enormous prison population.   We have a bumper crop of hardened, violent criminals that no amount of humiliating punishment seems to be curing them of.  Same goes for drug addicts.

If we were truly intent on creating a safer, better society, we would take this hard truth into consideration.   We need to seriously consider it in any discussion of creating a safer, more just society  that protects all of its citizens and maximizes their chances for a peaceful life largely free of shame and violence.   Like in a discussion of the crisis of opioid addiction and overdose, if we addressed the causes of this desperation instead of criminalizing and punishing the addicts…  If… we… were… truly… intent… (don’t forget, there is a very lucrative private prison system here, and a more profitable than ever private immigration detention center industry here, and a super profitable opioid production and sales industry… don’t forget).   

Or we can leave that awful truth about shame and violence and hopeless poverty out of it entirely.  Here’s an idea.  We could simply, honestly say that people born to the unspeakable shame and violence of poverty are just fucked.  Sad but true.  You know, in a way, they kind of made their choice to be born poor.  Had they been of better stock and born wealthy, they’d have every right to live peacefully and happily in the most exceptionally free and luxurious society the world has ever known.  Too bad those young children of the poor are already weak, dirty, morally compromised, lazy, other-blaming parasites.   

I leave the “race” and ethnicity of these doomed children for you to imagine.  Keep in mind, many millions of them are as white as the president’s family, as his mother’s nine pale, dirty-faced siblings in Scotland [2].  As Martin Luther King said often in the last years of his life, the color of poor people has little to do with it.  Poor children of every color in America are growing up in a country that has no use for them, except as cash cows for the privatized prison barons.   Racism, militarism and poverty are three faces of the same vicious, insatiable monster.   But that will have to be a hard truth for another day.


[1]  Former Senator Franken was accused, by a conservative media provocateur (and former nude model), of making her feel sexually abused on a USO tour years earlier.   It was not a super-credible accusation, not supported by a single witness, and it was made public before Franken was given any chance to comment, then was quickly followed by a handful of women who came forward to claim Franken had put his hand creepily low on their waists, or otherwise touched them inappropriately during photo ops.   

Franken responded to these charges by calling for an ethics investigation of himself (during which he’d be able to hear the full accusations, call witnesses and defend himself against the charges).   Hopped up members of Franken’s unthinkingly politically correct party, led by the ambitious Kirsten Gillebrand, formed a kind of lynch mob and angrily, publicly demanded that their colleague immediately resign instead.  Another reason to shake your head about elected Democrats and their high-minded circular firing squads.  Franken resigned, something he regrets every day, something I regret whenever I think of it.   

Read this excellent investigative piece by Jane Mayer and you’ll see what I mean about the poisonous effect of throttling the truth, and a lawful inquiry into the truth.   Do the actual facts of the case matter?   They fucking should.

[2]   Trump’s mother’s ancestry:

Mary Anne MacLeod (Trump) was born in a pebbledashcroft house owned by her father since 1895 in Tong on the Isle of Lewis.[2]Local historians and genealogists have described properties in this community at the time as “indescribably filthy” and characterized by “human wretchedness”.[5][6] The outbreak ofWorld War I weakened its economy and male population.[2]

Raised in a Scottish Gaelic-speaking household, Mary was the youngest of ten children born to Malcolm (1866–1954) and Mary MacLeod (née Smith; 1867–1963).[7] Her father was a crofter,fisherman and compulsory officer at Mary’s school.[2][3][8][9]English was her second language, which she learned at the school she attended until secondary school.[2]


As one account has put it, she “started life in America as a dirt-poor servant escaping the even worse poverty of her native land.”[8] Having obtained a U.S. Re-entry Permit—only granted to immigrants intending to stay and gain citizenship[8][9]—she returned to Scotland on the SS Cameronia on September 12, 1934.[13] She was recorded as living in New York by April 1935 in the 1940 U.S. Census.[13]

Though the 1940 census form filed by Mary Anne and her husband Fred Trumpstated that she was a naturalized citizen, she did not actually become one until March 10, 1942.[3][8][9]



Check out the mustache on Fred Christ Trump, in 1950, for fuck’s sake, five years after Hitler’s defeat in World War Two..  Talk about yer Nazi bastards….

ANGER schematic

Anger works in a specific way — it’s a powerful emotion that convinces you, beyond any doubt, that you are completely right to feel mad and that the person (or thing) you’re angry at is a complete fucking asshole.  When you’re righteously angry there are no gradations of right and wrong, only black and white, only you being just and the other party being fucking infuriating.

In order to sustain anger, you need to feel that you are right, righteous, justified, that you were deliberately wronged, unfairly abused.   Sometimes this feeling is the clear result of actual things that have happened to you.   These things happen in life, we make each other angry from time to time.  It is best to make peace and try to avoid the same ugliness next time, though that’s not always in the cards.

Sometimes anger results from a creeping feeling, often of being disrespected —  a feeling that finally gives rise to your angry mind putting together an airtight prosecutor’s case against the person you feel has disrespected you.  Once you have made the irrefutable case, you feel justified in sentencing the other party to whatever they deserve.   And carrying out the sentence.

A feeling may have been gnawing at you for a long time, though you couldn’t exactly put your finger on it, but there’s no mistaking the moment you’ve finally  had enough.   Your anger is burning, you’re dangerous, the only thing left to do is to flesh out the reasons you’re angry, make your case for why you’re right and the other person is totally wrong.   Anger has a notoriously low threshold of proof, you’re already mad, any rationale will do, simply grab one.   Then accuse.   Your accusations will lead to infuriating responses.  An argument then begins, in which everything the other party says only convinces you more and more what an unredeemed piece of shit you are dealing with.

Feelings are real, not to be sneezed at, or trifled with.   What we feel is more real to us than anything else, actually.   You can’t argue with a feeling, it is how you truly feel.   You can’t even have a productive talk with someone who has a strong feeling until you acknowledge the feeling.   Most of the time we keep our feelings to ourselves and these repressed feelings are prone to fester and grow more powerful, even monstrous.   Classically, in our macho society, this applies more to men than to women, who are often more adept at talking about their feelings than men are.

It’s the classic bottle up and explode scenario sung about by the late, great Elliott Smith.    Somebody does something that makes you feel like shit, you say nothing, the next insult is added on, you feel a bit shittier, the next thing is added on, you say nothing.   Eventually somebody will do something somewhat like the thing, or begin to, or seem to be about to, and then the anger at the whole long torment explodes.  Way out of proportion to whatever provoked it, usually.

I had a friend from childhood who was visibly nervous in his own skin.   He always thought I was much cooler [1] than him and though he loved me for it, it also bothered him.   Increasingly over the years.  He was trapped in a nightmare marriage, to a woman he physically feared, he felt helpless and fought her constantly, viciously, helplessly.   He was angry and afraid all the time (these often go together).   I was somebody he could provoke, get a rise out of, someone he felt perfectly safe in making angry.   Indeed, angry as he sometimes made me, I never took a swing at him.

I’d grown up in a house where everybody raged at each other all the time.  My parents never learned to control their tempers, their frustrations, their deep sense of being powerless, abused children.   In fact, both were abused by their violent mothers, unprotected by their gentle, timid fathers.   So it was rage all the time.  It sucked, growing up in a fucking madhouse, and it did great damage to my sister and me.   It took me decades to make any progress toward learning to recognize the signs that I was getting close to the edge, how to calm myself, however slightly.  Awareness that you’re getting angry, and experiencing that you can reel yourself back in, is the first step to exiting the cycle of rage.  

One thing I learned, after many years, is to tell people close to me when they were hurting me and exactly how, and what I need them to do differently.  Each time my childhood friend provoked me I would tell him I was getting aggravated, ask him to back off, to realize that he was poking a raw nerve and making me angry.   His response each time was to deny that he was doing anything, then double down and tell me pointedly that I was the one with the fucking anger problem, not him.  

When you find yourself stuck in one of these kind of insane revolving doors, all the good will in the world will be of little use.   It is too late, once you make your feelings clear and are met with more denial and blame.   Making me angry was the only thing that made the poor bastard feel good, feel like he had any power in the world.  He felt safe, you see and, clearly, he felt he needed to do it.  Otherwise, his head would explode.  What is an old friend for if not to feel safe with?

In the end, after our friendship was dead and cold, after many months trying to preserve our friendship, I pressed him for the reasons he was angry at me.   The reasons I couldn’t be friends with him (unless he changed his behavior) had been on the table for months, though he energetically denied the validity of my feelings.   It emerged that all of the reasons he could never be friends with me were related to things his wife told him, things that happened after our friendship was already beyond reviving.

The schematic of anger is always the same.   A feeling that chafes, gets worse, builds to an intolerable pitch.   A case is made, because though angry and mad are synonyms, nobody likes to feel “mad”.   We need a good reason, or a rationale, anyway.  Nobody does anything unless he is convinced he has a good reason.   Sometimes there is one, sometimes there isn’t.  Our feelings will not allow us to behave without a good reason, so sometimes we create one.  

OK?  I fucking created this inescapable straitjacket case specially for you, just to say “fuck you.”   I love you, man, but you’re dead to me, because, I never told you this, you are a complete fucking asshole.



[1]  whatever the hell that means.   I suppose in his case it was watching someone comfortable in social situations, by the looks of it, not a victimized, anxious, self-conscious person like he felt himself to be.

The Boiling Brain

Sometimes, it seems, it’s just impossible to turn off the brain.   You find yourself thinking about a belated email that arrived intimating that even though you’ve done nothing wrong, you’ve made somebody feel bad, just by being yourself, and, fair or not, that can’t be tolerated.  At the same time a pessimistically awaited email doesn’t arrive in response to your fourth or fifth attempt at communication.  The silence in your tiny family, something strategically used to great sadistic effect by your poor father in his day, has grown impossible not to notice.   The world turns, people fight over everything you can think of– and things you could never think of– and then it gets dark out and by and by everyone in your time zone is asleep.  Some are even dreaming of beautiful, wondrous things.

But sleepy dreams are not in the cards for you yet, are they?   There’s the train of thought about how to act like the person you need to make peace with is not basically Donald Trump.   When I say Trump, emotions immediately get revved up.  I simply mean a compulsive teller of things that are not true and someone not capable of ever apologizing to anyone for anything.   Basically, Trump.  

That will cause a vigorous denial from that fellows defenders  — this serially lying non-apologizer is nothing like Trump!   He has a full head of his own hair!   He is not a slimy transactionalist (thank you, Donnie Deutsch) — well, he may be, but only when he has to be.   His political views are quite progressive, he certainly does not oppose a woman’s right to choose abortion!

It’s fair to ask:  Who died and made you the Pope [1]?

We don’t hang out with people who make us feel bad, as a rule.  You make me feel bad enough, I’ll forget this ahimsa shit for just long enough to swing this ax and… there, isn’t that better?   I know it is for me.  

“Why did you kill him?” the officer will ask.  

“He made me feel bad,” says the killer.  

“Oh, if that’s the case, I totally understand, let me get those cuffs off you, sorry about that!  Have a nice day.”  

“Have a blessed day, officer.”

I’ve read that when you can’t sleep you should not remain in bed.  Get up, go into another room.  Read, drink a warm liquid, let yourself feel tired, relax, give in to your need to sleep.  You need to sleep, yes, and sleep will come for you after a while, it always does.  If sleep does not come, you will begin to hallucinate.  You want some really wild shit to happen inside your boiling brain?  Just deprive yourself of sleep long enough — it’s a torture that breaks everyone in the end.     

Well done, I’m actually quite a bit drowsier now than when I sat down here.   Thanks for keeping me company, now, if you’ll excuse me…


[1] my sleep-starved brain added “of explaining, delicately, that while an adult sexually using a child is a criminal, arguably a pervert, a sinner, a practitioner of evil practices … well, the Church does not tolerate or endorse this kind of sick, evil, harmful behavior even though, as a practical matter… well, you see.. it’s very, very complicated? ”    

 Why is it even this humanist Pope can’t get himself to admit the clear evil his church tolerated and protected for God knows how many centuries?

Losing the Propaganda War

Back in the day, in ancient Egypt, when a new dynasty came into power they’d send goons into the tombs of the rulers of the past.   These goons would scrape the images of the dead off the tomb walls, making sure to remove the faces wherever they were depicted.   It was a way of messing them up good in the after-life — try living forever in glory with no face.   It was a way of effacing their image, and memory, from history.    The same technique has been used a million times since.  Who are you going to believe — me or this asshole who literally has no fucking face?

It’s now common to call this process something like controlling the narrative.  In propaganda terms, you take a complex issue and reduce it to a phrase that will make people angry.  “Moscow Mitch” pops to mind, a great recent example of this technique (and, by the way, Moscow Mitch is fuming about this vicious, if not completely unfair, nickname).   Mitch McConnell, the long serving lady-killer from Kentucky, has used his position as leader of the Senate to block votes on all legislation, and every appointment, he doesn’t like.  He simply refuses to allow a debate or vote, that’s how you guarantee your enemies lose every time.   Losers.

Included on this list, most recently, is his ungentlemanly, anti-democratic refusal to bring two House bills about election security to a vote on the floor of the Senate.   These bills are to ensure that our electronic elections are protected from the massive foreign manipulation we can expect in 2020, in light of what the Mueller Report documented as “sweeping and systematic” Russian interference in 2016. [1]   Also in light of a recent government report that showed attempts to hack voting machines in all 50 states in 2016.  Moscow Mitch sees no problem with any of this, as long as his party, whose presidential candidate was openly favored by Moscow in 2016, and happily invited their help, stays in power.

So, instead of needing to say all that simply say:  Moscow Mitch.  The phrase stands in perfectly for a candidate apparently more loyal to Putin’s right to a favorable say in the election than any Democrat’s right to cast a secure ballot.   Hopefully the cool new nickname will help cost the obdurate, unprincipled, partisan obstructionist his job in the next election.

Screen Shot 2019-08-01 at 3.41.19 PM.png

This sort of thing is common in politics, of course.   “Lock her up!” was used to great effect by a demagogue and his cronies in a recent election.  It was simply a way of channelling hatred for Hillary Clinton and all she stood for.   “Build the Wall!” was as feel good a chant as “Block that Kick!” at a football game.   Makes people feel part of something virile and powerful, to fullthroatedly yell in unison like that, standing and rhythmically pumping their fists.  Winners.  

Odd to say, the same simplifying principle is routinely employed by most of us in our personal lives.  From time to time we judge something another person did as crossing a line, beyond the pale (whatever that cliche actually means — [2]) and based on that transgression we write the final unflattering chapter of our history with that person.   Everything was fine until this person I was friends with for thirty years refused to take “I said ‘no’ and I don’t have to say why” as a final answer, the infuriatingly overbearing fuck!

Bringing people to one side or the other in these wars is largely a public relations battle, fought on the miniature battlefield of interpersonal relations.   It is routinely fought in families — who is to blame for what, who is the black sheep, who brought honor or dishonor to our family name, who is on whose side against whom.   It is fought everywhere people are angry about anything, which is to say, everywhere.  I give you the following highly hypothetical illustration which resembles nothing in anyone’s personal life, I assure you.

[illustration REDACTED]

A focus on the truth of what actually happened is often seen as misguided in our Moscow Mitch world, or, to be more accurate: irrelevant.   A simple, easy to embrace belief is better, in the all-important public relations/marketing/branding arena, than a well-researched, compellingly written thousand pages nobody will ever read, particularly if you burn the fucking book and the godless witch who wrote it. 

Mueller [3] was a godless witch, by the way, just ask Moscow Mitch.


[1]    “The Russian government interfered in the 2016 presidential election in sweeping and systematic fashion,” Mueller wrote in the 448-page document, which lays out new details about a Kremlin-backed plot that compromised Democrats’ computer networks and targeted state and local election offices.

source     note that this article is from April 19, 2019!   

[2]  Screen Shot 2019-08-01 at 3.47.27 PM.png

[3] Bobby Three Sticks

Tucking Melz in (Two)

An illustration of the inherent feebleness of even a well-reputed memory (such as my own).  

I noticed that yesterday somebody had clicked on an old post called “Tucking Melz In” and I told Sekhnet the story.   Later I read the piece and was amazed to find a significantly different anecdote, bearing little resemblance to what I’d just told Sekhnet, which was, minus the first paragraph (which she already knew) which was:

Five and a half years ago an old friend, Melz, succumbed to a rare and deadly form of soft tissue cancer.   When I say succumbed, I mean he died.   The funeral was conducted by his long-time bosom buddy, trained as a rabbi and with a great talent for humanistic public speaking.   He conducted a beautiful funeral.   It’s hard to say how he held himself together the way he did.

Afterwards, at the golf course-like cemetery (no head stones) as we gave our shovels to others who were taking turns burying Melz, according to our tradition, Alan and his wife Terri came up to me.  Alan said (referring to the wonderful funeral oration we’d just witnessed) “you realize, if we die before Sokoll, we’re fucked.  Who’s going to do our funeral?  Think about it!”

I did.  As I was thinking, Sokoll walked by and we told him our concern.  The good rebbe told us not to worry.  “I’ll bury all of you fuckers,” he said, without breaking stride.   Oddly reassuring words.    

After a moment Terri said “let’s go tuck Melz in,” and we walked over and took over the shoveling for a while.

(compare with the original, written a day or two after the funeral)


To Muse or Not to Muse

Thinking something over because it perplexes you is not everybody’s path to happiness or a better life, I understand.  Contemplating a troubling mystery is not for everyone, you have to be pushed toward it,  it takes a certain turn of mind, a predisposition, an odd kind of luck, even.   In my own life, because of the things I suffered when I was young (and the ongoing sufferings we all must sometimes endure) I find myself looking for patterns, clues, examples from the past that point to a better way, less friction with others and  more peace within myself.  The lessons of the past, as they are called are food for thought, if not always delicious food.  I’d like to think that as I’ve aged I’ve somehow become wiser and more merciful than I was as a confused, angry teenager.   Any improvement I’ve made has been the result of wrestling with things that trouble me.

My feeling is that if you get no insight into the things and situations that cause you pain you will always be in pain for the same reasons you always were.   Your reactions will remain unchanged and those reactions will fuel the behavior of others toward you.   The philosopher Moms Mabely is sometimes credited with the pithiest statement of this:  “if you always do what you always did, you’ll always get what you always got.”  

The only way, it seems to me, to avoid getting what you always got is if you learn to do things differently than you’ve always done.  In other words, doing that difficult thing: learning what you need to do better from the experiences of the past.   Hard fucking work, no doubt, and, though I try not to judge, I often have a hard time respecting people who don’t even make the attempt to learn from their mistakes. Such people are never wrong, no matter what.   If you look back with even a small amount of honesty it’s not that hard to see when you’ve impulsively done something that hurt someone or made things worse, justified by a shaky rationale conceived in anger or something like it.    

I had a close friend for many years who was extremely bright and also very angry. Because he was so angry, on such a fundamental level, pretty much everyone he ever knew eventually became a rival, an adversary and finally a hated enemy.   Not long ago, when his mother died, his older brother emailed, asking me to reach out to him after informing me that I was his brother’s only friend.  

I took this news philosophically, as I hadn’t spoken to the guy in more than a decade, after finally realizing there was little I could do to remain friends with someone as implacably angry as he was.  Our few emails back and forth after his mother’s death illustrated quickly that nothing had changed in his world– he was still and always the victim, and angry and defensive about it.  Because he is a smart and articulate person he also made a brilliantly baroque case that the world, including me, was wrong and he alone was right.   Zero sum game, black or white, no nuance or possibility that anything could be any other way — you dig?

Because of the damage done to him as a child, however it had happened, he constantly relived variations on the trauma in every relationship he had.  He lived the ‘repetition compulsion’, casting others in the roles of people he blamed for his persecution, a series of putzes he at first thought were very cool, and then playing out the identical  senseless drama of betrayal time after time.  Each of these future putzes, every one of whom he put great hopes in, came to reveal the same awful thing — that they were complete and unredeemed fucking assholes.  

I found this fascinating, and also, very, very disturbing and ultimately defeating. His resistance to any kind of insight into his behavior was fierce.  He was convinced, in each case, that he had been viciously wronged, had been completely blameless and absolutely justified in acting exactly as he had, at every step.   Each one of his stories was predictably the same — initial admiration, disillusion, betrayal (often violent) —  and yet he was compelled to repeat the same aggravating three act drama every time.  

If you pointed out the similarities between the new story and every other one, or ventured the opinion that any of it had anything to do with his unattainable expectations of others and his own behaviors justified by his unexpressed anger, he’d become furious, since he was the least angry person he’d ever met.

We like to think that we’ll always have our favorite people in our lives.   Sometimes we keep old friends, and some people seemingly manage to keep all of their friends, but other times things like resentment, anger, envy, competitiveness and irrational things that bubble up and are hard to put a finger on wind up prying people apart. 

Anger is among  the hardest things we all have to deal with.   Do we have a right to be angry? Quite often we do.   We all live in an aggravating world, in a misguided and often vicious and violent culture.   In my own life, both of my parents were quick to anger.  There was a lot of yelling in the little house my sister and I grew up in.   I don’t hold this against my parents anymore.  

I don’t say that lightly, it took me many years to truly understand that if they had learned to deal with their feelings of disappointment, frustration and helplessness, they would not have treated my sister and me the way they did.   They did the best they could, but neither ever obtained much insight into how damaging uncontrolled anger is. 

As a child, if you can’t learn something like how to deal with frustration and anger from your parents, you are up against a hard game.  You have to find teachers, make many, many mistakes, have many fights, accept insights wherever you find them, become your own teacher in how to do better dealing with difficult emotions, difficult people.  

I’ll end with the only simple, useful thing I’ve learned for sure.   There are certain people who, once they become angry at you, will never stop being mad at you, no matter what you do.  An apology won’t work, whatever you’ve done is unforgivable because it is characteristic of the kind of bad person you are.  Conversation will not lead anywhere better, there is nothing you can say or do that will lead toward mutual understanding or forgiveness once you are put into this unredeemable category.   When you find every attempt to make peace thrown back on you, the only thing to do with this type is to walk away.  

I’ve learned this painful lesson only after understanding that the only other choice is a bad one– to make a kind of false peace by accepting that you are an offensive asshole unworthy of being treated any better than the way this angry person is prepared to treat you.  If you are ready, in the interest of “peace”,  to accept a view of you distorted by someone’s anger as some kind of truth, you’re setting an inevitable trap for the future.  

A trap you must continue to live in, harshly judged, awaiting whatever you “deserve”.   This kind of bogus peace will almost always come back to bite you sooner or later, when your past offenses will be dredged up as proofs against you, and in the meantime, you must accept the unacceptable as the best you can get.   The only choice, once mutual peace is off the table, is leaving the room, closing the door.

On one level, you could call what I am advocating the same thing my unhappy, angry friend who lived in a world of discarded putzes did, but I will try to explain how it’s different.   We both justify our actions as the only thing to be done, yes.  We both come to see the differences between us and the other as an unbridgeable divide.  We both write the other party off as dead.   There is no coming back from death, not in this life.

The only difference is that I believe that I make every effort to give a friend the benefit of the doubt, make many attempts to make peace before finally taking up the sword and cutting the guy’s head off.  It’s a big difference to me, a willingness to try to see the other person’s point of view, to apologize, to seek reconciliation.  To talk instead of fighting– at least until talk proves itself senseless, anyway.

My friend’s drama was always the same unalterable scenario.  He’d acted in good faith, been generous, thought the other person was reciprocating, then there were warning signs, he tried to correct course, he was viciously betrayed.  You can see this as similar to what I have laid out, but there is a key difference.   Unlike me, he was never at fault, in any way, ever.   Kind of like our current president and many badly damaged people one encounters.

I have many times realized that I’ve said or done something hurtful to somebody I care about.   It is natural to do this from time to time, no matter how hard we try to be perfect, particularly if we were raised by people who often spoke out of anger before they gave themselves time to consider the better thing to say.   People who are angry enough to rage at somebody don’t always have the ability to admit they were wrong, even later.   When there can be no acknowledgment of a hurtful mistake the cycle of ill will is complete, if you remain within the radius of  harm.

When I become aware I’ve hurt somebody I’ve learned to move quickly to reassure them of my friendship, apologize, seek forgiveness.  I’ve found that people who value you in their lives are quite ready to forgive.   I extend this forgiveness to anyone who shows the humility to express genuine sorrow for some hurtful thing they’ve done.   It is not easy for people to make themselves vulnerable to somebody else, particularly in our kind of win/lose culture, I appreciate the difficulty and respect those who can.  [1]

Look, this attitude about seeking and extending forgiveness does not make me Jesus Christ, not by a long shot.  When someone behaves badly toward me, refuses to acknowledge any role in our subsequent conflict, and escalates things aggravatingly every time I try to make amends, I have the same initial response that virtually any toxic male in our violent culture has.  My first feeling is violence, punch my antagonist hard in the mouth to make him shut up.  Just stop the fucking noise.  If you are only capable of making things worse with your righteous, enraged bullshit and whining, for the love of Christ, just shut up.

I don’t chide myself for this feeling.  The feeling is understandable and the reflex was planted deep, long before I was old enough to have any say about it.  A feeling is different than an action.   You can feel a violent emotion without acting on it, though it takes work and time to learn to disconnect the two things.   I never was one to hit people (my vicious words always did the trick) and I haven’t had a physical fight with anyone in many years.  I’ve made some progress in controlling what my anger at first compels me to do.  And yet, the feeling can’t be denied, I can’t pretend I’m not provoked to feel that way, once I am provoked.   Each of us has our breaking point.  

The only thing we can do when a feeling like this is choking us is to make a better decision than smashing somebody’s face.   I’m not going to hit this infuriating person in the mouth to make his maddening sounds stop, no matter how strongly I feel the desire to.  

I’ve learned to take a breath, as many breaths as I need, walk away, think (perseverate, if you like), recover as much of my better nature as I can.   If there is no way to peace with someone who is acting unreasonably, provocatively, secure in his right to rage, at a certain point you have to accept it and keep away from that person.

Once I come to this unfortunate acceptance, after exhausting my efforts to defuse things and make peace, there is only one more thing I have to do.   I don’t necessarily advocate it or defend it, but it is the best I can do in these situations, considering the angry environment I come from.

I reach deep into my well-worn tool kit.   I set out in words the precise thoughts that will do the most direct harm to the person who can’t stop attacking.  I write these thoughts out in detail, politely and firmly but without mercy or any hope of reconciliation (since there is none, as already demonstrated by the failure of all apologies one can muster).  

I employ that maddeningly superior tone that unchallengeable masters of the universe always use when addressing drones.   In each paragraph I cooly remove another arm, a leg, set them side by side on the table.  My last lines sever the head, which I leave beside the limbs.   Now it is finally quiet.

In the end the violence is about the same as punching someone hard enough to make them shut up, but the beautiful quiet afterwards is nice and there is no danger of prosecution.  

It is not exactly peace, and a terrible loss is still there, along with the sadness that comes with a great loss, but the knowledge that this kind of pugnacious anger will no longer come at you from this particular person– in my mind, better than giving in and socking somebody.   No matter how much they might actually deserve it.


[1]  The kind of apology that does not help is what Harry Shearer calls the if-pology. “If I did something wrong, then I’m sorry.”   Think of Joe Biden’s decades-belated variation on the classic if-pology, delivered to Anita Hill recently — I feel sorry for what they did to you, and for whatever part you may think I may have played in what they did to you.   An apology Anita Hill was right to dismiss.

An apology, to be meaningful, must acknowledge the hurtfulness of the specific thing that one is sorry about and contain some sort of promise to try not to do it again.

Compare that to the kind of apology I was given right before an old friend I finally had to behead told me he loved me and that I, therefore, had to be his friend.

“I already apologized to you, so I don’t know what you want from me.  You think I did something to you, which I didn’t, and so no matter how many times I fucking apologize, you are too much of a rigid, angry and unloving fucking asshole — who can never admit to being wrong, I might add  —  to even hear it”

And then, as though proving his point, I could not find it in my heart to accept his apology.

The Poison is Always the Same

There are certain people, tormented by painful needs they have no insight into, who lash out at others as a way of trying to feel better about their own gnawing sense of inadequacy.  This terrible sense of worthlessness was instilled in them when they were children by equally damaged people.   It is possible to largely recover from this kind of mistreatment, but it takes a lot of work.  The only time many damaged souls feel equal to a world they believe is otherwise crushing them is when they are fighting to dominate others.   Injecting poison into others is as close as they come to mastering situations they feel are beyond their control, confrontations they feel at a fatal disadvantage in.

The poison is always the same.   The need to deliver the toxic bite always comes from the righteous feeling of being a victim.   Only defending themselves, you dig, from stronger, more vicious predators.  They have no choice, you understand, because they believe they’re always under attack, and at an unfair disadvantage, and are only doing what is right, what anyone in their position would do.

This toxic cycle is sadly common in human affairs.   The toxic type has only one response to everything: injecting more poison.   We’ve become familiar recently with the term “doubling down” in our partisan politics.   It is a gambling term with wide application in human affairs — it means, according to the first google hit,  “to strengthen one’s commitment to a particular strategy or course of action, typically one that is potentially risky.”   If you seem to be wrong, if anyone questions you, double down — come at them twice as hard.  A strong, angry denial is a much better plan of attack than allowing the possibility that you might have made a mistake, done something wrong, share some blame for the ugly situation you find yourself in.

People with very low self-esteem often feel called upon to fight, to never relent or admit the possibility of even partial fault, to never see another person’s point of view, to constantly double down on the poison.  We can intellectually understand the factors that may have made them this way, a scalding feeling of inferiority, self-hatred, being unloved, but that understanding is little protection against the pain of their bite.   The poison is always the same.

My best advice, whenever possible, avoid this type like you’d shun a whiff of anthrax or the AIDS virus smeared on an open cut.   The poison is always the same. There is really no antidote other than expelling the noxious shit.   It takes time and work to get it all out of your system, I can tell you from experience.   Given the choice, once you recognize this type at work, move away as expeditiously as possible.   These poor motherfuckers simply cannot help themselves.

If one of them, God forbid, becomes the most powerful person in the world, be resolute and strong in removing them from power.