Moral Dilemma of the day

You have a conversation with a close friend who, when you broach a certain subject, suddenly becomes upset, angry, tells you hotly that you’ve weaponized his confidences against him and are putting the relationship in serious jeopardy.  In tracing these feelings back with the person it’s clear that you’ve put your finger on a painful wound and the attack is basically a cry of pain.    At the end of the call you both agree it was great the peaceful way the worst was avoided, and certain insights were gained, and that a path back to trust and friendship was found.

Unease lingers after the call.   The explosive thing you mentioned that caused your friend to go wild is a bad and recurring part of the dynamic with that friend.  A toxic bomb waiting to explode again next time.   

It is something hard to avoid sometimes, as the person complains about their anxiety regularly, even while avoiding mention of the omnipresent stimulus of the anxiety itself.   The ever-present 300 pound gorilla in the room is always in the room.   Nothing can ever change unless this troubling this subject is dealt with, but mention of the actual gorilla is forbidden on pain of ending the friendship. 

Tolerating the intolerable cries out to be addressed.  If not with a friend or family member’s help then, for god’s sake, with a good therapist or someone willing to patiently listen.  Nothing can change unless the trouble is addressed, it only makes things worse to merely push the feelings down and proclaim that the monster is “being handled”.

You have the choice, as a friend, to avoid this subject completely — the easiest, if not most satisfying way to do it — or to find a way to talk about it productively (not easy, but possible, I believe).   There is one specific event that encapsulates this whole dilemma in your relationship, but your friend, while acknowledging it probably happened just as you say,  tells you they don’t really remember it very well and don’t really want to relive it.

We have different levels of intimacy with different people in our lives.  Some friends are fun companions we’re very fond of, but we don’t seek them out to confide in and get advice from when we’re in great pain or trouble.  We value others in our lives for different reasons, though the people we’re truly intimate with are in their own necessarily small category.   We tend to listen to these people carefully and remember the most important things they entrust to us.

I also must say — not everybody is capable of intimacy, since it requires openness, trust, honesty, confidence that your vulnerability will not be betrayed.   Not everyone is capable of all that, sad to say.  If you continue to seek deeper connection with somebody who is not able to operate in that mode, trouble is bound to follow.

Today’s moral dilemma: 

The forgotten past is prelude to the deniable future.  That horrible incident I brought up that so upset me, that thing you don’t really remember in detail and don’t really want to discuss… why do I keep bringing it up?   

I bring it up because it upset me profoundly, because it stands in perfectly for what continues to upset me, for what I see as the underlying dilemma: your belief that painful things must never be revealed or talked about and that raising them is an act of war.   This is particularly true for potentially shameful things.   

You believe that these things are too painful and threatening to face and you require others to respect your right to remain mute about them — which all sounds fair enough.  The trouble is, you want friends and family to listen supportively to your troubles without giving an opinion that might involve anything challenging, difficult, painful, embarrassing or shame-inducing.

I believe that if we are as close as siblings and can’t talk about what is really bothering you, the chitchat dancing around the obvious is pretty much a waste of both of our time.  If you don’t trust me, you don’t trust me.  I didn’t make the world.  Look carefully at this upset you gave me that time, I’ve written it out on a page.  See if you can identify with why  I was so shaken up.  See if it gives you a clue to what you could do going forward to better consider my feelings, to have less fear, anger and anxiety in your life.

I had a long-time friend, now dead, who made the unreasonable demand of just being listened to without comment until it became unbearable.    He had nobody else to confide in, since he lived in a world where literally everyone he ever met disappointed and betrayed him, and he needed to tell his best friend the ongoing tales of this horrible personal torture chamber he lived in.  Every story was exactly the same.   Somebody he really admired turned out to be crazy, brutal, vindictive, a total putz.   The three act play was identical every time.   Admiration, suspicions of imperfection, vicious betrayal by the formerly admired person.

You can only hear the same awful story so many times before it is unbearable to withhold the opinion that your friend’s unreasonable expectation of human perfection needs to be addressed before anything can change for the better in his life.

This infuriates your friend who angrily tells you he just needs you to shut up and “be there for him”, listen to his latest painful tale without the fucking commentary, just let him tell the long, complicated story.   Eventually this becomes impossible, you are obliged to reveal your human imperfection and move on to act three — betrayal by repudiation.

Today’s moral dilemma: 

That painful incident you told me you pretty much forgot, though you don’t dispute my version of it, you also say that you truly don’t really remember it in any detail.  These erased details of what upset one person are the essence of what causes the most trouble between people, the erasure of how I hurt you plants the seeds for the next episode, which is guaranteed to be worse that the previous one since it is the same hurtful thing I did before and managed to forget about.   

Here, then, are the details, laid out clearly and concisely.  Take a look.  Do you understand now why I was so upset, why it upsets me that you’ve managed to put it out of mind?   Do you understand that you would have been equally upset if I had placed you in that position?    Are you capable of self-knowledge?  If not, what are we doing here?

The dilemma is how to balance a desire to help, and be heard, and treated fairly, with the certain knowledge that you are dealing with someone who, no matter how objectively you set an uncomfortable thing out, is likely to be enraged by your intrusion into their painfully protected privacy. 

The dilemma:  do I maintain an essentially false relationship with little trust, for the sake of having any relationship at all, or do I respectfully risk everything to try to have a better, healthier one?

 

Learning or not learning

An old friend was lamenting the other night how many years it has taken him to learn the most basic things about being a kind person.  How to overcome the ready reflex to react violently to provocation, for example [1].  I commiserated, that kind of transformation is not accomplished overnight, if at all, particularly if you grew up regularly under attack in a family war zone.   On the other hand, struggling to be a more compassionate person is the right thing to do and whatever progress we make benefits those we love as much as it benefits us.

We’re taught many things as children that are not only wrong, but do great damage to our young souls, damage we’re often compelled to pass on to others who don’t deserve to be mistreated.   Every abusive person in the world was subjected to abuse as a young person.  It doesn’t excuse the asshole behavior, but it makes it understandable.   Nobody becomes a bully unless they grew up in fear, humiliated and shamed regularly.

I reminded my friend at one point of something he’d long ago forgotten, a random moment of kindness he had no reason to remember, but one that made a deep impression on me.   That moment showed me, more clearly than anything up until that time, that there was a gentle beauty to life that had been largely hidden from me during a combative childhood defending myself against an antagonist who waited until the last night of his life to express sorrow and regret for the lifelong war he’d always blamed me for.   The random act of my friends’ kindness opened my eyes to how nurturing and healing real gentleness is.

I reminded my friend of that long ago day at the lake (which I wrote about here) and he had only the vaguest memory of  it.    He recalled taunting me, at one point, until I laid back on the rock, a crust of bread held between my lips, and waited for the beaked kiss of a hungry Canadian goose.  The aggressive birds had surrounded us during lunch, looking for some lunch.  He’d been doing it, and laughing as the birds snatched the bread from his mouth, and urging me to try it, but I’d resisted.   He called me a pussy in front of two female friends, “PUSSY!” he taunted, and like a true pussy, I put a crust of bread in my lips, laid back and waited for the hungry kiss of a large bird.  It was pretty cool.  I then reminded him about swimming in the lake and Audrey, who he’d only met that one time, and I fondly praised her as a great girl, talented, funny, cute, sensuous.     

“Why didn’t you stay with her?” my friend asked, hearing the obvious affection I had for her. 

I explained that at the time I was still way too immature to know how to handle somebody as damaged as Audrey also was.   I loved hearing her laugh, her touch, her beautiful singing voice, many great things about her, but I was too big an asshole, still, at age thirty or so, to know how to take care of the parts of her (or myself) that were so broken.     

She gave me stern advice one day, late in our friendship, and I resisted what she was telling me.  She pressed on, telling me that she wasn’t telling me anything she didn’t also tell herself.  I smirked and told her, with a bit too much coldness, that the things she told herself included “put your head in the oven and inhale the gas” and “take the razor blade into the bathtub and end this suffering.”   I said, if somebody told me those things, I’d defend myself violently against them.

That wasn’t the point, of course.  I managed to reject her advice, and win that little round of an ongoing disagreement, but the cruelty was unnecessary, and damaging.   She had struggled against suicide (and I hope never afterwards succumbed to the urge to do herself in, I haven’t heard of her for decades now) and prevailed more than once against a self-destructive tic I could not relate to.   Others might kill me, and I’d fight them about that, but I won’t ever raise my hand against myself (unless, perhaps, I am in unbearable pain in the final stage of a terminal disease).   Those things might all be true, but it was very mean of me to use them against her like that.   At that time I was simply too hardened against critical voices, even if they were right, and too intent on being right.

The world of hurt in Audrey’s heart, the pain that sometimes made her want to die?  I had no way to touch it.  I could make her laugh, I could make love with her, I could accompany her on guitar when she sang and played the flute, but beyond that, I was pretty much clueless.  

What we learn, I don’t know how we do it.  I’ve sometimes thought that the things that trouble us most make us think deeply about them (if we are wired that way, denial is probably a more common response) and look for insights into how to have less pain.    Pain, of course, is famous for distorting our thinking beyond endurance.   

Look at the tens of thousands of deaths of despair every year in America: suicide by gun, drunk driving, drug overdoses.    There is no help for this kind of hopelessness in a nation that divides the world into great winners and fucking losers.   We can learn to repudiate this false, asshole version of the world, though it is not easy.  “Winning” is really about the love and kindness we have in our lives, everything else is deliberately misleading advertising.  If you live without much love in your life you know this, if you live with a lot of love, you know this too.

How do we learn anything?  I don’t know, even as I know I’ve learned some important things over the years.  Some things we learn without effort, because we love them, are fascinated by them, drawn to them, can’t help improving because we are involved in them all the time, curious, thrilled by them.  If you love the sound an instrument makes, for example, and how it feels to play that instrument, odds are you will get better and better playing it.   If you love to draw, you will draw all the time, and if you do, you will get better and better at it.   Writing, same deal.   Critical thinking may also be in this category– finding and assembling the facts to figure puzzling things out.

But the really hard emotional stuff — how not to behave like our earliest role models?  How not to blame ourselves for the cruelty that’s sometimes inflicted on us?  How not to be tortured by fear?   How to remain mild, and as kind as we can, even when we feel hurt?   Very hard things, all of them.

I don’t know that I have a nice bow to tie this up with.  I don’t.  Life rarely includes real closure, or black and white changes that are beyond dispute.  In our war-torn world, nothing is beyond dispute, if you are willing to fight to the death over it.   Our current president is the perfect example of this: never wrong, always justified, always perfect.   Angry too, of course, because he is so innocent and lives in a corrupt world with so much wrong, so many enemies unjustifiably hellbent against him, everything so imperfect. 

The changes my friend and I discussed the other night are sometimes subtle, other times impossible to see at all.   We still react with anger when we feel provoked, but we probably react with less anger at times.   We still are unable to do much to heal the hurt in people we love, but we are better at it than we were.   We have learned a few important things, after many, many years.   I congratulate my friend for this learning, even as I commiserate about the hard road he is on, has always been on.   It is, of course, much easier simply to remain an asshole.

 

 

[1] If there is a harder trick, for somebody who was subjected to abuse as a child, I’m not sure what it is.

Empathy requires focus sometimes

Empathy is what we hope we always give to people we love, what we always hope for from those closest to us.   Sharing another person’s pain, fear, sorrow, weakness is the kindest thing we can do for them.  It’s not always easy to empathize, even with those we’re closest to, especially about things we ourselves have never experienced.   Empathy is an essential element of kindness, its absence feels like indifference, abandonment, even if the lapse in empathy is purely unintentional and leaves us aghast when it is revealed to us.

Some people are simply dicks, we can stipulate to that.  This type is too immature and selfish to think of anything but their own needs.   This tendency is exacerbated by the extreme nature of the on-demand winner-take-all society we live in.   In our individualistic, competitive culture it’s easy to get sucked into the prevailing mentality that it’s no vice to step over somebody weaker and do a crowing victory dance next to their fallen body.  We are unconsciously conditioned to view the world in a crudely Darwinian way.   That said, most of us are empathetic, whenever our hearts are touched.  

There are rare types on either end of the empathy scale.  Finely tuned empathetic souls who are always concerned for the feelings of others, of every stranger they encounter, about the fate of others they will never meet, the well-being of the planet itself.  On the other end of the spectrum is the clinical diagnosis for evil: the malignant narcissist, incapable of empathy under any circumstance.    The rest of us are in between, our own empathetic abilities varying according to circumstance.  

I give two illustrations of things I will always remember, pictures from both sides of the empathy scale.

Years ago I went to the lake  with three friends.  

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It was a warm spring day, but not hot.   Audrey and Alain went into the lake, up to their necks, and began cooing about how perfect the water was. They soon starting urging me to come in.  I was quite comfortable on a cool rock and the idea of being wet didn’t appeal to me.  It wasn’t that hot out and my clothes would probably stay wet and become increasingly chilly for the rest of the day is what I was thinking.

They called me from the water, laughing and smiling.   “It’s fantastic!” Alain called.  “You have to come in, you won’t regret it!” said Audrey.   They were both smiling from ear to ear as they eventually came out of the water towards me.

In my experience this was their chance to drip cold water over me, to hug me wetly, to behave like happy, dumb, obnoxious kids do.   To my surprise they did none of these things.  They spoke to me quietly, cheerfully, telling me to trust them, urging me on as they gently took me by my arms and helped me reluctantly to my feet.   There was no pushing or pulling, no coercion, just their reassuring touches and gentle slowness, letting me decide if I wanted to join them, doing their best to make my decision easier for me.   I stood and took a few steps toward the water.

It is perhaps thirty years ago, and I remember my feelings in this moment more clearly, more fondly, than almost any in my life.   It was the feeling of being loved, taken care of, supported, listened to, respected.  I felt like I was in the nurturing hands of my ideal parents, two gentle souls who truly wanted the best for me.  I felt protected, certain that they had my best interests at heart and only those interests.  

Step by step we walked into the water, which felt cold when I put my first foot in it, but which they assured me was perfect once I went in.   They were right, it was fantastic, perfect, delightful.  I’d worry about being wet later.  I certainly wasn’t worried about anything as we splashed and swam happily.   Gayle was not coming in under any circumstances and none of us tried to convince her to come in once she made that clear.

I think of those moments as one the greatest demonstrations of empathy I can call to mind.  So simple, so trivial, but their kindness touched me so deeply and the swim was so well worth it.   The odd thing is that Audrey and Alain had never met before that day, yet they worked in perfect, loving coordination.   As far as I recall they never met after that day either. For one moment in time the stars were aligned perfectly and I was given this beautiful gift: to feel in this random moment, as an adult, the beauty of a perfect childhood memory.

I was going to contrast this with another image, but, on second thought, it’s much better to leave off with that transcendent image of empathy.  It is easy enough for anyone to imagine the opposite of being treated with this much consideration.

 

 

 

Repentance and Atonement

It may seem churlish, arch and dickish of me to bring this up, especially during our Second Civil War here in the land of the conditionally free and the home of the transactionally brave, but a sincere apology is a powerful thing, a force for peace and reconciliation.   Sad to say, as Sir Elton sang it, in words probably written by Bernie Taupin, ‘sorry seems to be the hardest word’.

I think about this each year at this time on the Jewish calendar, during the Ten Days of Repentance.   We are supposed to use this time to honestly review our actions of the past year, find acts we regret, times we were wrong, seek out, apologize to and make amends with the person we hurt.   

It is a beautiful and very humane idea.  It is a caring thing to do for people we care about.   It is a hard fucking idea, to make yourself humble and vulnerable, especially when the hurt was mutual, where you feel like the other person also  acted like a jackass.  Too hard for most of us to sincerely apologize because, seriously, the world has probably been meaner to us than we were to some provocative asshole who desperately demanded whatever we might or might not have done to them.   

This self-justification is the working of anger and its first cousin pride.  These emotions have one demand: I am right and you are an asshole.   It’s a zero-sum emotional landscape.   While I am angry at you, my friend, you are a fucking piece of shit and I have a hundred reasons why.   Deny it, go ahead, it only makes you more despicable, unredeemable, deserving of my wrath.     

I realized the other night that in my understandable desire to have someone stop talking aggravating shit to me, I went too far.   I didn’t stop to consider that this old friend’s sudden rage might have indicated he was having a serious problem or something.   He attacked like a petty prosecutor, he doubled down when I tried to explain, when I  asked for the benefit of the doubt.  His final email came back lightning fast and really got under my skin. 

I waited a few days, removed some expletives from my reply and methodically,  surgically, wounded his pride to shut him up.  The hideous noise stopped, peace, end of story.   

I can rationalize my hurt, my anger, 100%.   The guy acted like a world class jerk, no question.   Yet, look, I was also very harsh to him.   Those are two different things — his acts and mine, and we are each responsible for our own.   I was wrong.   I erred on the side of hurting him too much, to guarantee he would have no reply.   His timing had also been bad, his instant double-down on his anger came back right before my birthday.   A self-righteous, superior, stupid stream of steaming shit, right in my inbox.   I needed to make it stop.   

Did I need to cut off both of his arms and legs, and his head, to make sure he couldn’t respond?   It felt like I needed to at the time, to be sure, but now I can see a range of choices I didn’t consider, much more productive ways to proceed.   I did the one thing that would guarantee the quiet I needed, though it also ended not one but two friendships.

Was I wrong?   Arguably not.  Still, did I need to be so harsh?  Probably didn’t need to be so harsh.   So I sat down the other night to write a letter apologizing for my role in our titanic, fatal battle of the assholes.   No point arguing over who was more at fault, we were both hurt and angry and lashing out. 

I did something I now know was wrong and I am sorry.   Sorry I was so viciously hurtful, what I did would have hurt me, would have hurt anyone.   It cost me two old friends, and I was wrong to offer no way back from our dumb fight over nothing specific.

Writing that letter while refraining from justifying myself cost me blood.  As I was writing it I had to keep separating what I had done from the several strong provocations.   You may well have provoked me to want to punch your lights out, but I can still regret punching your lights out.  It does not accord with the way I want to live — being provoked and lashing out in return, I try to do better.   

Maybe it’s impossible to be friends with an insecure, competitive person who turns out to be a cheap-shot artist when it comes down to it, still, my reaction to even a cheap shot is my choice.   I chose wrong by calmly and methodically cutting this guy’s limbs and head off.

I spent a few hours writing the letter of apology.   I think it was a decent apology.   I have no expectation that it will change anything, and I wrote as much, but it was important to me to seize this important, widely neglected religious obligation to try to make peace instead of war.    I went to sleep and had troubled dreams.

I had been challenged, by a gang of Thai toughs, to body surf down a steep flight of stairs and, for some reason, I’d accepted the challenge.   A Thai tough had put on a motorcycle helmet and, when I wasn’t watching, supposedly tobogganed  down the steps on his belly, arms outstretched like superman.   I stood at the top, having accepted their challenge, and had many second thoughts — though there was clearly no way out. 

I asked for the helmet.  The owner of the helmet refused, handing me a soft stocking cap instead.   So soft I stood there petting it, a really beautiful material.   I put it on, stalling, not quite sure how I’d wound up in this untenable position.   I told them I needed to go next door.

Next door, in the bar,  I ran into a girl I used to know.   I told her about my predicament and that I had to go back and body surf down this steep staircase next door.   Instead of talking sense to me, or urging me to flee, as I was out of the presence of the toughs, she told me she’d go with me, that she had to see this.   She accompanied me next door, back to the top of the stairs, where she took a seat on a long bench with the Thai toughs (why were these toughs Thai?  No idea) and waited for me to make my injurious descent.   What the fuck, I thought?   I continued to stall.

I stalled long enough to wake up from this dream.   When I did, my first thought was that letter of apology I’d written to a person who had already told me that my previous two apologies, while sincere, were beside the point.  A person incapable accepting an apology and of apologizing himself.   I was angry about bending a knee to someone I still thought of as a petty tyrant, a giant two year-old.    

I understand:  you don’t apologize for the petty tyrant’s sake.  You apologize for your regrettable, if arguably justifiable, overkill.   You apologize to remind yourself to try to do better next time.

You apologize for the way your taking of the high road (no cursing, no outward show of hurt or rage) was nonetheless dismissive, vicious, and reduced the other person to sputtering, silent rage he could only take out on his wife. 

You apologize for the sake of the wife’s feelings, and because you probably didn’t need to remove all four of the guy’s limbs, and his head, no matter how loudly and aggressively the angry tough guy may have demanded it.   

You apologize because it is the right thing to do, because the world is better when people try to make peace than when they hold ugly grudges.  Even if it makes you feel like you are giving in to a smirking bunch of asshole bullies who wait for you to break a limb or two, or perhaps your neck, as you try to keep your word.

I Can’t Keep Blaming Mr. Hitler

True, Hitler did send columns of determined men with guns to conquer areas where my family in Europe lived, followed by special squads of “ideological” specialists who worked with desperate, angry locals to kill everyone in my family (and their ilk) left in Europe.   Not a bit nice, as my grandmother Yetta used to say about people who did awful things.   Yetta herself had six siblings (every brother and sister she had) and her two parents murdered, by local Ukrainians, granted, but at the behest of specialized men who took an oath of personal loyalty to Mr. Hitler and did everything he told them to do. [1]     

I tend to think regularly of the outsized influence this conceited little puke had on my family, by killing virtually all of them — and then I think– you know, it all took place thirteen years before I was even born.    There are, after all, two sides, at least, to every story, plus all that nuance.   Maybe I am just being a melodramatic little bastard by continuing to make a big deal about this Hitler business, blaming that long-dead extremist demagogue for things that had nothing whatsoever to do with him.

I mean, people in my small family here, people I actually knew well, hated each other– having nothing whatsoever to do with Adolf Fucking Hitler.   A pair of half-siblings, my father’s first cousins, didn’t exchange a word for the last thirty years or more of their long lives.   What had Mr. Hitler to do with that?  Absolutely innocent on that count, your honor!

My fractured family, largely extirpated by men obedient to Mr. Hitler, was composed, a couple of generations back, in Hitler’s day, of a large group of hardworking poor people.   They were what you call “nobodies”.   Their lives fell silently into that huge statistic of dead people killed in the deadliest war in history.   On my father’s side the disappeared hamlet they came from, down to its precise location in the marsh land of Belarus, was one of literally thousands of Jewish enclaves permanently wiped off the world map in those years, when men like Mr. Hitler and his kind made big, important decisions about who shall live and who needed to be exterminated.  

I look at my own circumstances, ponder the epigenetics of it sometimes, the way my grandparents’ experience of being the sole survivors of large, murdered families might have shaped their personalities, how that unspoken of trauma of their murdered brothers and sisters and everyone else they knew altered the things they passed on to me without any of us being aware of it.   Then I think, there you go, blaming Mr. Hitler again!

I sometimes find myself comparing the circumstances of my own family with those of the proud, accomplished Jared Kushner and his family.   Jared has that haughty bearing, proud and imperious as a top SS man in the old photos.  It may seem unfair to make that comparison between a very wealthy Jew and the most “ideological” of the Nazi leadership cadre (most top SS men, as they say, were “well-born”), but you have to admit, looking at the way he carries himself, that Jared is an indomitable man and appears quite certain of his superiority.   Jared would never allow himself to be marched to a ravine for a bullet in the back of his head, after giving up his clothes for payment to his murderers.  No way.  Jared would find a way to win, to vanquish his enemies, because a guy like Jared Kushner, let’s face it, one of the President of the United States’ top advisors, is a winner.   His kind doesn’t get shot lying face down in a ditch like a nobody.

You may be tempted to call it a matter of pure, dumb luck, observe that Jared was randomly born to a very wealthy family of Jews who escaped the Nazi murder machine and managed to thrive in the United States, amassing a fortune of almost two billion dollars in barely two generations.  Think deeper.   It is just as likely a matter of character, which is, of course, destiny.  The best are the best for a reason, n’est-ce pas?  If it was mere dumb luck that Jared’s grandparents arrived here and were able to build a modest family business, buying and renting out multiunit apartment buildings in New Jersey, into a thriving real estate empire in just a few decades while mine worked as hard for a fraction of the reward, then what does it all mean?  What is the possible meaning of this random, merciless arrangement? 

I get worked up sometimes considering questions like these and I eventually get back to blaming fucking Hitler.   At the same time, I know that Mr. Hitler was merely a symptom, a purulent boil that was fated to burst upon the scene, like any inevitable destructive psychopath whose message manages to resonate with millions and spurs them to unthinking violence.  

I mean, if Mr. Hitler had never lived, had never come to power in the most civilized, highly industrialized nation of his day, had never held sway over millions of Germans (36.8% voted for his party in the last election of the democratic Weimar Republic), how different would the world be today?  How different would my life be?  Hard to imagine.   And senseless to try, really, except for the lessons I take from it, having studied Mr. Hitler and the rise of the movement he led, some might say obsessively, on and off for literally decades.

I realize, of course, that even if Mr. Hitler (I’m adopting the New York Times style here, the Grey Lady once puckishly referred to “Mr. Clapton” and “Mr. Diddley” in a piece about Eric and Bo) had never existed, most of my family probably never would have arrived here in the USA anyway.   By 1924 prominent American “nativists”, xenophobes and racists, under the banner of Eugenics (a discredited sham science that the learned and unimpeachable Mr. Trump devoutly espouses to this day), had severely restricted immigration from shit-hole countries like the places my people come from.  The few who arrived here came in before the land of the free largely closed its doors to immigrants in 1924, the last of them, my grandfather, sneaking in in 1923.

1924, coincidentally, was the year of my father’s birth, in an unforgiving, crime-infested  slum in Lower Manhattan.    Trump’s feverishly imagined Baltimore has nothing on the Lower East Side of New York City in 1924.   1924 was also the year, nine years after D.W. Griffith’s darkly influential silent film masterpiece The Birth of A Nation extolled the heroism of the Ku Klux Klan, that Klan membership in America reached its all-time peak of 2.4 million proud sheet wearing members.   Birth of A Nation was the first motion picture screened in the White House and President Woodrow Wilson, who watched it raptly, [2] later enthused “it’s like writing history in lightning, and my only regret is that it is all so terribly true!”

What was so terribly true, in the eyes of the otherwise progressive Woodrow Wilson (aren’t people complex?), was that the former slaves down south had been completely out of control, savagely and vengefully dominating the innocent local whites and raping the women — also attaining political office in many areas with their new bayonet-imposed right to vote.   As Griffith showed in his blockbuster epic, history written in lightning fifty years after the fact, a heroic band of white underdogs, modern day knights in sheets, arose to protect the glorious South from these unrestrained black beasts and protect the honor of their pure, white women.  

I was exposed to a big chunk of this controversial movie by an Italian visiting professor, during my time in graduate school at City College.   Almost ninety years after Griffith wrote his terribly true history in lighting, she insisted the group of us in her comparative literature seminar watch it.   I was there as part of my study of, eh, creative writing.   We all agreed that movie was some fucked up and incendiary distortion of history as we knew it.   It also explained a lot about historical revisionism and the dramatic power of heroically presented bullshit shouted through the right megaphone.

The forces of violent, irrational hatred in the world are always simmering (open virtually any history book anywhere if you doubt this).   Mr. Hitler sometimes, in the early days, when he was up and coming, humbly referred to himself as a “drummer”, the kid tirelessly banging the drum to set the cadence for the righteously marching troop parade.   Like the guy on the old slave-powered Roman galley, the hortator, some poor bastard who beat a drum and chanted to set the cadence for the coordinated pulling of the heavy oars by the other slaves, as ordered by the captain.

We have a hortator, inciter, encourager, exhorter, urger like that right here, in charge of scrawling his name jaggedly across the bottom of Executive Orders, veto pen in his other hand, and though I hesitate to invoke his tiresome name (again) in a piece about blaming Hitler, well, really, who can blame me?   Ah, fuck him [3] and the Nazi hordes he rode in on.   I really do have to stop blaming Mr. Fucking Hitler, though.

 

[1]  Hitler’s every word was, literally, law.   The Nazis phrased it “Fuhrerworte haben Gesetzeskrafte” and it was left to an army of Nazi lawyers to put their infallible leader’s every utterance into crisp legalize and codify it into the German legal code of the time. 

[2] I’ll try to keep the fucking toilet type adjectives and nouns here in the footnotes, gentle reader.  Wilson was a racist motherfucker if there ever was one.  He was the only U.S. president  in history born and raised in the Confederacy, so there’s that– he grew up in besieged and eventually defeated territory that had staged an armed rebellion against the United States.  In fairness to him, the famous Progressive also apparently hated Jews, a people who are not, except to certain racists, actually a “race”, though, like the Fuhrer himself (who had more than 300 “do not touch” Jews on his list) he had Jews he thought were first class.    He nominated Louis Brandeis to the Supreme Court in 1916– a bold and progressive move.    As it was later written of Brandeis by Justice William O. Douglas:

 “Brandeis was a militant crusader for social justice whoever his opponent might be. He was dangerous not only because of his brilliance, his arithmetic, his courage. He was dangerous because he was incorruptible … [and] the fears of the Establishment were greater because Brandeis was the first Jew to be named to the Court.”

the Wiki continues:

On June 1, 1916, he was confirmed by the Senate by a vote of 47 to 22, to become one of the most famous and influential figures ever to serve on the high court. His opinions were, according to legal scholars, some of the “greatest defenses” of freedom of speech and the right to privacy ever written by a member of the Supreme Court.

source

[3] Shit, sorry, gentle reader, I f–ed up.  So hard to keep the fucking cuss words out of it, idn’t it?

Organizing my attack

Sometimes we get insight in a very roundabout way, only after a thing has been gnawing at us for a very long time.   It can take being nibbled by a particular demon for many years before you jump out of your chair one day and say “what the fuck?!!” look down and see what is snacking on you.

At the end of several long, stressful days getting the house ready for the contractors (the lioness’s share done by indefatigable, self-proclaimed working dog Sekhnet)  I went through a pile of papers (a short stack) propped helter skelter on a board laid across an open desk drawer.   More than half the pages immediately went onto the recycle pile to be carried down to the bag.   The rest, mostly drawings, I clipped neatly into the clipboard they were lying haphazardly on.   

Not really very hard, I realized, though the volume and variety of papers here, as I glance around, is many, many times more than that short stack at Sekhnet’s I dispatched in a few minutes.   Of course, Sekhnet is right — spending a half hour a day at it would make a big difference within a few days, even here, in the eye of the storm.

Another insight hit me when I pulled a page I’d printed out of the pile and began reading.   It was my unsent pitch to a publisher who welcomes book proposals from unknown authors.   A two paragraph evocation of the book I thought I was writing about my father, something I worked on hours every day for two years, a massive, unwieldy first draft.   

I stopped reading my pitch shortly into the second “reveal” paragraph.   I was glad I’d never sent the thing, it was a labored, strenuous, grunting swing at nothing but air.   It did not present a hint of a compelling idea for a book.

I recently saw a best-selling author, in the windup to an ad for his Master Class on how to become a successful writer, describe the writing of the second draft as an exercise in convincing everyone that you knew exactly where you were going when you wrote the first draft.    Wow.    That’s precisely my challenge in putting together the book of my father’s life and then successfully pitching it.   

The story of my difficult father’s life is not the tired old story of a smart idealist with an abusive dark side, fighting for justice for strangers while doing great harm to his own family.   It’s not the story of a man’s triumphant emergence from childhood poverty into the middle class (along with a large cohort of World War Two vets at a unique and fleeting moment in history).  It’s not the story of monstrous anger, righteous and senseless both, and a rigid inability to forgive.   

Those things are part of the back story.   The book is more of a meditation on the nature and substance of history itself, what we remember and what we forget, and the imagining of a lifelong conversation that should have been.   That conversation with the skeleton of my father, the one that began the last night of his life, is the heart of the book, though it’s not the story I need to tell, shop and sell.  

The real story is what I suspected from the start, the difficulty of forgiveness and a rare moment of grace, just before death, when an unbearable burden is lifted, the regrettable truth finally spoken and reassurance given to the dying man just before his light winks out.  The story is about exactly what those regrets are made of, what was learned, and lost, how the unlikely and precious moment came to happen at all.

Twenty-five years ago an old friend celebrated my decision to become a lawyer (an ill-considered one, at best) as me finally being about to “compete”.  I get what he was saying, I’ve always kept myself out of the economic competition that defines our materialistic culture, refusing to race the rest of the rats for the mirage of an illusory goal (or simply being a cowardly rat, depending on your view).   I did not embrace the world’s second oldest profession, nor did I ever really compete in it, outside of plucking the occasional victim out of the meat grinder of justice, as when I saved an old woman from homelessness at the hands of zealous NYCHA attorneys.

In mulling over the anger I’ve been feeling lately I realize part of it is my chafing feeling of paralysis (not helped by painfully arthritic knees — as Vonnegut said “be kind to your knees, you’ll miss them when they’re gone.”), of being overwhelmed by difficult things that are hard, true, but clearly not impossible.    Part is anger at my resigned acceptance of a limited, frugal life, foregoing comfortable middle class options while muttering here in great, sometimes worthwhile, detail about the objectively atrocious state of things and what I have pieced together.   

I’m angry about having no voice, in spite of speaking all the time (as I am silently doing right now, you dig?), and often finding and saying things I think would advance the larger discussion in a threatened world increasingly dominated by mindless bluster and vapid shouting.   I’m angry that evil idiots, often born “booted and spurred” to ride the rest of us [1] rule and I that have nothing to say about any of it, no matter how well I may say it.    And that others, professionals, who blow “thoughts” out of their asses, are well-paid to do it.

I’m angry about my inability to marshal my abilities to tell a story and get paid.   I’m angry that I have to monetize my writing in the first place (but in an uncertain casino economy one needs to keep some money coming in) and I’m angry that I’m not getting any money for it.

I’m angry that I’m not getting paid for writing what I write and I’m angry that I’m doing virtually nothing about it.  It is a frustrating cycle and it presses on because I do not confront the hard work I need to do to market and sell my work.   I am, on a fundamental level (and as hard as I’ve often worked in my life) lazy, preferring at any given moment to do what I like rather than what needs to be done.  Since writing itself is satisfying to me, once I have the words in final form, I never think of it as unproductive unless paid for.   When I think of it that way, through the eyes of the world, it pisses me off.   

I don’t mean to say that lazy is the last word on my life, it certainly isn’t (he hastily added).  There is also fear, of course, long habit, the actual daunting difficulty of the uphill task, and so forth.   I learned a very important life lesson during a dark time in my life — how crucial it is to be kind to yourself.   I don’t pile on myself when the going gets tough and I never reduce myself to the sum of my faults.   

On the other hand, this anger I’ve described is something only I can work on, a grating car alarm only I have the key to silencing.  I also remind myself that I don’t need to be paid a million bucks or write a blockbuster hit, a couple of thousand dollars would be a very good start.

Sekhnet observed the other day that the therapy I’ve gone through did not touch my powerful aversion to organizing my papers, my life.   Fair enough.  I’ve recently come to think of my great and irrational resistance to going through old papers as an odd reflection of my fear of death, but what the fuck is up with that?

Anger at how difficult it has been for me to read the proverbial writing on the wall, about situations, sometimes about people, the bottom-line nature of the reality we are all living in, is less than useless.    Anger, while it can alert us to a problem in the manner of all pain, disables the ability to see any path out of it, as anger directs all energy back to itself.  Time to poke a few breathing holes in this smothering carapace of aggravation, I say.  

 

 

 

[1]   The well-read Thomas Jefferson, master of the felicitous phrase, stole this famous image for his final letter (shortly after the great passage about democracy  “arousing men to burst the chains under which monkish ignorance and superstition had persuaded them to bind themselves, and to assume the blessings and security of self-government”).

The general spread of the light of science has already laid open to every view the palpable truth, that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God.

source

from Richard Rumbold, a man executed by the English for treason more than a century earlier.  Rumbold delivered the line toward the end of his final remarks, moments before he was drawn and quartered :   

I am sure there was no man born marked of God above another, for none comes into the world with a saddle on his back, neither any booted and spurred to ride him.

source

I always loved this image of people born “booted and spurred” to ride the rest of us, particularly at a moment like this — Avi Berkowitz, 30 year-old assistant to Trump Special Advisor Jared Kushner, himself the supremely unqualified son of a billionaire. is elevated, by another very important man who inherited hundreds of millions and squandered more than that, to take the helm of  Trump’s secret, still unreleased Middle East Peace Plan that these born booted and spurred individuals are already boasting about. 

as to Richard Rumbold, here’s some great detail:

Note 1. Delivered in Edinburgh. Rumbold was captured after having been wounded and then separated from his companions in arms. An immediate trial had been ordered that he might be condemned before he died of his wounds. He was found guilty on June 26, 1685, sentenced to be executed the same afternoon, and was drawn and quartered, the quarters being exposed on the gates of English towns. [back]
Note 2. At this point Rumbold was interrupted by drum beating. He said he would say no more on that subject, “since they were so disingenuous as to interrupt a dying man.” [back]

 

To Feel or Not To Feel

An old friend reminded me the other night that it is better (though not easier) to feel what you’re feeling, experience the pain of it if it’s painful, than to pretend not to feel any part of what is oppressing you.   Feeling your feelings is an essential part of processing, healing, moving forward, being respectful and kind to yourself. Which seems counter-intuitive when you feel like shit.   It was good to be reminded of this pillar of humaneness.  If we practice not feeling what we’re feeling, how do we remain empathetic to difficult things our loved ones often go through?

I think of the choice to feel or not to feel as closely related to the choice between knowing and not knowing [1].   I think it’s better to feel and to know.  The choice not to feel a given feeling or consider a given fact is often simple denial.   Repressing the feelings your soul is going through, denying things that make it go through turmoil, is a one way ticket on the Miserable Asshole Express, as far as I can tell.   As they say on TV, individual exceptions may apply.   I’m not certainly not advocating no anesthesia before a painful procedure, I like a good anodyne as much as the next agony avoider, but I also see the importance of feeling my feelings and having my thinking informed with as much actual knowledge — and feedback from people I trust —  as possible.

What we feel is often closely related to what we know, or, just as often, to what we don’t know.   I’ve been feeling mostly anger since I learned of the sudden, senseless, premature death of a once very close friend.  He died alone and virtually friendless, in spite of possessing many great and rare qualities that could have made him a good friend to many.   It irked me, in large part, that his mere death, a purely random event two thousand miles away,  compelled me, involuntarily (as far as I could tell) to focus once more on his irremediably painful life of wasted potential.  To me an important piece of working out the puzzle of anger is figuring out exactly why the hell something makes me so mad.  I don’t know a better way of trying to digest things and come out the other side of anger.

I’ve been remembering viscerally, continually, the many years I tried to make the pain-filled solipsist see another perspective, how hard I banged my head against the locked door of his highly intelligent but utterly closed mind.   Part of my anger is at myself, for remaining friends with such an impossible person, expecting the clearly impossible, even after ample proof of its impossibility, not accepting the futility of this abzurd expectation years earlier, not saving myself a decade or two of stressful, energy-sapping adversarial relations with a very unhappy and demanding, yea, toxic, person.

Sometimes something we learn or realize can immediately begin to change our feelings for the better.   We can’t learn this kind of crucial thing without being open to learning, and to our feelings about what we learn.   We can’t feel any differently, can’t get relief from hurt, without additional insight.   Not that learning a better way, or discovering an objective, revealing fact that changes a story,  instantly makes bad feelings go away.   Feelings, bad and good, will always arise and often challenge us.

One insight I was blessed to be given was that sometimes much of what we suffer over is not remotely our fault or our doing.  No less an authority than the Buddha taught that the nature of life in this world involves this kind of impersonal suffering we can’t help but feel personally, from the pain of being attached to things that can vanish at any time.   I don’t know much about Buddha, but I do know that what the fox said in William Steig’s beautiful The Amazing Bone rings very true in regard to perplexing things beyond our control we sometimes agonize over:  I didn’t make the world.

All we can do is live in this world the best we can, trying to be kind, maintaining the relationships we value as well as we can, until it is our time to move on, hopefully with some grace, as a final gift to those we love.  

I’m thinking about this today in part because of what my friend said the other night about feeling his painful feelings and partly because of two very different reactions from two old friends to my last angry piece about the now recently cremated Mark.

One read the final email exchange between me and my relentlessly exasperating old friend and didn’t understand what was so provocative about his final response that I felt compelled to drive a stake through his grieving heart right after his mother died.  His question caused me to re-read Mark’s last words carefully and write a detailed explanation.   This process entailed putting my finger on exactly why it had set me off, giving him the context of my long experience that had left me with the conditioned reflex to react that way.   He wrote back that he understood now, and found my explanation quite complete and sensible.

Another old friend had a much different reaction.  He was troubled by the outpouring of rage, which struck him more as the reaction of a betrayed lover than a merely disillusioned friend.    I wrote back that we were like siblings, bound in a constant sullenly competitive rivalry (Mark really wasn’t my romantic type, I’d have to say).  I offered to send him the long email I’d already written explaining exactly where the rage came from but he declined, having read enough already.   De gustibus non disputandum est.   I don’t judge anyone about their appetite for the hideous details, we are all different that way.

I have an appetite for the hideous details.   As, to some extent, does my friend who asked me why I’d been so savage replying to what appeared to him as an inept, clumsy, odd yet sincere attempt at reconciliation, not the final provocation I took it to be.   It was a good question, I saw, rereading the awkward reply that had set me off.   Sitting down to examine my anger and setting out exactly what ignited it was an excellent use of several hours.   In the end I felt neither arbitrary nor capricious (nor unfair) in responding the way I had.  

This can also be seen as merely my take on the endlessly justifying human need to endlessly justify our behavior and the justness of the feelings that lead us to do what we do.   Sure.   I made a good case for why I was angry, cited a few persuasive examples from the text.   It is what lawyers do in our litigious society and I did it to the satisfaction of my fellow lawyer.  

It was also an examination, for me, of the more vexing question of whether I had been fair to do what I’d done.   I questioned my actions, my motives.   The whole process of unraveling Mark’s maddeningly “un-unravelable” lifelong conundrum, as reflected in his final email, was some help to me.  In the end I was satisfied that I’d behaved as I’d want to behave, as I’d will anyone else in the same situation to behave, if I had the power to make it so.   The old Kantian Moral Imperative: act in a way that the world would be a better place if everyone did likewise.

One more annoying question and I’ll be on my way.   Why write things like this and hit “publish”, why put these sometimes troubling personal musings up on the internet for anyone to find?     Aren’t these private thoughts best shared among a small handful of closest friends?  Couldn’t they potentially torment people who might have loved Mark and not shared my anger at him?

I write them for an invisible reader as a way of putting things that feel important to me in a more objective, finalized form.   I need to provide enough general background for anyone to understand what I’m talking about.   In doing this I practice sorting through everything in mind and putting it forward in a way that is most easily comprehensible.   It’s not good writing if the average reader can’t follow it.  

Writing it, and constantly re-editing it, allows me to go back and clarify whatever is left unclear, on the page and in my mind.  In combing away cluttering words (in a way I wish I could attack my desk or kitchen table) I am able to make what I am saying, what I am feeling, clearer and clearer — to the virtual reader and to myself.

When it is as clear as I can make it, there is a feeling of completeness, the satisfaction of a job well-done.   Before I hit “publish” I read it one last time, to make sure everything is in the place where it makes sense for it to be (I often continue editing an already ‘finalized’ post any time I find something confusing in it).  If somebody in Kenya reads it, and it helps her see something in her life better, my work is worth it, I suppose.

 

 

[1[  Mind you, though you surely don’t need reminding, I speak merely as one opinionated, self-appointed pontiff (the better to pontificate, I say).   Feel free to skip this entirely, reject my right to write it or mock away.  This thinking/writing business works for me, better than the alternatives, anyway, but reading it is not for everybody — it goes without saying… just sayin’…