Gentlemen’s agreement — no lies

My father hated liars.  Lying was a line he wouldn’t cross himself (partly because he didn’t need to, as I will explain in a moment) and something he didn’t forgive in others.  I saw very early on that if you made up a false, childish story to hide something from him, he’d see through the lie and label you a lying piece of shit forever. 

I understand that a lie can make a lasting impression of lack of character, or sometimes no impression (if the lie is minor and doesn’t really affect you).  The trouble is, before you lie you never know which way it will go.

The obvious problem with a lie is that the person you are lying to  can be holding the proof of your lie in his hand.  “Did you ever write a letter denouncing me to Child Protective Services as a ‘vicious monster unfit to raise children’?” my father could ask.  If you said it never happened, and he was able to pull out your childishly pencilled letter to Child Protective Services, point to the verbatim quote right there on the lined paper, that would be it, for the rest of your life, the verdict: fucking liar.

I actually did lie to him once, about having taken mescaline as a teenager.  “Did you ever take mescaline?” he asked the sixteen year-old version of me pointedly.   I denied it, weakly, and he pulled out a letter I’d written to a girlfriend, written in mercurochrome, which might as well have been blood.  The bloody looking scrawling, with plenty of ghoulish drips and glops, was a raving love letter to psychedelics and included a vow to take a lot more of it in the coming days.   

“Shit,” I thought, when he disgustedly pulled out the letter “I never mailed that letter to Barbara, must have fallen behind my parents’ bed when I was sleeping in there for the AC when they were out of town…”   My lie was a one-off, my father recognized, and no big referendum on my character resulted from it.

Not so for other people we knew who lied to my father, even once.  My sister, when she was maybe seven, hatched a caper with her seven year-old accomplice, Jefferey Seigel, to break into my little cash register-shaped piggy bank and use the illicit proceeds to buy candy.  The plan went perfectly, until I came home and found the little cash register pried open and empty of its perhaps 80 cents in coins (this would have been 1965 money, probably $5 or $10 in today’s candy buying coin, shit, maybe more — a Milky Way cost maybe a dime in those days, I think) and the list of culprits was quickly narrowed down to my little sister.  She rolled on her henchman, after a series of the seven year old’s best attempts at lies was brushed aside by my prosecutor father. 

He never let her forget this childish act of piracy on the high seas, made a hundred times worse by the lies about not being a childish brigand.  Anytime he got angry at her, the first salvo would be about how she lacked character, stole from her own brother to buy candy, AND LIED ABOUT IT.  A little thief, AND a liar.

A lie can be maddening, it’s true, and I’ll never know the roots of my father’s hatred of lying, but the reason people lie is also usually understandable.  People don’t often lie without a reason.   The reason is most of the time to avoid feeling bad, to avoid having to take responsibility for a mistake, to avoid punishment. 

This makes the whole exercise kind of ironic: you lie to avoid telling the truth, to make yourself feel less vulnerable, and this places you in the category of ordinary, very vulnerable, fucking liars.  If the lie can be shown to be a lie, you’re a proven liar, and often, in the eyes of many, mostly honest, people, a weak and contemptible person.

My father was an angry brute whenever he felt he needed to be, in the privacy of his own home.  He’d never confront people in the street, or at work, but around the dinner table, with just the four of us there, he was fearless and fierce in protecting his turf and asserting his dominance and superiority.   In this way he was like many other narcissistic people with terribly painful wounds doing his best to feel like a whole person, in the face of unbearable early life humiliation.   I don’t even hold it against him any more.   The thing I’m thinking about now is his basic honesty, the way I almost never knew him to lie.  As I said, he didn’t need to.  Check this out:

If you can control the conversation at every stage, you can change the subject to whatever you want to talk about, before there is any reason to lie.  A lie is told when the liar finds himself in a corner, nowhere to go.  The truth leads to an electric shock, a lie might get you off without the voltage going through you.  The trapped rat chooses option two, sometimes avoids the sting of electricity.  My father mastered the art of never finding himself in a corner.  No corner trap, no real urgency to lie.  He was very good at reframing every argument to quickly turn it back on the person he was trying to cow.

You can say, big man, reframing and gaslighting his own kids!, and sure, when my sister was seven and I was nine, it looked pitiful enough to see this brilliant adult using sophisticated tools to argue his children into submission.  He did the same when we were twenty, thirty and forty.   I eventually went to law school, in a misguided attempt to do something to please the unpleasable old man, and only after graduating and passing the bar did I fairly easily beat him into silence during our last argument, about two years before he died.

But, check this out, if you lack the adroit mind of my father, and find yourself in a heated no-holds-barred argument with someone in command of the facts, with a clear memory of events, who cuts through your rationales quickly and decisively, you will likely feel cornered.   The first line of defense might be just reflexive defensiveness:  no, you say I hurt you, but you hurt me, that’s why I did it, because you hurt me, you merciless fuck!    A second line, change the subject, to anything.  Why are you still talking about this when I’m now talking about that?   See, you won’t talk about what I want to talk about, what I need.   HOW ABOUT WHAT I need?!!!!  You selfish fuck.

If the relentless argument continues, and the attempts at reframing, misdirection, gaslighting and everything else are not working, you find yourself in a corner and there is only one card left: lying.  What you said I said I never said and even if I had said it it was only because of what you said, but you are lying, I never said that!   In fact, I remember exactly why I said it and I was completely right to say it, even though I never said it!

In the end, one party can shake its head sadly, regarding the liar with a shaming expression on its face.  “Dude, at least I never fucking lied to you…”

The person who lied, if humiliated enough to lie and then be caught in the lie, and, the ultimate shame, being name-called a liar?   They’re not going to be arguing with you ever again.   Neither are they going to do you any more favors, or laugh at your jokes, or invite you to dinner or take any chance of a repeat of the horrific shit that just happened, even though you were completely wrong and they never lied, and, even if they did, it was your fault for backing them into that corner of the cage and putting the electrodes on them, and what trapped rat wouldn’t lie under those merciless conditions, you sick fuck?

My father never found himself in this position, never had to bend the truth at all, because he was a master at his craft.  He never found himself cornered.   To him, lying during a conflict was contemptible, it showed you had no fucking game. 

So, during our long, senseless war, I accepted his perverse gentlemen’s agreement:  we fight to the death, and that’s the way it has to be, but we will not consciously lie to each other during our fight to the death.   I shook on that deal, for better or worse.

Conflict as zero sum

It is the hallmark of a certain kind of person to see all conflict as zero sum, win/lose, an existential fight to the death. Most people, who experience conflict as just part of life, know that with sufficient goodwill conlict can almost always be resolved. Unless you see all conflict as a deadly threat to yourself.

If you know somebody who has no skill at resolving conflict, you can avoid tension with them as much as possible by remaining mild, but understand that one day, if conflict arises between you, there will be no solution outside of the end of the relationship.

This limited view of the world, seeing any kind of conflict, no matter how minor, as a deadly threat and compromise as fatal, pathetic, weakness, cannot be overcome by your understanding, your patience, your love, your friendship, your own willingness to compromise. This type sees compromise as surrender, cowardly capitulation, abject submission, humiliation.

When they do apologize to you (to end the conflict immediately, without further discussion) it will be with restrictions, caveats, qualifications and the need to make you understand that they are only apologizing because you are weak, not because they did anything that hurt you, something that would have hurt them .

Once you see an inability to resolve conflict or compromise, know the score. You are dealing with somebody who has no idea how to work out conflicts with others. It may feel like your fault because you can’t fix something that should otherwise be relatively simple to work out, but after you’ve done everything possible to make amends, and the implacability remains, time to walk away.

That walk will be the best thing you can do for yourself, unbearably sad as it also feels when you take those first steps away from someone you have long cared about.

Instantly age 25 years!

I have been moving toward surgery to replace my ailing left knee joint.  It has been a slow lurch, after years of increasing physical limitation, and the next step is to meet with a surgeon and set up the surgery.  Meanwhile, I am doing PT and trying to choose a surgeon, basically blind.  The two who were highly recommended do not seem to accept Medicare’s discounted payment.  

Last night, after a leisurely walk of about a mile, during which I spent most of that time resting on benches along my little circular route, I went out for a last bit of air.  Called Sekhnet and one minute into the call found myself suddenly falling, my right knee, the one that has been bearing most of the weight for a long time, suddenly deciding to send me an urgent message.  The knee said “fuck you, I’ve been doing most of the fucking heavy lifting and weight bearing here for a long time, and the burden on me gets heavier and heavier as you fret about your ‘bad’ knee and its thousand dollar brace.  How’s this for a bad knee, you merciless, heedless fuck?”   With that the knee simply folded as I extended it to shift my weight onto it, without so much as a “watch out, fucker!”

I fell so suddenly that my head hit the pavement, just above the left eye, with a bounce on the side of my nose.  I saw the stars you see in a cartoon when somebody gets cracked in the skull, bright white stars with exclamation points.   Luckily I didn’t break my head, or even my nose. My left hand, the guitar fretting hand, took the brunt of the impact, as did my left knee and several ribs on the left side.  Fucking hell.   Managed to make it to a nearby stoop where I sat and took stock of my injuries.  Luckily, nothing seemed to be broken.  The limp back to my place was painful as hell, the right leg weak, wobbly and inflamed with every step, the skinned left knee cap making its distres known.  Up two flights of stairs, which took a bit longer than usual, but not awful.

Bag of frozen peas on my barked left knee cap, with my left hand on top, swaddled in ice.  Took two extra strength tylenols,  sat back in my easy chair.  The pain mercifully yielded as I spoke to Sekhnet, reassured her that I was OK, and took a call from an old friend who gave his two cents about concussion protocol.  The idea of a seven hour wait Saturday night at my local Emergency Room didn’t appeal to me, I wasn’t dizzy, hadn’t been knocked out, my vision was fine, my speech wasn’t slurred.  In yer proverbial abundance of caution Sekhnet came by and picked me up, took me to the farm to observe me and take me to a hospital if I suddenly took an ominous turn.

Slept OK, much to my surprise.  Woke up today feeling twenty-five years older than I did when I woke up yesterday.  Fucking hell.   Will be wearing my knee brace and walking with the cane until I can get the knee operation worked out.  You betcha.

The Age of Narcissism

I read a fascinating book, at my sister’s recommendation, Jon Krakauer’s Under the Banner of Heaven.  It is an exploration of the Mormon faith, framed by a grisly murder two devout, fringe Mormons committed after one of them got a revelation from God that the two victims (his wife and daughter) had to be “removed.”   The book explores the hazy boundary between true religious inspiration and justicially cognizable insanity. 

At one point the lawyers for the murderer are making an argument to keep him from the death penalty.  The lawyer tells the court that someone who has suffered severe early life injury to their self-esteem sometimes compensates by becoming grandiose.  When this happens the person has an overriding need to believe that they are superior, special, perfect, beautiful — on pain of feeling humiliatingly inferior, worthless, fatally flawed and ugly —  and constructs a black and white world view accordingly.  The condition the lawyer claimed had disabled his client is called Narcissism.

It was an illuminating insight to me, since I’d long struggled against my father’s black and white worldview (a severely limiting view he lamented greatly as he was dying) but never made the connection to what I knew about narcissism.  In order to feel superior, you must subordinate others, blame them for your incapacities. 

A person who has not suffered enough shame to become a narcissist can admit a mistake, take blame for a thoughtless and hurtful thing they’ve done, sincerely apologize.  For a narcissist, these things are almost impossible, since it makes them feel terrifyingly worthless, vulnerable and deserving of not being loved.

What I realized recently, having had an otherwise exemplary father (another recent realization that surprised me, how much valuable parenting my father also did, how much better he did than was done to him) who was narcissistic, is that many of my oldest friends were also narcissists.

I knew I’d been attracted to very smart, sardonic, darkly funny, damaged people (as I myself am), knew that they resembled my father in key ways, knew I was trying to work out problems with him through surrogates.

Having the frame “narcissist” suddenly made a lifetime of conflicts with this same type understandable to me.  The end of each of these friendships was inevitable once conflict began to escalate, I see now. 

The connection I had with my father was far deeper than with anyone I met and became longtime friends with, a final split with Irv was always unthinkable to me, and in the end, my painful work in therapy paid off in us being able to have an important, candid chat, finally, hours before he died.   The mutually blessed talk that last night of his life came about because I understood the awful hand he’d been dealt and realized he’d truly done the best he could, as I kept reassuring him as he whipped himself over having been “a horse’s ass” for his whole life. 

We’re living in the Age of Narcissism, it seems to me.  A zero-sum game composed of only absolute winners and contemptible losers, where one side plays for keeps and the moral qualms of the other side are easily weaponized for use against them.   My new personal stake in it, how it shaped my life now that I see my father was largely this way (though, of course, with a capacity for self-reflection and self-criticism missing from most narcissists, plus a great sense of humor) and being vilified by people who profess to love me, has made me grapple with the larger issue of autocracy/democracy on a visceral level.   

It’s easy to recognize in someone like Donald Trump the malignant narcissist, someone so obviously and deeply damaged that their only survival mechanism is belief in an absurdly comical superiority.  When this claimed superiority is treated as the grotesque comedy it truly is, these folks, seeing the world as zero-sum and kill or be killed, have no hesitation to do whatever they feel they need to do to prove they are not worthless, weak, pathetic victims. 

They all want to be “strongmen.”  A psychiatrist who worked with violent felons in prison wrote “every act of violence is an attempt to replace humiliation with self-esteem.”  We all know what these types are capable of, and will do if given the chance (look at Putin, destroying the archive that commemorated WWII war crimes on all sides and unleashing legions of raping mercenaries to execute civilians).

Anyway, not to go down the dark, apocalyptic fascism-on-the-global rise rabbit hole.  Just to say that I feel my personal learnings, coming sharply into focus during this last hellish year with my old friends, help shine a light for me on the larger forces, the narcissistic, arrogant, mediocre, insanely influential sons and grandsons of wealthy sociopaths:  D. Trump, C. Koch, E. Musk, J. Kushner et al.

Deleterious Cognition

As a teenager in anguish, with a rapidly growing vocabulary, I came up with a concept I called Deleterious Cognition [1].   It was a destructive thinking process, starting with a few verifiable facts, that led to dangerous inaction, or actions contrary to your best interests, all based on empirical knowledge that can’t be refuted. 

I was hard pressed to define deleterious cognition, or even give any convincing examples of it, until the other day, a half century after I began to understand the role deleterious cognition has played in my life, and, increasingly, in millions of lives.  I spoke it out loud to Sekhnet and realized: EUREKA!  I’ve got my perfect example of deleterious cognition.

I’m a fairly old man now and I need various medical treatments, sooner rather than later.  I have cataracts that are now clearly affecting my vision, a painful bone on bone severely bowed left knee joint that needs to be replaced, several other things I need to see to.  Procrastination is natural in the face of scary things, particularly when they come in bunches, but here’s where deleterious cognition comes in.

As I try to navigate Medicare (the poison pill-laden gold standard for health care here in the truly exceptional US of A) I am stopped in my tracks, over and over, by lack of basic information, by ambiguities in the written guide book they send Medicare recipients, contradictions that, if not caught, can cost the unwary their life savings. 

You’d think they’d have a warning in bold for all the codgers fearfully poring over the new terms every year, in a country where most people don’t have $400 on hand in the event of an emergency: 

WATCH THIS SHIT HERE, YOU HAVE A SHORT WINDOW OF TIME TO DO THIS OR IT MAY COST YOU, OUT OF POCKET, $50,000 or more FOR YOUR MEDICARE COVERED CANCER TREATMENT.   CALL THIS 24/7 HELPLINE IF YOU HAVE ANY QUESTIONS, YOU QUERULOUS COOTS.  ALSO, BEWARE OF CONSTANTLY ADVERTISED LOW COST  “MEDICARE ADVANTAGE PLANS” THAT APPEAR TO OFFER GREAT BENEFITS BUT CAN LEAVE YOU HOLDING ENORMOUS HOSPITAL BILLS.

Instead we have only the normal guardrail of the “Free Market” — caveat emptor, buyer beware, you fucking chump. 

Here’s where deleterious cognition comes in.  Frustrated by the poor design, and grotesque porousness of America’s health care “safety net” for senior citizens, I become too angry to read on, make notes, call various numbers over and over to try to solve an immediate and pressing problem.  So an actual objective set of facts, something I know, along with millions of others on a program booby trapped in favor of for-profit companies that live on the blood of anyone with any disease or health condition, becomes deleterious cognition when knowledge of the aggravating pitfalls stops you in your tracks.

Your mind will tell you, as you are caught in this deleterious thought cycle, that you are perfectly within your rights to be angry about a program designed to preserve mercenary corporate profits, at the expense of some of our most vulnerable citizens.  If an answer to a basic question cannot be found in the booklet they send out to “help” you, or by a visit to a website or a quick phone call … you know, fuck it and the fucking fucks who designed the goddamned program.   Deleterious cognition is a breakdown of rationality that the sufferer can present a perfectly rational argument for.

In a cooler moment you will freely concede that, once you find someone to explain what can’t be found in the guide book they send you, the program does allow you to protect yourself against tsunami-sized medical bills.   It’s very far from perfect, true, but, in fairness to Medicare, 80% of a million dollar hospital bill paid by public insurance leaves you only a $200,000 share to pay, which you can avoid by choosing the right “supplemental” plan from the alphabet soup of randomly lettered government mandated but privately administered programs, and pay the extra premium every month, to a private insurance company, to protect your life savings from health care predation once you pay $4,000-$5,000 every year out of pocket.

Deleterious cognition is the stream of aggravating thoughts that prevents you from avoiding danger you can also see coming.

If someone blames you for all conflict, insists you never talk about how the conflict hurts you, gets angry when you try to make peace, you can brood for a long time about what more you can do until you recognize a pattern and stumble on a sensible real-world explanation.  Inability to accept any responsibility, inability to empathize, inability to compromise, apologize, recognize another person’s right to their feelings are the hallmarks of a common, and very intractable, emotional frailty know as narcissism.  The need to be right, to feel just and perfect, in this type, outweighs all other considerations, because the agony of utter humiliation is their only alternative to feeling right, and just, and perfect at all times.

If a dear friend demonstrates these things to you, and your best efforts to show friendship are brushed away as they gaslight you, blame you and assault your reputation among common acquaintances, you can confirm this diagnosis for yourself.

The question remains: is seeing the insoluble stalemate clearly for what it is — your friends suffer a difficult to cure and debilitating emotional condition and will never meet you halfway about anything  — deleterious cognition, or salubrious cognition?  

It is not really a question.  If people who claim to love you also insist you shut up about anything that makes them feel less than perfect … well, is there really a question there?

[1]   

Deleterious:  1]  Having a harmful effect; injurious.    2] Hurtful; noxious; destructive; pernicious 3]  harmful often in a subtle or unexpected way (as for example deleterious effects, deleterious to health).

Cognition refers to “the mental action or process of acquiring knowledge and understanding through thought, experience, and the senses”.Wikipedia

Call and Response

If you really experience all of that for another (concern and care for, and the value of, another person) then it follows that you act in accordance… just look at the reality of how people treat each other. Is it well-natured? Generous? When there’s love, you know it. You don’t scrounge up a case for it.

Well put.  Often we find ourselves scrounging up a case, trying hard to believe in a mutuality that may have once been there but is no more.  I always think of friendship/intimacy as, above all, a desire not to hurt the other person.  First, do no harm, seems very basic, if you care about the person. 

Some people can’t help the harmful behavior, they can’t even see they’re behaving that way, can’t understand why it hurts the other person, they may get defensive and angry when you bring up that you are hurt. 

This all makes it impossible for them to take responsibility for their hurtful actions and change their reflexive behavior in any helpful way.  Conflict freaks them out, they can’t fix what’s chafing, what’s looming, what has become intolerable, and once you see this, hope for anything better disappears and it’s time to walk away.  Very fucking sad. 

Are you a masochist, you little sadist?

It’s almost funny, if it wasn’t so tragic, the amount of anger my 66 year-old friend still has toward his mother who is making her way toward ninety.

When his mother walks into a room he begins to seethe. Afterwards he would ask me if I noticed how she stood, with that look on her face, the little cutting comment she immediately made. He will do his duty to make sure she is not publicly humiliated or wanting for medical care, but as for love, fuck her.

Fair enough, those are his strong feelings from early childhood through the time he finally left his unhappy family home. The problem is that fifty years later he is just as angry as he was back then. So he can’t forgive his mother, and worse, he can’t forgive himself for his anger and the beat goes on.

He winds up married to a woman who’s in some key ways very much like his mother. He punishes her regularly with his harshly judgmental attitude and the strict demands he places on her in order for her to receive his love. His wife, rightfully angry about this mistreatment, gives it back to him from time to time with both barrels. They live in a balance of terror, while to the outside world they appear to be fine, upstanding, admirable citizens, neighbors and friends. Periodically they have to replenish their pool of closest friends, but they’re socially adept and charming, so it’s no problem.

If you don’t forgive yourself, you are a masochist. I never knew that masochists could also be sadists, but of course they can.

Duing a protracted, insoluble conflict with these two my old friend would frequently become indignant, stand up and announce that he wasn’t going to take this. He wasn’t going to talk about things like making amends, talking about hurt during the ten days of repentance. He wasn’t going to be lectured about the moral values of his religion, values he knew very well being a religious man. How dare I presume to tell him that he had acted badly!

Each time this happened, and it was not just once or twice, it was fairly regular in our conversations trying to make peace, I spoke to him calmly, the way I’d like to be addressed when I’m upset. I patiently told him that I was his friend, that I was not trying to attack him or make him feel bad but that they were things I needed to talk about. We walked away each time with our friendship intact, but it came at a great price and, though I couldn’t acknowledge it for a painfully long time, it was a stinking zombie friendship at that point.

A friend who knew him well laughed when I described this constant need to patiently calm him whenever he got upset. “You gave him exactly what he’s been looking for his entire life, why would he stop doing it when every time you gave him exactly what he has never had from anybody?” So goddamn true that I had to laugh also.

And my long refusal to understand that these two were in a fight to the death, that I had to accept all fault or be killed after what I witnessed of their mutually sadistic, mutually masochistic, relationship, struck me finally as masochism on my part. I don’t consider myself a sadist, I never recall taking pleasure at twisting the knife into somebody else’s suffering, outside of the ordinary schadenfreude that most people feel when somebody gets what’s coming to them, but these repeated hopeless attempts to placate someone who can’t be placated finally did appear to me as masochism on my part.

And at that point I realized it was a matter of my health, and Sekhnet’s health, which I value more highly than anything else I can think of, to stop inflicting pain on myself (and her) by fretting over and hoping for something that can never be. I also immediately forgave myself for this bit of masochism, seeing as I did what I did in the service of saving a long, precious friendship. Some things can’t be saved, unbearable as that truth may also be, and when you see you can’t save them it is time to save yourself.

Isn’t that right, you masochistic little sadist you?

The sometimes subtle nature of psychological harm

My father, I learned late in his life, was whipped in the face by his mother, regularly, from the time he could stand.  The last night he was alive he told me that his life was basically over by the time he was two.   Grow up whipped by your mother, who also whips your father, in dire poverty, with undiagnosed 20/400 vision that makes you appear moronic, unteachable, once you get to school — unable to speak English when you start kindergarten — it leaves a humiliating mark.   Best to hide all that shit as best you can, collapsing it all into “grinding poverty,” spoken like a seething Clint Eastwood.   

Grow up in a comfortable middle class home, never knowing want of any kind, raised by a mother and father who are both smart, funny and well-educated, and emerge with lifelong disabilities and, you know… kind of pathetic, no?

Unlike physical beatings, which are easily understood as violent and scarring, psychological beatings can be devilishly subtle, and just as destructive.

How do you describe the pain inflicted by silence, maintained eternally, starting at the exact moment you ask for an answer?  An implacable glare can have the force of a hard punch in the solar plexus.   Sarcasm, arguably innocent humor, can be used to great effect, if deployed at just the right moment, and in front of the right people.  These techniques have the virtue of perfect deniability, turning any objection to them into the viciously unfair whine of a sniveler.  

“Now you say I hurt you by keeping my mouth shut?  I can’t win, can I?  I held my tongue, but that’s not enough for you.  You can say whatever you want, make any accusations you like against me, but I can’t even remain quiet without being attacked?  You have a real problem there, you know that?  The whole world is against you, even silence hurts your delicate feelings.  You need help.”

The worst of this kind of untender treatment is that you begin to blame yourself, question your right to feel hurt at all.  Maybe I was being kind of unfair, asking a question that was so difficult to answer.  Maybe my timing was thoughtless, I put them on the spot at the worst possible moment.  Why do I keep making people feel so defensive, so angry?  What is wrong with me that I keep upsetting people like this?

You can sometimes cross a barrier, deep into the unseen private wounds of people you have known and loved for years.  There is no coming back from this, as far as I know.   Mutuality can be destroyed in a moment, though it can take much longer to understand that mutuality has been destroyed.  “I hurt you?  You fucking hurt me, you merciless fucking fuck!”  An argument like that cannot be won.   How did friendship suddenly turn into war?  “You humiliated me by making me feel like a terrible person… you are a terrible person.”

The wife was only trying to make everything perfect for her quietly angry, stressed out husband.  He may be impossible to please in certain ways, but that only makes her try harder.  Then she’s faulted for micromanaging a vacation, as if everything being out of control is better than methodically organizing everything.  Her husband likes order.  How is that her fault?  Then you overreacted to her frustration, which was caused 100% by you resisting her perfectly understandable, laudable desire to please her husband. You insist her sudden “anger” hurt you, but you’re not looking at the full picture, just focusing on what you absurdly claim was a glare of rage and an angry refusal to discuss options or compromise in any way.  How can you not see that you are the angry asshole who caused all of the bad feelings, the one who unilaterally ended our long friendship? 

You understand too late the depths of your old friends’ damage.  See how tricky well-covered up psychological wounds can be?   

In these situations I often think of the four temperaments from Pirkey Avot.  Quick to anger, quick to be placated — loss offset by gain.   Slow to anger, slow to be placated — gain offset by loss.   Slow to anger, quick to be placated — a righteous soul.  Quick to anger, slow to be placated — evil.

Sounds a bit judgmental, perhaps, to frame the ability to forgive as good or evil, but, truly, once you have apologized to the best of your ability, expressed understanding of why what you did hurt the other person, vowed to do better going forward — the reason a dear friend would not forgive you is a deep need to feel superior, to hold the weapon of unforgiveness against your head.  Or, evil.  The pain they experienced is so deep and abiding, and the current hurt brings on the unbearable sting of former abuse so acutely, that the jury will be out forever on whether you deserve to be forgiven.  You will live on probation, with strict rules governing what may be mentioned again.  If you want forgiveness you must earn it, by long penitence.  Even then, the jury will remain out, because you’ve already shown you are the hurting type, the kind who deserves punishment.

We are drawn, perhaps, to people who have suffered similar things to what we have suffered.  It gives us an instant unconscious basis for understanding each other’s vulnerabilities, and fosters a feeling of comradeship, having survived similar mistreatment.  At the same time, it puts us close to an explosive force, one that can easily go off when the stress is turned up.

“What stress?  You claim there was stress, there was no goddamned stress, until you caused it.  Everything was fine until you reverted to despicable form and started resisting every reasonable thing I proposed.  How dare you blame us for your uncontrollable stress?!   The world is endlessly unfair to you, poor little misunderstood genius.  You feel superior to everybody while demonstrating your inferiority every day.  That’s the real problem.  You think you’re great, and you’re angry all the time, and we did nothing to you — you are the one who caused all the bad feelings.”

In an unguarded moment she will tell you that you made her feel like her daughter, an actual  genius, often made her feel.  Challenged and overmatched.  “So good with words, and such command of memory, you both are, that I have to fight to defeat you by any means necessary.  You make me fight you to the death, how does it feel to try to kill me, you murderous black hearted bastard?”

It is impossible to measure the depth and breadth of these wounds.  And futile.

Answer to a lifelong riddle

An old friend suddenly shows you an implacable face, as hurt turns into disagreement, which turns into a conflict, a standoff and finally an all out war.   

No compromise, no more of your fucking feelings, I won’t even hear what you’re upset about, how dare you challenge me, I’m the one who’s been wronged here!   

You protest, call to mind past compromises, a long mutual friendship, a history of two way empathy, honest conversation.  

“No!” you will hear, the jaw set, eyes boring into you to chill your blood, to cow you.   

“When did my old friend become a terrible two year-old?” you wonder to yourself, as you reel yourself back from telling the enraged person to go fuck off.   What is clear is that someone you cared deeply about is now treating you with cold contempt.

This has happened to me a few times over the years, and I am somehow never prepared for it.  It was always a mystery that I knew was somehow related to my troubled father, but I had little grasp of what the connection was exactly.  I had no concept to understand where this sudden implacable anger comes from, this need to blame you for making them feel bad, no matter what actually took place between you. 

The riddle of this confounding rigidity, this angry refusal to bend, has been mindfucking to me for many years.  It was only very recently that I grasped a concept that explained this bad behavior and made the unfortunate pattern sensible to me.

The context of the era we are living in offered me a giant clue I was slow to put to good use in my personal life.  The recent hostile attitude of dear friends was sickeningly familiar, and horrifically Trumpian.  The incoherent story constantly changed, all in a mighty effort to avoid talking about any feelings but their’s and why they were so brutally hurt by me!  My longtime closest friend, someone whose friendship and integrity I never had reason to doubt, seconded every aspect of the shifting story, no matter how implausible the blame narrative became.  The runaround, the noise and fury in response to an expressed need, was familiar as any headline I’d doom scrolled recently.

We Americans have endured years, seemingly a century, of a malignant, compulsively lying narcissist whipping up hatred and division.  Right or wrong, he’s always right.  Facts are bullshit!  What does he do when confronted with his wrongdoing?  Double down, in that now despicably common phrase.  Blame his enemies, attack investigators, judges, diplomats, his intelligence agencies, his military leadership, the sick and dangerous child blood drinking cannibal fucks who traffic and molest children — while running the deep state — the celebrity who insulted him twenty years earlier.   He does this, of course, because he’s a narcissist.

We are living in the age of narcissism.  I just didn’t understand it until very recently, though the number of celebrated current day public narcissists, admired by millions, is huge.  You see them literally everywhere, our greatest, most important citizen influencers.

What is the narcissist’s driving dilemma?  How to preserve the all-important feeling of being in the right when confronted by someone important to them they’ve hurt, or by any mistake they’ve made.  It can’t be their fault, it’s obviously the fault of the thin-skinned, needy prick who’s making them feel bad — on purpose!

I was reading a book by Jon Krakauer a couple of months back and came across this, which was like a light going on, in terms of explaining something I was at a loss to comprehend.

That is exactly what happens with anyone who has survived deep childhood injuries by becoming a narcissist.  They live in a world of agitated semi-recovery where theyre either perfect, beautiful, and admired, better than almost anybody else, or they’re plunged into the unbearable pain of feeling utterly worthless, humiliated, contemptible.  

There is no middle ground for a narcissist, no grasp of the human condition — we all fuck up sometimes, it’s perfectly human to be imperfect.  One of the things the non-narcissistic learn to do is accept responsibility, make amends, do their best to set things right when misunderstanding or conflict arises.

The world, to narcissists, is an instrument to protect them from feeling the agony that bears down whenever they feel vulnerable.  The world is full of souls of infinite worth, each unique, exotic, with a mischievous expiration date.  The narcissist doesn’t buy this pie in the sky bullshit, the world is about never being hurt.  If you don’t make yourself vulnerable, it’s harder to be hurt, though a narcissist’s invulnerability comes at a high price.  If youre hurt, hurt back twice as hard to make them back the fuck down.

This zero-sum worldview is the essence of narcissism.  The narcissist’s world is a demented see-saw.  There is only victory and defeat, nothing else.  I win, you lose.  If you win, somehow, I must lose, and that is intolerable to me.  So no matter what, you must lose.  If I have to assassinate your good name, and throw aside our long, close friendship, it’s a very small price to pay to defeat somebody who will not capitulate to my need to be perfect and beyond criticism of any kind. 

Though they seem strong, nobody is weaker than the narcissist.  The tension they live under is tremendous, the pressure they put on everyone around them is relentless. 

All you need to do is admit that I’m right and you’re wrong, no matter what.  How hard is that to do?

Mary Trump said that her uncle Donald is the weakest man she’s ever met.  His genius, she notes, is finding people even weaker than him, to do his bidding, to take the fall whenever needed.

Narcissism is a zero-sum game.  My father was a narcissist, it’s painfully obvious to me now.  He saw the world as black and white and, I realize now, from his point of view, he actually could not change, which was the tragedy of his life as he lamented at the end.  My little sister followed in dad’s footsteps.  He was her role model for strength in the face of terrible pain.  I’m sad to say, but like with her father, cross her and you’re fucking dead, though she might not tell you that for a few decades.   

The willingness to kill does not make you tough, or strong, it just shows a desperation never to feel like an utterly worthless piece of shit.  No amount of belated love can save you from that terrible fate, if you can’t somehow see your own way out of there.

Taking sides/cognitive dissonance

Humans are pulled by a need to do the right thing.  It is not always easy to know what the right thing to do is.  We will often be influenced by those around us, it feels good to agree with people we like.  We have seen over and over lately how strong the pull of loyalty to your perceived tribe is to most people.  That force can make otherwise sluggish citizens throw themselves into battle against police, grunting in unison as they crush a cop in a doorway in their attempt to break into a locked building. It makes you turn your back forever on somebody you were once close to.

I had a friend whose marriage was daily trial by combat.  It was that way from before the wedding and there was no let up in the decades of the marriage.  My friend told me that he was tortured by the damage he was doing to his young sons by raising them in a brutal war zone.  

I was raised in a brutal war zone, though the war was not mainly between my parents but against me, and my sister, so he didn’t need to explain about the damage.  The damage of witnessing violent anger in loved ones goes straight to the soul of an impressionable young person.  How are they to make sense of the world, have faith in the healing power of love, when their earliest memories are of explosions of rage from their caregivers and protecters?

As a young person you are sometimes fortunate to meet people in life who may offer you a helpful perspective.  Sometimes they make you laugh, affirm something important in yourself.  You can learn useful things from them, like when to remain silent, when to add your part.  You feel great affection for this kind of person, a relative or friend of the family who understands something about your life that your immediate family may often not seem to.  There’s no tension, as there often is within a nuclear family. We are lucky to run into these sympathetic souls.  

Then one day you learn that the funny person you recently laughed with has struck a deadly blow to the heart of your family.  Your parents’ love is too tied up with rage to accept, says this judgmental longtime family friend/relative.   “FUCK HIM!” snarl the parents in unison.  There is no greater feeling of unity than righteous anger at an external enemy.   

The strong feeling of unity lasts until the regular war resumes, a moment later.  A war that neither side has the slightest ability to resolve.  Whatever you want to say about the two combatants, they are not skilled in any kind of conflict resolution.  They only know how to fight to the death, no matter what.

If on Monday we had a relaxed friendly conversation at a party, on Friday you will get the memo: our old “friend” is a vicious, demanding, angry, judgmental, unforgiving, unapologetic, unloving, wrong, sick, irredeemable asshole.  He’s a Nazi, a fucking self-righteous Nazi, who needs to be right even if it involves mass murder.

You may take this assessment as tinged with hyperbole, but the point will be clear enough.  This person, not good.  This person, bad, dangerous.  Hurt your parents very deeply.

In the case of parents who lie to their children, the most pressing danger is the story on the other side of the lie coming to light.   That is the most dangerous story in the world, the shameful one they are determined to keep secret.  Look how the adorable, skillful fucking sadist feints and bobs as he works the conversation closer and closer to the “lie”, to his own self-righteous, pernicious version of “truth” because he is the only one who knows the “truth,” this sick, damaged, judgmental fuck with his fucked up lying loser life.

You now have two irreconcilable images of this person you always liked, pulling hard in opposite directions.  Cognitive dissonance is hard to sit with.  How can this funny, intelligent, sensitive person who always treated you well suddenly be such a colossal, irredeemable monster, the metaphorical killer of  your mom and dad?   He’s got to be one or the other, or some grotesque combination of both, or a great psychopath and actor, both. 

The natural fall back is loyalty to your clan, because, really, when the other choice is to be irked by the thought that no matter how bad, and wrong this person is, no matter how much your parents tell you how he tortured them, you have experienced a completely different, well-loved person for years.  

Oh, well.   At least you didn’t really have an independent friendship with the person, you saw them only at family gatherings.  That won’t happen any more.  Whew, that’s kind of a relief, no?