Impossible Letter #1 Big Surprise…

Impossible letter, indeed.

A few days ago (a mere 70 hours) I sent a short email to the daughter of longtime close friends, asking for her address so I can print out and mail a letter to her.  I told her I thought the letter might be useful to her. I wanted to mail it, rather than send it electronically, to give her a few moments of privacy with it before forwarding an electronic version of it to the family board of refutation.  (Here is a slightly redacted version of that letter.)


Her father had told me over and over, before withdrawing his friendship forever, that no matter what I said about our conflict, he wasn’t going to change his mind about anything.   He’d told me that he’s walked away from friendships for less than what I’d done to him (whatever that may have been — he never elaborated).  He told me I’d never seen him really angry, and that, trust him, I didn’t want to. As for anger, it was unfair, and totally wrong, to call his wife’s rage at me “rage”, it was just ordinary anger and she had apologized for allowing herself to be so provoked by my threatening aggressiveness.  He reserved the right to get indignant, over and over, as we ‘worked out’ our differences (I was hurt — no you weren’t!).   He spun every hurtful encounter, no matter how destructive to our friendship, into “progress”.  When I presented him with stark facts, he went silent, for a month, then called to see if I had learned my fucking lesson.  He concluded I hadn’t and that’s that.

I told my physical therapist that the adult daughter’s solution to having grown up in this kind of home was to openly declare her parents gods.  At every New York performance she would take a moment to salute her parents, her idols, and announce that her mother is a goddess.

“That’s creepy,” the therapist said, stretching my leg.  I nodded.

“Creepy, but smart,” she said, and I chuckled at how astute that was.

Big surprise that my final offer to tell the young woman what I thought would be helpful to her — not to blame herself because her parents had forced her into musical regimentation at a critical time in the young prodigy’s development out of ignorance, they didn’t know musical geniuses like Paul Simon couldn’t read music — fell again on deaf ears.  I thought I could help, relieve the kid of the burden of blaming herself for everything painful between her and her difficult parents, but apparently I can only hurt, now that I’ve brutally, gratuitously tortured and decapitated both of her godlike parents.

So the thing she learned from her upbringing in a house of absolute right and absolute wrong is the thing she does by reflex.  I get it.   As long as she remains sober, she’s ahead of the game, I suppose.  Like Eric Clapton.

Facts are dry and don’t go down easy

Facts, no matter how persuasive and well marshaled, do not convince most people of anything.  Only compelling stories do that, and even the most artfully told story has an uphill climb against deeply held beliefs.  

A lie is a compelling, if crude, story that ignores what is actually happening to implant a false counter narrative.  It will always be good enough if it supports what you already want to believe.    A lie famously makes its way around the world before the truth has a chance to put its pants on.  The way of the world.  Lies have led to every war, every slaughter, every atrocity, every oppression of everyone ever oppressed.  Still, the lie serves the liar far better than the dry,  unsexy so-called facts of the matter ever will.   

Nowadays we call the successful tellers of self-serving lies “transactional” — everything is a business deal, a negotiation to extract maximum advantage and profit from.  Every fact may be countered by an alternative fact.  Truth, in our culture, is now as malleable as “morality” when it comes to winning and losing.

When I arrived at the Florida hospital where my father was dying, an ugly liquid draining from his body into a bag attached to the side of his deathbed, I asked him if he was in pain.   “Only psychic pain,” he said.  

Psychic pain will kick your ass, I’ve noticed.  As I wait to see a surgeon in a few weeks, about replacing my painful, worn out left knee, my right knee has started wavering in its step, giving me more pain.  I have to postpone an appointment for the following day with the urologist who is pressing me to have an operation that will almost certainly cause my remaining sexual pleasure to be minimized, if not extinguished.   He urges me to have this procedure ASAP, doesn’t seem to know why the likelihood of diminished sexual function would cause me any hesitation.  

Those two unrelated medical matters are a source of psychic pain, as is my need to postpone the appointment with the eager urologist, hindered by my inability to call his office.   Add the return call from the Medicare resolution unit to straighten out a $510 overpayment I was strong-armed into making, scheduled for any day between 1 pm and 7 pm, that arrived this morning at 8:30 a.m.  The message invited me to call back if my issue hadn’t been resolved.   Here we go loop de loo.  Meanwhile, other psychic aches add their kvetching voices to the chorus that stirs the acid in my stomach.

A symposium: do the facts actually matter?

Did I do everything possible to save a doomed longtime friendship?   I can describe everything I did, the many examples of friendship and forgiveness I continued to extend to old, once dear friends who got furious that I needed to speak of things they refused to talk about.  

No, they will tell anyone I know (and they have), that’s not true.  Your longtime friend has always been a weird misfit, angry at the world, thinking he is too talented to have to compete for recognition, he refuses to do what we all must do and demands an absurd and unquestioning respect for his poor life choices.  He is lying, he’s gone off the deep end, he’s insane and possibly demented, not us.  We extended constant friendship to him.  We were eternally patient, waiting for him to stop making his antagonistic demand “to be heard”, pressing his ruthless emotional blackmail, trying to blame us for his rage at the world.       

The panel discusses.  Yes, there appear to be facts.  So what?  What is your fucking point?

Ladies and gentle worms of the panel, it’s like jazz.  If you got to ask, daddy-O, you ain’t never gonna know.

My father’s psychic pain was related to agonizing regrets, things he was now powerless to address, absent a miracle of some kind.  The minor miracle was that the son he felt suddenly guilty for having abused for decades was ready to hear his regrets, apparently without judgment, without anger.   To his relief the son kept telling him to forgive himself, that he’d done the best he could.  “No point whipping yourself about it now, dad.  If you could have done better, you would have” the son told him, whenever he lifted the whip over himself.

That psychic pain could have been relieved years before if he’d put in the work his kid had finally done with a therapist.  He’d have been able to acknowledge, before the last night of his life, the many attempts his son had made over the years to make peace with him.  He could have reached back any one of the times he felt his son reaching out to him.  He wouldn’t be lying in a hospital room with a toxic soup of dark body fluids draining into a bag hanging off his bed, trying to make amends, fighting shame, trying to explain why he hadn’t been able to act like the kind of person he wished he could have been.

There are days that start off with the weight of the indecent world sitting squarely on your chest.  That weight can’t be wished away. Just the facts, dry and unsatisfying as that.

context for Impossible Letter # 1, The Genius

My two dear friends had a daughter with remarkable talents.  The first she displayed was an amazing ability to provoke her father to rage.  She angered her mother too, but her father was so worried about inflicting harm on his provocative little daughter that he went to therapy to learn how not to become the destructively angry, violent parent his mother had been to him.  

His mother’s readiness to fly into a rage and her angry slaps stung him decades later, sting him to this day.  He was determined not to do that to his daughter.  He made good progress in therapy and left once he felt he’d learned to keep his temper under control.

As a young girl she revealed a remarkable gift for playing the piano by ear.  Her grandmother’s upright piano was soon moved to her house where she quickly developed an amazing independence of hands, her left hand and right hand moved as if they belonged to two different musicians playing in perfect time.  She could play entire classical pieces by ear, a remarkable thing, particularly in a child so young.  She was a prodigy. 

I recall her, at perhaps six, demonstrating her discovery that you can play different classical melodies over the same left hand accompaniment.  Her left hand never stopped playing, a steady heartbeat, even as she looked over her shoulder to talk to me as she went excitedly from one melody to the next.  

She also loved to sing, and once a teacher of her’s praised her for it, she began singing everywhere.  I had a message on my answering machine once, from her, at maybe seven, telling me excitedly that she was going to be on the radio at a certain time.  I tuned in and heard a remarkable a cappella vocal and then an interview with a supremely poised kid, who turned out to be her.

Her parents feared that becoming a child star would turn their already difficult daughter into a monster and mark her for the troubled life so many child stars seem to experience when they grow up.  They decided that instead of letting her perform (outside of school plays) that she would study music.   This, they reasoned, would have the collateral benefit of using her love of music to instill a sense of discipline in her.  They hired a series of classical piano teachers to instruct her, teach her to read music, hone her talent the traditional way. 

They did this with the best of intentions, neither understood that many great musicians and composers can’t read music. The long list includes Paul McCartney (and the rest of the Beatles), Bob Dylan, Billie Holliday, Stevie Wonder (obviously…), Django Reinhardt, Taylor Swift, Aretha Franklin and many others.  They also didn’t get that pure love of making music, the joy of invention, is what made these folks such great musicians.

The piano lessons were a constant source of stress and the succession of teachers was a testament both to the girl’s resistance and her parents’ insistence.   She didn’t need to practice, quickly mastered reading music and every new assignment, reversed hands as she played, without missing a beat, (out of boredom and contempt) and drove each teacher to distraction.  She did well in school and taught herself to play the flute, in her spare time. 

The fights with her mother continued, and as she got older, she got the better of every argument, with her excellent memory and ability to marshal the facts, and logic, to support her case.  Her overmatched mother was very frustrated with her opinionated, challenging little bitch of a daughter.

I watched her musical abilities change over the course of the classical piano lesson years. Eventually she could not play along to anything without counting in, knowing where each beat was supposed to go.  The regimentation of classical piano lessons had taken much of the joy and spontaneity out of music for her and she spent years afterwards recovering some of her unselfconscious excitement and native creativity.  Meanwhile, she turned to alcohol and a succession of mind-altering drugs.

Unsurprisingly, she turned out to be an excellent writer.  She got a job writing a column for an on-line magazine.  Her column was remarkable.  It explored her inner world in a compelling way.  After a few excellent posts she was somehow let go.  Her final piece was powerfully emotional and shocking, filled with harsh self-recrimination.  She wrote that she had been an asshole as a girl and adolescent and caused her parents and her brothers a great deal of pain.  She gave a public account of her drug addiction that included the excruciating detail of waking up on a bus from another city, groggy from ketamine, without her panties or any recollection of how she got there.

Knowing her since she was a fetus, and being one of her parents’ closest friends, I had watched the entire course of her life up until that point.  I had a perspective her parents couldn’t give her, and one it might take her decades, if ever, to come to on her own.  A friend of my parents, with a relatively simple observation about them, had accelerated my understanding of my life by many years when I was around her age.  I intended to pay this gift forward by providing the tormented young woman with some very good reasons to let herself off the hook. I made the offer several times over the years, and she was always initially enthusiastic, but she seemed to grow wary and the conversation never happened.

This wariness is a characteristic of people who have experienced childhood trauma.  I don’t know why I am not wary this way, since I experienced prolonged childhood trauma (perhaps it was my mother’s unerring sympathy for my point of view, in the end), but I recognize that many traumatized people are filled with distrust, even of people they love.  Anyone, we learn as young children, can inflict terrible pain, even without meaning to, and pain inflicted by those we love and trust hurts worst of all. 

I thought I’d put all this in a letter to her, but she never texted me her new address, as she’d cheerfully promised to do the last time I saw her.   Making the letter even more impossible than it was a few years ago, it will no longer be coming from a dear, cherished old family friend.  After an unforeseeable, brutal falling out with her folks,  the letter will now be coming from a vicious, angry, unforgiving, aggressive, sadistic, threatening, stubborn, lawyerly, satanically smart, twisted, unloving betrayer of love, which is how my old friends now see and portray me.   

Try that one on for size, impossible letter writer!

(impossible letter to follow)

Impossible letters

Certain personal matters eat at our souls and rob us of rest.  Misunderstandings so brutal and unfair that we need to explain ourselves, injustices that burn and demand redress, mean things, done by reflex, that chafe us until we cry out.   What do we do, in a world that largely doesn’t give a rat’s buttock about any one of us?   Sometimes we sit down and write an impossible letter, to set the record straight, even as we know there is no record and straight is the most relative of terms in the emotionally fraught world of homo sapiens.

We work on the letter imagining that our words will open a heart that’s closed to us, restore communication where it has been shut down, allow a whiff of mercy, insight or sanity into a room that’s been sealed off from those things.  In our mind the simple facts, and a bit of history, expressed as clearly and non-judgmentally as we can, will work their magic, allowing the other person to shake off the fog they’ve been living in and step back into the light of Reason.   An impossible letter.

The person you are writing to is not the ultimate recipient of the letter, perhaps.  Writing this kind of letter allows you to put very difficult things into perspective.  It helps you chart an intelligible path through the sometimes disorienting terra incognita that is our emotional world.   It’s fair to say that we write these letters primarily to ourselves and to anyone else already sympathetic to what we have to say.

It seems impossible that people we love, who have loved us for many years, will metaphorically kill us for some transgression they feel we’ve committed.  There is no forgiveness, no matter how consistent our efforts to make amends, only anger, and it extends indefinitely into the future, while everyone involved is still alive.  How the fuck is that possible?  Was this person always insane enough to kill the people they love the most just to “win” an eternal argument? Was our intimate friendship just the wishful dream of a foolish heart?

I will provide the set-up, a short version of the context that makes each letter seem necessary, and impossible.   Then I will write the impossible letter, as I have done a few times in recent years.  These letters get no response, because they can’t, since what they require is impossible.  Impossible as the idea that one day the lights go out for every one of us and that’s that.   

The idea of reconciliation is beautiful, a vision of heavenly justice, and the rareness of it makes it even more splendid. We don’t pursue the impossible out of perversion alone, we do it out of faith, love and an unquenchable, though often unrealizable, human drive for justice and reconciliation.

Context to follow for impossible letter number one: the genius.

The Five Stages of Grief, revisited

Swiss psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross identified five stages of grief in her terminally ill patients: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance.   There has been some controversy over this progression since she introduced it in her 1969 book On Death and Dying, although Kübler-Ross clarified that these stages do not necessarily occur in any order and that some will experience only a few, or none, of them.

I found myself thinking about this yesterday in the context of my recent loss of two of my oldest friends, their adult children, and likely some common friends of ours, forced to take sides in a senseless conflict that will only end with death.   I was suddenly filled with anger at being defamed and hacked up this way while still alive, the irrationality and injustice of it, and wondering where the unexpected flood of anger came from.

This death during life is a hard business, and it is natural, I suppose, to deny that you are carrying a dead friendship around with you, once you enter the danger zone where every comment can lead to new accusations, threats and angry indignation.  So denial was certainly at play in the year or more that I fought to keep the dead friendship alive. 

Try facing folks incapable of solving conflict, compelled to fight any suggestion that they are less than perfect. They fight each other this way, the mutual silent treatment goes on for days on end.  They are both of a particularly rigid, competitive type, with perfect social faces and terror and rage at being seen as less than perfect.  I kept denying this could be true in two people I loved, laughed and cried with for so many years.

There was bargaining, every step of the way: if you calm down, and stop threatening me, I will prove to you that I have your best interests at heart, that I am the same as I always was, that we are friends for life, as we’ve been for decades, that I will always forgive you.   It was futile to bargain, since I was unwilling to yield the most essential point: that I was completely to blame for all the bad feelings between us.  It was the same kind of bargaining Kübler-Ross observed in her dying patients trying to bargain with Death.

I tried my best not to succumb to anger during the long, frustrating, life-draining cold war that followed a relatively straightforward and easy to sort out conflict (for anyone with minimal conflict resolution skills). I did my best, and refrained from venting, though my restraint and the look on my face as I restrained myself was apparently infuriating, and the fury directed at me was constant.

Depression certainly was a feature of the long struggle to not see the unsettling horror that was suddenly thrust in my face.  It was an agitated depression, sleep robbing and sharp-edged, filled with self-recrimination because I was somehow unable to reanimate the rapidly decomposing corpse of a beloved friendship.  Expecting the impossible from yourself, and berating yourself for your inability to do the impossible, are features of depression.

With luck you learn, in the end, to accept what you cannot change, no matter how hard you work, no matter how unacceptable the thing you must accept is.  Sometimes you get help, in the form of confirmation that you are not crazy, that the interpersonal conflict is not yours alone to solve, that you are not the one driving the bus that is heading over the guardrails and into the gorge.  

So you accept in the end that all of your goodwill, patience, your bargaining, your attempt to refrain from judgment, and anger, your attempts at reconciliation, making amends, extending understanding and the benefit of the doubt, self-reflection, are of no use in the situation you are up against.  Implacable anger that arises from a deep sense of shame does not yield to these things and, after enough pain, you hopefully understand and accept your powerlessness against this.

After accepting all that, and sleeping better, I was surprised to find myself feeling so fucking angry yesterday.  I don’t blame myself for the now eternal falling out (neither do these two blame themselves, of course) but I find myself in the position, with our mutual friends, of dancing around the supremely ticklish question of how I lost the love of these two saintly pillars of their community.  I find myself avoiding old friends out of discomfort I never felt with them. They believe a certain amount of the lies that have been deliberately told about me, or so it would appear. One has chided me more than once for being unforgiving. Without a short, frank discussion, I’ll never know how things actually stand, and possibly even with that discussion I may not know.

I find myself composing talking points like this, should I speak openly about the uncomfortable subject of being suddenly deemed unworthy of my old friends’ love (and how can it not come up, except through strenuously applied denial and avoidance — who do you talk to about such things if not old, trusted friends? [1]):

A terrible challenge is how the unthinkable end of this long friendship has impacted my relations with other old friends.  If I mention anything about our falling out with your friends, until recently my very close friends, it’s not to start a painful discussion or put you in the uncomfortable position of having to take sides.  I make mention of any aspect of it only in the context of talking about something I learned, and I hope that can be separate from sounding judgmental or influencing you one way or another in your feelings.

Trying getting your mind around delivering that talking point about the sinister shadow now hanging over your friendship with just the right fucking nuance.   Why must you master this delicate bit of high wire walking when your old friends have already spattered the walls with your blood in defending their perfectly moral actions?   Because your old friends are angry, judgmental, unforgiving, childish adults who have justified themselves by lying about the falling out between you, putting the entire blame on you, placing it squarely where you stubbornly, unforgivingly, refuse to accept it.  Fair is fair.

Chew on that one, if you love the taste of bile.  

[1] The answer to that, of course, is a skillful therapist.

Performative empathy and terminal distraction

What I am about to write may mark me, to some, as uncharitable and harsh in my judgments, but see if you’ve had a similar experience.  This might ring a bell and give you a different way of viewing a vexation from your own life.

When someone you know tells you they are sick, badly injured or facing a scary diagnosis, it is customary to say things like “please let me know how it turns out” and “let me know if there’s anything I can do.”  As kids we learn to say these kinds of things from the empathetic adults around us.   If we are involved in the health-challenged person’s life, able to do things for them, and have shown ourselves willing to exert ourselves to follow through, the phrases land as a show of sincere concern and friendship.   If we say these things in a show of concern and never actually follow up, it is performative empathy.  Don’t look at the intention and the history too closely and everybody feels a little better.

Sometimes the performance of empathy is unintentionally feckless.  It is not that they don’t want to help out, it’s just that they are terminally distracted.  They intend to do the compassionate thing, but, goddamn it, there is so much to do, it’s relentless, and, plus, the person they extended the invitation to didn’t seem too grateful, seemed to doubt them, so isn’t there an element of judgment there?   I said the right thing and they judged me as being insincere.  I was sincere, but their silence in response to my offer of help really hurt, made me feel like a bad person.  It was like they didn’t expect me to follow up, as if I said it just to make myself feel like a good person!

Some people always follow up on their offers of support.  Some people rarely, if ever, follow up.  It is better to speak less and do more, given the choice.   For some, speaking in a generous manner is the best they can do.  They are honestly overwhelmed by the million details of their day to day activities, trapped in the rushing cascade of their own highly programmed lives.  When they speak generously they don’t intend not to follow up, it’s just that they are so busy, all the time, that they will not always remember the sincere gasp of concern they emitted when you raised the spectre of a cancer diagnosis.  And it’s not as if you would be there for them.

Along it all rolls, until, for one or the other of us, it stops rolling and all consideration is in the past tense, for everybody else.

Gnawing question?

I had a close friend, for decades, who always said that maintaining healthy friendship takes work.  He was always ready to jump in any time someone needed him, his expertise, his services, his sympathy, his honest counsel.   Then, a few years ago, he started putting up a fence around certain subjects he’d always been candid about, they were no longer up for conversation.  

Something was clearly tormenting him, he was looking increasingly grim and reporting awful moods, agitation and sleeplessness, but he was no longer willing to discuss it.  His walling himself off was a mysterious process.  The unexplained closing down of certain topics was subtle at first, then it began eating at our friendship.  After a relatively simple conflict arose between us, this shutdown of our ability to freely discuss problems devoured what was left of our long, close friendship.  

“No matter what you say, you will never convince me that you have a legitimate point of view,” was his stance on the question of whether I had a right to feel hurt by things he and his wife had done.  That they had both vented at length, while demanding I not mention anything ever again, was my own fault.   “We made MISTAKES, and you want to crucify us, for mistakes, while you…” a knowing look, “what you did was no mistake, which is what makes it so hard to forgive.”   

He’d get indignant if I pressed, or asked “what the fuck?” or looked at him the wrong way.  I had no real idea of what was suddenly making my old friend act with so little friendship.   We were now locked in a zero-sum conflict, familiar as a kick in the nuts from a childhood that had featured a long-running, zero-sum, no-holds-barred conflict with my brilliant, implacable, tragically damaged old man.

At a party a few months back I met a charming, mischievous looking man who told Sekhnet and me a heartwarming story.   Two minutes in I was greeted by someone I hadn’t seen in 35 years, who burst into the little circle to hug me, smile and reminisce, and so I missed the remainder of the man’s anecdote.   Over the course of the next few days it emerged that the charming, mischievous looking man had fairly advanced early onset dementia.  He would stand and sit over and over, uncontrollably.  He would get agitated and cry out.  He was unable to speak.  He was always attended by a kind, attentive young man who steadied him, calmed him, gently got him to stop calling out, directed him back to breathing, helped him reel himself back in.

I think now of my friend’s unwillingness to discuss certain things, the downright silly defenses he made several times over the year of our unsuccessful peace talks, the stubborn irrationality of points he insisted on, and wonder if I missed a similar decline in faculties.  Maybe his change in behavior was not unwillingness to be himself but inability with an organic cause. The charming guy we met at the party was able to put on a front, at first, maybe I was unable to see that my friend’s torment is related to the terror of losing his ability to maintain his personality in the face of a disquieting change in his capacities.  Unable to face what is happening to him, he lashed out at someone who had always reciprocated his care, concern and friendship.  Ironic and terrible, that.

Even if the theory is true, it leaves me with no real option at the moment.  After all, I am the trusted old friend who deliberately, and with depraved indifference, sadistically stuck a dagger into the hearts of these two beloved old friends, for absolutely no reason.  I pressed on when I saw they were upset, and their defensiveness and anger were entirely natural, and 100% caused by me.  I am the kind who does not make mistakes, my hurtful behavior is knowingly malicious and I operate under ruthless principles, justified by the “abuse” I suffered decades back when I was a helpless, angry child, my distorted point of view supported by demonic skills at argumentation and persuasion.

The thing about a traumatic childhood is that when the trauma is reawakened in adult life, as mine was after a long glare of rage was directed at me by a frustrated old friend going through torments she couldn’t openly discuss, the pain is identical to the original.  As an adult you have tools to resolve the pain that are not available to the child, or so you would think.  Another adult may act childishly in response to your need for mercy but, until you see this clearly, you remain locked in the pain of the reopened childhood trauma.  

“I need to talk about what happened,” you say, seeing that the current situation is intolerable.

“You need to shut up about what you think happened, unless you want some more,” is not a response that will cause your roiled emotions to relax. “You brought this all on yourself with your aggressive, threatening, angry reaction to my attempt to be considerate, you vicious prick.  You want to accuse us of being insensitive bastards who don’t know how to treat people.   How dare you, you unforgiving, unloving monster!”

Demented or not, that’s some fucked up shit, Larry.

When the truth bites you in the ass

Sometimes you can’t avoid a truth you would rather not confront. Without looking squarely at the actual situation, and understanding how it works, no solution will ever be possible. So if you are tormented in a relationship you will need to find a way to grasp the dynamic, and assess the damage being done, before you can end the torment.

A parent’s overwhelming need to feel in control and infallible, constantly undermining your own needs is a brutal thing to look at directly. It is natural to make accommodations, learn to accept blame for things you didn’t actually do, flatter the parent when necessary, learn when to withdraw, swallow a response, put on a false smile. These do not really solve anything, but they keep the ongoing harm to a minimum since you avoid fresh conflict with them.

The next step, the painful but freeing one, is understanding that this parent is not capable of behaving any better. They are stuck in unresolved pain from their own earlier life. They may not know how to resolve conflicts peacefully. You may tell everyone that your mother is a goddess, and she may smile, and bask in your admiration, but if you explain that you were calling your mother a goddess only to avoid her rage, she will make you pay for your unappreciated candor.

There are truths we resist because they undermine things we value greatly. At the same time, there is no healthy alternative when you understand the mistreatment you’ve been forced to tolerate. Someone who forces you to tolerate the intolerable does not love you very well.

What is hateful to you do not do unto another” is an excellent and practicable formulation of the Golden Rule. We all know what we hate, we probably know it better than almost anything. So if I am doing something to you that I hate done to me, you will, and should, point this out to me. If my answer is “yeah, you hate it, maybe even I hate it, but fuck you, this is all you deserve and all you’ll ever get from me” you should very much take me at my word.

Every day that you don’t take me at my word, and hope that somehow love will prevail, is a day that the unacknowledged truth (that my final word to you is fuck your fucking feelings, asshole) is taking another giant bite out of your ass. In the end you’ll have no ass left, a very bad way to live.

The benefit of sharing vexations with others

You can find yourself in a perplexing emotional cul-de-sac, very, very hard to see any way out. You can ruminate, follow theories, compare your situation to others, but the limitation in your point of view is partly that it is only your point of view, uninformed by the views of others.

As soon as you share a perplexing riddle with somebody you trust, you open the door to an insight that might seem obvious once it is expressed out loud but would never otherwise occur to you.

For example, I had an embattled friend who lived in a war zone, who could not help provoking me whenever we got into a conversation. No matter how angry I became, I always restrained myself from bashing this annoying guy in the face, because he was my childhood friend, because I try to conduct myself peacefully, because I don’t bash people in the face. This aggravating cycle continued for several years, until, unable to get him to even acknowledge that he was provoking the shit out of me regularly, I had to walk away from our long friendship.

Recently, I entered a vexatious revolving door dispute with my closest friend. No matter what progress we seemed to make in our peace talks, he regularly became indignant and angry. Each time I exerted myself to reassure him of my friendship and calmed him down. This happened more times than I can recall. He recalls this pattern too.

Talking to an old friend who also knew this guy very well, and has lost contact with him, I described the maddening dynamic. My friend becoming instantly angry, me calming him down. As I described this my friend emitted a knowing chuckle.

Every every time he got mad and you reacted not with anger but with compassion, you were giving him exactly what he’s been looking for, and never received, for his entire life. And you wonder why he couldn’t stop doing it?!”

And it is kind of funny, how easy it is to see, when somebody else points it out. In both of the cases described above, these are people locked in war who lack good impulse control and basic conflict resolution skills. They are both required to hold in enormous amounts of frustration. In each case, when they vent their anger, which they are not generally allowed to do without severe consequences, they were met, in my case, with the mildness of friendship and understanding. Why would either one of them stop doing it? They wouldn’t, they can’t. Until they succeed in killing the thing that is sustaining their belief that they are worthy of love.

Being so patient in a one-sided arrangement like this is not a long-term strategy for friendship or life. Without mutuality, what’s the point of a relationship?

You can ask this question of people who care about you, and you may be surprised by the obvious insights they may have for you.

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.