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.

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.

Understanding is only the first step

You finally understand the painful difficulty you are up against, from an unforgiving narcissistic parent to a global movement marching violently toward international authoritarianism.  It’s a great step, to understand, at last, the nature of the actual monster you are up against. 

You feel a certain relief mixed in with your horror, to know finally what you are actually at war with, and that you did the best you could have done against an unreasoning force that is pure will.   It is important for your mental health, and future prospects, to confirm that it is not only your fevered imagination at work, these things are actually out there, acting against you with every stinking breath.  They will not be fixed by even unlimited goodwill, compromise and extension of endless benefit of the doubt.  That understanding is huge, though it is the first step on a much longer journey.

It’s hard to believe in the existence of evil until you see a willingness to actually kill you up close.  It is easy enough to see disturbed, angry people as suffering from weakness, deformed by damage done to them by others that takes these nasty, deadly shapes in the world. 

It is not important whether you see it as evil, it’s crucial to grasp how it works, why it works that way, how to get out of its clutches, how to neutralize the threat to others.  Understanding the nature of a thing intent on subordinating you, even killing you, if necessary, is not an easy thing, since the force is constantly crushing you, attacking, vilifying, accusing you of cruelly victimizing them.  

To take a recent political example — look how the Covid-deniers scream, they are the victims, US health officials, not corrupt and incompetent hacks working for a malignant narcissist, are responsible for the disproportionate US deaths from Covid, 1,099,866 souls, when the number was last updated by lying Deep State cucktards at the CDC.  The supremely spineless Kevin McCarthy just appointed Trump’s former doctor, now in Congress, to head the investigation into how Anthony Fauci murdered more than a million Americans with his constant lies about the Chinese hoax that put Biden into office illegally.  Justice won’t be served until the retired government doctor is publicly nailed to a cross and mocked by the survivors of his treachery.   

A coherent, evidence-based case can be made that Fauci, at every step, followed the best evolving scientific understanding of a highly infectious, unpredictable deadly worldwide plague.  Coherence and so-called evidence, of course, can go fuck themselves when Marjorie Taylor Green blows her hot opinions into a microphone, next to the compromised Speaker of the House, nodding grim agreement to anything she spouts.    The incoherent message will be hammered home to believers a hundred times a day, until it makes sense that the antiChrist, Fauci, must meet the same gruesome fate as the Prince of Peace, but, obviously, for much different reasons.   

In your personal life zero-sum battle lines may be even harder to see.  Love, long history and faith in lifelong ties will blind you sometimes, to another’s willingness to shove things down your throat until you suffocate.   “How did I not fucking see this before?”  you will wonder, and raise the whip over yourself when you realize you’ve waded deep into an unsurvivable swamp.  Understanding will come slowly, if you are fortunate and persistent in looking for it, and honest with yourself and everyone else.  

Honesty and a willingness to discuss things, it turns out, is only one response to conflict.  A more common reflex is to become incoherent, constantly change the subject, lie, attack, become defensive, blame the other for your defensiveness, admit nothing, fuck you, I’ll kill you, grrrr grrrr grrrrr!   The contest, you understand too late, is zero-sum, only one will live, the other must die.  I will do anything to be the last one standing, so fuck you!

Alien to your way of thinking?  It is also alien to mine, but this mode of kill or be killed survival is in operation all over the place.    Understanding it, seeing it clearly for what it actually is, is crucial, but, depressingly, only the beginning.  How to counter the damage it has done and prevent repeats going forward is a much deeper, gnarlier question.   It is also the most pressing question at this perilous moment in history.

Any ideas?

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.

parent and child

When I was a boy my father’s colleague at the NYC Board of Education’s Human Relations Unit, Evelyn, became a regular visitor to our family.  My mother, also named Evelyn, was fond of her.  My sister and I loved her.   She was funny, irreverent, a good athlete, a folk guitar player with a beautiful voice, had a “retarded” dog, a black cocker spaniel named Twosie, and she seemed to love hanging out with us.  My sister had prominent, slightly bucked teeth (as they called it in those days) and so did Evelyn (picture a young Joni Mitchell).  Evelyn taught my sister to stick out her teeth and hold her hands up like paws whenever she called “Beaver Patrol Report!”  The two of them would do the Beaver Patrol salute and we’d all laugh.

It turns out Evelyn had survived a horrific childhood.  In hanging out with her smart, irreverent, darkly funny colleague and his family she got to experience what seemed to her (before her eternal falling out with her friend and colleague) a healthier version of family life and childhood.   She was as much an older sister to my sister and me as an adult.  

After my own troubling childhood I often found myself in the position Evelyn was in, hanging out with the children of my friends.  I was paid a great compliment by one of my friend’s children when he was about five:  Eliot’s not a grownup, he’s more like us.  I was.  I am.   I am never far from the most life-affirming feelings of my early life, when it comes to imagination, creativity, having fun, drawing, playing music.  I love to play, and why should I not?

Because, the adult will say, work is far more important than play.  Work is what gives meaning and value to life, a sense of self-worth, productivity, respectability.  Play is for vacation, maybe.  I honestly pity the average workaday motherfucker, too tired out by grim responsibility to be playful.

There is a certain point to the adult view, of course.  If I had ever tried to sell any of my writing, had any literary success, had sold several books, I’d be a published author and that would be my career, turning my daily practice into a monetizable, recognizable job.  When people asked me what I do I’d just say “I’m a writer” and it would be true, since I made a living by my words.  Instead, I play at writing, which is more fun, but far less lucrative and practical.  In the eyes of the world I’m just one of a hundred million would-be writers, “publishing” my work, gratuitously, in cyberspace.

I think of my father, hours before he died, telling me his life had been basically over by the time he was two.  A very sad thing to hear your father say the last night of his life.  It explained why he acted like an inconsolable two year-old so often, but, damn, it was hard to hear.

I have the two haunted photo portraits of his maternal grandparents.  I can hardly look at them, in their beautiful convex oval frames.  One or both of these long dead ancestors created of their youngest daughter a savagely angry religious fanatic who whipped her first born across the face from the time he could stand.  No doubt, it had happened to one or both of them, with their parents.  And before that, the parents of their parents and so on down the endless tragedy of history.

I think of this whenever I think of parents and children.  It is easy enough to blame the parent, or the child, but that’s a game for suckers.  To me, the real action is getting some goddamned insight and making some positive changes in your life, before you sorrowfully confess to your oldest son, right before you die, that your life was basically over before your great-grandfather was two.

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.

Dead Man Walking

Sometimes the pain we experience can stop us dead in our tracks.  Feel a powerful enough jolt of pain and you may find yourself unable to move in any direction.  I know it happens to me, anyway.  Look across the gravestones and see people who once comforted you, strangers now, so intent on avoiding eye contact it can bore a hole in your heart as long as you still care, still cling to counterfactual hope. 

In a sense we are all dead people walking, and one day our walking becomes only sitting, then lying down, then less than that.  The dead can’t do anything about it and death is a final refuge from shame, anger, pettiness and every other terrible thing we must sometimes tolerate in life.  Death is a very high price to pay for that kind of relief.

I have to reschedule a cancer biopsy that was cancelled yesterday, can’t lift the phone.   Need to find a surgeon to replace my left knee, but I also need to buy additional insurance to supplement the generous Medicare that will pay 4/5 of the $80,000 operation.  I need to get the Medigap insurance ASAP, since it takes six months to become effective for treatment of a preexisting condition, like bone on bone osteoarthritis.  Meanwhile, paralyzed, as I continue the painful knee exercises.  The guy who is supposed to be making the Don Joy medial compartmented unloader brace hasn’t called me back and I haven’t been able to call him.

What I can do at the moment is sit and type.  Writing is an indispensable part of my day.  I do this now to try to move some of the awful feelings out of the way, to understand, and then compartmentalize, things that are otherwise unthinkable.  My hope is to make a few phone calls once I tap here a bit. 

My niece and nephew, irretrievably lost to me, because of their mother’s unspeakable humiliation at her untruthful husband’s shame.  Kool-aid was served up any time my name came up, it would appear, a more bitter flavor than any I know.  It has turned me into a monster and enemy to two kids I used to play with.  That this has been accomplished by lies is little consolation to me, after all, I know myself to be a truthful person of good character. 

Two of my longtime closest friends are now shambling zombies, avoiding eye contact with me in a graveyard.  I don’t blame them for feeling that way, actually.  If I had treated them the way they treated me, explicitly and undeniably for the last year and a half, I’d probably do anything I could to cover my shame.

What do we do with this kind of pain, these unwanted tastes of our own death, the death of loved ones, while we are alive and, theoretically, able to talk things out, apply love and understanding to fix things so tragically broken?   Tragedy is when a beautiful thing that should be able to be mended is instead destroyed, out of anger and humiliation.   The feeling’s now mutual, pal, you are dead to me.  Not very satisfying, really, but a necessary step in healing — the discarding of people who insist they love you while demanding that only their feelings matter.   They have very strong feelings about this, understand.   Strong as death itself, it turns out. 

Why I write everyday

The world doesn’t care very much about any one of us. In fact, it doesn’t care at all. We are fortunate if we have people who love us and treat us with kindness, but as for the world itself, it doesn’t give a rat’s ass about any one of us. It has seen billions and billions of us come and go, often dying violently for no real reason, except that somebody else is angry and takes it out on us in a lethal fashion. The universe itself is clearly indifferent to any individual’s existence.

Hey, that’s a nice Merry Christmas Eve, fella!

That’s not the point, that’s the background. In a universe that is indifferent we have a need to connect ourselves to others who care. And so in this age of the internet, with the illusion of connection to everybody else alive and staring at their phones, we send out our beacon to find others who might have suffered the same things we have, who might care, who might benefit from our thoughts and feelings if we can set them out clearly.

At this moment in history when American deaths of despair have reached these terrible proportions, when millions of isolated people have literally given up on the idea of love, kindness, companionship, decency and fair treatment, voices of calm, voices of reassurance, are so important.

When I write, I feel a connection to people I have never met. It is in part an illusion, since few people ever read these words, but the connection is also real. These posts take on a kind of life, they can be read anytime, they can be found when you might need to find something like them and derive some sense of comfort from knowing that somebody else has gone through things very similar to what you have gone through.

It may comfort you to know that you are not the only person who spent childhood in a senseless war zone, trying to make peace with an insanely implacable foe, and although you are wounded and scarred by this kind of upbringing, it doesn’t have to destroy you.

It may comfort you to know that if you love doing something very much, writing for example, if you do it every day you will get better and better at it. I don’t know that I have much native musical talent, but after half a century of loving to play music I’m a very good self-taught instrumentalist.

Love really is all you need, it makes the world go round. Lack of love is responsible for every terrible mistake that humans make, certainly every act of violence. Loving what you do is a net good. Spend some time everyday doing what you love, you will not regret it.

End of the line

I’ve had this kind of conversation before. Every time it is the saddest imaginable conversation, because at the end, in spite of great affection, both parties will be dead to each other. Alive and walking around in the world, and doing acts of kindness, and trying to be the best they can be, and dead to each other.

We don’t come to this kind of final conversation lightly. First of all, we have to care enough about the other person to extend them the final chance to avoid our mutual deaths. The average jerk who acts like a jerk and hurts us in a jerky fashion does not get this kind of final discussion. We just write them off, smile when we see them and avoid anything of consequence with them. But with people we deeply care about, who have deeply hurt us, it sometimes comes to this final conversation.

Personally, I tend to avoid starting these conversations once I’m fully aware of the hideous terrain we are both stuck in. Once the other party insists that nothing you have said changes anything, you are pretty much done. Words at that point have no ability to change the emotional reality that makes it impossible for us to continue as friends. In fact, if you express yourself clearly you are only making the wound deeper by seeming to blame the other person for being heartless, clueless, unforgiving, unyielding, rigid, needy, childish, etc.

The outline of this talk is always the same. The person calling will say they love you, that they have taken about all that they can take, that they have tried their best to be your friend and give you what you need but nothing they have done has been enough for you. They will place it on you, pronouncing the final death.

After all the aggravation, the soul searching, the health threatening stress of trying to find a mutual solution with somebody who is unable to overcome their righteous anger, their inability to forgive, words are of limited use. That said, it is good to remain honest until the end.

Trust me, you will get no acknowledgment of your honesty, and truly it means nothing in that moment. But you remain true to yourself by not pretending that all of your hard work has produced any tangible result. It is time to put down the cadaver of an old friendship you were carrying, alone, in hopes of a miracle.

I find that at the very end of these talks sometimes a last precisely calibrated insult can be very helpful in allowing your dear friend to permanently write you out of their life. At that moment, it is the least you can do by way of mercy.