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Bouquets, brickbats, and trusting the untrustworthy May 24, 2015

Posted by shaunphilly in Personal.
Tags: , , ,

[TW: Abuse]

There is a distinction between trusting a person and trusting their ideas. Even the worst people can be right, even if they use the truth as a weapon. If you seek true understanding, it is worth paying attention to the criticism we receive, even if that bouquet of criticism is delivered with brickbats.

I have always been a person who is interested in self-improvement and introspective knowledge. This set of self-challenging ideals has been a large source of motivation for myself over the years, and it is not something which is likely to change. This predilection had led me to gain some fairly significant insight into not only myself, but of the people around me. The more intimate I am with them, the more I understand them. And while I’m nowhere near always right, the value here comes in that we have the ability to see where others cannot. Being even partially right where another cannot see at all is better than the myopia that would result in ignoring that perspective completely.

The knowledge gained from these perspectives can be used in ways that are loving, and ways that are not. And depending on all sorts of factors, such as our own emotional maturity, levels of selfishness and security, etc, that knowledge can be used in a myriad of ways both good and bad. If a person severely hurt, depressed, or otherwise behaviorally compromised then that understanding can become a weapon. It’s a part of being human.

And sometimes shit gets hard, and when we’re afraid and hurt what we know can become clothed in the ability to hurt other people. When this happens to me, for example, my intellectual understanding does not simply go away, it just gets loaded into a (metaphorical) gun. I’ve been hurt (let’s say), some way or another, and I know something relevant to the situation or to the person involved. And now I’m going to use that knowledge to re-direct that pain. I’m going to take that truth, wrap it in a napkin of my pain, and I’m going to show the person who hurt me how I feel.

It’s an unhealthy reaction, but it is a human one. I do not believe that this ability, propensity, and even occasional desire is unique or even rare; I think it’s part of being human, especially during difficult times in our lives. And when times get difficult, people hurt each other. And when people hurt each other, the ability to see nuance, truth, and even to recognize the truth in what people say is lost in the mire of that pain.

This is very unfortunate, and I believe that it is a mistake to ignore or distrust an idea simply because of it’s source. Skepticism asks us to seek evidence, and sometimes data comes from places that we may wish we had never gone, but it is data nonetheless. Ignoring an idea simply because the way it reached us was painful is a reactionary and emotional response, not a skeptical one.

When we dismiss a person, even the truth that they might have had for us gets thrown away as well. In my darkest moments, when I’m least certain, I might think that a person who has criticized me cruelly is completely right about me. But this is merely one side of a spectrum. Because other times, when feeling more secure, I think that that person is completely wrong, and therefore I don’t need to keep in consideration their opinion. How are these two things not the same error?

While we all can mock the words of a person we have dismissed as deplorable (and often for good reason), might it be that those words might have something to teach us, and that we are only dismissing them because those words were wrapped in pain and weaponized?

Is it possible to learn from the content of painful words, even from painful people? Can even pacifists learn from the technology of war?


Blind Spots and Bad Drivers

No matter how self-aware I am or become, there are always aspects of myself that I cannot see, at least not well.  As I go through my life, I have built up habits which, as I “drive”through life I cannot see unless I specifically turn my attention to them. But I have to be willing to look at at them.  And sometimes it’s painful to look in that direction, because that section of my universe may have emotional associations which I prefer to avoid, ignore, or forget.

It’s quite easy to forget (or to avoid) to look in that direction, as a result. It’s much more pleasant, and easier, not to. As an actively defensive driver (and yes, this is somewhat of a metaphor as well), I will keep an eye, sometimes, on where cars are relative to me and anticipate when a car is moving into my blind spots. Thus, sometimes I know a car is there even if I am not looking. But my attention is not perfect, and so if I plan on changing lanes, I need to peek anyway.

Especially if I’m tired, hurt, or otherwise emotionally distracted. I need to build up the habit to check where I can only see when I intentionally move my attention. And sometimes I need other people, even ones I may not like, to help me see those blind spots. Because quite often the people we clash with see things within ourselves that we do not like to see, and whether or not we trust their intentions, their perspective can often see what we cannot.

But here we need to be careful, because there are people who want to manipulate, control, and influence us in a direction that is not necessarily in our favor. There are people in the world who, despite being able to see some of the problems with our behavior and may, potentially, have something to teach us, they are more focused on their own interests to actually help us. They might tell us there is something in that blind spot which is not there (they may be projecting or are directly trying to deceive us). They may not tell you there is something there because they may think it’s not a big deal or whatever. Or, they just may not see it either, and are just as blind to that spot as you are.

And such people may leave us hurt, traumatized, and possibly less trusting. In those cases, we are then subject to over-compensating and becoming too focused on our own perspectives, and then we start to change lanes without looking. Trusting our own judgment is good, but sometimes it is the judgment of others, especially those who have hurt us, which we need especially because it is painful. There is a reason certain things are painful, and sometimes it’s because some truth is painful. In order to grow, we need to look at difficult truths and be willing to make effort to understand. Growth does not come from personal avoidance and people willing to simply be content with your own parochial myopia. Love and friendship is not merely celebrating what’s important to you, what you want, and what you can see. That is much closer to submissiveness to a quasi-narcissism than to love.

Challenge v. Control

I’ve been through, in my life, many experiences where people attempted (and often succeeded) to control me. I am also guilty of, in moments of fear, insecurity, and uncertainty, attempting (and sometimes succeeding) to control other people. I don’t like doing it, at all. I don’t want to do it, either. However, it’s part of the human dynamic and the distinction between the desire to help and to control is sometimes a very fine line, one which sometimes even the person perpetrating the advice/control cannot see. Navigating such treacherous waters is difficult on all sides, and only a few people actually want to and enjoy the kind of intentional manipulation of that control.

And when a person has found themselves in the position of being controlled, manipulated, and influenced too much, the reaction is often to become less accepting of opinion, of trying to trust their own instincts, and to sometimes close themselves off to what people who have hurt them have to say. And in many cases, this is for very good reason. But I am of the (probably controversial) opinion that it is especially the people who have hurt us that have the most to teach us.

Let me be clear. I am not saying that people who are abusive and controlling are right, especially about our character. What I am saying is that often pain comes from truth, even if that truth is twisted and deformed for the purposes of that control and abuse. The affect such people often have on us is so real because a true thing has been used as a weapon.  The fact that a hammer can be used to hurt or kill does not invalidate the usefulness of the hammer in building all sorts of things.

The Devil will often use the truth, whether for a greater lie or for the sake of power, as it is said. But we are not talking about the Devil (and even if we were, in Jewish/Christian mythology, the Devil is merely an interlocutor and questioner of God, not a psychopath or even evil), we are talking about people.  Of course, if a person is overwhelmingly using their hammer to attack rather than to build, then that person probably should not be trusted. But ignoring and invalidating everything such a person would say is akin to eliminating hammers in your life, rather than unwieldy carpenters.

Having been the receiver of a lot of criticism based upon some truth, it is hard to hear the parts that are true and to disregard the parts which are interpretation, attempts to hurt and control, and the parts which are not true. Being human, I have flaws and have made mistakes in my life. But I will not ignore or dismiss the words of critics and ideas whole-cloth, because to do so opens me up to the possibility of conflating the message with the messenger. Even an abusive person, in using abusive words and actions, may have some insight worth paying attention to (even if they don’t follow it themselves).

I don’t want anyone to be coerced, controlled, or abused, but I also don’t want people to shrink into their shells and accept only words from people who are willing to coddle them and not challenge their comfort zone. That is not love, that is how growth stagnates. There is a very difficult rope to walk on between self-absorbed obliviousness and accepting victimhood. One of the questiona I keep asking myself recently is whether one’s own obliviousness, self-absorption, and arrogance (sometimes framed as confidence or strength of will) is any better, in the long run, to being subject to the coercion and abuse from others. Either way, you are letting a limited perspective control you.

Trusting my own judgment and instincts is only in tension with, and not in contradiction to, hearing the criticisms of friends, acquaintance, or even foes. This is because even if I cannot trust a person’s intentions or motivations, sometimes I must trust their ability to see my blind spots when I can’t.

Therefore, I pay attention to criticisms, even from those I consider to be not trustworthy. I do not seek to internalize the ideas of abusive people, but to ignore their perspective seems equally problematic. The error in abusive control comes in the abuse, not necessarily the content. If abusive people could learn to find loving ways to show us what we cannot see, then nobody would need to shy away from their knowledge.

And this is as true of me as it is of anyone. My struggle is to find ways to share my perspective in ways that are not hurtful, and to understand the knowledge that even abusive people might have to teach me. I trust my judgment, but my judgment is limited. Those who can see some things that I can see, and some of those people are truly assholes, must complement what I can already see, or I risk the blindness and myopia that follows fear and mistrust.



1. Alex Bove - May 24, 2015

Your discussion of “blind spots” reminds me of the Johari
Window model. Are you familiar with it?


2. shaunphilly - May 26, 2015

I took a look at that, and I do believe I have seen that before. Thanks for the link.

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