A year ago, today, I was in South Carolina to see the solar eclipse in its totality. I had travelled down there with a woman, Marilyn, I had decided was someone I wanted to spend my life with, and with whom I’d also travel, later that year, to Europe. The difference between then and today is as different as the illusion of daylight of one moment, and the eclipsing, surreal and beautiful, darkness which follows.
If I were to accept the idea of karma, at least as it is poorly understood in our Western appropriation of the concept, I would think that I was experiencing the backlash of my own mistakes, hurled at me by a universe who needed me to learn how my own poor behavior made others feel. I would likely conclude that I deserved it, had it coming, and that perhaps the score was evened out a little bit.
But I don’t believe in any cosmic force of moral tit-for-tat, so I’m left to explore the lessons I should draw from this failed relationship without appeals to any supernatural or spiritual causation. And yet, I am left with the notion that my various mistakes in some of my previous relationships were more significant than I previous understood. Bottom line, I have been a dick on more than one occasion to people I cared about, and I have felt this more keenly in the last few months than I have previously.
So, in a sense, karma, if only metaphorically. And as I exit the mourning period of this loss, I am feeling philosophical, thoughtful, and regretful.
But that isn’t what this post is about; that’s merely the foundation upon which I wish to explore a set of ideas which I have been toiling over for quite a while, but which have taken on a new set of facets in recent months. Today, I want to explore self-righteousness, especially as it pertains to how we view people who have hurt us.
So, here’s a narrative for you to digest;
My ex, Marilyn, was abusive. She was sometimes extremely loving and affectionate, and often a lot of fun, but there was a pattern, a swinging pendulum, of behavior which left me feeling loved, happy, and hopeful some of the time, while other times I felt afraid to speak, felt the need to leave (which I did, once or twice), and the relationship was rocky, off and on, and in the end it was extremely painful when it ended.
Others (though not all) around me saw it. They tried to get me to see it, but I dismissed their warnings, and as a result 2 other relationships faltered. And, in the end, when it was all over, I was left to sort it out alone. And, having been mistreated, yelled at, lied to, and periodically pushed away and pulled back, it was very easy to have a sense of being the victim. She was an asshole, and I dodged a bullet I would say. I could walk away feeling good about myself and move on to someone better, knowing that I’m in the right, this time. In other words, my friends and those who heard my side of the story would have supported me in feeling self-righteous.
And they would have been wrong in doing so, because self-righteousness is nothing but a function of a combination of myopia and tribalism–which is itself a from of collective myopia.
The above narrative, which I held onto for too long, was nonsense because even if it is the case that she was abusive (and I believe she was), it is also the case that she was in pain, afraid, and lashed out due to trauma from things that I could never hope to understand nor do anything about. And I, knowing this, kept coming back to her knowing that this pain was causing her to keep me at a distance. It didn’t matter that I was not the one who hurt her. It doesn’t matter that she was the one who kept reaching out to me when she needed to take her time to deal with those things, probably alone, because I knew that she needed that time and I kept coming back because I loved her and wanted to be with her. I was being selfish, irrational, and I made poor decisions (hey, it’s what I do…).
The failure of the relationship was both of our faults. We’re both hurt by each other, we both made mistakes, and the fact that one of us might share the greater share of the blame this time is not especially relevant or interesting unless me and my friends (or she and hers) are trying to rationalize who should feel like they are in the right.
And yet, for a while, I did feel self-righteous, and my friends agreed that I was the one who was the victim, in this case. Of course they do, because that’s what friends are for, right? Perhaps, but I want to set a higher standard in my life, and I want to actually figure out what’s true, and not what’s merely comforting to me and my tribes. And the truth is that she has reason to be angry and hurt with me and I have reason to feel hurt. The calculation of relative blame is sort of pointless, and is too prone to subjective narratives, myopia, tribalism, and re-writing memories to be worth-while.
I’m fairly sure that something similar is happening on her end, with her friends. I’m sure I’m the awful ex who she’s glad she got rid of. It’s a useful narrative which we all use to be able to vent, feel good about ourselves, and move on to something better. But much of this process is a lie, and even while I’m doing it, I know it’s a lie. But I do it anyway, and in time the lie becomes the truth, unless we are willing to be more honest. But, as I like to say, we don’t get to have our own truth; there is only the truth, and the convenient lies we tell ourselves to make us feel better (whether it’s gods, our own self-righteousness, etc).
This pattern of narrative-creation is true on a larger scale, as well. Every group I have belonged to, when rifts emerge, becomes tribalistic and becomes completely unable to see the mistakes and shortcomings of the people they ally with. I’ll bet that someone you love and respect, in whatever community to which you belong, is right now being unfairly awful to someone else (perhaps someone you dislike), because they are on the wrong side of some rift or disagreement. I’ll bet you aren’t especially bothered by that. I’ll bet sometimes you cheer them on, and like their scathing comments. For a while, most of the leadership of the local Poly facebook group was doing precisely this, and they had all kinds of cheerleaders. It was ugly, and it made me feel disgusted and unwelcome.
This is the world we live in now, and it’s getting worse.
How about politics? Many people who voted for Hillary Clinton, especially in a state like PA who ended up being close in 2016, thinks all the Jill Stein voters are idiots and awful. Many of the Jill Stein voters think the same of those who they often call “Hill-bots.” Many have not-so-nice things to say about “Bernie-bros,” and I’ve had some pretty awful things to say about “Trumpists,” myself. Trump voters hate the elitist liberals, As do many anarchists and Communists, who similarly tend to hate Clinton, and it goes on and on.
This is not to say that people don’t often have good reason to feel the ways they do, in these cases. In fact, that is precisely the point; they all do have reasons to feel the way they do. Because in every group, every walk of life, every political party, every clique, etc there are people. I was tempted to say that there are assholes, but the fact is that this is all too normal to frame it that way.
I’m guilty of this, you are guilty of this, your best friend is guilty of this, and your current partner(s) are all guilty of this. We all do it. The problem is that we keep excusing it. My friends excuse me blaming Marilyn for her bad behavior, and when I was calling her an asshole, they patted me on the back, and were like “yup, she was.” She probably vented to some of her friends after we broke up, and they said the same about me. Who’s right? Who cares.
I think that we need to take a hard look at ourselves, and make a distinction between trying to honestly evaluate what happened, what is our responsibility, and what we need to learn and making this about a judgment of a person’s moral and social worth. Also, we need to try to look past the lens and filter of our tribes (friend groups), and try to see why those people over there (the other people) are giving emotional support for the people who hurt us, with whom we disagree, or who actually did something easily identifiable as wrong.
It’s all to easy to dismiss people, and I’m going to continue to try to resist this impulse for the people who have hurt me. Instead, I’m going to aim for the truth, at least as best as I can see it. Marilyn was a lovely human being who was hurting, but I was not as good a partner as I could have been in order to be who she needed while she was hurting. Her patterns of behavior were, at times, abusive. But so were mine in more times than I would prefer to admit. A year ago today, we were happy, in love, and we spent a lovely day together. But I erred in the latter stages of the relationship, and because of that she has decided she doesn’t want to hear from me anymore. If we were to have an omniscient judge to declare who was more right or more at fault, who would it be? I don’t care.
Well, more precisely, I do care, but it is this caring which is the source of the problem. I need to be less yanked around by the fears, hurt, and anger at the foundation of this caring who is right, and more concerned with the truth of what I can do, now, to do better next time.
Once I fully heal from the pain that this loss has cost me, I have to take the lessons that are real, and not the ones which make me feel, and look, better.