Sunday, 3 February 2013

The rights of me - 10.11.2012

I was talking to a girlfriend about a guy, as one does.  She said that he acted “like an ass”.  I said he didn’t – that he had this problem and that issue, that this and that was going on, that there were lots of mitigating circumstances, and so on.  Her response was wonderfully concise: “Did he hurt your feelings?  Then he acted like an ass.”

That concept really hit me.  Could you really measure people’s behaviour towards you based on the impact on your feelings?  I’d never done that before.  No, honestly, I’d never done it.  Obviously, I felt the impact of people’s actions, behaviours and words, but I have never use that impact to then evaluate them.  Isn’t it a bad thing to be judgemental?  Doesn’t it make a difference if people have a valid reason for doing something, even inexcusable things?

But then again, my girlfriend, unlike me, is sussed.  She knows how to live.  She is one of the most successful people I know – successful according to my own standards, that is.  She doesn’t live in a mansion or drive a Ferrari or have a butler.  But she does a job she feels passionately about, she has a beautiful mind full of interesting facts and theories, she is sorted out well enough in the practical sense, and she is surrounded by love – somehow, she seems able to attract love like a flower attracts butterflies.  Love just seems to want to go to her, and she can nurture it and spread it.  Me?  I’m rubbish at that.  That set me off pondering.  She is being a lot less tolerant than me, yet love comes to her.  Is she onto something that I’ve missed?

Travel back in time to 1990.  I was 15 and suffered from serious anorexia.  Of course, back then it wasn’t a fashionable or even known condition, so nobody did a damn thing about it.  I was in boarding school from Monday to Saturday and only visited my family on a Sunday, which made it easier for things to slip.  Frankly, nobody much cared, and those who did preferred to ignore the issue than open up a can of worms.  At any rate, one Sunday night I fell asleep and woke up Thursday morning.  Now, I could have easily been classified as terminally feckless back then, but even I knew that passing out for 3 days was not a good sign.  I took myself to the nearest hospital, where they were worried enough to take me in.  I fell asleep, again, and woke up 3 days later.  Once I woke up and resumed normal service, after a week of not doing anything with me they sent me home.

I was sitting in my mother’s living room, extremely dazed and confused.  One of the side effects of continued starvation is that you can’t think straight – you just don’t have the energy.  Your reaction time is also incredibly slow.  Most of the times, really, by the time you muster the energy to react to something, it’s too late and it’s not worth the effort.  Most things don’t really seem to be worth the effort when you’re busy trying to starve yourself to near-death.  Anyway, I was staring quietly into space when my grandmother descended upon us.  Being elderly and partially deaf she spoke so loudly you could hear her comfortably from outside the flat.  There she was, next door in my mother’s kitchen, letting rip about me.  “After all you’ve done for her, all you’ve sacrificed, this is how she repays you...” and so on and so forth.  You see, I am an illegitimate child.  I was born out of wedlock.  My parents never got it together.  For reasons that defy normal logic, this was considered by my family to be my fault, much like the resulting stain on the family’s honour.  So the family story was that I’d ruined my mother’s life, and apparently now I was letting her down.  All this was presented at an ear-splitting volume for the entertainment of our neighbours.

I sat there for a while as waves of verbal abuse washed over me.  Then something clicked.  I got up – and I can’t begin to explain to you what an effort that took.  I toddled over to the kitchen.  I opened the door and I said my most famous sentence to date: “Grandma?  Fuck off.”  My grandmother stared at me as if I’d sprouted horns.  My mother started flapping and going “She does not mean it, she doesn’t know what she’s saying...” so I interjected again: “I do mean it.  Fuck off.”

And those were the last words I ever spoke to the woman.  She died a few years later, while I was abroad.  My mother took weeks to muster the courage to tell me, because “she thought I would feel guilty.”  I don’t get that.  Guilty of what?  I was the only person to ever stand up to my grandmother.  I had put up with her behaviour towards me for 15 years, but she had pushed it too far and my tolerance had run out.  I don’t believe I was unjustified in what I said, given the circumstances and our previous relationship.  I would probably say it again today.  I would like to believe that I could articulate myself much better now, but as a summary of my thoughts on the subject and given the heat of the moment I can’t fault it.  But that’s not how my mother saw the situation – in her eyes, I was rude to my grandmother, she was now dead, therefore I should now feel guilty about my action.

In my mother’s world we can’t be angry at the dead, because they’re dead.  Being dead means that everything you’ve ever done, however inexcusable, must now be forgiven.  You mustn’t speak ill of the dead.  In fact, the same applies when you’re terminally ill.  Somehow, if you conveniently get a malignant tumour all the bad things you’ve ever done, from fraud to betrayal to child abuse, now need to be ignored.  How can you judge the terminally ill?!  They are already suffering.

Ah, but what about those who are suffering because of psychological issues?  You can’t blame them either.  They have reasons for their actions – they can’t help themselves.  The same applies to those who have had bad past experiences, because the poor things have just never managed to get over them.  They do their best.  After the trauma they have been through, you have to cut them some slack.  If someone is in any trouble now, well, of course they can’t be held accountable.

“They don’t mean it like that.  They can’t help it.”  My mother must be the original font of all tolerance.  Throughout my childhood, every time someone remonstrated against somebody – a relative, a friend, a politician, a teacher that was getting too hands-on with the pupils, if you catch my drift – my mother could always wave the blame away.  He doesn’t mean it like that.  He can’t help it.

The problem is that everyone has a sob story.  Everyone has suffered through some traumas.  Everyone will die.  Ok, people’s traumas can vary in their intensity – my dead dog might not be comparable with your ethnic cleansing, and so on – but everyone has to go through some shit.  And the shit you go through should not justify you putting other people through more shit.  The buck’s gotta stop somewhere.

So, logically, I think that my mother’s point of view is tosh.  Tolerance up to a point is great, but at some point you must be able to make a stand.  Really, though, have I moved away from that line of thinking?  My girlfriend’s words have made me realise that I haven’t, not at all.

I can give you any number of examples.  The boyfriend who, as soon as I told him that I loved him, decided he no longer wanted any sort of physical contact with me – he had a terrible fear of intimacy because of the way his father treated his mother, bless him, so I went out with him for a further two years.  The one who worked part-time whilst I worked full-time, paid nothing towards the house yet expected me to do all of the housework, which he quadruplicated because he was an utter pig – he’d been neglected by his parents and brought up by his grandmother, who was very old-fashioned, the poor thing, so that’s what he was used to.  Everyone’s favourite, the one who wanted to be in an open relationship so he could chase skirts but didn’t want me to talk to any males, and who eventually decided that becoming a raging alcoholic was the thing to do – well, where do I start?  His life was a neverending series of traumas and tragedies.  How could anyone expect him to do any better, under the circumstances?

They didn’t mean it.  They couldn’t help it.  That’s just how they were.  So I justified and excused their behaviours for months or years, and only gave them the push when they did something extraordinarily bad.  I discounted the impact on their actions on my feelings and on my life and put up with ridiculous amounts.

Yes, I’ve been an idiot, I realise it now.  Had any of them behaved in a similar manner to any friend of mine, I’d have wanted to hang them up by their privates and gut them.  I’m far less tolerant towards those who hurt my nearest and dearest.  Showing understanding and compassion towards those who wrong me, though, doesn’t that make me a good person?  Isn’t that what the Bible, Jesus, Ghandi, the Dalai Lama and all the GOOD people do?

The penny dropped today that no, there is a big difference between being tolerant, being understanding, being non-judgemental and failing to take care of yourself.  Throughout my life, I’ve neglected one serious point.  I’ve neglected to see myself as having the right to be treated properly.  I’ve neglected the fact that when people engage into a relationship of any sort with you – whether they are your friends, relatives, partners, teachers – they also take on an implicit responsibility to treat you decently.  No ifs, no buts, no excuses.  If they fall short, if they hurt you in any way, then what they are doing is not right.  Whether they can help it or not, it doesn’t make it right.  It’s not a case of “universally right” either, as I don’t believe such a thing exists.  It’s bad enough if it just isn’t right for you.

So yes, I am now planning to be less tolerant from now on.  I am not planning to be less understanding of people’s circumstances or to start going about casting stones, as I know I’m far from perfect myself.  But I plan to judge people’s actions based on their impact on me, and make plans as to their role in my life accordingly.  I will be choosing the people in my life based on how they act towards me, regardless of any reasons or excuses they may have for their shortcomings or foibles.  I am the person responsible for setting minimum standards of behaviour towards me.  And if people believe me to be too stern, too unreasonable, too uncharitable, too intolerant – well, that may well be the case, and it might yet turn around and bite me in the back.  I might find myself with less people around me, but I’m hoping that the people I will attract will be the ones who will enhance my life, not drain it.  As of now, I choose to look after myself.  I choose to be happy.

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