Tuesday, 23 April 2013
Superpowers. Just like that. 23.04.13
I’m tripping out on Rory Miller’s “Meditations on Violence”, as I’ve been for days. This little gem hit me big time:
"Permission and awareness go beyond that. There are agreements and subconscious human dynamics that affect violent behaviour. Cultivating awareness of which these agreements are artificial, and granting yourself permission to break them combine for a nearly superhuman ability. It is not that you can suddenly do what humans can't do, it's that you can do what humans choose to believe they can't do."
Miller is talking about self-defence skills. He is talking about situations where people’s preconceptions and social training prevent them from successfully defending themselves or the people around them. I have been thinking about a very similar yet completely different situation for some time but I have not been able to word it anywhere near as clearly or concisely, so I’m nicking his paragraph and taking it out of context. Bear with me.
It all started in the dark, dark months of late 2012, when the world was surely going to hell in a handbasket and the Mayans were letting me down. In the middle of the mother and father of all headfucks, hardly able to think straight or function, I found myself being able to predict the future. Unfortunately it didn’t apply to winning lottery numbers, racing horses or anything of that nature, just to the people around me. It started out with a particular individual. In a lightbulb moment, it came to me that she is selfish and fickle. She wants what she wants, with no regards for the people around her, and she doesn’t tend to want the same thing for any length of time. The combination of the two traits makes her a very difficult person to live with. Whatever you do to please her today – and you must please her or be out on your ear – won’t be the right thing to do tomorrow. After months of watching a series of people bending themselves backwards around her to try and accommodate her and inevitably end up failing, and hearing her recount the tales of how she was continuously let down, it just became so obvious. It all made sense. Her behaviour, which I had previously found entirely unpredictable and sometimes hurtful, was now suddenly perfectly explainable and expectable. Whatever she was going to do next, it was going to be selfish and fickle.
I didn’t tell her about my conclusions, obviously. You can’t go around telling people that they are selfish and fickle, can you? It’s hardly the done thing and I didn’t need a showdown. I did not even contemplate trying to explain to her “where she was going wrong”. I did not try to “fix” her. I just kept the two little labels in my head and used them as bearings when navigating around her. So far, I’ve not been hurt or surprised by her again. In fact, I have been pretty much able to predict her behaviour towards the rest of her social crowd. This, in turn, has given me the ability to tell her “what is going to happen next”. In fairness, it doesn’t take a genius most of the time. If you give someone a present and then take it back to sell it, the ex-receiver will be upset at you. If someone buys you a present because you really, really want it and then you sell it, the ex-giver will be unimpressed too. If you get someone to let you live in their house for free because you’re strapped for cash and then buy yourself an iPad or start saving up for an expensive holiday, people will feel taken in and react badly to it. Crystal balls are not necessary here. Most of it is pretty billy-basic stuff. It is not at all obvious to her, though, so when I can tell her how things are going to develop she is genuinely impressed. She can’t see it coming.
Over time I got even better. I started being able to branch out and “read the future” of what the people around her were going to do too. You see, once I pasted the “selfish and fickle” labels on her, my relationship towards her changed. I got a bit cooler, a bit more reserved. I started talking a lot less and listening a lot more. I became an observer, rather than a person actually involved in her life. Bizarrely, she seemed to love it and started to tell me more and more about her life, hence about the other people in it. The more I seemed to be able to predict their behaviour, the more she told me. Hey presto, I’m half-guru, half-clairvoyant. This would be laudable if my life wasn’t a living testimony to the fact that really I don’t know shit, but hey, I’ve got a new skill. She’s routinely impressed, and I’d be lying if I said that I don’t enjoy that.
I always thought that every person was as unique as a snowflake, and that is probably true. However, at the same time we’re also monkeys with a delusion of grandeur. Our basic operating principles, whether we choose to accept it or not, can be pretty animalistic. Most of us live in a Venn diagram of packs – our family, friends, workmates, neighbours, etc – and within those pack we operate in hierarchies often not far off those of our more primitive ancestors. A friend of mine holds that if you scratch the surface of civilisation the three basic questions at the bottom of each human interaction are: “Can I eat you? Can you eat me? Can I fuck you?” This may be a tad simplistic, perchance, but it’s undeniable that a lot of our dealings are based on pack structures and impulses that most of us refuse to acknowledge. Once you work out where someone sits or wants to sit in the hierarchy of a particular group and what he/she wants from the other group members, anticipating behaviours becomes easier. Will they try to please or dominate? Will they support or undermine?
The other great simplifier is that people’s actions, even when unpleasant, are a reflection of who they are and how they operate. This is going to seem like the mother of all redundancies, but it really isn’t, thanks to the ol’ rose-tinted glasses we tend to wear when dealing with those closest to us. Most people I know have a tendency to see people’s “good” behaviour as normal, and “bad” behaviour as a slip, mistake or mishap. This would be great, if it wasn’t bullshit.
Let me give you an example. One of my exes had an affair prior to my arrival on the scene. It wasn’t something that “happened”. He didn’t trip up and accidentally landed with his dick in someone. He had an affair – it was something he chose to do, which was a reflection of who he was. But no, when I found out I chose to see it as an extraordinary occurrence, a one-off mistake he had made that he would have learnt from. Over time, it became apparent that he just had a weakness for anything female. Now I could (and did) spend ages working out why – was it his upbringing, current lifestyle, something I did or did not do? The bottom line was that he was a womaniser. It’s not nice to slap a label like that on someone you love, but it was the truth.
Another example: my mother cares more about public opinion than pretty much anything else, including her own opinion. Again, it isn’t a nice thing to admit to yourself or others, but it’s true. In any dealings with her, if I don’t bear that fact in mind or deliberately ignore it because it’s unpleasant, I will likely end up having problems. In any given situation, “what everyone will think” will come first, and my happiness, general well-being or even safety will come so far down her priority list that they might as well be discounted altogether. This became glaringly apparent when I divorced. Not once she asked me what had happened; that just wasn’t a significant factor. She wanted me to fix things up, and that was it. When I went to visit her several months later she demanded that I tell her neighbours that my husband could not come with me because “he could not get the time off work”. She’d made such a production of me being married to people that I did not even really know that she could not bear the shame of the divorce. This was more important to her than the circumstances of it, or how I might feel about having to lie about it, or talk about it at all.
The list goes on. The customer who bitched nastily to me about the previous owners of the business after a while turned against me and started to do the same behind my back. The friend who let her partner push her around finally split up, and the glorious result is that now she is being pushed around by her ex. The ex-boss who treats employees with the same regard that I show towards my dogs’ mess keeps being “let down” by them when they “leave him in the lurch”. For all intents and purposes, people are what they do, not just what they do in their good moments. You can use their past behaviour to advise you as to what their future behaviour is likely to be.
Now, I am not saying that people can’t learn. Hell, given the number of catastrophic mistakes I have made in the past, I hope that learning and development are possible for us all. I’m bloody doomed otherwise. However, I know that my mistakes are by and large a product of some of my basic personality traits. Disregarding completely why or how these traits came about, whose fault it is, what I could do to fix them and so on, I have to admit that they exist. Until I accept that they are there and make allowances for them, they will constantly trip me up.
For years I’ve loved the Goethe quote: “Treat people as if they were what they ought to be and you help them to become what they are capable of being”. Yes, ok, that’s just grand. But what about now? What about this specific point in time, when you are financially dependent on someone who has a history of not being able to manage his money? When you need the support of someone who is constitutionally unreliable? When you need to find out the truth from a liar? Sometimes the practicalities of the situation rely on awareness of what is real, not what could be.
Taking Miller’s view, the “permission” aspect of my new superpower is that to pass judgement. Nasty, isn’t it! I know that for some people – those with certain personalities, religious beliefs and so on – “being judgemental” may be a fine thing to be indeed. Hell, my grandmother was a rabid Catholic and she felt required to tell people loud and clear where they were going wrong. To me it seems that she managed to be a Catholic without getting anywhere near being a Christian, given what ol’ Jesus has to say on the subject: “Judge not, that ye be not judged. For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you.” (Matthew 7:1-5)
I grew up a bastard in a Catholic family. Even disregarding the fact that I was by birth the lowest of the low, I had enough judgement passed upon me before I was even out of the oven that I really did not need to go collecting any more. It’s probably a combination of that and leaning so far to the political left that I tend to fall off the scale right into anarchy, I am not sure; however it came about, to me the idea of “passing judgement” comes pretty close to drowning kittens. It’s not quite at the level of ethnic cleansing, but it’s a huge taboo. You just don’t. You just DON’T. Who are you, to pass judgement on anyone? So you can’t say that so-and-so is an alcoholic, a womaniser, a liar, a fraudster, and so on. You can’t call someone “selfish and fickle”. Everybody is a nice person, really, but nobody is perfect. So you gloss over the imperfection and end up smacking your face so hard into reality sometimes that it leaves you reeling in pain. The past repeating itself catches you by surprise. You are blindsided by people “letting you down” or “acting out of character” or “making mistakes” so badly that it all amounts to gross betrayal. And then on top of that you have to deal with all the broken bits of your life, which you have to pick up with a spinning head and a dented or broken heart.
My new superpower now is to call things how I see them. I don’t have to call them aloud, but in the privacy of my own head I reserve the right to make judgements and to operate according to my findings. I am not necessarily making value judgements here – I don’t believe that my “good” and “bad” are universal values, not by a long shot. What I make an effort to do is deal with reality as I see it at this point, however unpleasant. I find it’s a hell of a lot easier than trying to operate within a delusion and then dealing with the aftermath of it coming all apart. Sometimes it’s not “nice”, but that’s how it is. I can’t begin to change it if I can’t accept it in the first place; it would be like trying to fight shadows. It does not mean that I am always right, either, but at least I am not wilfully wrong. I don’t know about you, but in my book that’s progress.