Saturday, October 19, 2013

Right and Wrong

Right and Wrong

They say that those who fail to learn from the past are condemned to repeat it. Personally, I have had more than my share of past situations that I would very much like not to repeat if at all possible, which is probably why I spend so much time, in the aftermath of something that has gone horribly wrong, doing my best to confront, review and thoroughly study its history in hopes of learning whatever it is that will protect me from ever having to go through it again. If what they say is true, all I need to do is carry those lessons around like snapshots, or mugshots, and whenever I am about to make a decision to go ahead or run like hell, I can pull them out, hold them up, and if anything matches, choose that second option without doubt, hesitation or remorse.

We all know how it feels to find ourselves suddenly in the middle of something that has gone horribly wrong, whether it is a job, a relationship, a living space, an activity or item acquired or pursued with a considerable expenditure of good faith, time, effort or material resources. You do your best to get over the shock of yet another failed enterprise, make changes in attitude or behavior, and if you have been down this road as many times as I have, once an acceptable amount of wallowing in self-pity and giving things a second and third chance, and weighing the good and bad to be had in staying or going has happened, start creating a ruthlessly practical exit strategy.

The nice thing about an exit strategy is that during the period when you could be either talking yourself out of leaving a bad situation or beating yourself up because you can’t catch a break in life, you can instead apply your mental and physical energies to things like looking for a new job, or packing up your belongings, or coming up with a new budget, or investigating new endeavors and places in which to do them. It also protects you, during that transition time when you are literally neither here nor there, from feeling the full impact of exactly how horribly wrong the things you are not quite free of yet have gone.

It is a facet of human nature that, (gloomy malcontents who thrive on seeing and perpetuating only the negative regardless of how good things are aside), most of us try to see the good, or refuse to see the bad in a situation clearly disintegrating before our eyes, whether out of optimism, denial, pride or a sense of survival. It is only once we have cut ties and know we are soon to be released that the true extent of the wrongness becomes clear. And once we are indeed completely free and no longer need to protect ourselves, we discover that this clarity increases with the amount of time and distance we put between ourselves and the wrongness. Soon we have to ask ourselves why we tolerated something so clearly wrong for so long? When did it go wrong and how can we recognize and act upon that kind of moment sooner and spare ourselves so much grief? And then, how can we keep ourselves from getting into it in the first place so we won’t have to spend seemingly more time in life getting out of the wrong things than enjoying the right things?

I have had jobs, relationships, living spaces and all manner of pursuits go horribly wrong, and every time I have looked back and wondered if I could have done something differently, seen the signs sooner, not just to spare myself future grief, but to keep myself from coming to the tempting conclusion that I have not learned a thing in all my years and all my past studies, and remain the worst judge of character, situations and circumstances on the planet, and given my dismal track record am really no better off than the dangerously thoughtless heartless hapless people who bulldoze through life lacking all self and other awareness and to whom I have no right to consider myself superior. 

I know this is not true. But what can I tell my friends and family when I have to report another thing begun feeling so right and yet gone horribly wrong, and more importantly, what do I tell myself? Was I blind, or too optimistic and patient, making excuses for every sign that I can now see was there right in front of me? Was I tired of creating exit strategies and hoping I could ride this one out? Was I ashamed of the explanations I would have to make to family and friends and preferred to suffer a private hell than admit to it? The problem with explaining to friends and family what has gone horribly wrong is that if you are honest about exactly how bad it is you look like an idiot or a masochist for getting yourself into and remaining for so long in such a situation, and if you lie about the severity of your suffering, you look like a self-limiting perfectionist or an outright flake for jumping ship at the first sign of what sounds like minor trouble. To get at anything close to the full truth, you have to commit to a lengthy philosophical presentation, when all anyone requires is the quick and easy version of the story.

So here I am now, free of all the recent wrong things I have had to separate myself from, starting all over again. I am unemployed, single, and living alone in a new apartment in a city, and with acquaintances, I have not known very long, and while I am looking forward to all the new things that are going to come into my life, I am also looking for where, when and how the signs of things going wrong will start to appear, wondering whether I will recognize and act on them sooner rather than later, wiser for my studies of the past, or whether these signs are not always so obvious, not always a matter of  wise recognition and decisive action, but plain old dumb luck, the sad fact being that even the best persons places and things change over time in ways you could not have seen because they simply were not yet present or revealed to you.

And that is the quick and easy story I am telling myself and anyone who asks about my last job, and my last relationship, and why I am back at square one in middle age, and how things that start out so right can go so horribly wrong. And in the end, there really are no good, full or right answers. Whatever I have learned, whatever I encounter in life, I am still far more likely to go ahead than run like hell. But I have a traveling bag full of snapshots, and a process of elimination is in motion. If I can keep surviving, identifying, and subsequently avoiding the wrong, whatever is left has to be right.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

One or the Other

One or the Other

Anyone who has been kind enough in recent years to listen graciously when I am in one of my philosophical moods has heard me declare that people can more or less be sorted into two basic types: perpetrators and accommodators, and while the latter all know who they are, the former rarely do. Just as, if everyone who considered themselves a giving honest easygoing person really was, sales of hard liquor would plummet.

Perpetrators act without thinking. Accommodators think without acting. This isn’t just about the old divisions between extrovert and introvert, for I know plenty of clueless introverts so self-absorbed and aggressively passive that they require a coterie of accommodators to get them through life. I also know plenty of thoughtful extroverts who may be sociable, vocal, assertive and often impulsive, but will take into account the effects of their actions and words on others the way no true perpetrator ever can. The true perpetrator, regardless of personality, has long since learned that there is no benefit to factoring their effect on others into their journey in life. It is always and only about the one. And they are as self-assured on that point as the boulder in the stream around which the water has no choice but to flow. 

We all have perpetrators in our families, circles of friends, workplaces and bedrooms.  They are the ones who barrel along in life unchecked thanks to a combination of the politeness, fear and indifference of others, never getting called out on their bad behavior and attitude, their unique skill at making everything about themselves, everything someone else’s fault. From the sibling who gets all the attention by misbehaving versus the one who quietly takes the role of peacemaker, to the parent who responds to appeals for sympathy as if they were an unreasonable interruption or affront versus the one who explains, adapts and apologizes to keep the household in harmony, these patterns get set so early in life, it seems wherever there’s a perpetrator there have been accommodators from the very beginning enabling their worst habits.

They are the co-worker who does all they can to make sure everyone knows they are there, loud on the phone, physically omnipresent, never satisfied, from the micromanaging boss to the fussy colleague who takes a day off and the entire office breathes a sigh of relief. They aren’t necessarily a bad person, you just feel like whenever they are around all the energy in the room goes to dealing successfully with their quirks, upsets, or impositions. They can be mildly annoying with their complaints and incompetence, or they can be outright bullies whose inappropriate tantrums needlessly undermine everyone else’s well-being.

They are the friend no one cuts off because they are a well-meaning sort and often quite fun to be around, but they have ruined countless social occasions by acting or speaking up in one way or another that requires others to hold their tongues, do damage control and later make rounds of apologies. Whatever the pretext of the gathering, it becomes “that night so and so made a scene.” It seems cruel to avoid them, but one day you realize that whenever you are with them, one way or another, something unfortunate happens and you go home saying “never again.” You have a friend like this. Terminating the friendship feels like more trouble than it’s worth, and yet, you hold your breath whenever you know they are going to be joining the party.

They are the partner whose habits and moods and life goals and choices eventually take precedence over yours because it’s just easier that way, because they would not have the first idea how to anticipate and prioritize your needs even if it occurred to them that this was a necessary and natural part of being in a relationship, being a good person. It is always about them. When you need them most, they can’t be bothered to comfort or console. They tell you they have things to do. They work hard. They struggle in life too! No one ever helped or made sacrifices for them when they were down!  More likely than not, this type of partner had a particularly egregious perpetrator for a parent so in some ways they don’t know any better. But in other ways, we can all overcome the conditioning of our childhood, and even our adulthood. Not knowing better is no excuse. It is never too late to learn how to be a person who thinks of others before they act for themselves.

Being an accommodator may be my biased preference, and birthright, but it is no picnic. You can be the most passionate determined person on the planet when it comes to your own affairs in which no other people are involved, but when anyone else’s needs or feelings are in play, you seek the path of least resistance and most assistance in all things. You gladly cede a point or your place or path not because you are weak or indecisive, but because it seems that very few things are that important that they are worth a pitched battle so someone can be declared a winner. You don’t care who wins, you just want everyone happy. But sometimes a policy of deference, concession and compromise means you lose, not only the argument, but yourself. The urge to help, to fix, to give, no matter how worthy, can be dangerous in a world where only some of the beneficiaries will prove grateful, worthy, responding in kind by either giving back to you or to someone else. And the rest will drain everything they can from you and leave you wishing you could be so blissfully free of conscience and sympathy. Some perpetrators are just accommodators who got tired of being downtrodden and switched sides. Believe me, I’ve considered it. But the mere fact I considered it first, and all the people it would affect, should tell you how that turned out.

Accommodators may be the counselors, volunteers, mediators, caregivers and healers of the world, but the flip side of this coin of service is that the perpetrators are left unchallenged in their mission of absolute self-absorption. Constant awareness of how our choices affect the lives of others is a distraction, yes, but it also leads to ruthless self-examination which eventually leads to self-improvement and the greater good.  To perpetrators, when things go badly it’s the Universe not giving them a break, or how they were brought up, or the conditions they are forced to work within, or other people overreacting. And when everything works out okay in the end, what’s the fuss? Where’s the need for self-scrutiny or change?  They make messes the invisible elves clean up every night, so why learn to clean them up themselves, or think of ways not to make them in the first place?   

Sadly, for every accommodator who walks away from a particular relative, friend, co-worker or lover they are tired of enabling, there is another ready to take their place. The messes continue and the elves never sleep. If they got more sleep, just think of all the good that could be done helping people who actually need and appreciate it.

Just walk away. It's not easy, but I can tell you, it is always for the best.