Recently, my dear friend Gil told me that she hated the lead female character in my book so much she almost stopped reading. If my book was actually published and sitting comfortably near the top of New York Times Best Seller List, I would have simply ignored her text and gone back to snorting cocaine off my hooker, but since she is one of the people I begged to help me edit the latest draft, I pushed the hooker off the bed1 and investigated further.
My first reaction was that if I can create a character that inspires so much loathing that the reader becomes upset, go me. The character in question is a total bitch, rude and obnoxious to the very people cutting her breaks at every turn. She's also pretty, which is how people often get away with being like that. The fact is you're not supposed to like her in the beginning, and she's composed of elements of my girlfriends past and imagined, both good and bad. The root of my disagreement with Gil is that she sees the character as a bad person, and I see her as a damaged person. More importantly, she thinks that a person can be damaged and still be bad, while I don't think anyone's bad. I think mean, vicious, and bitchy people are damaged and unhappy, and deserve some empathy, or in the worst cases, pity.
This discussion led to her next question: "Is there anybody you don't like?"
This gave me pause. This question and the implications of my answer pertain to the entirety of my life choices, experiences, the things I like and dislike about myself, most of my complexes, what other people think about me, my view of the universe, and 30% of all conversations I've had after either four cups of coffee after 2:00am on a weekday or eight to ten beers on a thursday or friday between 11:00pm and midnight.
I flashed back to a college coffee house reading. My roommate at the time had invited me, saying if I wanted to write I should put myself out there. At 29, my presence there was barely legal, and arriving with a stiff gin and tonic in a ginger ale bottle didn't help my tenuous claim to innocence. This was my second visit, and the one where I actually read something.
I don't remember most of the readings. The "M.C." was a contrived personality programmed by a stoned computer science major and stuffed into a freshman as a fraternity prank. I trusted him more when he was acting, which means he probably has a bright future. The only reader that stuck out was a 17 year-old kid brushing against goth and punk subcultures. He was out of place in a room mostly full of actors who couldn't shut up about themselves and soft spoken writers who were princes and princesses of their internal worlds.2 He was self-effacing but aggressive, laden with a too-well-thought-out personal philosophy, and just an all around smart and awkward mess of hormones. His piece was not genius, but his work was searching, assertive, and more than the purely masturbatory work that filled the rest of the night.3 He put himself out in front of a crowd of people who didn't respect him and he knew it, but he did it and he did it as well as any self-conscious teenager could expect.
I read Man are Stupid, Women are Crazy,5 which always makes young people like me. I owned the room. They laughed and clapped when I wanted them to, and mobbed me afterwards, asking where they could read my work, telling me I understood so much about people. I stood up fairly straight and humbly accepted their accolades, wondering which of the girls I would sleep if she were two years older. At the moment, I had a mission. I made a beeline for my 17 year-old hero to whom nobody was talking, dragging my new followers with me. I said, "Dude, I liked your piece. Keep writing." What I meant was, "Dude, you will understand people someday, in a way most other people never will. Keep watching the world."
My fan club looked aghast. I took a slug off my gin and tonic, thanked them, and left with my roommate.
When I told this story to my heterosexual lifemate Jake, he said, "Wow. Why didn't you just wear a cape?"6 He was completely right. Sure I wanted to give someone the kind of push people gave me when I was figuring myself out, but I also wanted to selflessly—and publicly—grant him all the benefits of the admiration directed at me, so I could feel, as Jake points out, like Superman.
It gets worse. My bout in the nuthouse made it vivid fact that somewhere in the wiring of my brain lies a palpable Jesus complex. I do want to save you all. A part of me wants to suffer for you, channel your pain, and grant you freedom and eternal life.7 And another, more evident part of me wants you all to worship for the next two thousand years as a living god. I like to think of this as boiler plate copy that everyone muses about in their daydreams, the only difference being I put my neurosis on display.
Gil claims my breadth of spirit for my fellow humans is a form of largess rarely seen outside the privileged classes, and probably a form of condescension. My reaction to that is first that that kind of comment is a semi-critical kind of thing to say so the speaker can bring me down in their minds and feel better about not being like me, and second that she's probably right, so the paradox is should or do I feel better than everybody else because I think nobody is better than anybody else, and everyone should get a chance?
At my local bar, I'm everybody's last friend. When they've pissed off every other person, made everyone else uncomfortable, made the bar a noticeably worse place and are days away from being kicked out, I'm the only person who still talks to them and says, "Hey, he's just got issues, he's alright sometimes." This particular behavior, as I like to see it, is an undiscriminating acceptance of the human condition; it's also recklessly enabling. I don't believe there are bad people, and barring psychopathology, most of the people considered bad just got poor training for this ostensibly ethical and polite society. There are uncountable reasons we grate on one another, and I attempt to ignore them all. It's impossible: I hate with the best of them. Prick me, do I not bleed? Cut me off on the stairway, do I not want to break your stupid fucking face? I estimate that I want to beat up at least one person a day, but I also know it wouldn't help anyone. My acceptance is also unhelpful; if a person is making my bar a worse place for everyone else, they should be told to leave. I just can't be the enforcer.
So why am I like this?
For one, I have an over-developed sense of empathy. If I'm around people who are miserable, I'm miserable until I can cheer them up, and I can't do anything but try. This leads me to avoid people who are pathologically miserable, because if I stay around them, I'll just continue to be miserable and try to fix the problem until somebody tells me this girl is bad for me.8 I resent having this trait, as much as I wish everybody else had it. Since the feature of my brain drags me into a legion of catastrophic emotional situations, I've developed one of the best mental defenses on the planet: total acceptance of everything, all the time.9 This is skipping to the end of that five stages of dealing with it crap,10 so you're done before it starts.
This relates to the conversation I had with my girlfriend the other day when we were having a beer and she asked me what I'd done to all these women that made them hate me so much, and when was it going to happen to her. Total acceptance includes acceptance of the internal as well as the external, so I'm open with my past and my present, and people tend to see that as extreme emotional vulnerability. It's actually extreme emotional openness, and a means of protecting myself, since if everything's on the table, nothing's under it, rattling chains and snapping at toes. This is great for making friends but not so good for romance, since in romance I will state explicitly that I'm not in it for the long haul, but my naked soul makes people feel safer making themselves more vulnerable, and they can't bounce back from problems the way I can, because they were holding on to those fine wine secrets for a special occasion, whereas I splatter mine all over the internet for fun. So, in the words of Busta Rhymes, I bounce. Others crumble.
Part of THAT (I know we've got a lot of parts of parts so far, bear with me) is not valuing my life in any way other than wanting to keep it. I'm not important, nothing I do will matter in the end, all life I'm aware of is a mote in a dying sky. Since there's no final arrangement of memories and achievements I'm working towards, the only thing that matters is whether I'm alive and moderately content at any given moment. If life is a casino, I'm the night janitor.
Aside from empathy, I was justly punished for most of the terrible things I've done in my life. I was a hideous child, but the lectures and disappointment added up to a passable sense of pleasant versus asshole, and I adapted. Slept with best friend's girlfriend; best friend knocks on my window at 2:00am and makes me relate the story while he puts cigarettes out on his arm. Slept with my next best friend's ex-girlfriend, he doesn't speak to me for six months while we're living together. There are less sexy things that I won't relate, but the point is psychological torture is an effective teacher, even (or especially) when it can never be condoned as a policy of a just society. The irony here is that I'm completely unequipped to execute the kinds of just punishments that made me a relatively nice person. Not just because of the punishments, but because I've done so many awful things yet maintained the public and private image of a decent person, and a person has to at exceed my list of personal betrayals before I can question their life choices.
After empathy and punishment, having a lot of terrible shit happen to you makes you not want terrible shit to happen. After enough psychosis, suicide, death, and failure, you just what the world to be well greased. For instance, after six years of shitty tips, I would never tip badly.11 If you don't believe in a solution, you believe in keeping things quiet. Never raise the temperature and never start the fight. The horror is real and inevitable, and the best you can do is not contribute to it.
I went to a bunch of quaker schools when I was a kid. If I stick in any of my childhood friends' memories, I probably stand out as the kid who invented and ran beat-down Wednesdays, wherein I selected someone at random and rallied my classmates into chasing them around and beating them up. At a quaker school. It took a lot of authority figures telling me I was a jerk to curb this behavior, but what I remember is the little plaque in the principal's office that said "Do unto to other as you would have them do unto you." Thankfully, that stuck in my head more than the fascist habits I was teaching myself at the tender age of seven. Later in life, I've noticed that people do unto to others as they assume people will do unto them. The people most paranoid about getting robbed are the people most likely to rob you, the people who assume everyone hates them are the most hateful, the people most worried about your stability are the most unstable people. The people most worried about getting hurt are the people most likely to hurt you.
Above and beyond all the defensive strategies, treating everyone you meet as a complete, probably flawed, and forgivable human being is an offensive strategy, since people tend to act in accordance with the expectations of the people around them. Not the explicit expectations; the actual expectations. Some retail chain once decided to deny its employees pockets in their uniforms. The result was employee theft doubled, because while they said they expect employees not to steal, they assumed they would, and their workforce responded to the assumption. Nothing makes me want a cigarette more than a non-smoking sign, and being told I'm not allowed off school grounds makes me to smoke pot in the woods. As a breed, we will wiggle and squirm out of every insisted upon rule, because we know the rule expresses the distrust and condescension of the people imposing them. To paraphrase Paul Tillich, every command erodes the connection between the commander and the commandee, since it encodes a relationship and mocks the trust that makes a relationship work. To demand that people act a certain way lest they be judged is to ask for a problem. I have such a problem with it I've quit jobs and left states at the hint of it.
We all look at our own thoughts and assume, no matter how much we claim otherwise, that other people's thoughts follow the same patterns. As much as I try to find and figure other people's patterns, I know I'm still seeing them through the unbreachable closet of my own mind. We casually imbue the most complex and variable organ in the world with a structure similar to our own three pound lump of gray matter, even when we know they cannot possibly be the same. I don't judge because not judging is a coping mechanism: insisting there can be no judgment means I cannot be judged.
And I cannot be judged. I don't condone or condemn, and I refuse to be condemned or condoned. We fear in others what we see in ourselves, and if I fear nothing in others, I get to sleep at night, no matter what I've done, no matter what I'm going to do. There may be good things and bad things in my future, but I put nobody beneath me, and I won't let anybody put me beneath them. I won't make you my bitch, because that presumes the possibility of me being somebody's bitch. And I am nobody's bitch.
1 She was dead anyway.
2 This is true of me too, except I am the One True God of my internal world, and I am an angry god.
3 One girl read her diaries from when she was 8. It was entertaining for exactly one tenth of the time she was reading, and you could hear the collective teeth grinding as she gushed over her long gone cleverness. I swear to you if I ever recount journal entries from my past, I will edit them, and they will be brief.
4 Then I fucked it all up and collapsed as a person for five years.
5 And I'm just realizing, two years later, I misspelled "Men" in that title.
6 My heterosexual lifemate is no friend to my ego.
7 Right after I grant myself eternal life.
8 And hits me over the head with a wrench and locks me in a closet with a psychologist for a month. I have no radar for lost causes.
9 Except reggaeton. Seriously? Is there only one one-trick drummer for this entire fucking genre?
10 Which is just one method among many. I'm an atheist, and have been for the duration of this meaningless life, but I still talked to my dead ex-girlfriend for three years, which was a lot more helpful than all the people telling me to get over it. That may have been why I talked to her for so long; literally every important person in my life except my friend Luke told me to get over it or they laughed when I told them. I mean, even if it was that crazy laugh people give when they can't cope with the news, what the hell? I'm still pissed at all of you.
11 Between writing this the first time and editing it, I did, for the first time in my life, tip badly. 30 minutes to come over and ask if we were going to order. 30 minutes to food. 10 minutes to notice we were done. The bill was wrong, charging us for things we didn't order or get. I mean, c'mon. And it wasn't just then: every waiter in this place is incompetent and on a cell phone half the time, and all of them being French is no excuse. Service in France is much better. I sent the waiter back to correct the bill and we left our money on the table before he got back. After the bill was corrected, he probably got 10%. Yeah, what? What? Choke on it, you French bastard.