We live in the Age of Responsibility. We belittle those who “play the victim.” We believe in “tough love.” Senators argue against funding for Food Stamps by asserting that such programs create “a dependency class.” The rich have earned their riches. The poor would not be poor if they worked harder. Everyone gets what they deserve. We make our own reality. [See “Deserts”]
After being released from Bruno, I was astonished and angered over and over again by the way people responded to my troubles.
I told people how completely blind-sided I had been by my arrest at work. I had done nothing but avoid MRM, while he had continually violated our mutual restraining orders by stalking me, emailing me, telephoning me, and even by approaching me on the street. I had complained to the police department about MRM’s hundreds of violations, reporting to them everything he did to harass me, yet I was the one arrested. Furthermore, I was arrested on a criminal charge of domestic violence on the basis of nothing but MRM‘s unsubstantiated allegations. (After all, there could be no other witnesses to something that didn’t happen.)
MRM had filed a false police report (alleging that I had approached him in a park and hit him) in order to manipulate the police into doing his bidding, and thereby to ruin my life. And he succeeded: the arrest cost me my job, causing me real hardship. While homelessness was nothing new, homelessness without an income to buy food, occasional shelter, transportation, and the like was both new and very difficult.
When I told people that this is what had happened, they seemed disinterested. Not one said that the situation was shocking and that the behavior of both MRM and the police was unjust. Instead, they would ask me what I had done to cause my current situation. They would advise me in patronizing and self-righteous tones to focus on the lessons to be learned from these events, namely, to see how I had “created” or at least allowed these things to happen to me.
I felt like someone trapped in a Hitchcockian nightmare. Why was I suddenly a suspect? [“The police don’t just arrest people who haven’t done anything” -- that convenient lie. Again, see “Deserts.”] I wanted sympathy. I wanted some acknowledgement that MRM’s actions had been both base and unpredictable. I wanted comfort. What I received was admonishment, suspicion, rebuke, and the clear implication that if I was not in fact guilty of some crime, then at least I was guilty of “playing the victim.”
This attitude left me speechless. The first couple of times I heard these sentiments I protested but incoherently, sputtering like a frustrated cartoon character. I wanted people to understand the devious, dishonest, and shameful machinations to which MRM had sunk in his efforts to make me miserable. I wanted people to see him for who he was and to understand that his behavior was so below any decent standards that of course I had been completely unprepared to defend myself. But I could not seem to make this case clearly enough, because I found myself hearing the same question again and again: what had I done to cause the situation in which I found myself?
I soon realized that the people to whom I was talking simply did not care about me or my plight. They did not want to hear my story and so responded with this rhetoric, which seemed concerned, seemed right-minded and responsible, but was designed to stop me from talking, allowing people to avoid having to sympathize or -- worse -- to do something. I quickly learned to listen politely to their nostrums and add them to the list of people in whose lives I did not matter. They in turn ceased to matter in mine. I realize now that this too was a wound that MRM had intentionally inflicted on me.
It was as if I suddenly found myself on the other side of a wall beyond which people’s empathy would not extend. I might understand such a reaction if I had for years explained my misfortunes as resulting from the plotting or negligence or deliberate malice of others, i.e., if I had habitually portrayed myself as victimized. But I have almost never thought of or spoken of myself that way. Ironically enough, MRM does complain of being victimized constantly, in every venue of his life.
But before I go any further, let me here declare that I have learned a number of lessons from my experience. I do recognize that my own behavior, especially my failure to take strong action to rid myself of MRM early on, contributed to my troubles. I failed to act on The First of Dasman’s Laws of Human Being: “Everyone always knows exactly what is going on.” I knew that MRM was a cad, but when I watched his crude attempts to lash out at others, I saw only the way everything he did only demonstrated to the world what a petty, mean-spirited, and unintelligent man he was. I failed to realize that he would eventually use these same tactics to try to hurt me.
Here is a summary of my failures:
1. I trusted someone untrustworthy.
2. I thought that I could handle any contretemps that a bad relationship might entail.
3. I thought that in a few months of hunting for a job -- any job -- I would eventually find one.
4. I did not imagine that well-educated and intelligent people of my milieu would turn their domestic problems into drama played out in the street, much less call the police to take away their (supposed) loved-one instead of talking out their difficulties like adults.
5. I was vengeful. When I was down to my last few dollars and realized that despite all his promises MRM would never pay his share of anything, let alone support me for a few months as I had supported him, I resolved to force him to take care of me. The result was our move to his cousin’s house where his cousin, RA, provided for us.
In short, I failed to be sufficiently suspicious; I was over-confident about my ability to find a job when I needed one; and I suffered a failure of the imagination, being blind to the depths of senseless wickedness people can sink.
Note: This self-awareness is subject to the Second of Dasman’s Laws of Human Being: We are each the least qualified observers of ourselves: everyone else sees us more clearly than we ever can.
In making these observations, however, I am not “taking responsibility” in the way people want me to. So I have to wonder what “personal responsibility” is.
A truly strong concept of individual responsibility, the idea that “you create your own reality,” while currently popular among the comfortable classes, is absurd. My sister’s three-year old son died suddenly while playing in the yard with his friends. The coroner said simply that he had no idea what had happened. The child’s brain was swollen beyond any hemorrhaging or stroke that he had seen. If anyone tries to tell me that my sister created this loss, this unspeakable grief, and must bear responsibility for it as part of her reality, I will tear out their eyes.
And a weaker version of the concept doesn’t really say much. In this ordinary sense, responsibility is diffused. We act within the constraints of, and in reaction to, a world that is given to and not made by us. In such a world, can the individual really be held fully responsible for her plight or success? After all, the events I suffered were shaped by MRM. He had the upper hand because he took it, striking first and quite effectively.
So we arrive at a larger and deeper question: to what extent do we control our lives (if at all)? Is the doctrine of Free Will no more valid that the Ptolemaic view of the universe?
[To be continued . . . .]