Your boss has made it very clear: if you’re late for work one more time, you’re getting fired. So when you wake up late because of last night’s power outage, you’re freaking out. Because you need this job. Really need this job. In less than ten minutes, you’re out the door and speeding like a demon on the highway. To make your exit, you’re forced to cut some guy off. He lays on his horn and yells out horrible obscenities at you. You feel bad about cutting him off, really you do, but you forgive yourself soon after you get to work on time. Because you had a really good reason. Because you need this job. Really need this job. Of course, the guy you cut off doesn’t know any of this. And he’s red-in-the-face furious, overflowing with righteous indignation. When he gets to work, he tells everyone he knows about the asshole who nearly killed him on the way to work.
Next week, you’re driving to work on the same highway—on time, this time—when some asshole rockets past you at an ungodly speed. Wow, you think to yourself, what an inconsiderate, selfish jerk! Doesn’t he realize how reckless he’s being? A moment later, another asshole cuts you off to make his exit. This time you’re furious. You lay on your horn and yell out horrible obscenities at him. You’re red-in-the-face furious, overflowing with righteous indignation. When you get to work, you tell everyone you know about the asshole who nearly killed you on the way to work. Of course, the guy who rocketed past you at an ungodly speed doesn’t know any of this. He was in a hurry to get to his daughter’s school. The principal called him at work to tell him that a freak accident had left his daughter bleeding and unconscious on the gymnasium floor. The other guy—who cut you off to make his exit—was trying to get his pregnant wife to the hospital in time. He felt bad about cutting you off, really he did, but he forgave himself a moment or two after his son was born. Because he had a really good reason: his wife was hemorrhaging severely, and without medical assistance, she and his newborn son might have died.
Like you, I have a self-righteous inner accountant in my head who loves to keep score; loves to keep track of how much I’ve done for you, how much you’ve done for me; how much I owe you, how much you owe me. If he graded us solely on what we did and didn’t do, you’d at least have a chance (albeit a slim chance) at a fair trial. We’d have to correct for the natural human tendency to see (and remember) ALL the good stuff we do and only SOME of the good stuff others do. Still, if we stuck to the facts, the process might, on occasion, produce a just result. But my self-righteous inner accountant isn’t nearly this fair! And yours is, in all likelihood, no better than mine. The lawyer in my head is as unscrupulous as Better Call Saul, as ruthless as Eli Gold, and as mendacious as Karl Rove; he’ll say anything to win, anything to get me off, anything to make me look good.
What’s more, he’s been known to cook the books! How? Well, the self-righteous inner accountant in my head grades you only on what you do or don’t do. Alas, not so for me: I, like you, get points for what I do and don’t do. But I also get points for good intentions, for being considerate, for good stuff I think about doing. For instance, let’s say we’re married, and I want you to stop leaving your dirty clothes on the bathroom floor, whilst you want me to stop leaving the toilet seat up. Every time I see myself putting the toilet seat down, I’ll smile a self-satisfied smile, pat myself on the back, and give myself some points for being a considerate spouse. But, since I’m not you, I won’t be there to see you picking up your dirty clothes and putting them in the hamper six days in a row. I will, however, notice the one time you forget to do it. I’ll notice that one time, on the seventh day, that you left your dirty clothes in a nasty little pile on the bathroom floor. And when I’m telling you off later on, I’ll say that the fact that you failed to pick up after yourself just proves what I’ve long suspected: namely, that you’re a selfish, inconsiderate jerk. Of course you’ll indignantly protest: “But, John, I remembered to do it six days in a row, and, besides, you left the toilet seat up last night, and I told you how important that was to me!” To which I’ll indignantly reply: “But I remembered to put the toilet seat down six days in a row!” Things will, at this point, escalate to screaming and shouting and nowhere nice.
Is there a way out of this familiar story of domestic warfare? I believe there is. All of the truly great wisdom traditions of the world provide us with ways to emancipate ourselves from pointless cycles of resentment and bitterness such as this. From the Roman Stoics, especially Epictetus, we can learn the fine art of forbearance: how to assume the best in those who piss us off, how to be as kind (and forgiving and compassionate) to others as we so often are to ourselves. For instance, if you were driving to work with Epictetus, and some guy cut you off to make his exit, the philosopher would tell you to assume that the guy had a good reason for doing what he did. Maybe his wife’s in labor in the backseat. Maybe he just got a horrible call from his daughter’s school. Maybe he’s gonna get fired if he’s late for work. Does this make cutting someone off in traffic okay? Of course not! But assuming the guy had a good reason takes the sting out of it by shutting up your self-righteous inner accountant.
The religious traditions of the world are, at their best, equally good at freeing you from the prison of your own resentment and bitterness. For instance, The Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:9-13) has Christians the world over reciting these salubrious words on a daily basis: “And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive them that trespass against us.” What’s more, the passage is followed up with an explicit warning: “if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins” (Matthew 6:15). The strategies to be found are diverse, but they all come down to the same thing: you’ve gotta find a way to keep your self-righteous inner accountant in check. Because he’s full of shit. Really he is.
When forced by fate to deal with a crazy person who’s losing their mind, an old person who’s losing their memory, a drunk who’s losing their temper, an ideologue who’s losing their argument, or an insecure person who’s losing their confidence, it’s good to remember that this little disagreement you’re having with them, which seems so straightforward and trivial and small to you, is a really big deal to them. They need to be right about this: a great deal’s at stake. To you, it’s no big deal one way or the other. Either we went to Myrtle Beach in the summer of 1988 or we went to Florida. Maybe I’m right, maybe I’m wrong. But for them, being wrong means confronting a much bigger, scarier possibility, such as: I’m losing my mind, I’m losing my memory, I’ve wasted half my life on a bad idea.
Couples who’ve been together for a long time can fight so spectacularly because they’re not just fighting about what happened today, yesterday, or last week; they’re fighting about what happened last year, last decade, or last century. As you might expect, this makes their fights far more intense than they ought to be. When this dynamic is ramped up to the group level, you’ve got people screaming and yelling about stuff that happened 400 years ago as if it happened yesterday; you’ve got programs of ethnic cleansing predicated on wrongs that were supposedly perpetrated by the ancestors of your victims; and you’ve got young adults in developing countries crushed by national debts that were incurred by corrupt politicians decades before they were born.
Why don’t we just forgive it all? What could be more beautiful than a periodic forgetting of debts? It could renew our relationships, our economy, our international relations? How often do we see people split up and remarry simply because the weight of resentment on their shoulders proves too heavy to bear? They start off fresh with a new partner (also recently divorced) and proceed, slowly but surely, to build up a similarly substantial weight of resentment, which, in time, will necessitate another divorce, and another remarriage. But why not break this cycle? Why not forgive the debts, get over it, stop bringing up old shit, and move on?
Because we shouldn’t ignore the claims of justice, you say. Because people who got rich via slavery can’t just turn to their newly emancipated slaves and say: “Look, guys, can we just let bygones be bygones?” Okay, okay. Fine. I get it. You want vengeance. You want retribution. You want equality. So have at it, friend. Chase your dream of justice. Knock yourself out. But please, try not to do too much harm. Don’t become the monster you wish to fight. And remember: many of the worst injustices in history were committed by lovers of justice just like you.
“Don’t think about a pink elephant with purple polka dots!” My students burst out laughing whenever I say this, with faux-seriousness, because it’s impossible to heed the injunction. The very mention of such a comical creature causes the image of a pink elephant with purple polka dots to spring to mind with a reflexive immediacy that bypasses all rational thought.
The same is true of the emotionally-charged categories we use to make sense of what’s happening to us. For instance, whenever I smell freshly-baked bread, I remember the bread my mother made everyday from scratch in the early afternoon. I remember the way its intoxicating smell permeated every corner of our little basement apartment on Airlie Street. I remember the way you could smell it in the building, long before you got to our apartment. At times, you could even smell it on the street, long before you got to our building! In short, whenever I smell freshly-baked bread, I’m 7-years-old again. Likewise, whenever I burn my tongue, I remember the first time I burned my tongue, when I was 12-years-old, on some hot chocolate at Bad Boys, the 24-hour doughnut shop on Wellington Street.
When you’re having an emotionally-charged experience, you remember every other experience you’ve had of that kind. It happens instantaneously, automatically—with a reflexive immediacy that bypasses all rational thought. As such, asking your partner, in the middle of an argument, to refrain from bringing up ancient history—that is, bad experiences of a similar stamp—is about as silly as asking them to refrain from thinking about a pink elephant with purple polka dots.
He says “love your neighbor as yourself” but he doesn’t know any of his neighbors. He says “embrace the family of man” but he hasn’t called his mother in months. He says “we are all children of God” but none of his kids are talking to him. He says he “loves women” but he doesn’t love any one woman well. She apologizes for the weather, but she won’t apologize to her own daughter for breaking her heart and abandoning her when she needed her the most. She says she should just get over it already. He goes to a residential school cemetery, way up north, to apologize on behalf of white people everywhere, but he won’t apologize to his own son for breaking his heart and abandoning him when he needed him the most. He says he should just get over it already. Funny and sad, how easy it is: to love people you don’t know and apologize for shit you didn’t do.
It’s hard to be an exceptionally shitty shithead in Dostoevsky’s world, but Marmeladov pulls it off in Crime and Punishment (1866). What makes him especially loathsome is his self-awareness. He’s a disreputable drunk and he knows it. Indeed, he seems to delight in confessing his sins, at length, to complete strangers. He tells Raskolnikov that his teenage daughter, Sonya, has been forced to become a prostitute to support the family because he squanders all of his pay on vice. He feels bad about this but persists in his dissolute ways regardless.
Marmeladov is an insightful guy who doesn’t want for self-knowledge. But since he’s utterly devoid of willpower, he can’t seem to translate any of these insights and feelings into meaningful change. The gap that most of us experience between What-We-Do and What-We-Intend-To-Do has become an unbridgeable gulf in men like Marmeladov. Nobody walks their talk all the time. But this guy’s all talk, no action. In short, he’s a bullshitter.
The difference between a talker, a doer, and a bullshitter is merely a matter of degree. Bullshitters rarely follow through on their schemes and scams and master plans. My guess is that less than one in ten see the light of day. Talkers are much better at following through on their bright ideas. Maybe one in three bear fruit. Doers are better still, but, in my experience, only marginally so. Half of what they talk about actually happens. Talkers, doers, and bullshitters are hard to tell apart precisely because they’re all members of the same ambitious species; their true opposite, type-wise, is the lackluster dullard, who takes no risks, and dreams no dreams.
Winners spend most of their time losing. Most successful entrepreneurs have gone bankrupt at least once (my friend Jaffer Ali is a case in point). Babe Ruth, the greatest player in baseball history, was happy to hit but one out of every three balls. Ty Cobb, baseball’s record-holder, had a career batting average of .366, which means that he missed the ball at least half the time.
Losing appears to be the norm in nature too. Predators are notoriously unsuccessful (e.g., leopards are successful but one in seven times). Most of the time, the prey gets away. Most of the time, the predator walks away empty-handed. It’s easy to be overly judgmental of failure when you’re a dullard who’s never stepped up to the plate. Those who’ve actually tried to make things happen in the world are, in my experience, far more understanding.
Anger often seems to wash over us. We don’t choose to get enraged when someone cuts us off in traffic, it just happens. Likewise, we don’t choose to flush when someone insults us, nor do we choose to see red when someone screws us over. But these feelings fade with time. They have a half-life. All fires—no matter how hot—cool, and eventually die, when they’re deprived of fuel. One day you wake up and you’re just not that pissed off anymore. You haven’t forgotten what happened. And maybe you’re not quite ready to forgive. But the memory seems to have lost its sting. If you want to get over it, if you want to be free of your rage, continue along this peaceful path. Let nature take its course. You’re on the Road to Recovery. Should be as good as new in no time. But if the very idea of forgiving them for what they did makes you sick, if you’re quite sure that you don’t want to get over it, come with me. If you want to learn how to be a really good hater let me show you the way:
Step #1: Fantasize About the Past: Close your eyes and think about what he or she did to you. And be as specific as possible. What did the sky look like that day? What was on the radio? What were you wearing? Fill the memory up with every last detail. Then replay it in your mind again and again and again—like that song on your iPod, the one you just can’t get enough of. If you do this for a little while, the righteous indignation will well up in you. And you’ll feel the change: it’s profoundly physiological. Your breathing gets shallow. Your heartbeat quickens. Your palms get sweaty. And your face contorts. As soon as you’ve whipped yourself up into a white hot rage, move on to step two.
Step #2: Fantasize About the Future: Okay, now I want you to close your eyes and imagine how you’re going to get back at this person, how you’re going to get revenge. If you’re going to tell them off in front of a room full of people, prepare the speech in your mind. What words are you going to use? Think about how good it’s going to feel to humiliate that person, to watch them suffer. It’s your revenge fantasy: fill it up with juicy details. And be as specific as possible. Then replay it in your mind again and again and again. Once again, the effects of this perverse form of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) are profoundly physiological: your pupils dilate, a demonic grin spreads across your face, and pleasure centers in your brain are activated. You feel energized, alive, and possessed by a passion that’s undeniably pleasant. Presto! As if by magic, you’re in hate!
Strange as it may sound, long-term romantic love seems to be sustained by the same willful cognitive processes. We don’t choose who we fall in love with. It just happens. That’s why the image of Cupid slinging his arrows into the backsides of hapless innocents makes so much intuitive sense to us. You meet someone, lock eyes with them, and—BANG! BOOM! CRASH!—you’re powerfully drawn to them. The psychologist Jonathan Haidt claims—in The Happiness Hypothesis (2006)—that the brain scan of someone who’s “in love” is virtually indistinguishable from the brain scan of someone who’s high on cocaine. But alas, this kind of intoxicating love fades—like rage—with time. One day you wake up and you’re just not “in love” with your partner in that crazy way you were in the beginning. Don’t get me wrong: you still love them, you’re still attracted to them, and you still want to be with them. It’s just that you find it easier and easier to focus on other things (e.g., work, school, friends, family, yourself, etc.). To some extent this is healthy. But going with the flow on this score is risky. If you’re committed to this relationship, if you want to stay with this person, being passive about your love isn’t wise. After all, love has this funny way of slipping through your fingers if you’re careless of heart. If you want to be a serial monogamist, let your love fade and move on to the next flower. But if the very idea of breaking up with Mr. or Mrs. Right makes you sick, if you’re quite sure that you don’t want to get over this person, come with me; if you want to know how to love somebody long time, let me show you the way:
Step #1: Fantasize About the Past: Close your eyes and think about all of the good times you’ve had with this person. And be as specific as possible. What did the sky look like that day? What was on the radio? What were you wearing? Fill up each one of these memories with delicious details. The more the merrier! Then replay these beautiful memories in your mind again and again and again—like that song on your iPod, the one you just can’t get enough of. If you do this for a little while, the magic of love will well up in you. And you’ll feel the change: it’s profoundly physiological. Your breathing gets deeper. Your heartbeat quickens. And a sweet smile spreads across your face. When you’ve brought yourself to the brink of your own little home-made nostalgia-gasm, it’s time to move on to step two.
Step #2: Fantasize About the Future: Okay, now I want you to close your eyes and imagine all of the good times you’re going to have with this person in the future: vacations, kids, grandchildren, growing old together, and all the rest. Think about how good it’s going to feel to be with this particular person for the rest of your life. It’s your future, your fantasy: so fill it up with tons of juicy details. And be as specific as possible. Then replay it in your mind again and again and again. Once again, the effects of this amorous form of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) are profoundly physiological: your pupils dilate, your skin tingles, and your body feels enveloped by a warm glow. You feel energized, alive, and possessed by a passion that’s undeniably pleasant. Presto! As if by magic, you’re in love! Love and hate are impenetrable mysteries to those who lack a strong will, a good memory, and a lively imagination. They’ll never know true love. Or true hate.
A friend of mine gave up on men in her mid-40s. She’d been in back-to-back relationships since she was 13. None of them good. So she threw in the towel. “Clearly I suck at this, John!” Of course she met the love of her life a few years later, and they’ve lived happily ever after since then. But before she met Mr. Right, she was single for a few years, truly single, for the first time in her life. She said it was enlightening, being single. She said she learned how to take responsibility for her own emotions: “Back in the day, if I woke up in a bad mood, I’d turn to the guy next to me and say: ‘I feel bad because you did X or you didn’t do Y.’ But when I was single, if I woke up in a bad mood, there was no one to blame. I had to stop blaming others for my sadness. Making others responsible for my happiness.”
If taking responsibility for your own emotions is like finishing Spiritual High School, what might we learn in Spiritual College? If Epictetus is to be believed, the next step is to get rid of the impulse to blame altogether. In The Art of Living, he writes: “Small-minded people habitually reproach others for their own misfortunes. Average people reproach themselves. Those who are dedicated to a life of wisdom understand that the impulse to blame something or someone is foolishness, that there is nothing to be gained in blaming, whether it be others or oneself. One of the signs of the dawning of moral progress is the gradual extinguishing of blame. We see the futility of finger-pointing.”
If getting over our obsession with finger-pointing is like finishing Spiritual College, what might we learn in Spiritual Grad School? If Kant is to be believed, the next step is to take responsibility for the happiness of others. Susan Neiman summarizes his reasoning in Moral Clarity (2008): “Like most people, you’re likely to devote most of your attention to your own happiness (or lack thereof), and my perfection (or lack thereof). What if we simply switched? Devote yourself to my happiness and your own perfection, and I’ll do the same in return. In a world where everyone did that, both happiness and virtue would double.”
Promises aren’t made to be broken; they’re made because they can be broken. You don’t have to promise to eat next year. And I don’t have to promise you that the sun will come up tomorrow. Those things will take care of themselves. We promise to do things that won’t take care of themselves. We promise because we know things might not work out. We promise to do something because we know we might not feel like doing it in the future. In so doing, we limit our own freedom to act on whim. But the willpower harnessed by this process endows us with an awesome godlike power, a freedom over fate and fortune, which has intoxicated the human mind at least as far back as Abraham.
Romanticism has taught us to revere the freedom of children: the freedom to be spontaneous, to live in the moment, to do what you feel. But I do not revere the freedom of children. Nor do I miss it. Is there a greater slavery than slavery to whim? To momentary fancy? Romanticism has taught us to revere the mighty river of being. But look around you! Look at the world of wonders around us! We’ve dammed up the river of being like beavers. Harnessed its power. And it’s made us into what we are: glorious, strange, confused. We’re beautiful question marks, friends. Bare feet on the cool morning earth. Heads in the clouds of distant stars that fill the midnight sky. All these dreams of ours: they keep coming true.
—John Faithful Hamer, The Myth of the Fuckbuddy (2018)